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Invisible Man, which Ralph Ellison had published in 1952, was one of the great debuts in contemporary literature. Alternating phantasmagoria with rock-ribbed realism, it delved into the blackest (and whitest!) corners of the American psyche and quickly attained the status of legend. Ellison's follow-up, however, seemed truly bedevilled--not only by its monumental predecessor but by fate itself. First, a large section of the novel went up in flames when the author's house burned in 1967. Then he spent decades reconstructing, revising and expanding his initial vision. When Ellison died in 1994, he left behind some 2,000 pages of manuscript. Yet this mythical mountain of prose was clearly unfinished, far too sketchy and disjointed to publish. Apparently Ellison's second novel would never appear.

Or would it? Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, has now quarried a smaller, more coherent work from all that raw material. Gone are the epic proportions that Ellison so clearly envisioned. Instead, Juneteenth revolves around just two characters: Adam Sunraider, a white, race-baiting New England senator, and Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black Baptist minister who turns out to have a paradoxical (and paternal) relationship to his opposite number. As the book opens, Sunraider is delivering a typically bigoted peroration on the Senate floor when he's peppered by an assassin's bullets. Mortally wounded, he summons the elderly Hickman to his bedside. There the two commence a journey into their shared past, which (unlike the rest of 1950s America) represents a true model of racial integration.

Ellison juggles the multiple ironies of race and religion with effortless brilliance and his delight in Hickman's house-wrecking rhetoric is contagious:

Bliss, I've heard you cutting some fancy didoes on the radio, but son, Eatmore was romping and rampaging and walking through Jerusalem just like John! Oh, but wasn't he romping! Maybe you were too young to get it all but that night that mister was 10,000 misters and his voice was pure gold.


The portion of Juneteenth that covers Bliss's ecclesiastical education--perhaps a third of the entire book--is as electrifying as anything in Invisible Man. In comparison, though, the rest of the novel seems like pretty slim pickings. For one thing, much of the plot--including Bliss's transformation from pint-sized preacher to United States senator--is absent. For another, Ellison's confinement of the two top-billed players to a hospital room makes for an awfully static narrative. Granted, he intended their dialogue to exist "on a borderline between the folk poetry and religious rhetoric" (or so he wrote in his notes). But this is a dicey recipe for a novel and Juneteenth veers between naturalism and hallucination much less effectively than its predecessor did.

None of this is to assail Ellison's artistry, which remains on ample display. The problem is that Callahan's splice job--which well may be the best one possible--remains weak at the seams. So should readers give Juneteenth a miss? The answer would still have to be no. The best parts are as powerful and necessary as anything in our literature. --James Marcus

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Used availability for Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth

Hardback Editions

December 1999 : UK Hardback
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Title: Juneteenth
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-241-14084-6 / 978-0-241-14084-0 (UK edition)
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   


May 1999 : USA Hardback
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-394-46457-5 / 978-0-394-46457-2 (USA edition)
Publisher: Random House
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


Paperback Editions

2012 : UK Paperback
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Title: Juneteenth (Penguin Modern Classics)
Author(s): Ralph Ellison, John Callahan
ISBN: 0-241-21500-5 / 978-0-241-21500-5 (UK edition)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


December 2000 : UK Paperback
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Title: Juneteenth (Penguin Classics)
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-14-118303-9 / 978-0-14-118303-9 (UK edition)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   


June 2000 : USA Paperback
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-375-70754-9 / 978-0-375-70754-4 (USA edition)
Publisher: Vintage
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


1999 : USA Paperback
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Title: Juneteenth
Author(s): Ralph ELLISON
ISBN: 0-9650881-3-8 / 978-0-9650881-3-8 (USA edition)
Publisher: Random House
Availability: Amazon   


Audio Editions

September 2011 : USA Audio edition
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
Publisher: Random House Audio
Availability: Amazon   


September 2011 : UK Audio edition
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
Publisher: Random House Audio
Availability: Amazon UK   


2000 : USA Audio CD
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Joe Morton (Narrator) Ralph Ellison (Author)
ISBN: 0-307-93945-6 / 978-0-307-93945-6 (USA edition)
Publisher: Books On Tape
Availability: Amazon   Amazon CA   


June 2000 : USA Audio Cassette
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Title: Juneteenth
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-7887-4309-0 / 978-0-7887-4309-2 (USA edition)
Publisher: Recorded Books
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK   Amazon CA   


2000 : USA Audio CD

Title: Juneteenth
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-7887-4898-X / 978-0-7887-4898-1 (USA edition)
Publisher: Recorded Books
Availability: Amazon   


June 1999 : USA Audio Cassette
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
ISBN: 0-375-40718-9 / 978-0-375-40718-5 (USA edition)
Publisher: Random House Audio
Availability: Amazon CA   


Kindle Editions

July 2016 : UK Kindle edition
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Title: Juneteenth (Penguin Modern Classics)
Author(s): Ralph Ellison, John Callahan
Publisher: Penguin
Availability: Amazon UK   


June 2011 : USA, Canada Kindle edition
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Title: Juneteenth: A Novel (Vintage International)
Author(s): Ralph Ellison
Publisher: Vintage
Availability: Amazon   Amazon CA