The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Juneteenth: Ralph Ellison's National
Narrative

Robert J. Butler

Like its extraordinary central character Alonzo Z. Hickman, Ralph Ellison's long-awaited second novel, Juneteenth, has finally "arrived." A major achievement, it has proven well worth the long wait. It is a robust novel centered in a deep and resonant vision of the American experience and is written in a distinctively Ellisonian style which is noteworthy for its lyrical power, rhetorical extravagance, and formal control. It is clearly a book which can only add to Ellison's reputation as a major writer who has masterfully integrated American, African American and modern traditions.

Readers will immediately discern in this novel features which have become Ellison trademarks. Elaborate use is made of African American folk traditions rooted in the Brer Rabbit folktales, blues music, and sermons. (Indeed, Hickman himself drinks deeply from all three wells, starting out as a blues musician, becoming a revivalist minister, and presenting himself to the reader as a gifted story teller who is well aware of the importance of trickster heroes in black folklore.) The novel is also artfully interwoven with motifs found in Ellison's previously published fiction, especially ocular imagery, avian symbolism, and subtle allusions to classical mythology and American myth. The search for a usable past which is at the center of Invisible Man and "Flying Home" is also a critically important concern in Juneteeth. As Hickman reminds us late in the novel as he tries to make sense of his own life and the historical experience of his country, "It's all a matter of time" (276). Like invisible man and Todd from "Flying Home," he must connect his past and his present in a vital Bergsonian continuum if he is to open the doors to a liberating and humane future. The past for Hickman, as is the case with all of Ellison's mature characters, can be a "threat" if misunderstood or denied but it can also be a "touchstone" and a "guiding star" (16) if properly imagined, emotionally assimilated, and thus connected to a living present and an open future.

One could go in listing other formal and substantial parallels between this book and Ellison's previous work. (As Irving Howe in an early review of Invisible Man rightly observed that no white man could have written that novel, we can say with equal firmness that only Ralph Ellison could have written Juneteenth.) But it is also important to note that Juneteenth represents new directions in Ellison's art and vision since it is in several significant ways strikingly different from Invisible Man and Ellison's short stories, especially "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game." For while these extraordinary fictions are centered in alienated figures attempting to make meaningful contact with outward social experience by assuming viable public roles, Juneteenth is, in the best sense of the word, a "national" narrative which is centered in a heroic figure who successfully takes "the next step" ( Invisible Man, 575) which invisible man talks about by actually assuming the "socially responsible role" ( Invisible Man, 581) which Ellison's nameless character seeks. Father, minister, and citizen, Hickman is no underground

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