The Curse of the Great American Novel

Is the idea of the Great American Novel the worst thing that ever happened to great American novelists? Some days it does seem that way. American authors who struggle to define the American experience by cramming it all into one novel almost inevitably come to some version of grief, and no one epitomizes this dilemma better than Ralph Ellison, who published only stories and essays in the 40 years after he dazzled the literary world with Invisible Man. It was no secret that he was working on a second novel all that time—he published excerpts while alive, and a novel-length fragment appeared a decade ago. Now, with the publication of an 1,100-page book that includes false starts, fragments, and finished chapters, we can see what he was up to, how far he got, where he succeeded, and, ultimately, how he failed by biting off more than he—or anyone—could chew. It was his goal, not any lack of talent, that betrayed him—he wanted to do nothing less than plumb once and for all the mystery and dilemma of race and identity in American society. Here was a man clearly undone by his ambition. But then, where would he have been without it?

Thinking big is not unique to American letters. Tolstoy, Mann, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, Tanizaki—the examples of great writers working on a grand scale are easy to spot. Still, compared with their American counterparts, they had it easy. Even Russia—or at least the Russia that Tolstoy wrote about—was a monoculture. The United States has always been a much messier place, its social hierarchies more fluid, its systems of belief more debated, negated, and always up for grabs. Of all the American writers who have tried to wrestle this into focus, perhaps the one who came closest was the poet Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself"). But our fiction writers have been trying to squeeze the American experience into one great novel at least since Herman Melville dreamed up his white whale.

Unfortunately, most of the writers who emulated Melville's ambition produced books that were not great but do resemble white whales. From An American Tragedy to The Bonfire of the Vanities to Blood Meridian, we see authors struggling to create masterpieces that on almost every page threaten to collapse under their own weight. There are also those authors—Ellison and Truman Capote leading the list—who aimed for the stars but then, after years, even decades, of work, failed to produce publishable manuscripts. Then there's the 800-pound gorilla himself, the late J. D. Salinger. Who can say what he was up to for the last four or five decades? Was he writing madly? Staring at the same sheet of blank paper? The only thing we know is that he wasn't publishing anything, and given how steadily productive he was before he went silent, that raises all kinds of questions. Maybe his death will unlock the mystery; perhaps Salinger was one of those unlucky authors whose ambition outstrips their ability and who recognize this all too well. Most certainly, overambition was a near epidemic among the American writers who grew up in the shadow of the absurdly competitive Ernest Hemingway, but you still see traces among more contemporary authors—look at Union Atlantic, the new novel by Adam Haslett, who has tried to cram a bank collapse, the first Gulf War, and a good dose of Emersonian thought between the covers of one book. He almost makes it work, but nobody is that good.

The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It's the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book. Still, there persists that tantalizing possibility that maybe this time, with one roll of the dice, you can get it all down at once. Reinforcing this possibility is the very American belief that the higher you aim, the less shame there is in falling short. Who wouldn't rather read a flawed masterpiece than none at all? After all, not even Twain could figure out the right way to end Huckleberry Finn.

If you spend any time prowling around in Ellison's unfinished second novel, it's a good bet that you'll be willing to say you'll take whatever you can get. Now published as Three Days Before the Shooting … (Ellison's editors, John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley, have employed the novel's opening phrase as its title), the incomplete parts of Ellison's book offer a sort of build-your-own-novel kit. What it lacks in coherence it almost makes up for with character and incident. At its center stands the towering figure of Alonzo Hickman, an aged black jazz musician turned gospel preacher who, accompanied by members of his congregation, travels up from the South to Washington, D.C., in the mid-'50s. Hickman means to warn the flamboyant, race-baiting Sen. Adam Sunraider of a threat against his life, but it's too late. In the early pages of the novel, Sunraider is shot while delivering a speech on the Senate floor. Hickman, who observes the shooting from the Senate gallery, is taken into custody as a suspect after addressing the assassin in the gallery. Then, inexplicably, the stricken senator requests that Hickman be brought to his hospital room.

The first couple of hundred pages of the book, narrated by a white reporter, read like a detective novel, as the reporter struggles to divine the relationship between Hickman and Sunraider. The second part belongs to Hickman, who, sitting beside the wounded Sunraider's bedside, muses on their past, when Sunraider, the product of mysterious and possibly mixed-race parentage, played child evangelist in Hickman's tent-show revivals. These two long sections seem almost complete and between them compose a story that seems to have a beginning, middle, and end. But then there are variants of some chapters that offer other paths, pointing the narrative in different directions. The more you read, the more sympathy you feel for Ellison. The contradictions multiply on the reader in much the same way they multiplied for Ellison.

Then, too, he faced at least a couple of daunting hurdles that had little to do with aesthetic concerns. First, with Invisible Man, he'd written what is still considered the seminal piece of fiction about African-American life in the 20th century. How do you follow that? Second, time was not on his side, or, more specifically, the times were not. Ellison spent 40 years working on his second novel, and in that span occurred nearly every major event in the civil-rights movement, from Brown v. Board of Education to the assassination of Martin Luther King. In light of that, one of the most remarkable things about his material is how little it has dated, including what he wrote in the '50s. In many instances he looks less like a reporter of his own time and more like a prophet of ours.

A few pages into the story, a group of journalists, lobbyists, and legislators are standing in the Capitol, trying to make sense of the shooting of the senator. One of the men, identified only as "the hysterical man," insists that "these are revolutionary times … There're a lot of misguided people around who'll take orders from anyone to do anything … They're fanatics! Terrorists! They'll do whatever they're told." The "misguided people" in this bit of dialogue happen to be black, but Ellison knew all about the fear of "the other," and efforts by today's hysterical men to demonize all Muslims wouldn't surprise him a bit.

It's impossible to say how Ellison would have resolved his novel, and the longer you stare at it, the more you wonder if he even wanted to. Ten years ago, Random House released a novel called Juneteenth, a streamlined, much shorter and simpler version that retained the Hickman-Sunraider section but jettisoned the white reporter's story and all the variant chapters and the incomplete material. It was brilliant but somehow unsatisfying. Now that we can compare Juneteenth with the rest of what Ellison left behind, we can see why. Juneteenth did him a disservice: he was building a cathedral, and Random House merely gave us a wing of the building. It's not much of a stretch—particularly given that Ellison made two of his major characters jazz musicians—to say that Three Days Before the Shooting … is less a conventional novel than the prose equivalent of a jazz solo, or a series of solos. Clearly, Ellison could have called a halt to his revisions at almost any point after 1960, around the time he began publishing excerpts from his book. His editors insist that he was striving, especially toward the end of his life, to knit it all together. But just as clearly, some sense of possibility, some new idea just over the next hill, kept him working until a few months before he died in 1994.

No matter how good its parts, Three Days Before the Shooting … will always be an oddity, an also-ran, a headstone to one man's outsize ambition. That's no reason not to read it. It was Ellison's undoing, but it also inspired some of his finest prose. It does, of course, raise the question, is the Great American Novel possible? Ellison's effort would seem to argue the negative. But that won't convince anyone, especially American novelists. After all, Ellison was so close.