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Three Days Before the Shooting . . .

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Written by Ralph EllisonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ralph Ellison
Edited by John CallahanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Callahan and Adam BradleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Adam Bradley

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On Sale: January 26, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-089-2
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

At his death in 1994, Ralph Ellison left behind several thousand pages of his unfinished second novel, which he had spent nearly four decades writing. Five years later, Random House published Juneteenth, drawn from the central narrative of Ellison’s epic work in progress. Three Days Before the Shooting . . . gathers in one volume all the parts of that planned opus, including three major sequences never before published. Set in the frame of a deathbed vigil, the story is a gripping multigenerational saga centered on the assassination of a controversial, race-baiting U.S. senator who’s being tended to by an elderly black jazz musician turned preacher. Presented in their unexpurgated, provisional state, the narrative sequences brim with humor and tension, composed in Ellison’s magical jazz-inspired prose style. Beyond its compelling narratives, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . is perhaps most notable for its extraordinary insight into the creative process of one of this country’s greatest writers, and an essential, fascinating piece of Ralph Ellison’s legacy.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. They were all quite elderly: old ladies dressed in little white caps and white uniforms made of surplus nylon parachute material, and men dressed in neat but old-fashioned black suits, wearing wide-brimmed, deep-crowned panama hats which, in the Senator's walnut-paneled reception room now, they held with a grave ceremonial air. Solemn, uncommunicative and quietly insistent, they were led by a huge, distinguished-looking old fellow who on the day of the chaotic event was to prove himself, his age notwithstanding, an extraordinarily powerful man. Tall and broad and of an easy dignity, this was the Reverend A. Z. Hickman--better known, as one of the old ladies proudly informed the Senator's secretary, as "God's Trombone."
This, however, was about all they were willing to explain. Forty-four in number, the women with their fans and satchels and picnic baskets, and the men carrying new blue airline take-on bags, they listened intently while Reverend Hickman did their talking.
"Ma'am," Hickman said, his voice deep and resonant as he nodded toward the door of the Senator's private office, "you just tell the Senator that Hickman has arrived. When he hears who's out here he'll know that it's important and want to see us."
"But I've told you that the Senator isn't available," the secretary said. "Just what is your business? Who are you, anyway? Are you his constituents?"
"Constituents?" Suddenly the old man smiled. "No, miss," he said, "the Senator doesn't even have anybody like us in his state. We're from down where we're among the counted but not among the heard."
"Then why are you coming here?" she said. "What is your business?"
"He'll tell you, ma'am," Hickman said. "He'll know who we are; all you have to do is tell him that we have arrived. . . ."
The secretary, a young Mississippian, sighed. Obviously these were Southern Negroes of a type she had known all her life--and old ones; yet instead of being already in herdlike movement toward the door they were calmly waiting, as though she hadn't said a word. And now she had a suspicion that, for all their staring eyes, she actually didn't exist for them. They just stood there, now looking oddly like a delegation of Asians who had lost their interpreter along the way, and were trying to tell her something which she had no interest in hearing, through this old man who himself did not know the language. Suddenly they no longer seemed familiar, and a feeling of dreamlike incongruity came over her. They were so many that she could no longer see the large abstract paintings hung along the paneled wall, nor the framed facsimiles of State Documents which hung above a bust of Vice-President Calhoun. Some of the old women were calmly plying their palm-leaf fans, as though in serene defiance of the droning air conditioner. Yet she could see no trace of impertinence in their eyes, nor any of the anger which the Senator usually aroused in members of their group. Instead, they seemed resigned, like people embarked upon a difficult journey who were already far beyond the point of no return. Her uneasiness grew; then she blotted out the others by focusing her eyes narrowly upon their leader. And when she spoke again her voice took on a nervous edge.

"I've told you that the Senator isn't here," she said, "and you must realize that he is a busy man who can only see people by appointment. . . ."
"We know, ma'am," Hickman said, "but . . ."
"You don't just walk in here and expect to see him on a minute's notice."
"We understand that, ma'am," Hickman said, looking mildly into her eyes, his close-cut white head tilted to one side, "but this is something that developed of a sudden. Couldn't you reach him by long distance? We'd pay the charges. And I don't even have to talk, miss; you can do the talking. All you have to say is that we have arrived."
"I'm afraid this is impossible," she said.
The very evenness of the old man's voice made her feel uncomfortably young, and now, deciding that she had exhausted all the tried-and-true techniques her region had worked out (short of violence) for getting quickly rid of Negroes, the secretary lost her patience and telephoned for a guard.
They left as quietly as they had appeared, the old minister waiting behind until the last had stepped into the hall, then he turned, and she saw his full height, framed by the doorway, as the others arranged themselves beyond him in the hall. "You're really making a mistake, miss," he said. "The Senator knows us and--"
"Knows you," she said indignantly. "I've heard Senator Sunraider state that the only colored he knows is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club."
"Oh?" Hickman shook his head as the others exchanged knowing glances. "Very well, ma'am. We're sorry to have caused you this trouble. It's just that it's very important that the Senator know we're on the scene. So I hope you won't forget to tell him that we have arrived, because soon it might be too late."
There was no threat in it; indeed, his voice echoed the odd sadness which she thought she detected in the faces of the others just before the door blotted them from view.
In the hall they exchanged no words, moving silently behind the guard who accompanied them down to the lobby. They were about to move into the street when the security-minded chief guard observed their number, stepped up, and ordered them searched.

They submitted patiently, amused that anyone should consider them capable of harm, and for the first time an emotion broke the immobility of their faces. They chuckled and winked and smiled, fully aware of the comic aspect of the situation. Here they were, quiet, old, and obviously religious black folk who, because they had attempted to see the man who was considered the most vehement enemy of their people in either house of Congress, were being energetically searched by uniformed security police, and they knew what the absurd outcome would be. They were found to be armed with nothing more dangerous than pieces of fried chicken and ham sandwiches, chocolate cake and sweet-potato fried pies. Some obeyed the guards' commands with exaggerated sprightliness, the old ladies giving their skirts a whirl as they turned in their flat-heeled shoes. When ordered to remove his wide-brimmed hat, one old man held it for the guard to look inside; then, flipping out the sweatband, he gave the crown a tap, causing something to fall to the floor, then waited with a callused palm extended as the guard bent to retrieve it. Straightening and unfolding the object, the guard saw a worn but neatly creased fifty-dollar bill, which he dropped upon the outstretched palm as though it were hot. They watched silently as he looked at the old man and gave a dry, harsh laugh; then as he continued laughing the humor slowly receded behind their eyes. Not until they were allowed to file into the street did they give further voice to their amusement.

"These here folks don't understand nothing," one of the old ladies said. "If we had been the kind to depend on the sword instead of on the Lord, we'd been in our graves long ago--ain't that right, Sis' Arter?"
"You said it," Sister Arter said. "In the grave and done long finished mold'ing!"
"Let them worry, our conscience is clear on that. . . ."
"Amen!"
On the sidewalk now, they stood around Reverend Hickman, holding a hushed conference; then in a few minutes they disappeared in a string of taxis and the incident was thought closed.
Shortly afterwards, however, they appeared mysteriously at a hotel where the Senator leased a private suite, and tried to see him. How they knew of this secret suite they would not explain.

Next they appeared at the editorial offices of the newspaper which was most critical of the Senator's methods, but here too they were turned away. They were taken for a protest group, just one more lot of disgruntled Negroes crying for justice as though theirs were the only grievances in the world. Indeed, they received less of a hearing here than elsewhere. They weren't even questioned as to why they wished to see the Senator--which was poor newspaper work, to say the least; a failure of technical alertness, and, as events were soon to prove, a gross violation of press responsibility.
So once more they moved away.

Although the Senator returned to Washington the following day, his secretary failed to report his strange visitors. There were important interviews scheduled and she had understandably classified the old people as just another annoyance. Once the reception room was cleared of their disquieting presence they seemed no more significant than the heavy mail received from white liberals and Negroes, liberal and reactionary alike, whenever the Senator made one of his taunting remarks. She forgot them. Then at about eleven a.m. Reverend Hickman reappeared without the others and started into the building. This time, however, he was not to reach the secretary. One of the guards, the same who had picked up the fifty-dollar bill, recognized him and pushed him bodily from the building.

Indeed, the old man was handled quite roughly, his sheer weight and bulk and the slow rhythm of his normal movements infuriating the guard to that quick, heated fury which springs up in one when dealing with the unexpected recalcitrance of some inanimate object--the huge stone that resists the bulldozer's power, or the chest of drawers that refuses to budge from its spot on the floor. Nor did the old man's composure help matters. Nor did his passive resistance hide his distaste at having strange hands placed upon his person. As he was being pushed about, old Hickman looked at the guard with a kind of tolerance, an understanding which seemed to remove his personal emotions to some far, cool place where the guard's strength could never reach them. He even managed to pick up his hat from the sidewalk where it had been thrown after him with no great show of breath or hurry, and arose to regard the guard with a serene dignity.

"Son," he said, flicking a spot of dirt from the soft old panama with a white handkerchief, "I'm sorry that this had to happen to you. Here you've worked up a sweat on this hot morning and not a thing has been changed--except that you've interfered with something that doesn't concern you. After all, you're only a guard, you're not a mind-reader. Because if you were, you'd be trying to get me in there as fast as you could instead of trying to keep me out. You're probably not even a good guard, and I wonder what on earth you'd do if I came here prepared to make some trouble."

Fortunately, there were too many spectators present for the guard to risk giving the old fellow a demonstration. He was compelled to stand silent, his thumbs hooked over his cartridge belt, while old Hickman strolled--or more accurately, floated--up the walk and disappeared around the corner.

Except for two attempts by telephone, once to the Senator's office and later to his home, the group made no further effort until that afternoon, when Hickman sent a telegram asking Senator Sunraider to phone him at a T Street hotel. A message which, thanks again to the secretary, the Senator did not see. Following this attempt there was silence.
During the late afternoon the group of closed-mouthed old folk were seen praying quietly within the Lincoln Memorial. An amateur photographer, a high-school boy from the Bronx, was there at the time and it was his chance photograph of the group, standing facing the great sculpture with bowed heads beneath old Hickman's outspread arms, that was flashed over the wires following the shooting. Asked why he had photographed that particular group, the boy replied that he had seen them as a "good composition. . . . I thought their faces would make a good scale of grays between the whiteness of the marble and the blackness of the shadows." And for the rest of the day the group appears to have faded into those same peaceful shadows, to remain there until the next morning--when they materialized shortly before chaos erupted.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ralph Ellison|John Callahan|Adam Bradley|Author Q&A

About Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison - Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
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. 
 

About John Callahan

John Callahan - Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
John F. Callahan is Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His writings include a novel, A Man You Could Love. He is the editor of the Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and is the literary executor of Ralph Ellison’s estate.

About Adam Bradley

Adam Bradley - Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
Adam Bradley is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of the forthcoming Ralph Ellison–in–Progress, a critical study of Ellison’s unfinished second novel.

Author Q&A

An interview with the editors of Three Days Before the Shooting...

1)   In your opinion what are some of the reasons INVISIBLE MAN became so popular when it was released – and has remained such an essential part of the American literary canon?

 
It was an eloquent, beautifully crafted novel in the guise of a memoir by a narrator who had lived the tale he strove to write.  Invisible Man made its readers think about self and race as historical and contemporary conditions experienced by everyone. Invisibility, in Invisible Man’s and Ralph Ellison's hands, became a metaphor for the human condition in the 20th century.  In its simultaneously picaresque and contemplative form, the novel rendered identity ("the beautiful absurdity of [our] American identity”) as the touchstone for the country's tragicomic experience.  Invisible Man is also full of set pieces, which bring the African American oral tradition (spirituals, blues, sermons, folktales, toasts, dozens, jazz riffs) alive on the page.
 
Most of all, on "the lower frequencies" below readers’ specific differences, the novel moves the circle of call-and-response from the "I" of the opening sentence ("I am an invisible man") to the "you" of the last ("Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?").  In the space beyond the novel's lines the potentiality of "we" appears, so that the novel's words are an electric current passing from reader to reader.  And in our time the shared condition posited by the novel’s last words is as frightening as it is reassuring.  Anyone who thought that invisibility would become a defunct metaphor with the election of an African American president is brought up short by the baggage bitterly projected upon President Obama.  
 
 
2)  Tell us, in your opinion, why Ellison started his second novel around 1953 and did not finish it by the time he passed in 1994.
 
Well, Ralph was itching to get going on a second novel even as he did the final editing on Invisible Man.  First, in1952 and '53 he spoke of going to Oklahoma, and the first bit of the 2nd novel he shared with anyone is a riotous piece set in Oklahoma, which he sent his friend Al Murray in 1955 before he went to the American Academy in Rome where he was to conceive the  plot  of Reverend Hickman and Bliss, the little boy of indefinite race, whom Hickman will tutor in the arts of preaching then lose when the adolescent Bliss rejects his social and cultural identity as a black person and pursues the American bitch goddess of success.
 
Was the material too intractable?  Was Ralph simply unable to make up his mind which sections of his novel-in-progress to cut from the 2nd novel?  Did his fits and starts over four decades blunt the spear of creation and inspiration?  Did he move almost imperceptibly toward essays as the literary genre most suited to his evolving preoccupations?
 
Maybe the best way to answer your question is to quote Fats Waller's line: "One never know, do one?"  Best to read this Modern Library volume and take your own stab at an answer.
 
 
3) Tell us about how long it took to compile and edit THREE DAYS BEFORE THE SHOOTING… and how you each came to the project.
 
Mrs. Ellison took me into Ralph's study two days after his funeral and asked for my help gathering up and deciding what to do about the novel he left behind.  She did not know how close or far away it was from completion.  Ralph's old friend, David Sarser, printed every file on Ralph's computer.  I copied them, had one shipped to Oregon in the summer of 1994, and asked a bright, uncommonly dedicated and diligent undergraduate student of mine named Adam Bradley to assist me in collating the files.  That was the beginning.  Off and on, sometimes working together, sometimes separately, Adam and I went through the most recent material, several thousand pages of computer print outs composed in the last decade or so of Ralph's life.
 
During 1995-96 as a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center I looked for what I hoped would be transitional pages in the Ellison apartment and in his papers, which were given to the Library of Congress in 1995, and combed through Ralph's copious notes for clues to the book's organization.  Finally convinced no such transitions existed, I edited what I considered the work's central narrative, the fullest, most recently revised typescript of Book II, for the most part, and published this section of the novel as Juneteenth in 1999, to be followed, I hoped, by something like the present Modern Library edition.
 
In the mean time, Adam, now a graduate student at Harvard, kept on going through the episodes and sections Ellison had composed and revised on his two computers.  A PhD dissertation intervened for Adam, then his Book of Rhymes, and a long-aspired to novel for me.  But we kept in close touch, kept working on Ellison, and began plotting out the shape of this volume, working more and more intensely and single-mindedly from 2007 to the present.
 
 
4)   What types of archival material were you working with?  How did you figure out the timeline of Ellison’s writing?  In the archival material, there are queries Ellison made to himself in his notes.  Can you tell us about those questions and how they did (or did not) help the compiling and editing process?
 
Holographs, typescripts, computer discs, computer print outs, the backs of envelopes, magazine subscription cards, any of the thousand variegated scraps of paper on which Ellison feverishly scribbled a line of text or a note to himself.  The time line of the work we tracked by what he published from the novel during his lifetime, occasional notes jotted down by Mrs. Ellison, Ellison's comments in interviews from time to time, the entry dates on his computers.  Despite all of this, much of the time line remains imprecise, indefinite, open to conjecture.  Ellison's queries reveal the matters of form, craft, and plot he was struggling with.  As the selection of notes in Part Three of Three Days Before the Shooting attests, Ellison was obsessed with matters of unity: how to make action express theme; 1st and 3rd person narrative voice; whether he could put all of the crucial threads of his story into one novel or might best separate his material into two or three novels.  Or perhaps carve a trilogy from his several narratives.  Certainly Ralph’s many queries guided our decisions and also underscored (and underscore still) the mysteries, which remain about the novel's incompletion.
 
 
5) Tell us a bit about the three parts THREE DAYS BEFORE THE SHOOTING… is divided into and what supporting material a reader can expect.
 
The first two parts of Three Days are the fullest, most recent typescripts of Books I and II, an important episode called "Bliss's Birth" dated 1965 in Ellison's hand--that's Part I.  Part II consists of the most revised and recent print outs of three sequences of narrative composed on the computer: “Hickman in Washington, D. C.”;  “Hickman in Georgia & Oklahoma,” and “McIntyre at Jesse Rockmore's,” the latter a version of Chapter 12 from Book I as revised on the computer in 1993.   Parts I & II have editor's notes, as do the supplemental materials in Part III.  In addition to the general introduction to the volume, we have included an introduction to Part II, which provides a full context for, and the literary implications of, Ellison's composition on the computer in his later years.

Of great interest to readers of "Three Days," we believe, will be the selection in Part III of Ellison's notes; two early drafts of the opening chapter of Book II; several variants of the prologue composed on the computer in the late '80s and early '90s, and all eight excerpts from the unfinished novel as Ellison published these during his lifetime.  These supporting materials show Ellison conceiving his novel and attempting to execute and improvise his evolving plan for the work. 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Less a conventional novel than the prose equivalent of a jazz solo, or a series of solos . . . some of [Ellison’s] finest prose.”—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“Stirring . . . a deeply complex, even epic, story . . . rendered as majestically as you would expect from Ellison.”—Associated Press
 
“[This book is] more than a novel. It’s a literary experience.”—Ebony
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Juneteenth. We hope that it will help create bonds not only between the book and the reader, but also among the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate your program. Thank you.

About the Guide

In the 1950s in Washington D.C., a race-baiting senator has just been shot on the Senate floor by a young black man. On his deathbed, the senator calls out for a mysterious stranger, an elderly black minister from Oklahoma, who comes to his side. Their remarkable conversation and the memories it sparks take them back to the deeply buried secrets in their past. Juneteenth showcases the unsurpassed lyrical gifts of Ellison's autobiographical reckoning of his own life journey.

About the Author

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914. He was the author of the novel Invisible Man, a winner of the National Book Award and one of the most important and influential American novels of the twentieth century, as well as numerous essays and short stores. He died in New York City in 1994.


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Why the title, Juneteenth? What does the word as well as the occasion Juneteenth come to mean in the novel?

2. Ellison once said that the true American, whatever the particulars of his or her genetic or cultural heritage, is also "somehow black." Why do you think Ellison never reveals Bliss/Sunraider's father's race? If Sunraider lives in the world as a white man, what would it mean to say that he was black, and why would it matter?

3. Do the actions and meditations of the novel answer the "three fatal questions" posed (p. 19) by the race-baiting Senator Sunraider in his pre-assasination speech: "How can the many be as one? How can the future deny the past? And how can the light deny the dark?"

4. Why, after he is mortally wounded, does the Senator call Hickman, and only Hickman, to his hospital bedside? Why do you think Ellison named Hickman Hickman? And why are his initials A.Z.? Do you feel it is significant that Hickman is a jazz musician before he becomes a minister?

5. Hickman names the baby he midwifes into this world Bliss "because they say that's what ignorance is." Does the name come back to haunt Bliss/Sunraider, and also Hickman? Why do you think Bliss later chooses Adam Sunraider for his new name?

6. Why does the sister call Lincoln "Father Abraham" and what is the connection between Lincoln, Bliss, and Hickman? Why is Lincoln so important to Hickman?

7. What connection, if any, is there between the images and performances of religious services, the movies, and political rituals? What is the result of Ellison's using the African-American culture and vernacular for the sermons, church scenes, and jazz in the novel?

8. When Ellison accepted the National Book Award for Invisible Man, he wrote that "I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, yet thrusting forth its image of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization." Does his prose in Juneteenth realize this dream?


  • Three Days Before the Shooting . . . by Ralph Ellison
  • April 26, 2011
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Classics
  • Modern Library
  • $25.00
  • 9780375759543

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