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Ralph Ellison in Progress
From Invisible Man to Three Days Before the Shooting ...
By ADAM BRADLEY
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Adam Bradley
All rights reserved.
Ralph Ellison's laptop weighed twenty-five pounds and could, its manufacturer touted, be "safely stowed under the passenger seat of most aircraft." It was an Osborne 1, one of the world's first portable computers, and although it was cumbersome and almost comically feeble by today's standards (it had a paltry 64K of RAM and a five-inch green-text monitor), it was state-of-the-art when Ellison purchased it in 1982. Ellison used it to write letters, store addresses, record stray thoughts, and, most important, continue to compose the novel he had been writing for nearly three decades.
That Ellison would be an early adopter of the computer as a means of composition comes as no surprise. Ever since his boyhood in Oklahoma he had been fascinated by technology, working with short-wave radios and ultimately becoming something of an expert in high-fidelity audio components. He had also taken to using recording devices to capture and play back portions of the second novel read aloud in the seclusion of his study.
Until 1982, however, Ellison's technological tinkering remained a hobby, a pleasant diversion largely removed from the craft of his fiction. He wrote by hand and by typewriter, enlisting his wife, Fanny, to retype clean copies that incorporated his penciled emendations in the margins of his drafts. This was a time-consuming process, often resulting in overlapping pages, irregular numbering, and inadvertent omissions and repetitions. The computer would change all of this, transforming Ellison's compositional method and leaving an indelible mark upon his final manuscript so long in progress. In the process, Ellison would emerge as arguably the first major author of the digital age.
In the years between Ellison's acquisition of the Osborne computer on January 8, 1982, and the last file he saved on December 30, 1993, Ellison amassed a textual archive with a scope approaching what he had composed of the novel during the previous three decades. All told, he saved more than 3,000 pages in 469 files on eighty-three disks using three computers. The files range from single paragraphs to complete episodes, each labeled by some distinguishing feature of character or scene. While some files are grouped episodically, many are dispersed in no discernable order among the disks. Several partial tables of contents provide clues to narrative sequence, but Ellison left no comprehensive table that would give definitive shape to the novel he spent nearly half his life composing.
Together the computer files relating to the novel resemble a kind of high literary jigsaw puzzle. But unlike a child's game, the various fragments that comprise the manuscript do not always fit neatly together, nor do all the necessary pieces exist to make up the whole. This stands in clear contrast to much of his writing from the 1950s to the 1970s, significant portions of which he would distill into two lengthy narratives, which he would label Book I and Book II. Book I comprises the first-person narration of Senator Adam Sunraider's shooting and its aftermath from the perspective of a white newspaper reporter named Welborn McIntyre. Book II, much of which was published in Juneteenth, consists of Ellison's third-person rendering of Hickman, and finally, Hickman and the dying Senator exploring the past through conversation, remembrance, and reverie. Whereas Ellison seems to have revised the Book I and II typescripts into clear, if still disconnected, unities, he achieved nothing of the sort with the computer files. Placed alongside Book I and II, the computer sequences read like the unfinished drafts they are: at times wordy and obtuse, at others lyrical and sublime. They call attention to the intensity of Ellison's labors as a novelist, but also to the unevadable fact that much of that labor appears miscalculated and misspent.
Even after the 1999 publication of Juneteenth, discussion of the second novel still centers on why Ellison failed to publish the manuscript himself. It has become something of a cottage industry among critics to speculate on its protracted composition. "The novel has to be more than segments, it has to be a whole before it's ready for publication," Ellison told an interviewer in 1982, the year he purchased the Osborne and began the transition from typewriter to computer. Far from a whole, and perhaps still far from a novel, the manuscript as it emerges in the computer files remains a puzzle. The jigsaw complexity of the numerous textual variants and the sheer magnitude of the composition present a paradox: Ellison wrote enough for ten novels, but not enough for one.
Not only was 1982 the year Ellison's made the pivotal shift of composing the second novel from typewriter to computer, it was also the year of the reemergence of Invisible Man. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the novel's publication, Random House was preparing a special edition with a new introduction by Ellison. Not surprisingly, Ellison's mind would turn to his classic text, the novel he had wrestled into shape decades earlier. In private notes, he makes overt something he would only hint at in public remarks: that he somehow needed Invisible Man as a guide to completing this second novel. He admonishes himself to fit his fiction into the pattern he had drawn long ago from Kenneth Burke, the tragedic progression from purpose to passion to perception. He continually drafted and redrafted outlines of key incidents in the plot, on several occasions even setting side by side the chronologies of his two novels. The challenge he faced was one of giving form to his creation; he had no problem producing pages. "It looks long enough to be a trilogy," he told one interviewer. He continued:
It all takes place in the 20th century. I'm convinced that I'm working with abiding patterns. The style is somewhat different from Invisible Man. There are different riffs in it. Sections of it are publishable and some parts have already appeared....
I'm dealing with a broader range of characters, playing with various linguistic styles. Quite a bit of the book is comic. The background is New York, the South, an imaginary Washington—not quite the world I used to encounter on the board of the Kennedy Center for the performing arts.
The novel has to be more than segments, it has to be a whole before it's ready for publication. But if I'm going to be remembered as a novelist, I'd better produce it soon.
Any discomfort or embarrassment he felt from not publishing the novel was outweighed by his desire to see it through. This new novel, so different from Invisible Man, drawing from many voices, many styles, must be of a whole. The computer, it seemed to Ellison, was just the tool he needed. That same year, another interviewer described Ellison at work. "When I arrived," he recalls, "Ellison was editing his novel in progress with a video terminal on a cluttered table in his den." Asked how the work was progressing, Ellison was circumspect: "Coming along fine, thank you." And, by all evidence, it was.
Ellison's shift from typewriter to computer helped stimulate what appears to be a significant flowering of inspiration and a profound change of direction in his fiction. Turning away from Books I and II, which he had honed throughout the 1970s, he returned instead to older typewritten episodic fragments, perhaps from as early as the mid-1950s. These mostly undated early drafts, now housed in the Library of Congress and filed by episode or character name, are about as removed as one can get from the Faulknerian interplay of Hickman and Sunraider at the Senator's bedside from Book II. They deal, instead, with the incidental—from Hickman's encounters on the streets of Washington, D.C., to Sunraider's youthful adventures as a roustabout and hustler. The change is not simply one of content but also one of tone and style; these early drafts are often bawdily humorous where the typescripts are elegiac—they push action outward rather than drawing it in. That Ellison would so emphatically turn away from the more polished typescripts and toward the rawer draft fragments is a significant, if surprising, decision. Over the next decade, it would follow a concomitant move away from Sunraider toward a nearly consuming preoccupation with Hickman, his actions and ruminations. For whatever reason, Ellison was returning to the beginning.
From the mid-1950s, when Ellison first conceived the plot, to the early-1980s, before he took to composing on the computer, it appears that Ellison practiced much the same compositional style as he did with Invisible Man. He would jot down notes for characters or scenes on scraps of paper, in bound notebooks, and even on the backs of envelopes. Then he might write longhand riffs that he would integrate into typed drafts. He would take pen or pencil to these typed pages, putting them through scrupulous revisions, often producing half a dozen—even a dozen—drafts until he was satisfied. These episodes would then be rendered in sequence with others until he assembled a continuous narrative, which he would then retype (or have Fanny retype) into a clean copy that he would subject to even more edits. His editor, Albert Erskine, recalls how the two of them read the entire manuscript of Invisible Man out loud, with Ellison making subtle—sometimes significant—changes to the text. It appears that he did the same on his own with the second novel, even recording his voice on tape and playing it back to catch small infelicities in the prose.
Until 1982 Ellison's compositional method for his second novel seems like only a grander version of the one he employed in the making of Invisible Man. Any difference is one of degree rather than of kind. But something fundamental changed when he began writing on the computer, affecting both his means of composition and the fiction that resulted from it. I believe this change helps explain why the novel's progress seems to have stalled at the very time when Ellison was by all accounts most eager to complete the novel and appeared to have the perfect tool to see it through.
Ellison's second novel did not remain unfinished in the last twelve years of his life for lack of effort. He wrote assiduously, and his rare statements, both public and private, about the book support the textual evidence that he wanted to finish the novel. He must have believed that acquiring a computer would give him just what he needed to accomplish this. Using a computer, he could manipulate his prose in ways unattainable through conventional means, moving entire passages and changing individual words throughout a text with a keystroke. Ellison had found a compositional tool that suited his episodic method of composition and supported his near-obsessive attention to detail.
To illustrate this point, consider Ellison's revisions of what was to be the opening paragraph: Hickman's arrival in Washington, D.C., the beginning of the prologue. Some version of this paragraph exists in the novel's earliest drafts from the 1950s to the first published excerpt from the book, "And Hickman Arrives," from 1960, to the prologue from the 1972 typescripts and to a computer file labeled "Arrival" and dated July 1, 1993. Here are three versions of the opening sentence, from 1960, 1972, and 1993:
Three days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. ["And Hickman Arrives," Noble Savage]
Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. [Book I and Juneteenth]
Two days before the bewildering incident a chartered plane-load of those who at that time were politely identified as Southern "Negroes" swooped down upon Washington's National Airport and disembarked in a confusion of paper bags, suitcases, and picnic baskets. ["Arrival," computer sequences]
The changes between "And Hickman Arrives" and the typescript are small—only the substitution of two days for three. But the computer file, the last time Ellison would revisit the sentence, is markedly different. It displays what will prove to be the hallmark of Ellison's computer revisions—expansion and extenuation. He amplifies the sentence with adjectives ("bewildering") and circumlocutions ("what at the time were politely identified as"). He even betrays a certain discomfort with "Negro," a label long in disrepute by the 1990s, but which he still used to define himself and his people. Expressing in thirty-nine words what before had taken just twenty-four, the sentence is embellished but not improved. This file is only the last in a series of ten drafts composed on the computer that variously revise the opening of the prologue. In the first sentence alone, Ellison goes from describing the group as "Southern 'Negroes'" to "'black'" to "Afro-American."
This spirit of substitution, extenuation, and adornment extends from the manuscript's syntax to the narrative structure itself. Whereas both previous drafts of the prologue push the action quickly to the crux of the plot, the Senator's shooting, the computer drafts get caught up in the incidental, following Hickman and his parishioners throughout the day and halting abruptly, still a day away from the shooting. What is remarkable is not that Ellison found the incidental to be of interest to him—after all, Invisible Man is structured almost entirely on interrelated incidents—but that he engaged in near-compulsive revision of the same core group of scenes. Although he certainly revised thoroughly when composing by hand and by typewriter, the extent of these revisions increased markedly with his work on the computer. Indeed, the vast majority of pages Ellison saved to computer are not new scenes but revisions of old ones, sometimes done a decade apart. The complete narrative action of the three computer sequences consists of forty-six files. This means that the remaining 423 files are made up almost entirely of variants of the same material found in the core files. Instead of writing horizontally, connecting the episodes into a cohesive narrative, he seems to have written vertically, stacking draft on draft of the same scene upon one another.
To say that Ellison wrote thousands of pages, therefore, is somewhat deceptive. Ellison always composed by episode, a habit that undoubtedly helped dictate the episodic form taken by Invisible Man, a novel one could easily imagine going on indefinitely were it not for the inclusion of a prologue and epilogue to bracket it in narrative time. It seems that Ellison envisioned following a similar structure with his second novel; indeed, he has composed a prologue that sets the scene of the action, establishing a time present. But he never seems to have composed, or even conceived in notes, an epilogue. As a result, it is possible to imagine the episodic sequence continuing indefinitely, to conceive of Ellison writing a novel without end.
Mentioning the scope of Ellison's composition brings to mind such massive tomes as Marcel Proust's seven-volume (three published posthumously) Remembrance of Things Past or James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Some have compared Ellison's unpublished manuscript to Robert Musil's 1,744-page posthumously published Man without Qualities. Three Days Before the Shooting ... however, belongs in a category all its own. The most remarkable fact of the second novel is that for all the decades of its composition, thousands of manuscript pages, countless notes, and numerous files saved on computer disk, the entire narrative action would likely take up little more than the space of Invisible Man. Books I and II together amount to approximately 650 manuscript pages, and although they do not include every scene Ellison ever conceived, they certainly represent a self-contained literary conception. In revising the novel into these two books, Ellison has made clear compositional decisions, rejecting the alternate visions proposed in variant drafts found in the archive.
That Ellison's second novel remains forever in progress, however, allows for a suspension of these laws of fiction. The same scene can exist in multiple iterations, each maintaining equal authority. In other words, there is really no such thing as a superannuated draft; nothing is ever obsolete because Ellison never made any final judgments, never made the tough decisions that turn a manuscript into a novel. The computer enabled this by creating a "fluid text," one that postponed indefinitely the fixity of a printed manuscript. This is not to suggest, however, that we can draw no critical distinctions among alternate files. Indeed, without imposing a certain critical discretion on Ellison's material it is all but impossible to glean anything of value from it. The material demands that we take on the role of active readers in the fullest sense, co-creators of Ellison's fiction in a way that few novels require or even allow. By shirking these responsibilities we miss the opportunity to experience moments of literary brilliance. We also miss gaining a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a novelist's mind.
Excerpted from Ralph Ellison in Progress by ADAM BRADLEY. Copyright © 2010 by Adam Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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