On the Secret Joke at the Centre of American Identity

Michael Rogin

Ralph Ellison wrote his own running commentary on the mammoth fiction he laboured over for the last forty years of his life and failed to finish. When his literary executor John Callahan appended some of these jottings to the end of ‘Juneteenth’, the ‘novel’ he extracted from two thousand manuscript pages, he gave Ellison the last word: the final note reproaches the editor from beyond the grave, along with the readers Callahan has invited into the unfinished structure. ‘Incompletion of form,’ Ellison wrote, ‘allows the reader to impose his own imagination upon the material with too little control from the author. Thus I don’t like to show my work until it is near completion.’ He was responding to an unfavourable reading of portions of the novel which he had shown to two of his friends, Albert Murray and the critic Anatole Broyard.

Ellison had good reason to feel troubled. Juneteenth is a set of fragments masquerading as a whole – a Frankenstein’s monster, Louis Menand called it in the New York Times – and the simple plot line that Callahan imposes for unifying effect violates the form Ellison imagined and failed to achieve in this disparate, untitled, unfinished work, several sections of which had already appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Putting more of this material into print encourages the reader to consider the project as a whole. From one perspective Juneteenth literalises the death of the author – the alleged determination of the text by readers and critics – by expropriating the posthumous writings that appear under the authorial name. From another point of view, however, it testifies to Ellison’s power. For the essays, interviews and memoirs he published when he was failing to complete his second novel allow the reader to hope that the imagination he or she is now imposing on the material known as Juneteenth owes everything to the control of the author.

Juneteenth turns on the mysterious bond between Alonzo Hickman, former gambler and jazz trombonist turned preacher, and Bliss, a boy of mysterious parentage raised in the black church, who has fled North, passed as white, and become Adam Sunraider, the racist New England Senator. As Callahan has put it together, the novel begins with the failed effort of Hickman and his flock to warn Sunraider that a young black man is out to assassinate him. Organised as a set of flashbacks from the bedside colloquy between Hickman and the dying Sunraider, the rest of the novel fills in the history of the two men. If Callahan is right about the material now called Juneteenth, Ellison envisaged a racial melodrama that would put him in the company of Mark Twain (Pudd’nhead Wilson), James Weldon Johnson (Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), William Faulkner (Light in August, Absalom! Absalom!, Go down, Moses) and Nella Larsen (Passing) – all of whom examined the meaning of American freedom as flight across the colour line. Like his predecessors, Ellison was entering the culturally charged territory of ‘racial passing’ – the attempt of non-whites to pass as whites. Against the downward pull of these classics of American literature, however, Ellison was looking for redemption. What led the author of Invisible Man (1952) to spend the last half of his life on a fiction about racial passing, and why couldn’t he bring it to an end?

Accused of avoiding his political responsibilities to black Americans, Ellison responded that he was giving his life to the novel. The burden he was bearing was the weight of an unfinished masterpiece, not the guilt of failing to produce political manifestos. But it turned out not to be so easy to separate the literary from the political vision. Between the politics he renounced and the fiction whose single triumph he could not repeat, stand the essays. Originally gathered together in two volumes, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), they were reissued with some additions in the Modern Library Collected Essays of 1995, the year after Ellison died. They return again and again to two intertwined questions: what materials does American history make available for American fiction, and what is the form that might transmute historical chaos into imaginative order?

From Nathaniel Hawthorne on the American romance to Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne to Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase staking out the ground for American exceptionalism in the postwar United States, the problem for the writer of American fiction famously posed itself as a deficit: ‘no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong’ (Ellison quoting Hawthorne in 1957); ‘no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army ... no literature, no museums, no pictures, no political society’ (Ellison quoting Trilling quoting James). But his predecessors saw absence, Ellison believed, only by averting their eyes from the American heart of darkness. Against Hawthorne he cited the ‘gloomy wrong enough both in the crime against the Indians and in the Peculiar Institution’ – the term for slavery. (‘What has cast such a shadow upon you?’ from Benito Cereno, Melville’s novella of a disguised slave revolt, is one of the epigraphs for Invisible Man; the answer to the question Hawthorne refused to ask is ‘the Negro’.) Against Trilling, Ellison quoted what James went on to say after the passage quoted by Trilling: ‘The American knows that a good deal remains: what it is that remains – that is his secret, his joke. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his natural gift ... “American humour”.’ The Jamesian joke played in The Aspern Papers on the intrusive biographer who fails to acquire a dead writer’s secrets resonates ironically through the publication of Juneteenth, but James and Ellison were after bigger game. What secret joke did they have in mind? And how could Ellison imagine making American humour out of the ‘gloomy wrong’ of slavery and Indian dispossession?

For James the answer to the first question was simple: an apparent American social freedom, the ability to change identities and create new selves, ends – from Daisy Miller to Portrait of a Lady to The Golden Bowl – in confinement. Against all the evidence, Ellison proposed that James had grasped the basis of that paradox in white freedom and black servitude. Although there may seem to be nothing amusing about this racial division, the United States created the first mass culture in the world, blackface minstrelsy, to have fun with it. Minstrelsy – originally whites masquerading as black – was the obverse of racial passing (blacks masquerading as white). In a country where the ‘one drop rule’ of racial descent legalised white hysteria about the mixing of bodily fluids, blackface gave whites the liberty to play with a fixed black identity, allowing them access to real and imaginary black emotionality and performance skills without, at the same time, freeing blacks. Blacked-up white men staged the grinning blackface mask as if it represented the authentic black, and Ellison’s friend Stanley Edgar Hyman was among those who were taken in. He thought that ‘the “darky” entertainer’ was an invention of black folklore rather than white supremacist fantasy; worse, he detected the influence of minstrelsy in Invisible Man. For Ellison, on the contrary, ‘this black-faced figure of fun is for Negroes a symbol of everything they rejected in the white man’s thinking about race, in themselves and in their own group.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in