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Back Matter

Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel

Forty years in development and never published in his lifetime.

Book Cover You are probably not as confused about the literary legacy of the great Ralph Ellison as I was—when it was published 10 years ago, I thought Juneteenth was the unfinished novel that Ellison had been struggling with for the 40 years between the publication of his magnum opus (Invisible Man) and his death in 1994.

It turns out that that book was only part of the 2000 pages of manuscript left by Ellison. Now comes Three Days Before the Shooting (Modern Library), edited by John Callahan, literary executor of the Ellison Estate, and Adam Bradley, a book that is constructed from the totality of the pages, notes, computer files, and what not, that Ellison left behind. The story of of that process and the complex book which they brought to fruition has its own fascination. Adam Bradley explains:
I think that the best way of conceiving this book for me, the way that I have come to understand it, is through a musical analogy. I think about someone like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, how we have a classic album from them, Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” or “Kind of Blue,” and, I mean, it’s a piece of perfection. But when Columbia opened up the archive and showed us the alternate versions, when they gave us the fullness of how Miles, you know, was working on this material with his groups. I mean, it’s a tremendous thing. And what we see in “Three Days Before the Shooting” are the same set pieces, the same riffs, often, but recast with a different combination of voices, much as, you know, playing “Summertime” in the quintet setting is different from playing it as a trio or as an orchestra.
Three Days Before the Shooting’s multi-generational storyline takes as its center the assassination of the contentious and racially provocative U.S. Senator Adam Sunraider and preacher/musician Daddy Hackman, the man who raised him as a light-skinned black orphan in backwoods Georgia. Let the reader be forewarned, this is no simple read, the narrative is in the unedited, interim state left by Ellison. As the editors suggest:
For all their disconnections, Ellison’s manuscripts reward the active reader. For those willing to confront the challenges of the works fragmentary form, for those capable of simultaneously grasping multiple versions of the same scene Three Days before the Shooting…offers unparalleled access to the craft of Ellison’s fiction and a unprecedented glimpse into the writer’s mind. Whether one reads this edition from start to finish or jumps form section to section, the experience involves a kind of collaboration with Ellison in the creation of the novel he left forever in progress.
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