Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

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 leitmotif of visual impairment as the normal state of racially conditioned Americans is anchored by the metaphor of film, a popular form of mass illusion. At the same time, Bliss/Sunraider’s penchant for rhetoric is figured as the very framework of his life as an evangelical child prodigy who becomes a muckraking senator. Meanwhile, Hickman fears that his deployment of religious showmanship in the service of social and political ends (such as racial reconciliation, civil rights, and integration) has done just as much harm as has Sunraider’s misguided attempt to foment a black revolution by becoming an over-the-top racist. Hickman’s guilt over his actions keeps him at Sunraider’s bedside in the hospital. Both have much to confess to and atone for, though it is too late to save the life of either the assassinated Sunraider or the assassin Severen.

In a novel in which the central mystery turns on birth, Ellison demonstrates some sympathy for the unnamed red-haired woman. Hickman explains to Bliss that this woman has kidnapped children before, that she has not been “right in the head” since she fell out of a tree as a teenager after she started menstruating. Because her mother refused to tell her why she was bleeding, she came to believe that her blood was actually her dead children. Although this story is itself fairly misogynistic, it functions in the novel as a lie, a fairytale, to shield Bliss from both Hickman’s relationship to the woman and a darker truth: Bliss’s mother gave him up as recompense for her role in the death of Hickman’s brother.

Finally, Ellison deploys the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to underscore a theme resonating through both Invisible Man and Juneteenth : that flight from social and personal responsibility is impossible. The red-haired woman’s flight to Hickman’s cabin to deliver up Bliss does not sever her ties with her son. Hickman’s flight from one revival to another does not alleviate...

(This entire section contains 740 words.)

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him of the gnawing realization that he is exploiting both his congregation and Bliss. Bliss’s flight across Middle America neither distances him from the image of the red-haired woman in his memory nor closes the distance between him and the “real” red-haired woman he pursues. In one of Sunraider’s last hallucinations, he observes skeet shooters on a cliff picking off pigeons. He notices that the pigeons who survive do not attempt to fly higher, beyond the range of the guns. Instead, they swoop down, below the level of the cliff, and thus elude death. This counterintuitive strategy replicates that of the unnamed narrator inInvisible Man. He, too, escapes death during the riot that closes the novel by living underground, trying to figure out how to return topside as a socially responsible man.


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Critical Overview