Book Review - Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel is finally published

Three Days Before the Shooting ... is in many ways an anatomy of a manuscript

Eight months before Ralph Ellison published his first novel in 1952, he wrote to friend and fellow novelist Albert Murray, “I’m trying to get going on my next book before this one is finished, then if it’s a dud I’ll be too busy to worry about it.” That potential dud happened to be Invisible Man, a book with few peers in the American canon. Winner of the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison’s first novel was hailed as “the classic representation of the American black experience.” He would go on to receive a Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the United States bestows, and be made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. But Ellison wouldn’t finish a second novel before his death in 1994. He would, however, leave behind thousands of manuscript pages, hundreds of computer files – and no instructions of any sort.

On Jan. 26, Modern Library finally published his unfinished manuscript as Three Days Before the Shooting ..., an 1,100-page behemoth edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley. The unfinished second novel tells the story of U.S. Sen. Adam Sunraider and “Daddy” Hickman, a black jazz musician-turned-preacher. Parts of the novel take place in Washington, D.C., Georgia, and Ellison’s home state of Oklahoma.

Nearly 60 years after Ellison wrote to say he was beginning a second novel, questions still persist about why he couldn’t finish it in his lifetime. In a 2007 Washington Post magazine article by Wil Haygood, Callahan and Bradley suggested some answers. “I think a lot of what was going on with Ralph were writerly issues, not psychological issues,” Callahan said. In the “General Introduction” to Three Days, they point to Ellison’s statement about being “a fast writer, but a slow worker,” and suggest that, at times, the author lacked the necessary discipline to focus the ever-growing manuscript into a coherent work.

Ellison himself gave other explanations. A fire in 1967 was said to have destroyed 365 pages of manuscript. “It was quite a traumatic experience ... The only thing we saved was our Labrador retriever. After that, I tried to put together as much as I could, and I began to reconceive some of the characters,” Ellison told the New York Times in 1982. In Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography, though, Ellison is quoted in letters saying he “fortunately had a full copy of all that he had done prior to the summer” and that the loss only amounted to “revisions over which I had labored in the summer.”

Rampersad argues that Ellison’s difficulties with the novel were distinctly psychological. “His inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to ‘Negro’ Ellison’s preferred term life as blacks actually led it, especially at or near his own social level, was disabling him as a writer. As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks.”

Lawrence Jackson, an associate professor at Emory and author of Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, notes that Ellison was openly critical of most black writers of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1969, Ellison wrote of “those talented but misguided writers of Negro American cultural background who take being black as a privilege for being obscenely second-rate and who read their social predicament as Negros as exempting them from the necessity of mastering the craft and forms of fiction.” Jackson writes, “If the works of Malcolm X, Nikki Giovanni, Eldridge Cleaver, or Amiri Baraka were popular, Ellison believed it diminished the audience for ... himself.”

Three Days Before the Shooting ... is in many ways an anatomy of a manuscript. An introduction precedes each section, noting the color of typing paper or titles of computer files and the perceived condition of the work. A separate section collects a chronology of statements made by Ellison regarding the novel. The book previously published as Juneteenth constitutes most of “Book II” in this arrangement. The editors are clear in stating that “it offers no clear resolution to the story it tells; it doesn’t end so much as stop.” As a result, finally opening this book feels like reading the post-mortem on a life that never was and never quite will be.

Three Days Before the Shooting... by Ralph Ellison. Edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley. Jan. 26, 2010. Modern Library. $50. 1101 pp.