Ralph Ellison is most famous for two things: writing the classic Invisible Man and never publishing another novel during his lifetime. The story of his supposed writer's block has become almost as familiar to many readers as anything he did publish.
Adam Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wants to rewrite that story. In Ralph Ellison in Progress (out this month from Yale University Press), he argues that the work Ellison did in the second half of his life reveals even more about the writer's artistic agenda and ambition than Invisible Man does—and allows us to read that classic work with fresh eyes.
Too often, "the story of Ellison's literary life seems like a tragedy: promise unfulfilled, talent dissipated, creativity extinguished too soon," Bradley writes. But the thousands of pages' worth of notes, typed manuscripts, and computer printouts that Ellison left behind do not sound like the archival legacy of a blocked writer.
Bradley has had a chance to get to know Ellison's work in a way most literary scholars never have: He served as co-editor, with John F. Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis & Clark College, of Three Days Before the Shooting ... (published in January by the Modern Library). It's the fullest version we have so far of Ellison's unfinished second novel. (Callahan published portions of the novel in 1999 under the title Juneteenth.)
"I always thought there was something funny when I heard people say Ellison was the victim of writer's block," Bradley says in an interview. As for conclusions that "somehow Ellison had taken his eye off his writing and turned simply to other pursuits, be they some sort of social life, his varied social calendar as rendered in Arnold Rampersad's recent biography [Ralph Ellison: A Biography, published by Knopf in 2007], it seemed to me too easy to blame it on that, especially given the evidence of his work," Bradley says. Working through the 46,000 items in the Ellison archive, now housed at the Library of Congress, has persuaded him that "this was a man dedicated to his work."
Bradley has been making a name for himself with his own work on rap and hip-hop. He's the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (Basic Civitas Books, 2009), and he is now helping edit an anthology of rap lyrics to be published this fall by Yale University Press.
Ellison, a man devoted to jazz that swings, might seem a long distance removed from today's rappers, but Bradley sees a connection. "It's not that Ellison would have liked hip-hop, but he makes me a better listener of hip-hop by teaching me certain things about how to approach African-American culture, how to think about vernacular process, the means by which creative people take what's to hand and make new forms," he says.
Later, via e-mail, Bradley amplifies that point. "Ellison often talked about what he termed the 'vernacular process,' the means by which one takes an inherited style and combines it with an improvised one to create something entirely new. Hip-hop does precisely this, taking inherited turntables and record albums and creating a new instrument from them or taking familiar verbal rhythms—from nursery rhymes, advertising ditties, whatever—and fashioning them into a modern-day poetry in rap."
Bradley's interest in Ellison dates back to the spring of 1993, when he was a freshman at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Ore., where he studied with Callahan. Among the novels he read, Invisible Man meant the most.
"It spoke to a lot of the things I was confronting myself at the moment, being a biracial child with a black father and white mother," Bradley recalls. "Reading that book became my lodestar in a lot of ways."
Ellison died in the spring of 1994, a year after Bradley read Invisible Man. Callahan, who was named literary executor, needed a research assistant and asked Bradley, then 19 and a sophomore, whether he'd be interested. "I didn't have to think long on that one," Bradley says, calling it a "miraculous moment."
In an interview, Callahan recalls how strongly Bradley responded to Ellison's writing. "Invisible Man went to the very bone of Adam's identity and the person he was becoming," he says.
That engagement with Ellison has persisted, with a few breaks. Bradley wrote his dissertation on theories of evil in African-American novels written after 1950—but did not include Invisible Man. "I was so much in the sway of Ellison's thought," he explains. "I felt a need to break away and create an independent perspective. The funny part about that is that the times I've tried to get away from Ellison over the course of my career, I've ended up boomeranging back."
Bradley's book, Callahan says, opens up the conversation about what the notes and manuscripts in the archive tell us not just about Ellison's second novel but also about his first. It helps that scholars now have greater access to the Ellison archive, although some restrictions remain.
Before the archive went to the Library of Congress, it was housed for a time at Lewis & Clark. Bradley remembers helping Callahan carry boxes up to a room in an old house on the campus. "Another miraculous moment occurred when Professor Callahan said to me, 'If you have some time and you're interested, you could go ahead and start looking through some of these manuscript pages for Ellison's second novel,' he recalls.
So Bradley found himself reading Ellison's most recent work, some of it pages the writer had composed on his computer only a few months earlier. "The thing that struck me—and this was a moment that changed the course of my life, I don't think it's too much to say—was coming across something I would never have expected to find in the work of a writer of Ellison's stature, and that was a typo," Bradley says. "And then I saw another and another and another. And then I got a little bit cocky and thought, That's not a very good sentence."
As he worked more with the manuscripts and saw Ellison making changes along the way, however, Bradley thought to himself, "This is how greatness comes into being. This is Ralph Ellison in progress." Hence the title for the new book, which the scholar says "embodies all the thinking I've done about Ellison since I was 19 years old."
Ralph Ellison in Progress: From "Invisible Man" to "Three Days Before the Shooting...," focuses on watershed years in Ellison's writing life. It works backward in time: 1982, when he began to work on a computer; 1970, when he was "an author under siege," as Bradley puts it, attacked as "an Establishment writer" and "an Uncle Tom," in the words of one Marxist critic; the 1950s, at the birth of the civil-rights movement, when Ellison may have already been making notes for his second novel while working on the first; 1945, when he began work on Invisible Man.
Throughout his book, Bradley teases out threads that connect Ellison's first and second novels. For instance, in the section on 1945, Bradley identifies "dilated realism" as the "governing philosophy" of both books. The notion of dilated realism—more than naturalism, not quite surrealism—comes from Ellison, who, in an introduction to an excerpt of Invisible Man published in 1948, explained that the book was meant as "a near-allegory or an extended metaphor. ... A realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life."
He also finds evidence in the archive that "Invisible Man once had a wife." Ellison's working notes reveal that early on he imagined an interracial love affair as one of the prime movers of the story, only to discard it. "As Ellison imagined it, Invisible Man would be a kind of love story, albeit one in which the primary motive of the relationship was not the communion of souls but the fashioning of an individual entity," Bradley writes. "This textual note and the manuscript drafts that reflect the spirit of it in fiction suggest a radical departure from the published novel, a new fictive vision in which Invisible Man's relationship with a woman is not only significant but elemental."
In drafts of the second novel, Bradley finds Ellison really trying to grapple with love as a subject. He thinks that might partly be the liberating result of working on a computer rather than on a typewriter or in longhand.
"His greatest improvisations on the computer, particularly those departures that take him away from familiar fictional ground, are among the most emotionally bare writings Ellison produced," Bradley writes in Ralph Ellison in Progress. "Within them he attends to themes left largely unconsidered elsewhere in his fiction—even in earlier incarnations of the second novel. Notable among these is love, both filial and romantic."
The novel involves an older black jazzman and preacher named Alonzo Hickman and a race-baiting senator named Adam Sunraider. As a younger man, in rural Georgia, Hickman helped raise Sunraider, then called Bliss, an orphan "of indefinite race who looks white." Years later, Hickman comes to Washington to try to stop the assassination of Sunraider by the senator's estranged son.
Three Days Before the Shooting ... , the version that Callahan and Bradley assembled from the second-novel notes and drafts in the Ellison archive, runs to almost a thousand pages. It's a big book in every sense, full of democracy and demagoguery, race and religion, fathers (real and surrogate) and sons.
The archival evidence suggests that the computer gave Ellison more latitude for experimentation. "You can see Ellison at play in the computer files," Bradley says. "You can see him riffing on the word itself and having a lot of fun with his creation. At the same time, you can sense that the computer may have become an enabler of certain of Ellison's literary foibles, the biggest one being his near-mania for revision."
The drafts of Invisible Man show that Ellison would take bunches of notes, then write "longhand riffs that he would integrate into typed drafts," Bradley writes in his book. "He would take pen or pencil to these typed pages, putting them through scrupulous revisions, often producing half a dozen—even a dozen—drafts until he was satisfied." Then he or his wife, Fanny, would take those drafts and type them all out again into a clean copy that he would edit further.
Bradley sees the second novel as a fluid text. "The same scene can exist in multiple iterations, each maintaining equal authority," he writes. "In other words, there is really no such thing as a superannuated draft; nothing is ever obsolete because Ellison never made any final judgments, never made the tough decisions that turn a manuscript into a novel. The computer enabled this by creating a 'fluid text,' one that postponed indefinitely the fixity of a printed manuscript."
A writer might find it hard to let go of that sense of endless possibility, but a finished book requires an author to make choices and to foreclose certain possibilities. It's tempting to say that the computer, which makes it easy to do revision after revision after revision ad infinitum, is what kept Ellison from finishing the second novel.
Bradley thinks that's too easy an analysis. "No matter how much time Ellison had, I'm not sure he would ever have finished the book," he says. "No matter what kind of equipment he had, I'm not sure he would ever have finished the book."
Even before Ellison switched to the computer, he had enough for a novel. "It's a good editor away from being a publishable work of fiction," Bradley says of the manuscript evidence at that middle stage. "The question comes down to why Ellison wasn't ready to let the manuscript go."
For Bradley, the answer has something to do with Ellison's subject matter: America itself. "He sits down to write this just as the civil-rights movement is taking shape," Bradley says. After Invisible Man, Ellison wrote through the rest of the 1950s and on into the 1960s, through the assassinations and the legislative and social milestones and the Vietnam War. Time moved on; decades passed; America changed, so the novel had to keep changing, too. "I imagine him sitting down and looking up, when he was satisfied with what he'd done, to see the world had changed, then go back to work, and on and on and on," Bradley explains.
When he announced on his Facebook page that Three Days Before the Shooting ... was coming out, he got comments from several of the hip-hop artists he has gotten to know, including the rapper Bun B.
"He was so excited," Bradley recalls. "I sent him a copy, and he's been reading it. That just shows you the thing that Ellison understood so well. He would often say, 'This is a crazy country.' He meant that as a form of praise. He meant that it's a country where anything is possible."
In the end, Bradley suggests, what might have kept Ellison from publishing a second novel was not writer's block but the desire to hold up a mirror big enough to reflect the complexities of America. In that second novel, Ellison was trying to figure out "how to achieve describing America to itself and the world," Bradley says. "This may be the closest we'll ever get to the Great American Novel in the purest sense, a great, messy, conflicted place that nonetheless has great beauty and potential in it."