Troy Patterson
June 16, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Juneteenth

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Ralph Ellison
genre
Fiction

We gave it a B-

The title of the posthumous Ralph Ellison novel, Juneteenth, is all-American — and all-Ellisonian — in its muscular musicality. But read the words that follow it and the old saw proves true: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

The title — which John F. Callahan (the literary executor who pared the late Ellison’s 1,500-page manuscript to 348 pages) chose — refers to the day in 1865 when Union soldiers effectively freed slaves in Texas: ”’Juneteenth,’ the Senator said, closing his eyes, his bandaged head resting beneath his hands. Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June so they called it Juneteenth.”

”Juneteenth” feels more essayistic than novelistic, more philosophically than emotionally constructed. Laid bare is the churning clockwork of a writer who once told an interviewer that the search for identity ”is the American theme.” In a lecture tellingly titled ”The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” Ellison expanded: ”Even today America remains an undiscovered country…. We don’t know who we are.” He saw American democracy as an existential drama and American racism as a tragedy of manners; such is the mystery play that Hickman and Bliss enact. And it is a mystery play: Ellison, who forged a style by breeding jazz and Henry James, African-American religion and European high modernism, had always been obsessed with words, words, words, and, as evident here, also with The Word.

A potentially Great American Novel has ended up an odd-shaped curio; Callahan’s faithful labor serves but does not satisfy. The executor writes that a coming scholar’s edition will include ”sufficient manuscripts and drafts” to let us follow Ellison’s 40-year drift. But will even that suffice? There is beauty to be found in a moth suspended, mid-metamorphosis, in amber, but of course — and of course disappointingly — that bug will never squirm to life. ”Juneteenth” remains an undiscovered novel.

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