(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Editing an author posthumously is a thankless task. The editor who selects too freely from the best versions of a writer’s several drafts (as the editor of a living writer might do) will be accused of synthesizing a text the writer never wrote. Scholars are often the worst culprits. Long after the authors’ deaths, scholars of Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane tried to create “definitive” editions of Sister Carrie (1900) and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) by piecing together the material that they believed the authors probably would have preferred to publish. They only succeeded in creating confusion. On the other hand, it is not fair for an editor simply to abandon a writer’s last draft, as the editors of Ernest Hemingway’s The Islands in the Stream (1970) did, producing a book the author himself would no doubt have tweaked and tightened for the good of all. The editor who documents all changes causes the reader to howl in pain at the seventeen times per page the reading process is interrupted with footnotes regarding the author’s misspelling of “separate”—“barb-wire,” Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), an American author and critic, called such footnotes—while the editor who does anything less will have to face the wrath of indignant scholars descending like a flock of nibbling ducks. The editors of Hemingway’s other posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden (1986), handled the task about as well as anyone could expect, presenting the world with a unified work of art that certainly seems to represent the voice of the author, and then being quite open and thorough in public discussions about explaining what they did and why. Though the debate will likely be endless about whether Juneteenth is a fair representation of the work on which Ralph Ellison labored for parts of five decades, John F. Callahan, a noted scholar of African American literature, has edited into life a fascinating and complex work of literature.

Callahan has been down this road before with the work of Ellison, but it was not previously so perilous a path. As Ellison’s literary executor, he oversaw the publication of both Flying Home and Other Stories (1996) and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995). Superficially, each of these collections only had to bring together material that was previously dispersed or unpublished. In Flying Home and Other Stories, though, Callahan went a step further, carefully organizing the selections in such a way as to call attention to Ellison’s thematic unity and his development as a writer, highlighting the value of work that might otherwise have become mere scholarly ephemera. Nonetheless, even this deft editorial touch found its detractors. In Juneteenth, however, Callahan is dealing with material whose very absence from the public’s eye had made it legendary in literary circles for forty years, material so complex that a single false step could destroy its integrity. The work Callahan helped the deceased writer to present is quite likely the best one any editor could have found in Ellison’s manuscripts, even if it remains frustratingly elusive.

At least it becomes clear why it took Ellison so many years to write a second novel. His first novel, The Invisible Man (1952), is one of the most read, most assigned, and most honored American novels of the twentieth century. If that is a wonderful thing for a writer to have said about a first novel, it is also a terrible thing, for how does one top it? Most of Ellison’s readership would probably have been thrilled if he could have written another just like it, only different. The writer himself was striving not for repetition, but for brilliance. According to Callahan’s introduction, much of the work was done by 1959, and by 1961 Ellison felt it was nearing readiness for publication. It was still unpublished in 1969, however, when a fire destroyed Ellison’s home and the edited manuscript on which he had been working. Using his most recent copy, he began to try to restore the changes that he had lost—and then began to tinker with it, a process he would never complete. The mountain of material he produced eventually broke itself into three separate parts, only one of which, the middle section, could stand alone as a book.Juneteenth is that middle section, with minor additions from other sections and from published sections added for the sake of coherence.

Ellison’s goal was nothing less than to produce an innovative work of literary genius. Anyone reading The Invisible Man side by side with Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) is likely to see the influence that Wright had over the first-time novelist. It is not that Ellison was trying to imitate Richard Wright, but Wright had set the stage on which The Invisible Man moved. The nameless character of that book was not a Richard Wright, not a Bigger Thomas, a character facing hyperreal and sometimes surreal versions of the dilemmas that Wright’s characters encounter in a naturalistic framework. By...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)