Ralph Ellison Juneteenth (Penguin Classics)

ISBN 13: 9780141183039

Juneteenth (Penguin Classics)

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9780141183039: Juneteenth (Penguin Classics)

Set in Washington DC in the 1950s, an elderly black Baptist minister from Georgia visits a Senator on his deathbed. Their conversation and the memories it sparks take them back through the deeply buried secrets of their shared past, and finally to the tragic event that first brought them together.

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Review:

Juneteenth is the long-awaited follow-up to Ralph Ellison's 1952 debut Invisible Man. Before his death in 1994, Ellison left behind an uncompleted 2,000-word manuscript from which John Callahan, his literary executor, has quarried a smaller, more coherent work . Gone are the epic proportions that Ellison so clearly envisioned. Instead, Juneteenth revolves around just two characters: Adam Sunraider, a white, race-baiting New England senator, and Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black Baptist minister who turns out to have a paradoxical (and paternal) relationship to his opposite number.

As the book opens, Sunraider is delivering a typically bigoted peroration on the Senate floor when hem is peppered by an assassin's bullets. Mortally wounded, he summons the elderly Hickman to his bedside. There the two commence a journey into their shared past, which (unlike the rest of 1950s America) represents a true model of racial integration. Ellison juggles the multiple ironies of race and religion with effortless brilliance and his delight in Hickman's house-wrecking rhetoric is contagious:

Bliss, I've heard you cutting some fancy didoes on the radio, but son, Eatmore was romping and rampaging and walking through Jerusalem just like John! Oh, but wasn't he romping! Maybe you were too young to get it all but that night that mister was 10,000 misters and his voice was pure gold.
The portion of Juneteenth that covers Bliss's ecclesiastical education--perhaps a third of the entire book--is as electrifying as anything in Invisible Man. In comparison, though, the rest of the novel seems like pretty slim pickings. For one thing, much of the plot--including Bliss's transformation from pint-sized preacher to United States senator--is absent. For another, Ellison's confinement of the two top-billed players to a hospital room makes for an awfully static narrative. Granted, he intended their dialogue to exist "on a borderline between the folk poetry and religious rhetoric" (or so he wrote in his notes). But this is a dicey recipe for a novel and Juneteenth veers between naturalism and hallucination much less effectively than its predecessor.

None of this is to assail Ellison's artistry, which remains on ample display. The problem is that Callahan's splice job--which well may be the best one possible--remains weak at the seams. So should readers give Juneteenth a miss? The answer would still have to be no. The best parts are as powerful and necessary as anything in our literature. --James Marcus

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