A Visible Man
John Callahan, a campus icon, is retiring from teaching. But he isn’t slowing down.
Like many students at Lewis & Clark, Adam Bradley BA ’96 fell in love with the work of Ralph Ellison in a class taught.
On a startlingly sunny Friday in February, Bradley, now an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was back on campus, speaking before an audience of students and nationally recognized scholars in literature, history, and the arts. It was the first day of Lewis & Clark’s Ralph Ellison Centennial Symposium, and Bradley was ostensibly there to speak about the novelist and essayist, but much of his talk centered on Callahan.
“I owe my professional life and a good part of the man that I’ve become to my time in and out of John’s classroom, engaging in conversations with him about literature and life and all their complexities,” Bradley said.
The complexities of literature and life are central concerns for Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark. A longtime friend of Ellison and the literary executor for his estate, Callahan worked to bring the author’s unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting…, to publication in 2010. The college’s two-day symposium was a celebration of the legacy of Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man is one of the signature classics of 20th-century literature. But it was also a celebration of Callahan, who, after 48 years at Lewis & Clark, is retiring from teaching this year.
Callahan is a charismatic professor, tall and handsome, fond of dapper jackets and open collars. He is beloved by students for his casual demeanor and distinctive New England mannerisms as well as for his deep understanding of and passion for American literature. His status in the Lewis & Clark English department is such that few can imagine it without him, so it is surprising to learn that he came to the college expecting his tenure to be brief.
In 1967, Callahan was beginning work on his doctoral thesis on F. Scott Fitzgerald at the University of Illinois when his advisor abruptly left for another job. Jack Hart, a young instructor whom Callahan had met in Seattle the previous summer, wrote him that there was an opening at Lewis & Clark. “At this point, I felt a little bit at sixes and sevens, so I came to Portland,” Callahan remembers.
He expected a formal interview with a search committee. Instead, he was taken to lunch at the cafeteria in Templeton Campus Center (which is now a computer lab). “We sat around informally for an hour,” Callahan recalls. “Finally, a guy gets up to leave and says, ‘I’ll see you at four.’ What’s at four? Four was faculty volleyball. I think that was the real test—whether I could handle faculty volleyball.”
After the interview, Callahan went to the Trail Room looking for some food and time to think. “It was packed. There was space at only one of the tables, so I hung out there and met with a steady rotation of students,” he recalls. “They had their bandanas, their long hair, their peace symbols, and their civil rights buttons. And they also had a kind of energy about them, an intensity and vitality. For over two and a half hours, I just sat there talking with these kids, and I thought, ‘Christ, you ought to come out here. You can learn how to teach, be with these students, write your thesis, and then move on.’”
Callahan ended up taking the job and finished his thesis—but he didn’t leave Lewis & Clark. “I’ve had offers to go other places during my time here—damn good offers—but I’ve never seriously considered leaving because of the students,” he says. “There’s a fundamental decency about them. They care about each other, they care about the world. It’s very impressive. To this day, these students challenge me.”
It’s no surprise that Callahan, a lifelong activist, was drawn to Lewis & Clark’s engaged student body and what he calls “a strong antiwar movement on campus.” Not long after joining the faculty, he returned to the Trail Room to share his opinion at one of the weekly speak-outs held there at the time. “The Board of Trustees was quite conservative,” he says. “I remember being advised by faculty who’d been here awhile, ‘Fine, you’ve got your views, but you don’t want to make them visible too soon.’ So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I got up and made my first little speech in opposition to the Vietnam War.”
Callahan remained devoted to progressive politics in Oregon, and became involved in the state Democratic Party. In 1970, he challenged Edith Green, the incumbent U.S. Representative for Oregon’s third district, in the Democratic primary. Green also happened to be a trustee of Lewis & Clark.
“I did it at the last minute at the wily, seemingly straightforward urging of the late U.S. Senator Wayne Morse. Nobody was expecting that move—I wasn’t expecting it—but I did it. Lewis & Clark’s president at the time, Jack Howard, was very unhappy about my decision,” Callahan says. “Once he got over being irritated and having to deal with anger on the part of some trustees, and we talked things out, it was fine.” (Callahan earned endorsements from U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy and Morse, but Green carried the primary by a three-to-one margin.)
During this same period, Callahan was beginning to delve into African American literature. He and Michael Harper, a poet who taught at the college while Vern Rutsala was off campus from 1968 to 1969, became close friends. Callahan was writing his dissertation at the time and struggling with an interracial altercation in a 1920s Paris jazz club in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
“I wasn’t sure what Fitzgerald was up to. And Harper said, ‘Look man, read these essays.’ And he got me Xeroxes—they might have even been mimeographs—of some of Ellison’s essays that had been published here and there but never been collected. As I read them, the lights went on. I decided that once I got done with my Fitzgerald stuff, I needed to find out about the whole tradition of African American literature, and especially Ellison as an American writer.”
That focus has dominated Callahan’s scholarly work ever since. In 1977, he published an article, “The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison” in Negro American Literature Forum (now African American Review). “When I read the published piece, I felt really proud of it, so I forwarded it to Ellison along with a note: ‘Dear Mr. Ellison…’ About a month later, I got back a two-page letter that ended with, ‘If you’re ever in New York and have the time, Mrs. Ellison and I would be glad to see you,’” Callahan recalls. He was thrilled. “I didn’t go to the airport that night, but several months later, I went to New York and met with him and Mrs. Ellison. We became fast, immediate friends.”
Callahan made many trips to visit the Ellisons over the subsequent 17 years. During the course of their long friendship, Callahan says he grew to view Ellison as something of a father. They had many conversations about literature, politics, technology, and music, but rarely about Ellison’s long-awaited second novel. “When we’d talk, I was done with my work for the day, and he was done with his. We didn’t talk about his writing so much,” Callahan says.
It was clear, however, that the Ellisons trusted Callahan and valued his literary expertise. “The day after Ralph’s memorial service, Fanny took me into his study and said straightaway, ‘I’m going to need your help with this,’” he recalls. “This” included not only Ellison’s copious unpublished essays and correspondence, but, most urgently, more than 2,000 pages of manuscripts and fragments on typewritten pages and on handwritten scraps of paper. Callahan also found a box of computer discs with documents belonging to the unfinished novel Ellison had been working on for 40 years or more. Fanny Ellison named Callahan literary executor in the summer of 1994.
Knowing he would need some help himself, Callahan approached Adam Bradley, then a sophomore at Lewis & Clark. “He was this long, lanky drink of water. He was smart, and he was also feeling his way,” Callahan says. “He’d written about Invisible Man in a way that reminded me of my own response to the novel when I read it in college. He was clearly trying to find out about his own life and his emerging identity through the novel.”
Working in Frank Manor House, the two began the tedious task of putting Ellison’s manuscripts and notes in order and editing Three Days Before the Shooting…. It turned into more than a decade’s undertaking that stretched well past Bradley’s graduate work at Harvard and Callahan’s own first novel, A Man You Could Love, begun in 2001.
“John entrusted so much to me as a 19-year-old that I sometimes look back and wonder, ‘What was he thinking?!’” Bradley says. “Well, I know what he was thinking: that if he placed the challenge before me, I’d work until I could meet it. I think John’s been so influential in so many students’ lives because he sees potential in us that we ourselves can’t always see at the time.”
Callahan’s work on Ellison’s papers continues today, and he’s still committed to involving his students. He is currently editing a volume of Ellison’s letters with Washington & Lee University professor Marc Conner. This spring, in his final semester at Lewis & Clark, he’s been teaching a major figures course on Ellison in which students read the author’s letters to better understand his fiction and essays.
I think John’s been so influential in so many students’ lives because he sees potential in us that we ourselves can’t always see at the time.” Adam Bradley BA ’96
“Nobody else can look at these letters, at least for now, in the way that we’re doing,” Callahan says. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s have a class at Lewis & Clark and be the first ones to work with them.’ I’m able to give that gift to the students at Lewis & Clark.”
Students in the class say reading the letters has given them greater insight into Ellison’s writing, though the material is not without its challenges. “A lot of them are photocopies of photocopies,” says Bridger Ehli, a sophomore English major. “And Ellison’s handwriting was not very good, especially when he was younger. But you get Ellison’s views directly from him and then see those views translated into Invisible Man. It illuminates him as a person.”
Nora Foote, a senior political science major, says Ellison’s letters give insight not only into Ellison’s writing, but into American culture. “Sitting in our seats at Lewis & Clark, it’s easy to forget that while the arc of history bends toward justice, it’s really, really long,” she says. “We’re not done yet. We owe it to people like Ralph Ellison to listen and learn from their earlier steps in these fights for justice.”
As for Callahan’s next step, he plans to divide his time between a new novel and editing The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, scheduled for publication by Random House in 2016. Callahan spent five years working on his first novel, A Man You Could Love, which was published in 2007 and brought out in paperback in 2008. “Then I got hooked,” he says. He just now finished revising a second novel, The Learning Room (see box below). “I sent it off to my agent on April Fool’s Day, so I’m keeping fingers and toes crossed,” he says with a twinkle. Now he has started on a third, called Belonging, which grows out of the first two, and begins in Ireland. And he’s excited to keep going.
“God, it’s wonderful,” Callahan says. “I’ve enjoyed writing essays about other people’s work, but by god, man, there’s nothing like creating your own. The highs are higher, the lows are lower. So to those who decide to try it … think carefully!”
Ben Waterhouse BA ’06, a Portland writer and editor, is communications associate for Oregon Humanities.
Callahan at Work on Trilogy
John Callahan sees his three novels—A Man You Could Love (2007), The Learning Room, now in the hands of the Wylie Agency, and the recently begun Belonging—as a trilogy.
Callahan’s The Learning Room is the story of Fergus Scales, a severely autistic 5-year-old boy. As he struggles with his humanity, young Fergus enters a labyrinth of secrets involving those closest to him, including his Basque American caregiver and her lover, an African American piano player. During the seeming quiet of summer 2004, events move closer to a shattering catastrophe on Labor Day. In its aftermath, Fergus emerges as a person able to love and inspire those who would love him and each other to unlock their hearts.
To read The Learning Room’s moving scene in which Fergus bravely breaks through to discover and embrace himself, visit go.lclark.edu/chronicle/learning_room.
Excerpt from “The Learning Room”
A moving scene in which Fergus bravely breaks through to discover and embrace himself.
Excerpt from The Learning Room, an upcoming novel by John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark.
Printed with permission. Copyright John Callahan.
Ralph Ellison Centennial Symposium
In late February, Lewis & Clark presented the Ralph Ellison Centennial Symposium, marking 100 years since the author’s birth. The two-day event brought together nationally recognized scholars of literature, history, and the arts to explore Ellison’s legacy. It was also an opportunity to recognize John Callahan’s many contributions to Ellison scholarship.