Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before The Shootiing
Unfinished Masterpiece
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 2
      Ralph Ellison was arguably one of the greatest African American authors of the
20th century — or ever. His “The Invisible Man,” published in 1952, was a seminal
novel that explored race relations in America.
      The Invisible Man ended up being the first and only Ellison novel published
during Ellison’s lifetime. For the next 40 years, Ellison worked on his next novel —
hinting over several decades through personal letters and interviews that the novel
would be completed — but was never able to complete his definitive novel about
racial identity in America, utilizing a complex narrative and higher level of his craft,
to completion.
      After Ellison died in 1994, the work of sorting through his manuscripts and
notes fell to John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor. Callahan, a professor at
Lewis & Clark College, enlisted his student Adam Bradley who is now a professor at
the University of Colorado – Boulder, to help him with the monumental task. After
publishing some of the material as “Juneteenth” in 1999, Callahan and Bradley
published “Three Days Before the Shooting,” the unfinished novel of Ellison on
January 26.
      Three Days is a 1,101 page tome of small print published by Random House filled with an endless stream of thoughts about race relations
and racial identity in America contained in a fictional story that revolves around the assassination of the racist Southern Senator Adam
Sunraider. It is a novel, in Callahan’s words, ‘One does not pick up on Friday afternoon and expect to be completed by Sunday brunch.’
      Callahan and Bradley worked on the materials off and on again for the next 16 years. “There were glimpses in both cases — typescript
and computer printouts — of Ellison’s intentions,” Ellison said. “We have the last surviving typescripts of Book I and Book II in Three Days.
Those are the ones we were able to use. Book I is complete in the sense of plot and the sense of its conception and everything else in terms
of how the pagination is set up. It is complete, but not revised. It is still somewhat unpolished, somewhat in the rough. Book II, on the other
hand, is highly polished, highly revised, but it isn’t complete. He breaks off in the middle of the page. So you have those anomalies. And then
Bliss’s Birth, the third typescript of Three Days seems to be very highly polished and very complete as a kind of chapter.  In so far as we
could tell, in terms of what is surviving, this is what we publish in Three Days with respect to the typescripts.”
      It was more than likely a combination of Ellison’s perfectionism, the ambitious nature of his project and the fact that the subject of his
book — race relations and racial identity — did not sit still for Ellison to capture it fully is what kept Ellison writing and rewriting the book.
“He was definitely a perfectionist,” Bradley said. “There’s no doubt about that. But more to the point, it was the kind of vision he had in this
novel. The Invisible Man, remember, is a fairly contained book. It is single-voiced, this dominant first-person voice of his unnamed
protagonist. And the novel itself is bounded by a prologue and an epilogue with a series of picturesque episodes in between. That structure
has an elegance and simplicity to it. What he was trying to do with Three Days is something far more architecturally complex from the
perspective of craft. There are more voices, a broader span of time and place, a deeper psychological style of writing combined as well with
periods of the more outward action. All of this is going on. And on top of that — as he told an interviewer in the 1980s — he is trying with the
novel to achieve the aura of summing up — this phrase that captures the sense of ambition that he had for this novel — to describe America
to itself and to the world. I think John and I both agree that this was an impossible task. Whenever he would look up from his pages, he
would find that the world he had captured changed. The America that he knew shifted. And he needed to go back to the pages and then go
back to the process of revision and filter through the civil rights movement and its aftermath, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the dawn of
the digital age, all of these shifts and many others that told the story of America in the second half of the 20th century. So I think that more
than a matter of any internal weight of expectation or living up to The Invisible Man, it was more responding to the American scene that he
loved so much and to which he dedicated his second novel.”
      And as America changed while Ellison was writing Three Days, Ellison was changing too. “I think he was also growing sensitive
possibly as time went on to the detriment of finishing the novel and settling on the novel to the nuances of time,” Callahan said. “His
variations in the first sentence of the novel reflect this. It begins with what he wrote in the 1950s and published in the 1960s and is the first
sentence in the prologue to Book I. It goes something like this. ‘Two days before the shooting, a planeload of Southern Negroes swooped
down on the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator.’ In 1991, when he writes the kind of operative variant of what we call
‘Hickman in Washington, D.C.,’ 30 years later, the sentence becomes ‘Two days before the bewildering incident, a chartered planeload of
what were known in those days as Southern Negroes, swooped down on National Airport.’ It seems to me that is governed by certain
questions, perhaps doubts, that Ellison came to have about how he was perceived. It’s no longer a shooting. It’s a bewildering incident. He’s
sensitive to the changes in the nomenclature of the African Americans in the book, his people.”
      In both Callahan and Bradley’s minds, it would be a fool’s errand for someone to try and finish the novel. And in reading the volumes of
material that Ellison left behind, they got deep into Ellison’s head and thinking about the novel. But in order to do the material justice, they
had to back away.
      “We tried as much as possible to get out of his mind and to take on the role of a facilitator for Ellison communicating his novelistic
vision and voice to his audience. This means that every word in Three Days is Ellison’s. We relegated our editorial remarks to the
introduction. The constructions of the book do not intrude on the fiction itself. This was so crucial for us to step back away from it and
regardless of the possibility of getting into Ellison’s psyche, what we had instead was plenty. We had plenty on our plate just dealing with the
text itself.”
      In the end, what is presented in Three Days Before the Shooting, is an incomplete jigsaw puzzle with major portions completed. “You
have a finite number of empty spaces,” Bradley said. “Let’s say you have eight. And you have more pieces that can go in there. But they don’t
fit in the empty spaces. In order to have a finished novel, they almost have to stand on top of one of the other pieces. And the pieces that you
need to complete the puzzle; some of them just aren’t there.”
      But what is there is a masterful use of the English language that explores the complexity of race in America. It is bound to make any
reader reflect again, again and again.
Adam Bradley (above) and John Callahan edited the
unfinished second novel of Ralph Ellison