Juneteenth and True at First Light

By Ralph Ellison
By Ernest Hemingway

Celebrated writers are well advised to plan in advance what they want done with their literary remains. As evidence of what can happen, for good and ill, this summer sees the posthumous publication of two works by American masters.

Ralph Ellison was American literature’s greatest one-hit wonder (and you have to admit there have been a few). Invisible Man, published in 1952, is probably the best American novel written since the Second World War, but it was the only novel he ever finished. For 40 years he tried to write another, filling binders, filing cabinets, and computer disks with manuscript and notes. But when he died in 1994 he had still not found a way to make it cohere.

What John Callahan, Ellison’s editor and literary executor, has managed to put together is the second volume of a projected trilogy. The two main characters are Senator Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting politician from a northern state, and the Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a black Baptist minister from the south. After Sunraider is shot while giving a speech on the Senate floor, he calls for Hickman from his deathbed. Together, the two of them reconstruct the past through a series of memory riffs played in keys ranging from high oratory to the colloquial.

As we travel back in time, we learn of Sunraider’s past as a wandering Mr. Movie-Man, and his childhood as the boy-preacher Bliss, working the circuit with his adopted father, Daddy Hickman.

At the heart of Ellison’s story is the paradox of American freedom. Bliss, a boy of uncertain race and origin, cuts out for the Territory on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the freeing of the slaves in Texas, and freely assumes multiple identities as he passes over the continent. Sunraider, however, is the embodiment of “Rinehartism” (I’m borrowing the term from Invisible Man) – the cynical exploitation and corruption of America’s promise to build yourself up from scratch and create yourself anew. Of course, there is no way of reconciling the two, and in that sense at least the book is as complete as we could expect it to be.

Juneteenth is not a great book, but it does contain some great writing, especially in the second half. What it wants, however, is an edge. Reading it today, it is easy to overlook how much of the accomplishment of Invisible Man was fueled by anger and resentment. In Juneteenth that same spark of outrage is missing. In 1953 Ellison told a friend of his need “to get real mad again” before he could write another book. My guess is he never did.

Ernest Hemingway’s problems were of a different sort. After enjoying one hot decade in the 1920s he became absorbed by his celebrity. The strain of becoming the most famous author in the world upset the balance he sought to manage all his life between private self and public persona – the mind and mouth of his art. Published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting that his last book (as the latest Charles Scribner, now the III, assures us this is) takes the form of “A Fictional Memoir.”

That subtitle should also be read as a warning. True at First Light is not a novel, but rather a collection of material out of which a novel might have been constructed. Written in 1954 (the same time, coincidentally, that Ellison was getting started on Juneteenth), it describes Hemingway’s trip to Kenya with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. The line between what is fiction and what is memoir is never clear, but neither does it seem particularly significant. It’s possible the author no longer cared to distinguish.

Fans of Hemingway, and I consider myself to be one of the biggest, will find the book a disappointment, and an unpleasant one at that. There is no dramatic structure or plot. What suspense there is – Will marauding Mau-Maus attack the camp? Will Miss Mary kill her lion? – is disposed of before the book is half over. The dicta on writing are no longer fresh, and the other observations tend to be of the throwaway variety, including fatuous comments on the proper hardness and flatness of a man’s butt and the best inflation for a woman’s breasts.

We shouldn’t be surprised. As people get older they don’t really change, they just stay the same only more so. Indeed, it is only Hemingway’s characteristic lack of humour that saves the writing from being enjoyed as parody. When Papa – then in his mid-50s and not in the best of health – questions whether drinking beer in the morning will throw off his reflexes by a one-thousandth of a second, he expects to be taken seriously. And when Miss Mary says to hubby, “He is my lion and I love him and I respect him and I have to kill him,” she apparently does so with a straight face.

Nor is this all. It’s not just what the characters say, it’s how they say it. “We made love and then made love again and then after we had made love once more, quiet and dark and unspeaking and unthinking and then like a shower of meteors on a cold night, we went to sleep.” This from a man who insisted writing stick to descriptions drawn directly from personal observation and experience, avoiding all rhetorical flourish and cant? An earlier Hemingway would have asked what it meant to make love like a shower of meteors.

Finally, something has to be said about the role of the editors in the production of these two books. Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s son, has cut an 850-page manuscript in half to get True at First Light. While this may seem like a drastic abridgement, it is probably no more than his father, a radical pruner, would have cut. The difference is that Hemingway senior’s pruning was a part of his art. He once remarked that a writer could omit anything if he knew what he omitted, and the omitted part would make the story stronger. Can we trust another with that judgment?

In the case of Ellison, Callahan had a more polished, but more chaotic source. The manuscript of Juneteenth (the title is apparently Callahan’s) had no chapters or designated chapter sequence. In order to produce a “reader’s edition” he has been forced to do a lot of cut and paste, and confesses, as well he might, to an “uneasily procrustean feeling.”

While I don’t suspect Callahan’s motives for a minute, I do question his judgment. In one case a passage is inserted – rather disjunctively – into a speech at the beginning of the book in order to provide symmetry with the end. That strikes me as taking quite a liberty with the text. In addition, I thought that “silently correcting” Ellison’s “Four fathom five” to “Full fathom five” was uncalled for. Whatever happened to taking an author’s errors (if that is what it was) for portals of discovery?

Posthumous publications always raise the question of fairness. We are right to ask if this is what the author would have wanted. In Ellison’s case I think it is at least close, but with Hemingway I have my doubts. While Ellison made comments near the end of his life hinting at the near completion of his work, it seems unlikely that Hemingway would have returned to a project that, like many others, he had shelved.

This said, I am happy we have both these books. Attempting to raise the bones of Modernism (a movement I see as including Ellison) is still a valuable task. Everything about our literature today demonstrates how much we remain in their debt. The still (still!) undefined label of postmodern only indicates a death, and the nervous reaction you might expect from jolting a fresh corpse with electricity.

The reason we rate the great writers from the first half of this century so highly is not because of their talent. I imagine literary talent is a constant, at least in the short run. What made the Moderns great was not that they were great writers, but the fact that they believed in great writing. Say what you will about the myth of an avant-garde, writers like Hemingway and Ellison had a real belief in the power of literature and its vital importance both to society and the individual.

We have many fine writers today, but few with that same attitude toward their art. This may be less the fault of failed belief systems than the result of a technological shift, but either way it has made a difference. And while these books do not represent the best of either author, they do open a window on to a brighter past.

Review first published August 14, 1999.


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