Adam Bradley, a CU associate professor of English, and John Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College, have come together after author Ralph Ellison’s death to produce unpublished work.
Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” became a literary success after its release in 1952. From the time of its publication, to Ellison’s death in 1994, the author worked on putting out a second novel that he never finished.
Callahan, Ellison’s literary executer, according to a Lewis and Clark news release, was assigned the task of sifting through the unfinished work that the author left behind. He named Bradley, who was one of his students at the time, as his assistant.
Bradley said that he was only a 19-year-old sophomore at Lewis and Clark when he first read “Invisible Man” in Callahan’s class.
“There was just something about it that struck me as almost magical,” Bradley said. “It spoke to my experience.”
Bradley, who has a black father and a white mother, said that he didn’t have much of a connection with the black side of his family while growing up.
“When I read this book in college, it had a clarifying influence on me,” Bradley said. “I saw parts of myself in it in the search for identity, in the search for a father figure and all these sorts of things that are really quite personal, played out in a public work of fiction. It inspired me to understand what exactly my multiracial identity means.”
According to a Lewis and Clark news release, in 1999, Callahan released Ellison’s “Juneteenth” a nearly 400-page novel. Bradley said that Callahan realized he needed to put out a bigger book, and that he suggested the two men work on it together.
The first task that Bradley said he and Callahan had to address in creating this longer piece was to find out what they had to work with and what they could possibly make of it.
“You have to be almost like a detective,” Bradley said. “It was almost like a literary jigsaw puzzle.”
Bradley said that the goal with this book was to show readers what Ellison was doing with the novel during its development.
Bradley explained that he and Callahan identified four major periods in which Ellison was doing work, and that all of those periods are represented in the book.
Bradley also said that, though various sections of the novel are prefaced with editorial notes and comments, every word of fiction in the book is Ellison’s.
“The reader can pick up this book and read, uninterrupted, Ellison’s work for 300, 400 pages without any sort of editorial comment,” Bradley said. “And that’s really what we wanted. When you’re editing the work of an author who’s passed away, the last thing you want people talking about is you, the editor. You want them talking about the author—you want them focusing on their words. That was our goal and I’d like to think we achieved that here.”
Bradley said that Ellison did not leave a title for his unfinished work, so the two editors decided to use the first sentence of the book as Ellison had with “Invisible Man.” They titled the new novel “Three Days Before the Shooting …: The Unfinished Second Novel.”
Bradley said the book centers around the relationship between two characters. One is a black jazzman turned preacher and the other is a child of indeterminate race whom the preacher raises as his own. The two travel around the country as a part of a revival sermon until the child strikes out on his own and disappears for years, emerging decades later as a white, racist senator.
The central plot of the book is about an attempt upon the senator’s life by the hands of his own estranged son, Bradley said, as the preacher races to Washington to try to save the man he knew years before.
Bradley said that he will be teaching a graduate seminar on Ellison in the fall, and will include Ellison’s work in his class on the African American literature survey in the spring of 2011.
“It’s an exciting thing to be able to share this with the CU community and to make them a part of this as well,” Bradley said.
Katherine Eggert, a CU associate professor and chair of the English department, said that “Invisible Man” is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.
It’s a book, she said, whose message still manages to reach readers nearly 60 years after it was first told.
“The kind of book that can get written in the 50s and still be applicable today is unusual,” Eggert said. “‘Invisible Man’ resonates with students and it’s because the themes are not just 1950s themes, but rather it’s about the voice of the underdog. There are always underdogs, and students connect with that.”
Ellison’s ability to incorporate a sense of universality in his writing is a quality that some said is the drawing force to his work.
“Basically it’s about one person losing their identity, finding their identity and the concept of identity, and I think that’s pretty universal and eternal—trying to figure out who you are and how you fit,” said Matthew Sullivan, a 23-year-old senior political science major.
Will Hayden, a 22-year-old junior English major, also said that he enjoyed “Invisible Man” because he could relate to this universal message.
“It captured the essence of humanity very well,” Hayden said. “Even though it was about a black character going through trouble with the white world, the characters were extremely relatable.”
Eggert said she think that “Three Days Before the Shooting…” will be an interesting novel because of the time lapse between when Ellison began writing it, and when it was finished. She said that she’s looking forward to seeing how the author’s thoughts changed over the years.
“Ralph Ellison was working on this book for pretty much the entire second half of the 20th century,” Eggert said. “So if you are a writer interested in race, and the African American experience, can you think of any other four decades that would be significant to span?”
“Three Days Before the Shooting…” was released on Jan. 26. Bradley was recently in Washington D.C. for an event at the Smithsonian to celebrate the launch of the book and a national tour that will take him and Callahan to New York, Boston, L.A., Denver and other cities throughout the country.
“I never met the man, but I feel this connection to him and I feel a certain responsibility to preserve his legacy, to extend it, to introduce it to a whole new generation of people,” Bradley said.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kaely Moore at Kaely.firstname.lastname@example.org.