Ralph Ellison Reads from His Novel-in-Progress, Juneteenth, in Rare Video Footage (1966)


Per­haps you haven’t giv­en Ralph Elli­son any thought since read­ing Invis­i­ble Man in high school. Watch the inter­view above, and you’ll have no choice but to con­sid­er his work and opin­ions again. Just past twen­ty min­utes into this short doc­u­men­tary called USA: The Nov­el, he reads an excerpt from a work of his that you may not have read: June­teenth, the book that would fol­low up Invis­i­ble Man — 47 years lat­er. It saw pub­li­ca­tion only in 1999, 33 years after this film on Ellison’s “work in progress,” and five years after his death. He’d writ­ten over 2000 pages, and even then claimed to have lost por­tions of the man­u­script in a fire. One of Ellison’s biog­ra­phers, John F. Calla­han, cut down and orga­nized the remain­ing mate­r­i­al. Anoth­er of his biog­ra­phers, Arnold Ram­per­sad, doubts that the fire destroyed much of the trou­bled nov­el at all.

Though Ellison’s work remains read­i­ly avail­able — even June­teenth reap­peared in 2012 in the 1101-page expan­sion Three Days Before the Shoot­ing… — the writer left behind few­er direct reflec­tions than his fans and schol­ars might like. That makes footage like this all the more valu­able, and, in it, he even address­es his ten­den­cy to not to speak pub­licly: “I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by how the inter­view­er’s mind works, and I’m also aware that, for all my shun­ning of a pub­lic role which is divorced from my iden­ti­ty as a writer, any kind of state­ment I make, any time my face appears, there are a lot of peo­ple who are going to be inter­pret­ing my face, my state­ments in terms of my racial iden­ti­ty rather than in terms of the qual­i­ty of what I have to say. Pow­er for the writer, it seems to me, lies in his abil­i­ty to reveal only a lit­tle bit more about the com­plex­i­ty of human­i­ty.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Robert Penn War­ren Archive Brings Ear­ly Civ­il Rights to Life

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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