Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Ralph Ellison died in 1994 at the age of eighty, his second novel was a three-thousand-page manuscript that he had been working on and revising since shortly after the publication of Invisible Man in 1952. Fanny Ellison, Ellison’s wife, asked John Callahan to be her husband’s literary executor and to see what could be done to publish the unfinished novel. Callahan found in the manuscript a many-layered story that could not be published as one novel. Juneteenth is an extract from that manuscript. Callahan selected sections of the manuscript that could stand alone as a novel, but he did not revise or change the words contained in those sections. Callahan continued to edit the manuscript, planning eventually to publish it in its entirety.

As with most posthumous works, Juneteenth has met with some criticism. Some critics have argued that the manuscript should not have been tampered with in any way. Others complain that the novel is dated and shows the uneven nature of Ellison’s unfinished project. Still others see in the work the vestiges of an American epic, some even seeing in the novel the defining literary statement on the issues of race that have so long divided the United States.