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 Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Professor Adam Bradley helps bring Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel to fruition
by Clint Talbott, coordinator, editor of Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine

Ralph Ellison spent four decades writing but never finishing a novel to follow “Invisible Man,” which was a meteoric success in 1952 and remains an American classic. Ellison’s unfinished second novel went on sale today, Jan. 26, and a University of Colorado at Boulder associate professor is one of two editors who brought the legendary author’s work to fruition.

When Ellison died in 1994, he left behind 27 archival boxes worth of manuscript pages for his unfinished, untitled second novel. The material included handwritten notes, typewritten pages and more than 460 computer files on 84 disks.

Just two months before his death, Ellison told The New Yorker magazine that he was working every day on the second novel and that “there will be something very soon.” The sprawling maze of drafts – with no accompanying instruction on what to do with them – presented a particular challenge for the editors, John Callahan and Adam Bradley.

“Three Days Before the Shooting...: The Unfinished Second Novel” is being published by Modern Library and is the product of 15 years of work by Bradley, a CU associate professor of English, and Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

Bradley joined the literary detective work in 1994 as a 19-year-old student at Lewis and Clark College where Callahan, a friend of Ellison and executor of Ellison’s estate, was one of his professors.

Bradley had an affinity with Ellison – whose father died when he was a child, whose first novel vivified America’s racial divide, and whose unfinished second novel centered upon a race-baiting senator of “indeterminate race.”

Fathers and sons. Black and white. These issues spoke to Bradley, a native of Salt Lake City, whose own father did not raise him. His mother is white, and his father, now deceased, was black.

Ellison’s second novel dwells on paternity, race and the democratic promise of America. A racist “white” U.S. senator is assassinated by a black man who, it turns out, is the senator’s son. The senator’s surrogate father, who is black, tries in vain to save the senator.

The subject of fathers and sons, which Bradley terms “almost an obsession for Ellison,” has everything to do with Ellison’s own story, Bradley said. Ellison was always searching for the image of the father he barely knew.

A character in “Invisible Man” tells the protagonist, “Be your own father, young man.” That theme winds through Ellison’s first novel and appears more dramatically in the second, Bradley observed.

“Ellison was writing a novel concerning betrayal and redemption, black and white, fathers and sons,” the editors wrote. “It is a novel that takes as its theme the very nature of America’s democratic promise to make the nation’s practice live up to its principles … regardless of race, place or circumstance.”

Captivated by these themes, Bradley, then still a student, became an accomplished literary archaeologist. Callahan was impressed and asked Bradley to co-edit the second novel.

Before Bradley could devote himself fully to the project, though, he established his academic credentials. He earned his PhD in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University in 2003.

Later this year, Bradley will teach a CU graduate seminar on Ellison and Yale University Press will publish “Ralph Ellison in Progress,” his critical exploration of the craft of Ellison’s fiction. Bradley also is the author of “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop” and co-editor of the forthcoming “Yale Anthology of Rap.”

“Three Days Before the Shooting…” will give readers their first view of the most complete and cohesive version of Ellison’s magnum opus, Bradley said. Callahan released a small portion of the second novel in a work called “Juneteenth” in 1999.

Callahan and Bradley edited the new book for a general audience, not simply for scholars. They isolated their commentary to introductory notes and did not pepper Ellison’s text with footnotes. Every word in the novel is Ellison’s, they emphasized.

“We decided we wanted to keep with the democratic spirit of Ellison’s writing … so that everyday people could pick it up and enjoy it as fiction,” Bradley said.

A four-minute video of Adam Bradley talking about Ellison, reading from the new book and showing some of Ellison’s manuscript is available here.

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