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Juneteenth: A Novel Paperback – June 13, 2000


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First Vintage International edition (June 13, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375707549
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375707544
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Invisible Man, which Ralph Ellison published in 1952, was one of the great debuts in contemporary literature. Alternating phantasmagoria with rock-ribbed realism, it delved into the blackest (and whitest!) corners of the American psyche, and quickly attained the status of legend. Ellison's follow-up, however, seemed truly bedeviled--not only by its monumental predecessor, but by fate itself. First, a large section of the novel went up in flames when the author's house burned in 1967. Then he spent decades reconstructing, revising, and expanding his initial vision. When Ellison died in 1994, he left behind some 2,000 pages of manuscript. Yet this mythical mountain of prose was clearly unfinished, far too sketchy and disjointed to publish. Apparently Ellison's second novel would never appear.

Or would it? Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, has now quarried a smaller, more coherent work from all that raw material. 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 he's 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.

Adam, we discover, was born Bliss, and raised by Hickman in the bosom of the black community. What's more, this rabble-rouser was being groomed as a boy minister. ("I tell you, Bliss," says Hickman, "you're going to make a fine preacher and you're starting at just the right age. You're just a little over six and Jesus Christ himself didn't start until he was twelve.") 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. 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 ten thousand misters and his voice was pure gold.
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 did.

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, evoking Daddy Hickman's own brand of verbal enchantment. "I was talking like I always talk," he recalls at one point, "in the same old down-home voice, that is, in the beloved idiom... [and] I preached those five thousand folks into silence." Ellison, too, is capable of preaching the reader into silence--and that's not something we can afford to overlook. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

When Ralph Ellison died in 1994, he left behind a manuscript he'd been working on since the '50s. John Callahan's introduction to this long-awaited edition explores Ellison's life and the history of this second novel (after, of course, the classic Invisible Man), cataloguing such disasters as the near-finished manuscript being destroyed in a fire in 1967. The novel turns out to have survived the many obstacles to its birth, for after a rather windy beginning, Ellison writes beautifully, in the grand, layered Southern tradition. The narrative begins in 1950s Washington, D.C., with Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting senator who is gunned down on the Senate floor while a man named Hickman watches in the gallery. Rushed to the hospital, Sunraider requests Hickman's presence, and the story of the two men's agonized relationship is told in flashbacks as Hickman attends the dying senator. Decades before, Alonzo Hickman was an ex-trombone player turned circuit preacher raising a young boy of indeterminate race named Bliss.The boy assists Hickman in his revivals, rising out of a white coffin at a certain moment in the sermon. Bliss grows up to change his name to Adam Sunraider and, having passed for white, has gone from being a flimflam artist and movie maker to the U. S. Senate Always, however, he is in flight from Hickman. These flashbacks showcase Ellison's stylized set pieces, among the best scenes he has written, especially as his incandescent images chart the mysteries and legacies of slavery. Bliss remembers his courtship of a black woman in a piercingly sweet reverie, and he revisits a revival meeting on Juneteenth (June 19), the date in 1865 on which slaves in Texas were finally informed of the Emancipation Proclamation. The sermon in this section is perhaps the highlight of the novel, sure to achieve classic status on its own merits. The revival meeting is interrupted by a white woman who claims Bliss is her son, after which Bliss begins his odyssey for an identity that takes him, by degrees, away from the black culture of his youth. Gradually, we learn of the collusion of lies and violence that brought Bliss to Hickman in the first place. Editor Callahan, in his informative afterword, describes the difficult process of editing Ellison's unfinished novel and of arranging the massive body of work into the unwieldy yet cohesive story Ellison wanted to tell. The difficulties he faced are most obvious in the ending, which is Faulknerian to a fault, even to the overuse of the word "outrage." Nonetheless, this volume is a visionary tour de force, a lyrical, necessary contribution to America's perennial racial dialogue, and a novel powerfully reinforcing Ellison's place in literary history. 100,000 first printing; BOMC double main selection.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Ralph Ellison (1914-94) was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936, at which time a visit to New York and a meeting with Richard Wright led to his first attempts at fiction. Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, Ellison taught at several institutions, including Bard College, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.

Customer Reviews

It should be obvious to even a casual reader that this book was cobbled together.
Doug
He had to repeatedly ask himself (as editor) questions that only an author can fairly ask, and so I'm afraid the book is finally more Callahan's than Ellison's.
Dave Newsom (nuusoms@aol.com)
The author very rarely slips out of Ellison's prose and carries the mood, the scenes and the language well.
T. Cook

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dave Newsom (nuusoms@aol.com) on October 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
While Ellison's skill as a stylist is undeniable (on the level, possibly, of even Joyce or Proust), and while with INIVISIBLE MAN he may have very well written one of the ten greatest books of the 20th century, what we have in his long-awaited, highly anticipated follow-up is nothing but a "momentary glimpse" at the greatness it could have been.
One cannot help but wonder what JUNETEENTH would have been like had the original copy not burned in Ellison's legendary house fire. Would it, in fact, even have been called JUNETEENTH? Callahan says he believes this is what Ellison intended to title his multi-volume epic, but we will never know. It is merely speculation. It is an "editorial decision," as is the whole book. And therein lies the problem with the novel.
JUNETEENTH is a monumental testament to the power of friendship and editorship (Callahan and Ellison). I am not denying the bravery and dedication it had to have taken Callahan to sort through all the disparate notes, and passages of dialogue, and sections of narrative told in the bits and pieces that Ellison left behind, and then to dare to somehow put it all together in some sort of coherent form. It was a monumental task, and Callahan is to be commended. But the final result is messy, incomplete, and largely unsatisfying.
As the editor of an unfinished volume, Callahan was left with making authorial decisions on the line of narrative structure, and character development development, etc. He had to repeatedly ask himself (as editor) questions that only an author can fairly ask, and so I'm afraid the book is finally more Callahan's than Ellison's.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By jforster@andrew.cmu.edu on October 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Of course, this book was difficult to read at times. Anyone who has read Invisible Man had to expect that. Nonetheless, there is a complicated genius that emerges in Ellison's life-work the same way Joyce's Ulysses rewards those who make it to the end. I tried reading this book at the beach, which was a mistake. I was more successful finishing it at home with a serious outlook, an overstuffed chair and long sittings. Whatever you do, don't quit in the middle.
Ellison captures the ambiguity of racial and ethnic heritage in the identities of individual characters. While the large racial drama has played out through our country's history, individual players have lived in their own unique spaces within the play. Hickman and Bliss are exquisitely drawn examples.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Charles L. Judson on December 15, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I gave this book two hundred pages before I called it quits. Edited down from 2,000 pages to a few hundred pages, I had no clue where the book was going. The early scenes with Bliss and Hickman were the best part. The flowing from past to present was confusing at best. I'm waiting for an edition that is less edited and allows us to see where Ellison wanted to go. We can't go there now that he's gone, but even Moses at least got to glimpse the promise land. As with Alex Haley's post death career, I'm disappointed with the lackluster results; and more commited to NOT seeing an author's reputation tarnished by work that, in the end, isn't his.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 19, 2000
Format: Audio Cassette
I found the book a little too much for my liking. But the audio version(Blair Underwood-reader)excellant. He has a wonderful voice and captures the spirit of the story.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By T. Cook on July 26, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Juneteenth was a difficult, but worthwhile read. I have read "Invisible Man" and have been exposed to his prose and masterful imagery before and was somewhat prejudiced about reading "Juneteenth". However, I was not disappointed. The author very rarely slips out of Ellison's prose and carries the mood, the scenes and the language well. It is by no means an easy piece of literature to read. The story is serves as a background to the more prominent foci of the novel which are Ellison's highly descriptive and detailed scenes, the deep-rooted, backwoods southern language and the psychological escapades of a young boy. This book takes some determination to read as it takes much effort to grow accustomed to Ellison's style and I recommend reading "Invisible Man" before reading "Juneteenth". However, despite the work, I enjoyed the novel overall and at times was captivated by the wild scenes and intrigued by the thoughts of Bliss.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As with any other unfinished work (The Love of the Last Tycoon, The Garden of Eden, etc.) it is difficult to read this without wondering what it might have been if Ellison had finished it. On the downside, there is much here that needs explanation and fleshing out. There are interesting nods in certain directions that leave the reader longing for more. And there is the inevitable feeling that a much richer story lies just beneath the surface. However, there are rich passages of prose in this book which are a welcome addition to Ellison's body of work. The concept, the plot, and the route taken to get there is full of rewards along the way. "Juneteenth" is a sketch of something that could have been truly magnificent, but is still nevertheless a fascinating look into the mind of one of America's greatest writers.
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