Dispatches | September 06, 2007

Back in August, The Washington Post announced a new book from Ralph Ellison is forthcoming next year. The name should ring some bells. Surely one novel comes to mind for you, but can you think of another? If you can’t, don’t feel too bad—there isn’t one, at least yet.

Greatness can be a curious phenomenon, especially with writers. One-hit wonders flare up all the time in the literary world. Harper Lee and Emily Bronte became household names for their first and only novels.

The name Ralph Ellison shows up in school syllabi around the world due to his hallmark achievement Invisible Man, published in 1952. The book’s 581 pages chronicle the epic journey of one nameless black man as he becomes involved with a variety of types, from white sympathizers to a socialist syndicate. I first read the book in high school but have found myself constantly returning to its vision over the years.

While Ellison did not publish another novel in his lifetime, he never stopped obsessing over a second. Scholars have pored over his notes and drafts for years, trying to make sense of it all. One version was disappointingly published as Juneteenth in 1999. However, according to the Post article, Ellison left behind enough unpublished writing for ten novels (the material fills eighty computer disks). Despite the volume of writings, his drafts were all from the same second potential novel, which was always on the verge of completion.

Ellison intended his second novel to be even more epic than the first: a political tour de force, sprawling with multiple points of view and even wider-ranging themes. Uncertainty crippled his efforts, though. Before he died in 1994, he told the New Yorker he still hoped to finish and publish the book, but said that his doubts slowed the process. After his death, the world discovered the wealth of notes, chapters, and musings on the work hidden in his house—“Ellison had not suffered from writer’s block, after all,” the article reveals. “He had writer’s fury.”

Two literary scholars—Ellison’s old friend and senior scholar John Callahan and the thirty-three-year-old Harvard graduate Adam Bradley—spent years ironing out the differences between all the drafts to reveal this new Ellison work. They color-coded different drafts and put as much thought into deciphering the final novel as Ellison put into shaping it.

Modern Library will publish the result of their endless sifting next year, though “the page count has not been finalized.” I imagine elements of Juneteenth will appear in the work—the Senator, the black preacher, action in Washington D.C.—but I don’t know. The contents of this new novel have yet to be revealed, but Callahan has remarked that readers will find something here that will blow their minds.

I personally cannot wait. Even if fear and obsessive revision kept this work from readers during the forty-year period of its writing, I’m grateful that Ellison’s voice will live on in a second work.

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