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.”
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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.
A shame he could never finish this work.