"Some Cord of Kinship Stronger and Deeper Than Blood": An Interview with John F. Callahan, Editor of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth

Article excerpt

Over the decades since the publication of Invisible Man in 1952, anticipation in the literary community about Ralph Waldo Ellison's second novel was fervent and continuous. Ellison dropped hints of its near completion in various interviews, even after a 1967 fire at his summer home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, destroyed more than 360 pages of the manuscript. Indeed, as late as March 14, 1994, shortly after Ellison celebrated his eightieth birthday and just before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, his optimism about finishing the novel was apparent in a New Yorker article by David Remnick. Assuring Remnick that "there will be something very soon," Ellison was nonetheless hesitant about pinning down a specific time frame: "Letting go of the book is difficult, because I'm so uncertain. I want it to be of quality....When you are younger, you are so eager to be published. I am eager to publish this book. That's why I stay here [in New York City], and not in the country. I'm eager to finish it and see how it tur ns out." Unfortunately, Ellison didn't complete the novel before he died, but he did leave behind more than 2,000 pages of notes and manuscripts of the forty-year work-in-progress. According to John F. Callahan, Ellison's close friend, literary executor, and editor of the new novel, Juneteenth is the one narrative out of the sprawling saga Ellison envisioned "that best stands alone as a single, self-contained volume."

On a sunny day in Baltimore (May 29, 1999) in a hotel overlooking the waterfront, Callahan spoke enthusiastically, indeed lovingly, of the editing project that came into his hands unexpectedly and turned out to be "an immensely challenging and difficult labor." Having balanced teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, with frequent trips to New York to examine Ellison's papers over the previous four or five years, Callahan was clearly joyous about the novel's June publication. He was also as eager to talk about the novel as scholars and journalists were to talk to him, tirelessly agreeing to a dizzying schedule of interviews and lectures in the months preceding and following the publication of Juneteenth. When I asked him if there were ever a moment over the course of the project when he felt overwhelmed to the point of giving up on the daunting task before him, Callahan's face lit up as he replied without hesitation: "'For god's sake, man,' I told myself when things got tough, 'you have no bu siness giving up yet! Ralph didn't give up after forty years.'"

As many of Callahan's replies to my questions hint, readers looking for traces of Invisible Man in Juneteenth would do well to reflect on the final line of Ellison's magnificent first novel: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" In many ways, Juneteenth is an extended meditation on that line, a splendid riff on the "lower frequencies" that cut through American racial divisiveness and demand acknowledgment of the complex ties which bind all Americans. True to Ellison's unflagging allegiance to the idea of a pluralistic American culture evident throughout his writings, the novel challenges the over-simplified category of "race" to reveal, in the words of its principal character, Alonzo Z. Hickman, "some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood, hate, or heartbreak." Hickman, a black, horn-blowing gambler-turned-preacher, comes to these words reluctantly and painfully. Sitting at the deathbed of Senator Adam Sunraider, he tries to make sense of how Bliss, a child of indefinite r ace raised lovingly by Hickman and other members of a black congregation, could reject his past, indeed his identity, to become the racist politician now struggling for his life after being hit by an assassin's bullets. Drawing from African American cultural forms including sermons, folktales, the dozens, the blues, and jazz, Juneteenth moves back and forth between past and present, its antiphonal, call-and-response form veering in and out of the consciousness of Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider as they grapple with the mysteries of race, identity, and nation. …