The Jazz of Ralph Ellison

By Wil Haygood
Professor John Callahan and Adam Bradley BA ’96 compose the bridge to Ellison’s unfinished second novel.

Professor John Callahan and Adam Bradley BA ’96 compose the bridge to Ellison’s unfinished second novel.

It is too difficult and twistingly deep to start from the beginning, when the great man, Ralph Ellison, was young and lived to put words on paper. When he was suddenly made comfortable and well-off from that staggering first novel, Invisible Man, and then went, you might say, underground. For four decades, he tried to get his second book written and published. But the chasm only got deeper for him. And it’s easy to say it was the jazz and the Harlem nights and the stares and whispers and literary gossip that stalled him.

No one knows for sure. Call it the mystery of Ralph Ellison.

Call it the obsession of two Lewis & Clark scholars who formed a bond at the college and went on to devote more than a decade of their lives to the great writer’s unfinished novel. The result of John Callahan’s and Adam Bradley’s editing prowess has now been published, by the esteemed Modern Library imprint, as Three Days Before the Shooting. An eccentric and voluminous work (1,000- plus pages), it is a kind of investigative look into Ellison’s mindset, a writer long thought to be, not unlike Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird, a one-book wonder.

Yes, Ellison wrote essays and short stories, but the public wanted, demanded, insisted on a follow-up to Invisible Man. He made them wait, and wait, and then the breath went out of him. (A posthumous work, Juneteenth, was edited by Callahan and published in 1999, and while many admired it, many did not, claiming it was still an unfinished work.)

The critics have weighed in on Three Days, among them the staff at Booklist, calling the book “eloquent, dreamlike … allegorical, lyrical.” The long-awaited opus—eccentric, quirky, bold: not unlike Ellison himself, to judge from the biographies— comes face-to-face with the great mystery of Ellison: why he could not get his next novel finished and out to the public; why he seemed to deny himself a Second Act in American Letters.

Why he, in fact, allowed a great guessing game to take place in the literary world about his work.

But let’s start in another place—that place where research and document combing and reading and sifting through old handwritten letters started to coalesce into a new piece of jazz.

Writers and researchers from the world over travel to Washington, D.C., to tackle their respective projects inside the James Madison Memorial Building, which houses the Library of Congress. It’s a huge place of wooden desks and lamplight and hushed-up voices.

During the summer of 2007, I was a couple of years into my own writing project, a biography of the prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson. (Ellison used to pop in and out of Robinson’s hepcat nightclub in Harlem, called Sugar Ray’s.)

Inside the Madison, you sit in rooms reading old newspapers on microfilm, or sit at a workspace waiting for this or that obscure book to be delivered by one of the staffers, or sit there worrying about whether you’re making any real progress on your project. Then, invariably before the clock strikes noon, you start wondering what’s for lunch in the cafeteria down the long hallway, where a group of mostly soft-voiced black women work. On many days the offerings tend toward the Southern: black-eyed peas, cornbread, cabbage, chicken.

It was in the Madison cafeteria that I first met Adam Bradley BA ’96. Tall, light-complexioned, quick to smile, he wouldn’t tell me what he was working on. “It’s a secret project,” he said. “I can’t talk about it.”

I’ve worked as a newspaperman for 20-odd years; when he told me his project was secret, he might as well have thrown a piece of red meat to a tiger. I pounced with questions. He grinned me away, changed the subject, upon which I circled back to it. As the days passed, I’d run into him in the hallways, still begging for any information on what he was working on.

I imagine I wore him down.

“It’s a project involving Ralph Ellison,” he said one day. He had been dispatched to the Library of Congress by John Callahan, Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark—and the literary executor of Ellison’s estate. So a pebble had been dropped into the lake before me, and the little waves kept washing ashore in the days ahead.

It soon became clear that Ellison wasn’t suffering from writer’s block; he was, rather, a writer afire: he wrote and wrote and wrote.

Not long thereafter we had lunch in the sunshine at a little café across the street from the Madison Building. Bradley then began confiding to me he was working, along with John Callahan, on the literary remains of Ralph Ellison’s second novel. And there was a mystery: how come Ralph Ellison was never able to complete another novel after Invisible Man? I was fascinated. When I went home that evening, I pulled out my copy of Invisible Man. Yes, I now suddenly wondered: What had happened to Ralph Ellison? What had he been doing for all those years? Bradley said he and Callahan had been combing through the Ellison archives for years—nearly 13 at that moment, which I found astonishing— doing a good deal of that work on the Lewis & Clark campus.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994, at age 80, in his Manhattan apartment. It seemed that what the world wanted from the National Book Award–winning author—his second novel—died with him. But now here sat Adam Bradley, working closely with John Callahan, telling me the two of them had a bead on what had happened inside the artistic world of Ralph Ellison through the years. I knew of Ellison, but now I really wanted to know: Who in the world is Adam Bradley? And who is John Callahan? And how did they come to be dropped into this complex literary score? And what were they finding in it— inside all those pages and Ellisonian riffs?

It is a compelling story that cuts across race and literature and that turns on that peculiar human connection between hero and admirer in one generation, and advocate and student in another.

In 1977 John Callahan—energetic, voluble, curious—was teaching literature at Lewis & Clark. Like many, he had fallen under the hypnotic spell of Invisible Man. When that novel was published, Ellison was mostly unknown in the literary world, save by an intellectual crowd including the likes of novelist Saul Bellow, novelist Robert Penn Warren, and poet Langston Hughes.

Critics hailed Invisible Man for its bravery, originality, and sweeping prose. The book’s narrator was unnamed, and the theme of the book revolved around the plight of blacks in America and the titanic scars inflicted by stereotyping. The reviews were mighty with praise; there were literary honors; there were feature stories in publications; for a time Ellison was the most famous Negro writer (the term used then) in America. He soon announced he was at work on his next book. He had readers willing to wait both in America and abroad. And wait they were forced to do. The years began to roll by—5 then 10, 10 then 15—and still no second novel.

Callahan did what academics mesmerized by a certain kind of book— a book that gets studied, constantly debated, and called a classic—sometimes do: he taught it and even wrote about it. His 1977 essay, “Chaos, Complexity, and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison,” did not go unnoticed by Ellison himself. The novelist soon invited Callahan to visit him in New York City. The two formed a lasting and soulful friendship. They shared meals and sipped wine together and talked about the world of academia. Ellison’s wife, Fanny, came to admire Callahan. Upon the writer’s death in 1994, Fanny Ellison named Callahan literary executor of Ellison’s estate.

EllisonCallahanBW_EstateofRalphEllison And yet, what would a literary executor do regarding an author with one full-length novel—albeit a novel with defying endurance—in his canon? The boulder at the bottom of the hill was always the second novel. In Fanny’s mind, that meant the voluminous papers and drafts Ellison had left behind—the work-in-progress that was to be the second novel. It would be her husband’s follow-up gift to the world.

Fanny Ellison had the boxes shipped to Callahan at Lewis & Clark. And the boxes just kept coming—filled with scribbled notes, thousands of typed pages, and 80 old computer discs—an accumulation of material that Ellison had hoarded over decades. It soon became clear that Ellison wasn’t suffering from writer’s block; he was, rather, a writer afire: he wrote and wrote and wrote, an exacting man with a terrifying belief that his second novel must be as grand, and grandly received, as his first —or perhaps more so.

So there stood, on the Lewis & Clark campus, a harried professor with Ellison materials raining down upon him. He needed help. A curious and nimble mind was called for; a pair of coltish legs wouldn’t hurt either.

Sometimes, in literature, the stars align just so: Perhaps a nomadic writer working against the backdrop of a segregated America is bold enough to proclaim he intends to write a Great American Novel. And damned if Ralph Ellison doesn’t pull it off.

And then the stars aligned again. Enter a young student who arrived at Lewis & Clark in 1992 from Salt Lake City. White mother and black father. Haunted, but not in a frightful way, by his multiracial background. He struck many as a precocious student, a reader, and a worker. The professor took notice of the student. He befriended him and, sensing something arresting about his background, introduced him to the works of the writer who had cracked open the discussion of race in America all those years ago.

While he was growing up, Adam Bradley found his father to be a mystery. Ellison’s own father had died when Ralph was a young boy. “Be your own father,” Ellison once wrote. Easily uttered and hard to fathom. John Callahan—who had issues with his own father too—plucked Bradley from the student body and tested the young man’s curiosity about America and history and literature. Then the professor told the student about his Ellison project. Bradley jumped at it. He was all of 19 years old.

The project would stretch into years. Bradley and Callahan pored through the Ellison archives, trying to piece together, as best they could, the mystery of Ellison’s tortuous timetable. They measured Ellison’s output—as well as his lack of output while tinkering with 1980s-era computers—and delved into his creative mind.

So it comes down to being the story of two men, a young scholar and an older scholar, a black man and a white man, operating for a common purpose.

Initially, Bradley thought the project was drudgery, riffling through boxes and poring over the contents of folders. But over time, he found the process fascinating. He spent years stitching together clues about Ellison’s work habits. He had sessions with Callahan about a writer at work who had hit some kind of wall. He pondered the riddle of what Ellison’s switch from typewriter to computer seemed to do to his psyche. And yet, as I sat with Bradley at the Library of Congress, asking him about his own life, it came to me that—perhaps unknowingly at the time—he was searching for his own identity. He himself, in a way, is an Ellisonian figure for the 21st century.

So it comes down to being the story of two men, a young scholar and an older scholar, a black man and a white man, operating for a common purpose.

Both Bradley and Callahan have put their respective life histories into this mammoth work, each gleaning from Ellison, it now seems, lessons about art, perseverance, and the folly of perfection.

Three Days is not, in the least, a linear novel; as both Bradley and Callahan have explained, it is an amalgam of artistic ambition. Readers will take from it what they will. It is Ellison scratching out the beautiful music he made in the dark. It is Ellison at war with words.

On a wintry February night in the nation’s capital—baby, it’s cold outside, as Ellison himself might have put it— some hardy souls are sitting in an auditorium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Adam Bradley and John Callahan are on stage talking about their just-released Ellison chronicle. It is a book about race and an American politician and an assassination. They talk about differing versions of Ellison chapters, how he changed gears and wrote anew, trying to perfect a character’s outlines. Audience members sit riveted. There are questions and questions. It turns into a fascinating riff between the two men about America, President Obama, loyalties, the passage of time, a redemptive novel published back in 1952.

It seems rather fortuitous to both Callahan and Bradley that Three Days has been published in the time of Obama. For if one chooses to reflect on what America has done with his election—a nation bloodied by slavery now anointing a black man as its leader—it represents a leap both moving and profound. It’s a moment, the two editors believe, that Ellison himself could have envisioned. They called him a visionary writer, a figure who never stopped wrestling with race all the while hearing the optimistic notes on the American score. The Ellison mystery, then, seems to represent but Ellison in motion, like America herself.

“I think this book will bring about a profound shift in the study of Ellison,” Bradley asserts.

“Ellison,” says Callahan, “will now be seen in the round.”

Both editors have now turned their attention to other work. Callahan, on sabbatical from Lewis & Clark, is trying to finish The Learning Room, his second novel, whose hero is a 5-year-old autistic child—an invisible boy, perhaps. Bradley, who completed his doctorate at Harvard, is now an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In May, Yale University will publish Bradley’s next book, titled Ralph Ellison in Progress. The book is dedicated to the professor who saw him, all those years ago, striding across campus amid the fir trees: “To John F. Callahan—On the Higher Frequencies.”

It’s a nice touch by Bradley. It also has echoes.

Callahan dedicated his 1988 book, In the African-American Grain, “To Ralph Ellison—on the higher frequencies.”

Both dedications, of course, are a nod to Ellison, who had written of those who dwell on “the lower frequencies”—where the mind might not soar as high, where ambitions are often laid to waste, where dreams lie unfulfilled. Yet Ellison, even as his America moved forward in fits and starts, through the smoke of riots and assassinations, believed. He believed in the higher form of art where literature might be produced.

And on a cold night in the nation’s capital, as two scholars of different races, of different generations, discussed Ellison’s work, we were all in tune with the higher frequencies.

Wil Haygood is a staff writer for the Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.