Sentences — June 4, 2008, 11:53 am

“Calling From Somewhere Above”

ellison
Upon pulling a paperback copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth off one of my shelves the other day, a friend expressed frustration with its cover. Not its design (a perfectly attractive blue book) but its content. A reader, my friend said, of Ellison’s earlier novel, Invisible Man, who happened in a bookstore upon Juneteenth, would learn that this “NATIONAL BESTSELLER” is by the “Author of INVISIBLE MAN” but not that this work of fiction is, itself, a fiction: that Ellison’s forty-year struggle to finish his second novel had not come to fruition and that Juneteenth was the title given to an unfinished book by a man not its author—a man whose name, tellingly, is kept from its cover.

Of course, inside this copy of Juneteenth, on the title page, Ellison’s literary executor is listed as the book’s editor. What’s more, said executor has not one but two essays in the volume, at beginning and end, that suggest the myriad choices he had to undertake to produce the book in our hands—not least of these the paring down of 2,000 manuscript pages to under 400; the comparison and reconciliation of various incomplete drafts thereof to that end; the breaking of portions of the book into chapters where Ellison gave none; and the naming of the book in keeping with what, as the executor writes, “I think Ellison might have called” the novel.

Naturally, literary history is full of such lucubratory conjecture, instances where stewards of an author’s posterity work late into the nights that follow an author’s extinguished days. The Trial and The Castle are not finished books, however we finish them, and which, in their contemporary editions, offer no warning stickers, either, that their contents are not thrice vetted and twice burnished by their author’s absent hand. Max Brod, as we have come to accept, made many choices of sequence and substance that have been questioned, fruitfully, in subsequent editions of Kafka’s works, just as his first English translators of note, the Muirs, religious people, made him into a writer of religiosity that he was not, sentences remanded by subsequent judges.

Corrections come, dependably, to all literary reputations that warrant them. This is not to say that violence cannot be done to a writer’s work, if briefly, if deeply, by the shortsightedness or dunderheadedness of his fleeting stewards. As such, to my mind, though reading Juneteenth gives rise in one to questions less about what Ellison would have done than what his posthumous editor did do, these are only part of the profitable exercise of literary curiosity that still is a part of the lives of readers today, despite the wanton jackassery that otherwise passes for so much of contemporary cultural conversation.

And yet, with my friend, I would like to think that no harm would come to the reputation of a writer, much less to the potential sales of a publisher, if a cover such as the one above could include, in the interest of both fact and fiction, a single supplemental line: Edited from the Unfinished Manuscript by John F. Callahan.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
[Letter from Bentonville]
Citizen Walmart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From the July 2012 issue

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Article
Dark Heights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.

Article
Consume, Screw, Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us.”
Collage (detail) by David McLimans

Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:

2:1

Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.

Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST