By YVONNE FRENCH
"'There've been a heap of Juneteenths gone by and there'll be a heap more before we're free.' That's what [Ralph] Ellison was saying to every one of us."
So said his literary executor, John F. Callahan, on June 30 during the second of two consecutive standing-room-only Library of Congress lectures about Ralph Ellison and his two novels, Invisible Man and Juneteenth, whose main character, the Rev. Alonzo Hickman, utters the above words.
Mr. Callahan painstakingly assembled Ellison's unfinished novel, Juneteenth, using the Ellison papers in the Library's Manuscript Division. He discussed the long-awaited novel at the second of two back-to-back literary evenings. The first, a June 29 Bradley Lecture, was about Ellison's first novel Invisible Man. The second, a June 30 Books and Beyond Lecture, was about Ellison's posthumous novel, Juneteenth, edited by Mr. Callahan and published June 19 by Random House.
The title refers to June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell slaves there that they were free -- some 2-1/2 years after President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The event became known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated by many African Americans ever since.
Ellison (1914-1994) had been to several Juneteenth celebrations, or "rambles," when he was growing up in the Midwest, wrote Mr. Callahan in the introduction to the book. "The delay, of course, is symbolic acknowledgment that liberation is the never-ending task of self, group and nation, and that, to endure, liberation must be self-achieved and self-achieving," he wrote. "In his novel ... Ellison speaks of false as well as true liberation and of the courage required to tell the difference."
Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man, in 1952. It won the American Book Award and today it is considered one of the most significant American novels since World War II. It is a powerful classic that, according to Mr. Callahan, "compels others to see their reality through the prism of African American experience."
Mr. Callahan used the notes, typescripts, computer printouts and disks that Ellison bequeathed to the Library to prepare the Bradley lecture, which will also be published in pamphlet form.
The Bradley Lecture series, managed by the Office of Scholarly Programs, is made possible by a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee to bring eminent scholars to the Library to discuss texts of great historical importance to social and political thought.
"The papers and notes made the composition of the novel visible. It was a seven-year process," said Mr. Callahan. It is a mistake to think it was coherent in his mind when his fingers typed that first sentence" 'I am an invisible man.'
He continued: "The metaphor for invisibility is apt for African Americans, Americans and humans in the last two-thirds of the 20th century. ... The character, because of his irreducible individuality, would become an unmistakable type of a black American and no less, no less," he emphasized, "an American."
In his Library research, Mr. Callahan discovered two different endings to Invisible Man in the Ellison papers. One omits the famous final phrase 'Who knows, but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?'
"Because the manuscripts are open to scholars, readers can marvel over the genesis of the improvisation that allowed him to take the leap from the good and promising novel to a great one," said Mr. Callahan.
Mr. Callahan also relied heavily upon the Ellison papers in the Library's Manuscript Division to edit Juneteenth down from more than 2,000 manuscript pages to 350, he told the Books and Beyond audience.
The Books & Beyond series, sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, features authors of recent books that are related to the Library's collections or programs.
Also speaking at the Books and Beyond lecture was Alice Birney of the Manuscript Division. She said that as a literary manuscript specialist she has worked with many biographers, editors and other scholars to further their research and produce books, essays, articles and broadcasts.
"But never [have I worked on] anything as exciting as the emergence from out of reams of chaotic scribbled papers, of the long-awaited second novel of Ralph Ellison," said Ms. Birney. Archivists "sorted hundreds of cartons of papers into seven intellectually coherent series, presently housed in 76 acid-free boxes and 32 flat containers. They spent more than six months arranging the multiple, overlapping, handwritten and typed episodes and drafts" of Juneteenth, Ms. Birney said. "Because he never settled on a final title, in the register we had to call it "'The Hickman Novel.'"
Mr. Callahan read three powerful passages from the novel (left), which is about a race-baiting Northern white senator (Bliss/Adam Sunraider) who was raised by a rural Southern black minister and former jazz musician (Rev. Hickman) and renounces him and his people. He is later shot on the floor of the Senate as he makes a speech.
Mr. Callahan described the novel as a jazz narrative. "To get fully conversant with it you have to keep to the rhythm, as Hickman tells Bliss, and have a sense of what jazz moments are all about." Ellison himself had originally trained as a musician.
Wrote Mr. Callahan in the introduction: "Juneteenth draws from uniquely African American (and American) tributaries: sermons, folktales, the blues ... the swing and velocity of jazz. Through its pages flow the influences of literary antecedents and ancestors, among them Twain and Faulkner ... Above all, perhaps, in this novel Ellison converses with Faulkner."
One lecture-goer said to Mr. Callahan, in reference to the condensed Juneteenth and the planned publication by Random House of a more extensive scholarly edition, "Ellison was constructing a marvelous puzzle. I can't wait to read the actual papers."
When Mr. Callahan was not at work in the Manuscript Division in Washington, he was in Portland, Ore., where he is a humanities professor at Lewis and Clark College. Mr. Callahan is well known for his work in American and African American literature. His numerous publications include In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in 20th Century Black Fiction and essays on African American writers and his friends Michael S. Harper, Alice Walker and Ellison. His Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison was published by Random House in 1995. Flying Home and Other Stories, which collected for the first time Ellison's short fiction written between 1937 and 1954, was published in 1996.