With the publication of his first and only complete novel in 1952, Ralph Ellison secured his place at the forefront of American literature and history. Invisible Man was an astounding achievement, not only for its literary merits, but also for its direct confrontation of what the critic Eric Sundquist identifies as “the contradiction of the nation’s racial history . . . that the destinies of white and black America were, and always had been, indissolubly bound to one another.” The novel won the National Book Award, remained on the best-seller list for sixteen weeks, and was translated into more than fifteen languages.
Of course, the primary question for Ellison’s fans in 1952 was where he would go next and how he would follow on the success of his extraordinary debut. In many ways, the rest of Ellison’s career was a great disappointment. He did not capitalize on his early success by embarking on a prolific literary career; in fact, the first work Ellison published after Invisible Man was a book of essays, not a new piece of fiction. Interviews indicated that he was at work on a new, epic novel — perhaps a trilogy — and though Ellison did publish excerpts of this larger project in The Noble Savage (run by his good friend Saul Bellow) and other magazines, no novel appeared before his death over forty years later, in 1994.
Almost fifteen years since, the hopes of fans and critics have finally been answered by Three Days Before the Shooting…, a comprehensive manuscript of Ellison’s second and unfinished novel, compiled and edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley. The novel, finally released, is, as Callahan and Bradley point out in their general introduction, both extraordinarily gratifying and at the same time deeply unsatisfying. Two months before his death, Ellison had assured fans that he was hard at work on his magnum opus and that something would appear very soon, yet Three Days Before the Shooting… is anything but a single manuscript nearing completion.
The volume offer its readers incredible insight into the process and craftsmanship of one of America’s greatest novelists of the last century, as well as a comprehensive look at the issues and themes that preoccupied Ellison in the forty-plus years before his death. Unfortunately, though, for the many who have anxiously anticipated Ellison’s second foray into the art of the novel, this collection of more than two thousand pages of drafts offered his literary executor little continuity or narrative structure, and no sign of a conclusion. Three Days Before the Shooting… is a series of incomplete episodes joined together thematically by three interwoven narrative arcs without, it seems, any sort of decision on what their order, details, or interconnections would be.
Callahan and Bradley write in their introduction, “as the facts of Ellison’s second novel come into focus, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine him completing the book even if he had enjoyed a run of good years beyond 1994.” Full of the same brilliant, powerful writing and insightful exploration of the themes that facilitated Ellison’s rise to literary fame, it seems that he was never able to re-master the simpler challenges of narrative transitions and conclusions after Invisible Man. This is the great challenge of the book: to constantly remind oneself that the novel is unfinished, and to accept that its absorbing scenes and characters never reach full development or conclusion. As a result, Three Days Before the Shooting… is equal parts exciting and deeply frustrating.
In perhaps the novel’s most famous passage, from Book II, the child-preacher Bliss is asked whether he understands the depth and significance of the messages he communicates to his congregation. His response—“Daddy Hickman says we can only see as through a glass darkly”—is a sign of Ellison’s genius in so many ways. In this line he ties the Biblical quotation (which recurs in the novel) to issues of Black identity, paternity, inheritance, vision, and progress — he is also, in many ways, articulating the challenges of producing an epic literary work like this one and, though unbeknownst to him, the experience of a reader as he or she wrestles with the material that has finally been published. The revelations of the novel are complex, and, as always with Ellison, provocative, but the reader is left with the overwhelming sense of incomplete vision. As much work as the editors have done to collect and edit these materials into a whole, there is no way to achieve a clear and unobstructed vision into Ellison’s mind nor his ultimate intentions for this novel, if even he knew them. Like Bliss, we are left to view his genius as “through a glass darkly.”
Ellison had originally conceived of Three Days Before the Shooting… as a trilogy, and the unfinished manuscript can certainly be read as three distinct but interrelated plots. In the first, a white journalist Welborn McIntyre follows the story of the assassination attempt against Senator Sunraider through his stay in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and his encounter there with Reverend Hickman. The second explores the relationship between the Senator and Reverend, from the senator’s birth and delivery by the hands of Reverend Hickman, his naming (Bliss), and his upbringing in a southern African American preaching community. This second story seems to be the centerpiece of Ellison’s project, one that deals with issues of identity, paternity, and race. In fact, the senator’s transition from the child preacher Bliss to the notoriously racist senator Sunraider can be seen as the central conflict or narrative arc of Ellison’s great project. The final component of this three-part endeavor follows Reverend Hickman and his life in Georgia and Oklahoma, including the motivation for his trip to Washington to warn Senator Sunraider.
Three Days Before the Shooting… will be of great interest to writers and critics alike for the ways in which it reveals Ellison’s literary process and the development of these three narratives as they interweave. According to early correspondence, the last of these stories—Hickman in Georgia and Oklahoma—was the earliest seed of the novel. The exploration of African American life in Ellison’s home state of Oklahoma was initially planned as the book’s centerpiece, but this section comprises just over 300 pages of this 1,100 page tome. Instead, the Sunraider-Hickman relationship is brought to the fore and revealed, directly and indirectly, through reminiscences of Sunraider / Bliss’ youth and ministry, their reunion in the hospital following the assassination attempt, and the external perspective on their unknown relationship by the journalist Welborn McIntyre.
Woven into these three central narratives are a number of seemingly peripheral moments. Ellison’s tactic in the novel seems to have been to use each story as a springboard from which to explore other, tangential ideas, scenes, and episodes. Thus, for example, Book I, which explores the event of the assassination attempt in Congress, also delves deeply into McIntyre’s past: his time in the war, earlier journalist pursuits, and his affair with a young African American woman in Harlem. It seems there may have ultimately been threads connecting each of the otherwise marginal stories—it is through one of these early tangential narratives that the reader is first introduced to Severen, a mysterious character from McIntyre’s time in Europe during the war, who reappears later when he is revealed as the Senator’s now-deceased assassin (he throws himself from the balcony after firing several shots) as well as his estranged son. One can imagine the intricate and epic nature of the novel that clearly existed in the author’s mind—it is almost Tolstoy-esque in its scope, but never manageable for Ellison.
It is clear, moving through the many drafts and revisions, that the episodes do connect in an epic web, but the connecting pieces rarely appear in this manuscript. Thus, although one can trace some central narratives, it is impossible to nail down Ellison’s vision for Three Days Before the Shooting… Even essential and rather basic details change over the forty years of Ellison’s drafts: are there forty four or fifty parishioners who fly from Georgia to Washington, D.C. to see the senator? Does this occur three or only two days before the assassination attempt? What remains throughout are the major themes; little else, though, is consistent through the variations on sections and scenes that appear and re-appear in this volume.
In many ways, from a thematic standpoint, Three Days Before the Shooting… is perhaps most notable for the ways in which it expands the project begun in Invisible Man, dramatizing the challenges of identity formation and the critiques of the American institution of racism, and emphasizing the centrality of the African-American narrative to the American story.
Three Days Before the Shooting… was also composed entirely in episodes, and in this way it is revealing of Ellison’s presumed methodology in Invisible Man as well. Ellison’s first novel—though it offers a complete and coherent narrative arc—is perhaps best remembered for its key scenes and moments: the Battle Royale; the encounter with Mr. Norton and Jim Trueblood; the white paint factory; Ras the Exhorter; the race riot. Three Days Before the Shooting… is similarly built on a series of key moments. Of course, the lack of connective sequences gives Three Days Before the Shooting… an almost impenetrable quality. The saving grace of the novel in this respect is its almost uncanny self-consciousness, the ways in which it responds to its own fragmentary narrative. Though it is at times frustrating, the unfinished volume is also exciting for its complete focus on these essential scenes that often show Ellison at his imaginative best. The reader can excuse the general lack of continuity for the startling insights and connections that Ellison manages to weave into only a few short pages of narrative interaction.
One such scene, which appears nowhere else in the edition, was presumably drafted later in Ellison’s life, when he returned to earlier narrative threads to work and rework the novel’s most seminal moments. In this sequence, Reverend Hickman leaves his Washington hotel alone in search of additional ways to contact and warn Senator Sunraider. He walks through a familiar neighborhood from his own days in Washington in search of an associate and one of the many individuals who has kept watch over Bliss since his departure from the congregation so many years earlier. The scene, though short and seemingly disjointed from other events in the novel, is nonetheless emblematic of Ellison’s style and obsessions in Three Days Before the Shooting…:
And with a sigh he moved to a double-doored shop with the words: JANUS BARNES HAIR SALON displayed on its window and saw underneath a painting, the surprising subject of which was a double-headed black man whose faces were staring in opposite directions. And noting that the hair on one of the heads was straight and gleaming and that of the other bushy and dull, he smiled. So what about someone like me, he thought, whose hair is now old and gray but still just as kinky?
The barbershop is one with which Hickman is familiar from his earlier years in the neighborhood, though he notes that the sign, with its Black version of the Roman god of beginnings and ending Janus, is new. The image, though it appears only this once in what we have of his drafts, is central to the questions of identity that plague Ellison’s novel and the journeys of its dual protagonists—Reverend Hickman and Bliss / Senator Sunraider. The two men might be thought to embody the two faces of Janus, but Hickman notes also that he (at least physically) falls in the space between the two heads; he is neither straight and gleaming nor bushy and dull. The significance of the sign is heightened by its position at the entrance of the barbershop—a space not only for physical transformation, but also, as Hickman notes, “a forum in which he had shared the experiences of its customers and taken part in discussions of politics, sports, and automobiles, and exchanged tall tales, jokes, and improbable lies.” This is a major theme of Invisible Man as well—a rejection of binary conceptions—and it is particularly provocative in this space of African American intellectual, social, and cultural activity.
Passing the shop, Hickman is stopped and assaulted by a stocky Black man named Leroy who runs out of the barbershop, his haircut half finished, to speak with Hickman. Leroy enthusiastically hoists Hickman off the ground (a remarkable feat based on the descriptions of Hickman’s imposing size), having mistaken him for a man he calls Chief Joe. Leroy recounts a dream in which Chief Joe appears with significant lessons that seem, on the surface, to align with Hickman’s own ministry: dark men shall see through dark days; there’s a brightness in blackness and a whiteness in darkness. Hickman, though he cannot remember Leroy from his days in Washington, is willing to believe he is the man in question—until Leroy brings up Chief Joe’s rape conviction years earlier:
But last month when I read in black and white how you told the court that you didn’t rape those pale-face bitches for the sake of some uneducated pussy… And you did it out of revenge for all the wrongs those folks—and especially their damn women—had been doing to our people! … And when that happened I understood for the first time that what you had really done was to change what the white folks call rape into something that they hadn’t even thought about!
The horror in this passage is obvious. Ellison elsewhere posits the status of the “white woman” as the most pristine and virtuous symbol of white culture (and, by extension, the nation); and, in another context, the author discusses the long and twisted history of the fear of interracial relationships, particularly between white women and black men. It is a long and prominent racial stereotype, charged with symbolic meaning.
But the crime also represents a much larger, gruesome, and provocative idea for Ellison: the idea that the very existence of the Black man is classified as an assault on the institutions of America; that being black is somehow inherently anti-American. Thus, the violence is revised into a subversive act against the exploitation of African American racial identity by radicals who see the act of rape as emblematic of the institutionalized relationship between white and black in the United States. Leroy says, “You [thump!] turned [thump!] their little chicken-shit game [thump-thump-thump!] into a form of Black [thump!]Political [thump-thump—thump] ACTION!”
This is classic Ellison. The passage could have come from Invisible Man, but it is just as central to Ellison’s project here in Three Days Before the Shooting… The whole scene plays on the complexities of identity and particularly the identity of the Black man—at once an activist, preacher, rapist, and radical. Throughout the book, the lines between identities blur (Reverend Bliss / Senator Adam Sunraider as the foremost example), and the challenges of monolithic identifiers are connected to the very nature of the American experience.
Callahan and Bradley write in their introduction, “Ellison was writing a novel concerning betrayal and redemption, love and loss, black and white, fathers and sons. It is a novel that takes as its theme the very nature of America’s democratic process to make the nation’s practice live up to its principles in the lives of its citizens, regardless of race, place, and citizenship.” For Hickman, ever the law-abiding preacher, eager to work within the confines of the American democratic system, the crime of which Leroy accuses him is deeply insulting—but even Hickman recognizes the centrality of this slightly mad figure to the complexities of racial America:
And as he blinked the taut face stared back with the immutability of an African mask which bore grotesque scarification of mysterious design, and the white, red-ringed splotches of which appeared to dance above the blue-blackness of its surrounding flesh as though to challenge any quick assumptions as to its racial identity. Good Lord,Hickman, he thought, you’ve been grabbed by a red-white-and-blue black man and recoiled with a shudder.
The inadequacies of traditional notions of rationality, linearity, and sanity are common themes for Ellison, and their shadow role in the continuation of racial subjugation is at the heart of this project. Like many such literary characters, Leroy exhibits a certain insanity, but his role in the novel (though brief and unrelated to the other sequences of this section) is to illuminate certain truths—he is the court jester. Hickman’s recognition of Leroy as a “red-white-and-blue black man,” the simultaneous pride and shame of America, lends a legitimacy and weight to Leroy’s ranting. They remain with the reader, unsettling, even after the story has been discounted and Ellison’s narrative has moved beyond this brief moment.
It is an incredible example of Ellison’s genius, at work as much in Three Days Before the Shooting… as it was in Invisible Man. In one short, tightly-packed episode, he ties together all the themes Callahan and Bradley mention—identity, paternity, race, betrayal, and the American condition. The isolated experience is one that haunts Hickman as he returns to the hotel and continues the search for word of Sunraider, a searing analysis of the ways in which violence, race, and subjugation are inextricably bound up in what it means to be American.
Before his migration north and before he embarked on a literary career, Ellison trained as a musician at the Tuskegee Institute. He imbued Invisible Man with a synthesis of literature and musical form, drawing elements of composition from the mass-media of his day. In Three Days Before the Shooting… Ellison seems to attempt a new multimedia approach to the linear, rational structure of the Enlightenment. Reverend Bliss / Sunraider transitions from jazz-inspired preacher to amateur filmmaker and ultimately to senatorial debater, and the novel’s exploration of the arts of film and music reveal something of Ellison’s artistic experimentation:
Oh… they’re just chasing shadows, shooting scenes for a background. Later on when we start working we’ll use them, splice them in. Pictures aren’t made in a straight line. We take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and then it’s all looked at and selected and made into a whole.
Perhaps the novel as it appears here is not so unfinished after all—we can only speculate, but this quote certainly encourages the idea that the episodic, fragmentary structure is, in part, intentional. Callahan and Bradley’s analysis of this collection reminds readers that, though a masterpiece of American fiction, Invisible Man was also a first novel.Three Days Before the Shooting… demonstrates Ellison’s development and his experimentation with modernist and postmodernist techniques such as collage and stream of consciousness. We are inundated with the fact of this book’s unfinishedness, but had Ellison published this as it appears here, what would the reaction have been? One can only guess. The volume is erratic, it is frustratingly inconsistent and, to a degree, impossible to puzzle out; but seen as an experiment in form and narrative, the finished version may even have surpassed Ellison’s debut.
Book II, parts of which have been previously published as Juneteenth, is at the heart of this stylistic transition. It has a call-and-response structure and a repeated juxtaposition of setting, time, and perspective. These techniques carry Ellison through a wide range of plot material: Sunraider’s bedroom in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; the Texas Juneteenth celebration in which Hickman and Wilhite orchestrate a reenactment of the resurrection with Reverend Bliss at its center; and the intervening years of the senator’s life, during which time he worked on films (“mammy-made movies”) and explored the American west. Before the scene of his Juneteenth resurrection, Sunraider recalls his terror at lying alone in a coffin as a young child:
Until each time, just at the moment the black shapes seemed to close in upon me, smothering me, Deacon Wilhite would calmly raise the lid and I’d rise up slowly, slowly, creating a scene. Frightened, I arose, slowly, stiffly, as melodramatic as della Francesca’s bombastic ham actor flaunting his shroud. With my white Bible between my palms, carefully lest the pink lining disturb my parted hair. Trembling now, with the true hysteria of my voice giving cry: LORD, LORD, WHY…
Mankind? What? Correct. Lights in. Camera
Donelson, the makeup is too pasty. The dark skin shines through like green ghosts.
Passages like these show Ellison at the height of his literary prowess. The narrative moves seamlessly from past to present, between both Hickman and Sunraider in these scenes, and the effect is a blending of high modernism with African American folk traditions. Just as echoes of Hickman’s jazz career can be heard in his preaching style, the nature of filmmaking reverberates through this passage as Bliss’ fear and anticipation immediately before his resurrection on Juneteenth fades into the film crew. The effect emphasizes the performativity of both worlds—cinema and religion—as well as the racial constructions attached to each.
The moments presented in Book II, though no less episodic than the rest of the novel, are connected in meaningful ways that may demonstrate where Ellison’s novel might have arrived had he managed to complete it. Running through the entirety of the section is the sermon given by Hickman and Bliss at the Juneteenth celebration, and the constant juxtapositions of the narrative itself mirror the call-and-response of their joint preaching style:
How now, Daddy Hickman? You speak in parables which we of the younger generation clearly don’t understand. How do you mean they scattered us?
Like seed, Rev. Bliss: They scattered us just like a dope-fiend farmer planting a field with dragon teeth!
Tell us about it, Daddy Hickman.
They cut out our tongues…
…They left us speechless…
…They cut out our tongues…
…Lord, they left us without words…
…Amen! They scattered our tongues in this land like seed…
…And left us without language…
…They took away our talking drums…
…Drums that talked, Daddy Hickman? Tell us about those talking drums…
Here, as elsewhere in Book II, the situation gives structure and added meaning to the language. It is call-and-response in one of the form’s original contexts, masterfully crafted into a living voice on the page. Whereas in other parts of the manuscript, certain segments or asides, though interesting, are abandoned without eventually connecting to the rest of the novel, Book II’s stylistic innovations lend a thematic structure to the many times, places, and characters Ellison is interested in exploring.
Book II ends with Reverend Hickman and Deacon Wilhite’s visit to Jessie Rockmore’s mansion. They are searching for their old friend and brother of a parishioner, Aubrey McMillen. This scene, originally intended as the link between the Hickman and McIntyre narratives, appears at least three times over the course of the manuscript: here in Book II, earlier in Book I as McIntyre recounts several strange occurrences over the course of the week before the assassination attempt, and finally in a late draft titled “McIntyre at Jessie Rockmore’s.” The episode is notable not only because it links the two narratives, but also because it appears to have been the last episode Ellison saved on his computer before his death. As Callahan and Bradley note, it is significant that, at a time when Ellison seemed to have retreated so deeply into the character of Hickman (all the other pieces from this time concern Hickman in Washington, Georgia, and Oklahoma) he ended with this scene, in which McIntyre is the narrator. Notes from Ellison indicate that it was his intention to introduce Hickman and Wilhite into this final revision of “McIntyre at Jessie Rockmore’s,” but the manuscripts never connect these two characters, although the scene is related separately from both perspectives.
This episode is significant for another reason as well, as Jessie Rockmore will not be unfamiliar to readers of Ellison. In both versions of the McIntyre narrative, the Rockmore homestead and its vast collection of memorabilia is discussed at length; entering the Rockmore house upon news of a murder, McIntyre is at first blinded by the extraordinary light, particularly upon entering from the darkness of the street. Once his eyes have adjusted, he is taken aback by the sheer quantity of stuff housed in the space — photographs, furniture, artifacts, documents. Later we learn that a number of Washington museums have contacted Rockmore about the possible purchase of his extraordinary collection for their own archives and exhibits. Within his home is held a comprehensive museum of American life.
McIntyre is deeply disturbed by what he witnesses, and Ellison’s notes indicate that the episode is meant to convey “trivial chaos… building to some kind of disaster.” The chaos of the scene is certainly felt by McIntyre, who attributes his discomfort to the presence of this underground museum so close to the center of so many official, national institutions:
Perhaps, I thought, it’s simply the fact of finding such a place so close to the Capitol, so near the center of our national sense of order. There are slums nearby, of course, but slums are different. They emerged from history and are unhappy marks on the road of progress. What’s more, we were doing something about the slums. But this place — my God, the fact that it exists means that something has been going on that has completely escaped me and everyone else. . .
What has been going on has not, of course, escaped the novel’s other African American characters — though Hickman, Wilhite, and McMillen are caught in the confusion and chaos of the evening’s events as well, their responses differ significantly from that of McIntyre and the white police officers who have been sent to investigate. Ellison’s exploration of the scene from McIntyre’s perspective adds another layer to his critique of American conceptions of rationality, nationalism, and progress.
At the time of his death, on his ninety-fifth birthday, Jessie Rockmore has lived a life in service to the ideals of his nation. He fought in the Spanish-America War and worked hard in the public and private sectors, always adhering to a strict belief in the power of the American Dream and denying himself certain pleasures in the name of his own fiscal and social progress in American society. On the day of his death, he realizes that the coffin he invested in many years earlier has rotted before he has and the life insurance policies and currency he has accumulated are now obsolete. The realization transforms his perspective and jumpstarts the disaster Ellison foreshadows in his notes. As Rockmore relates to his manservant Aubrey McMillen, “…my way of thinking has changed. I was ninety-five years old at about three forty-five this morning, and I want you to know that after all these years I no longer believe in prayer or have any hope for the fulfillment of this nation’s promises.”
The occasion of his birthday and this new life philosophy inspires Rockmore to send McMillen out in pursuit of alcohol and a woman (pleasures from which he has hitherto abstained). What ensues is a scene of revelry in which everyone drinks and Cordelia Duval, the white prostitute McMillen hires, fashions herself a garment of outdated, invalid American currency. When a stranger (presumably Senator Sunraider) enters unexpectedly, Jessie Rockmore dies sitting upright in his coffin, the vantage from which he had celebrated his birthday.
While McIntyre’s perspective on this admittedly chaotic scene is that of a journalist reporting on the facts of Jessie Rockmore’s death (and accusations that Aubrey McMillen is behind it), the version of this scene from Book II focuses on their interactions with the lodgers who rent space from Rockmore and have been awoken by the events of the evening. Among these is Maud, who tells the reverend and deacon about a recent dream in which she gave birth to three children who are taken away from her, much to her despair. Hickman is overwhelmed by this story, mostly because he recognizes the ways in which it exposes his race and “make[s] everybody recall their own dreams and frustrations and guilt.” Hickman’s response to Maud:
I’m not sure I understand what you’ve been telling us, but I feel in my heart that you’re not wrong. You’ve had an experience that most folks will never understand, one that many wouldn’t want to understand — but it’s not wrong, it’s only confusing. So I take my hat off to you and I pray that you’ll be blessed with peace and understanding. Because… because I believe that in all your confusion and pain you have seen the promise and the responsibility unafraid and it seems to me that you’re reminding us of some things that we can’t afford to forget…
Maud’s dream children—stolen from her by members of her own race—are not unlike Rockmore’s ancient dollar bills, earned through a blind belief in American institutions and the principles of progress and democracy, but ultimately ineffectual in making him an accepted and respected member of American society.
This provocative dream is evocative for Hickman, because of the loss of his own child—not his progeny by blood, but still thoroughly his child; removed by the same institutions that robbed Rockmore of the wealth he spent a life trying to accumulate. The central conflict of the book is this vague familial connection between Hickman and Bliss / Sunraider, and the loss of that connection upon Sunraider’s departure from the community in which he was raised. Though it is never revealed why precisely Bliss chose to leave his first family, there is no question that it has facilitated his rise to fame and prestige, and his accomplishment of many of the goals Rockmore once set out for himself.
Elsewhere in the book, Hickman muses, “Asking me why I was crying—well, if we can’t cry for Bliss, then who? If we can’t cry for the Nation, then who? Because who else draws their grief and consternation from a longer knowledge or from a deeper and more desperate hope? And who’ve paid more in trying to achieve their better promise?” Ellison’s literary project—over two books and four decades—is demonstrating that the racial realities of the United States are built into the very structures and institutions that underlie our fundamental belief systems and our ways of being in the world.
Through no fault of the editors, Three Days Before the Shooting… will not appeal to all readers. Some will be put off by its lack of continuity and conclusion, or, in parts, its repetitiveness as Ellison works and reworks the novel’s seminal scenes. Others, quite understandably, will be intimidated by its sheer length. For those who seek to “draw their grief” from “a deeper and more desperate hope,” this book offers a prolonged reflection on that grief, and the hope that underlies it. Of course, for the Ellison scholar and aficionado, this edition is a tremendous contribution — an insight into the process of creating an epic novel; an opportunity to experience the work that consumed forty years; and a compelling final analysis of the issues of race, identity, and American democracy, by the greatest American writer of the twentieth century.
Katherine Evans Pritchard is a contributing editor and PhD candidate in American Studies at Boston University.