In many respects, Juneteenth is as much the work of John Callahan, Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, as it is of Ellison himself. Culled from over two thousand pages of manuscripts, the posthumously edited and published novel reflects what Callahan surmised to be Ellison’s intentions. Ellison began writing Juneteenth, his second novel, the year before the publication of his acclaimed 1952 debut, Invisible Man. As the years went by, however, the second novel never appeared. In the late 1960’s, Ellison bought a house in upstate New York where he could focus on the novel. Unfortunately, a catastrophic fire destroyed the house and manuscripts in 1967. Devastated, Ellison started over, and by the 1970’s felt confident enough to share large portions of the work with fellow writers such as Saul Bellow. For over twenty years, friends, editors, and the literary community awaited the publication of Ellison’s sophomore novel. It never came, and when he died in 1994 most people assumed Ellison would remain a one-hit wunderkind. It was only when Callahan announced that he had found a treasure trove of manuscripts, all apparently different sections of what was to have been an epic novel, that it became clear Ellison’s second novel could still be published. Juneteenth was published in 1999; an expanded and revised version of the novel was published in 2010 with the title Three Days Before the Shooting.
In Juneteenth, Ellison raised the stakes of the “great experiment” that is the United States of America, plumbing the depths of paternity, maternity, and miscegenation to highlight the absurdities of racial politics absolutely dependent on appearances. Thus, misidentifications, masks, and racial “passing” drive the narrative. The central...
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