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British Association for American Studies


Issue 5, Spring 2004, Article 1


Issue 5, Spring 2004, Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 5, Spring 2004: Special Conference Edition

Editing the Great Literary Comeback: Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream

Alan Gibbs
© Alan Gibbs. All Rights Reserved

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play (Ellison, Invisible Man, 468).

It was only towards sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever towards him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet […] and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes (Roth, Call It Sleep, 440).

Metaphors of sleep towards the close of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep might be taken as uncannily prophetic of their writing careers in the immediate aftermath of publishing those first novels. For many years following these extraordinary first efforts, both writers laboured in attempts to write a second novel. Aside from this, the writing careers of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth might appear to have little in common. Indeed, it would be foolish to disregard the differences in racial and ethnic background, their contrasting political positions, or the ways in which these factors affect their work. There are, nevertheless, numerous similarities in their literary careers and, most importantly, in the editorial fates of their later texts.


Roth and Ellison were born 8 years apart, the former in 1906, in what is now part of Ukraine, the latter in 1914 in rural Oklahoma. From such diverse beginnings, both ended up in New York City, Roth emigrating there with his family at the age of two, and growing up in the Lower East Side, before moving to a less homogenously Jewish neighbourhood in Harlem. Although Roth left the city in 1945, moving to Massachussetts, then Maine, and finally New Mexico, his literary output remained preoccupied by his earlier life in New York. Ellison moved to New York City in his early twenties, after studying music at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1933 to 1936. In New York he met important figures such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of whom encouraged him to write. By 1938 Ellison had written reviews and short stories and was working with the Federal Writers’ Project. He spent much of his post-War life in New York City.

Both writers are known predominantly for one book, largely conforming to a Bildungsroman model, set mainly in New York, and based partly on events from their own lives. The two novels were written relatively early in the lives of their authors, Roth publishing Call It Sleep in 1934, at the age of 28, Ellison with Invisible Man in 1952, when he was 38. Call It Sleep follows approximately three years in the life of David Schearl, a timid Jewish boy growing up in early twentieth-century New York. Employing descriptive prose of startling intensity, the novel follows David’s coping with a terrifyingly domineering father, prevailing anti-Semitism, and a growing awareness and fear of sex. Ellison’s Invisible Man tracks its credulous and nameless protagonist from disgrace and expulsion from a southern college to New York. After various misadventures, suffering exploitation and abuse characteristic of the African American experience, he finds himself being used as a public speaker for the socialist ‘Brotherhood’, before becoming caught up in a Harlem race riot at the novel’s close.

While Ellison’s novel was almost immediately hailed as a masterpiece, winning the National Book Award in 1953, the fate of Roth’s was more complicated. Published in the midst of the Depression, Call It Sleep disappeared – despite largely favourable reviews – when the publisher went bankrupt. The book vanished from sight, although not from the memory of a few admirers, for thirty years. [1] It was republished in 1964 in paperback form, instantly proclaimed as a ‘lost classic’ of twentieth-century American fiction, and became a number one bestseller. [2] During this time, Roth had conspicuously failed to write another novel. Despite several attempts, all he had published was a short piece of work-in-progress for the intended second novel, a handful of short stories, and a few position pieces. By the time of Call It Sleep‘s reemergence, he had virtually turned his back on writing, having worked as, amongst other things, a machinist, a firefighter, and a mental hospital orderly. When Call It Sleep was finally republished, Roth was ‘rediscovered’ by Life magazine, running a small duck and goose farm in rural Maine.

Although he continued writing, Ellison, too, failed for many years to follow Invisible Man with a second novel. Although he worked continually on the manuscript for another book, all he published until his death were essays and short stories – collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986) – and excerpts in journals from his projected novel. Both writers, then, published one novel at a relatively young age, which sooner or later came to be regarded as a classic of twentieth-century American fiction. Similarly, both authors failed for a protracted period to follow up their initial novels with further substantial works.

To explore possible reasons for the twin silences of Ellison and Roth is to uncover further similarities between the two. In neither instance is it a case of straightforward writer’s block. For Ellison, it was almost the opposite, an inability to stop writing: he seemed compelled to rework and revise material for the second novel begun in the early 1950s. His practice during this period is dominated by an incessant urge to extend scenes that worked well, while attempting to improve those which did not. As Richard H. King suggests, it was not so much writer’s block as a publishing block, arising from “a kind of hubris which compels the writer to get it perfect before letting the finished product see the light of day” (308-09). Ellison would keep tinkering with passages he had written over thirty years earlier, although the result of this was frequently a deleterious loss of narrative focus rather than discernible improvement. Similarly, although he essentially wrote nothing for a period in the 1940s, Roth produced a considerable amount of material between his first and second novels. In particular, from the mid-1960s onwards, following the successful republication of Call It Sleep, Roth worked unrelentingly on drafting large swathes of semi-autobiographical narrative. These sections slowly coalesced into what would become his Mercy of a Rude Stream.

Working on their material for such a sustained period might have had similar effects on the two writers. Ellison began a follow up to Invisible Man in the early 1950s, that is, before Brown versus Board, in a time when so-called separate but equal still held legal sway. In toiling so protractedly on a novel meant to dissect attitudes towards race in America, it is worth pondering how Ellison maintained an ideological position, given the huge changes in race relations which took place throughout that period. During this time, Ellison had come under attack from a number of prominent writers and intellectuals, both white and African American. Important as his work undoubtedly was, Ellison was perceived as a conservative, especially by black nationalists. He was widely criticised for his apparent valuing of aesthetic purity over political affairs such as the Civil Rights Movement or anti-Vietnam War protests. [3] Jan Nordby Gretlund suggests that comparisons of the early published extracts from Ellison’s work-in-progress with what was eventually to be Juneteenth reveal a softening of Ellison’s attitudes towards the transcendentalists (109). I would argue that such a change is symptomatic of many other shifts which are inevitably manifest in Ellison’s political position during those decades of dramatic social change. This suggests one reason why he found it necessary constantly to revisit and revise his work over that period.

Roth, too, was subject to criticism – from both without and within – regarding the perceived lack of political stance taken by Call It Sleep. An infamous and anonymous review from the New Masses condemned Roth for making “no better use of [his] working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels” (‘Brief Review’, 27). Although a number of radical intellectuals, among them Kenneth Burke and Edwin Seaver, came to his defence in subsequent issues of the paper, Roth apparently found himself agreeing with much of the criticism. Shortly after Call It Sleep was completed, Roth had joined the Communist Party, a catastrophic move in terms of his art, since it committed him to a social realism completely antithetical to his more instinctive aesthetic. The results of this ideological clash are evident in the surviving remnant of Roth’s attempt to write a programmatically committed proletarian novel. [4]

In the ensuing years, Roth claims to have found shifts in ideological position inhibiting in terms of even beginning to write again. In numerous interviews he argued that the gap between his communist sympathies and his modernist aesthetic for many years prevented him from being able to write. Moreover, the loyalty to communist ideology seemed to ebb and flow over the years, frustrating Roth’s attempts to establish a secure foundation for his fiction. Finally, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Roth found himself in direct opposition to the Communist Party line, fervently supporting Israel, as he related to David Bronsen:

I followed the daily events of the war with great avidity. I found myself identifying intensely with the Israelis in their military feats, which repudiated all the anti-Jewish accusations we had been living with in the Diaspora, and I was glorying in their establishment of themselves as a state through their own application and resources (278).

Roth goes on to elaborate on how an “intellectual excitement” caught him and forced him to write down his new thoughts about Israel, and his growing alienation from the Soviet Union’s position. However unsophisticated his reading of the political situation of the Middle East appears in retrospect, Roth undeniably believed that his new identification with Israel and reconciliation with Judaism provided him at last with a solid ideological position. This in turn granted him a secure identity that enabled him to write again, in particular to broach the difficult material from his life that formed the basis for the Mercy series. Of course, the notorious later revelations about the adolescent incestuous relationship with his sister, and the consequent problems of writing autobiographically-based fiction, retrospectively suggest that Roth’s diagnosis is a smokescreen. Nevertheless, the problem of shifting ideological bases for the writer who compulsively revises, as Roth and Ellison were wont to do, should not be underestimated.

Another determining factor in the difficulties encountered by Ellison and Roth might be found in Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence. Bloom envisions this anxiety functioning as a kind of displaced oedipal complex, the writer feeling constrained by those iconic and canonical figures who have gone before. For Ellison and Roth, then, one might think of the inhibiting influence of modernist mentors such as Faulkner and Joyce. Indeed, much of Roth’s later writing is characterised by vituperative invective against the baleful influence of Joyce. A more important obstruction to writing a second novel, however, might be the very existence of a successful first. Invisible Man was and remained a critical and commercial success and provided Ellison with a comfortable income. [5] John Callahan writes that “as the years melted into decades, the success of the first novel may have inhibited Ellison…in the creation of his second novel” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 31). King similarly concludes that Ellison was his own most trenchant critic, and therefore “his own worst enemy… It was not Faulkner or Joyce who elicited that ‘anxiety of influence,’ which Harold…Bloom has taught us to recognize… It was, rather, a black writer of great achievement, a most intimate precursor – himself, Ralph Ellison” (309-10).

Although Call It Sleep‘s commercial success was much-delayed, Roth was not unaware of its merits even as he finished writing. The predominant admiration of critics and of his own intellectual circle (including Margaret Mead, Léonie Adams, Hart Crane, and Daniel Fuchs) gave him ample cause for feeling the novel to be a success. Roth’s sense that he had potential as a novelist would have been further bolstered by interest – and a generous advance – from renowned editor Maxwell Perkins in publishing a second novel. The mid-1960s triumphant return of the novel can only have reinforced these feelings, but its undeniable triumph seemed to weigh heavily upon Roth’s attempts to write again. In the introduction to her monograph on Call It Sleep, Hana Wirth-Nesher observes how Roth wrote – and this would be as he worked on Mercy of a Rude Stream – in a room wherein the “bookcase across from the desk holds dozens of copies of Call It Sleep, in a great many languages” (2). This image of Roth’s past looming over him as he tried to compose a sequel is a striking concretisation of Bloomian anxiety, but here deriving from one’s own writing rather than that of others. While I do not hold with Bloom’s theory as a general model of literary production, it provides an inescapably revealing paradigm for the peculiar careers of these two writers.


Writing about editorial intervention, Claudine Raynaud states that readers of Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road may “seldom contemplate that they might be treading in a mine field of excisions, deletions, changes – sometimes willed by the author, other times imposed by the editor(s)” (35). Even under the most auspicious circumstances, the role of the literary editor can be very contentious. When the texts emerge posthumously or, as in the cases here under consideration, semi-posthumously, it is inevitable that the case is further problematised. After all, intentions might be difficult enough for an editor to determine from reading a text and talking to a living author. If only the former element is available, as cases involving, for example, Hemingway and Fitzgerald have demonstrated, then it is the editor who enters the minefield.

To reiterate, by the time their respective editors became attached to the projects, both Roth and Ellison had been working on their manuscripts for decades, producing thousands of pages of amorphous material. The commonly agreed date for Roth starting work on what was to become Mercy of a Rude Stream is 1979, although notebook sketches of scenes that found their way into the series exist from the mid-1960s onwards. Robert Weil, Roth’s editor for the Mercy series, became involved in the project in late 1992, after Roth and his previous editor-collaborator, Mario Materassi, had rancorously parted ways. Weil, now Executive Editor and Vice President at Norton, worked as a Senior Editor at St. Martin’s Press from 1988 to 1998. Having read Call It Sleep some years earlier, he was enthusiastic about publishing new work by Roth. According to Weil, although Roth’s new manuscript did not read well, Weil felt that he could employ his own strength in structuring to bring shape to the narrative. The publishing board at St. Martin’s Press was apparently unenthusiastic, and Weil persuaded them to go ahead with the project only on an unusually low budget.

Ellison began working on what was finally published in 1999 as Juneteenth nearly half a century earlier in the early 1950s. John Callahan, the editor for Juneteenth, is currently a humanities professor at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. He came to know Ellison in the late 1970s, after the two struck up a correspondence. They remained friends until Ellison’s death in 1994, at which time Callahan was named Ellison’s literary executor. As with Roth, Ellison had produced a confusing mass of manuscript for his proposed second novel. Callahan describes facing “more than two thousand holograph pages, typescript pages, computer disks, printouts, false starts and new starts, revisions and re-revisions, notes, clips, scraps of notes, and outlines” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 32). Callahan found himself having been bequeathed, by Ellison’s estate and Random House if not by Ellison himself, the daunting task of trying to turn an assortment of fragments, written and continually revised over nearly five decades, into a coherent publication. Moreover, Callahan was well aware of the importance which would be attached to the second novel of, or at least attributed to, a literary giant such as Ellison. He found, also, that despite Ellison’s sometimes grandiose claims before he died, he was actually not that near to completing this intended epic panorama of twentieth-century American race relations.

Mention of the respective backgrounds of Weil and Callahan is crucial, in that it foregrounds the very different perspectives they brought to their roles as editors. Callahan is from a decidedly academic background: he first became acquainted with Ellison through having published a journal article about Invisible Man. Soon after Ellison’s death, Callahan edited and published a complete collection of Ellison’s essays, and a volume of short stories; he therefore came to the task of bringing order to Ellison’s chaotic manuscripts with considerable awareness of his characteristic literary practice and technique. After having twice read through the full manuscripts and notes, Callahan concluded that attempting to publish a version of the complete work was impossible. When he tried to arrange the whole into what he thought might have been Ellison’s intended structure, Callahan found glaring gaps in the narrative. Finally, and on the advice of his wife, Callahan returned to the manuscripts in search of a smaller, but central and coherent, narrative which might be separately extracted and published. Although nothing presented itself in final form, Callahan recognised a story thread, running through the sprawl, of the dual reminiscences of Sunraider and his former guardian, the preacher Reverend Hickman. In this narrative, Sunraider is a racist Senator – although himself of indeterminate colour – who is the victim of an assassination attempt as he speaks in Congress against integration. The remainder of the narrative is taken up with both his and Hickman’s recollections of the Senator’s past, and meditations on how he arrived at his present state. In extracting this narrative core, Callahan performed what Horace A. Porter appositely identifies as “an unprecedented literary caesarean operation” (92).

Callahan portrays his own practice in editing Ellison’s work as “improvisational” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 32), a description that has also been used regarding Ellison’s writing practice. [6] Such a characterisation also, perhaps tendentiously, suggests that Ellison would have approved. A number of critics – most vociferously, as we shall see below, Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review – have been less convinced. A measure of improvisation would indeed be necessary, however, given the awesome task facing him, and Callahan’s fundamental aim was rigorously to represent the intentions of Ellison. He underlines that “every word was Ellison’s…nothing was my invention” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 34). While this sidesteps the significant amounts of selection, omission, and structuring Callahan found necessary to bring a measure of coherence to the patchwork text, he nevertheless clearly bore a fidelity to Ellison’s wishes, in so far as he could perceive them, as a guiding principle. His scholarly practice, informed by robustly academic habit, led him to treat Ellison’s work extremely carefully.

Callahan’s approach would be characterised as following the classic Greg-Bowers methodology of textual editing. This practice attempts to establish a definitive, ‘eclectic’ text, by drawing on the full range of available versions of the text, in order to produce something as close as possible to the author’s intentions. [7] While generally pursuing this method, Callahan admits, in interviews and in his introduction to Juneteenth, that the manuscripts were not only disorganised, but also incomplete. Callahan also supplies a selection of Ellison’s notes at the end of the published volume, although these provide only sketchy illumination of the latter’s intentions for the work. For Callahan, as is the choice for the majority of editors, these intentions were to be the final ascertainable ones: “if all things are equal, the latest version of an author’s manuscript should carry special authority” (‘Afterword’, 366). It is necessary to recognise, however, that it would be virtually impossible to establish definitive authorial intentions for a text written and revised over nearly half a century. As Menand suggests of the various manuscripts, “There are lots of loose bricks in the edifice – and this is why Callahan found it necessary to throw so much textual cement at it. He made choices where Ellison was still meditating options” (4).

Roth’s editor, Robert Weil, came to his text from a significantly contrasting direction, and his editing practices were strikingly different to Callahan’s. Weil was a commercial editor, fulfilling a more active and interventionist role. Roth had produced one long, often rambling and repetitive, manuscript, and like Ellison’s it was devoid of parts or chapters. To begin with, Weil worked with Roth to bring shape to what would be the first two books of the series, carving out volumes and chapters from the morass. It was Weil’s decision, also, to use different typefaces to separate the voices of the old man narrating and the younger man narrated. Weil also suggested cutting certain sections and even characters who contributed little to the central narrative, and providing family trees and glossaries of Yiddish terms to help the reader. [8] All of these suggestions were accepted by Roth.

Weil’s role was complicated by two events outside his control. Firstly, Roth’s sister objected strongly to the narrative in the second volume, which revealed an adolescent incestuous relationship between the protagonist, Ira, (a thinly-veiled representation of Roth) and his sister. Her legal moves resulted in huge changes – mainly deletions – being made to subsequent volumes of the series before publication. Weil asserts that both he and Roth were actually happy with these deletions, which were mainly additional scenes depicting sexual intercourse between Ira and his sister:

certain scholars have already gone on record saying that the books lose their oomph because the incest has been cut, well parts of it. I don’t feel [volumes] three and four at all are weakened because Minnie and Ira are not busy copulating… It’s my belief – and I repeat this again – that the book is better because the obsessional interest between Ira and Minnie no longer has a sexual level in three and four. Henry was very comfortable with the arrangement (‘Personal Interview’).

The ‘certain scholar’ to whom Weil refers here is almost certainly Marshall Berman, who wrote a coruscating article for The Nation, condemning what he envisaged as corporate censorship, “a crime against the living as well as against the dead” (29), and lamenting the loss of a number of powerful scenes. [9] Berman in fact knew only of cuts between the galleys and final publication stage, being unaware that much greater sections had already been edited out at the manuscript stage. The overall effect of these substantial cuts of additional incest scenes is to weaken the narrative arc of the series. Roth clearly intended thoroughly to debase his central character before providing a measure of redemption in the later volumes, and this movement is lost or, at best, rendered opaque, in the volumes as published.

Secondly, Roth died in 1995, at which time editing work on the third volume was near completion. By this time Weil’s confidence had clearly grown from the tentativeness which marked the editing of the first volume, and he was fulfilling a more active role, such as supplying titles for the individual volumes and relocating whole sections. His perspective on such intervention is summarized in a comment he made to me about “the task of editing [being] to make everything seamless; you have to find the right part for everything” (‘Personal Interview’). This responsibility to make “everything seamless”, an imperative deriving from Weil’s eye on the commercial potential of the series, evidently became a preoccupation. Such seamlessness was both difficult, given the nature of Roth’s manuscript, and perhaps even inappropriate, given the kind of rough aesthetic Roth clearly intended for the work.

For the fourth volume, Requiem for Harlem, the commercial pressures on Weil are yet more evident. Roth’s original intention was that there would be a total of six volumes to Mercy of a Rude Stream, but at his death the latter two volumes were (as they remain) in an insufficiently complete state to allow publication. Requiem for Harlem would thus be required to provide a measure of closure to the 1,400 page series. At what was to be the end of this volume, however, the manuscript just peters out, without a sense of conclusion, and so Weil decided to provide the necessary ending himself. In direct contrast to Callahan’s determination to include only Ellison’s words, Weil, in conjunction with Roth’s amanuensis, Felicia Steele, constructed the last few sentences of the fourth volume. This artificial ending was based in part on fragments of Roth’s manuscript, but is partly their own work. Weil professes that:

Felicia and I…agonised over that final paragraph, and we would bounce off each other exactly what Henry would have said…’avoiding the monotonous façade of the 119th Street tenements, preferring the holiday smells of the clangorous Avenue.’ I believe ‘clangorous’ is my word. It’s a very ’20s word you’d find in Dreiser. ‘…squealing on the tracks of the long curve westward,’ now I remember Felicia checked subway maps to establish that the subway would curve westward. (Personal Interview).

Regardless of their relative success in the painstaking construction of a closure that is entirely missing from the manuscripts, when one is familiar with these original manuscripts it is impossible not to wonder how compatible this process is with Roth’s intentions.

Another contrast between Weil and Callahan is the way they represent their own role to the reader. Callahan, although his textual intervention is, as we have seen, actually less intrusive than Weil’s, emphasises the incompleteness of Ellison’s text, and the fact that Juneteenth represents only a part of what existed. He even admits to feelings of disquiet with regard to the selections necessary to shape Ellison’s work:

Aiming, as Ellison had, at one complete volume, I proceeded to arrange his oft-revised, sometimes reconceived scenes and episodes according to their most probable development and progressions. While doing so, I felt uneasily procrustean: Here and there limbs of the manuscript needed to be stretched, and elsewhere a protruding foot might be lopped off, if all the episodes were to be edited into a single, coherent, continuous work (‘Afterword’, 365).

Here and elsewhere, Callahan expresses unease about the way in which his often contingent editorial decisions may become entrenched and definitive over the years, hence his strenuous attempts to make transparent exactly what his role was with regard to Juneteenth. Menand focuses not only on this, but also on Callahan’s bodily metaphor for the text, arguing that the problem with “Frankenstein’s monsters” such as Juneteenth as published “is that after a while the seams and the stitches disappear and what at first seems hideously contrived begins to seem perfectly natural, even a little adorable. Juneteenth will go into the world and become ‘Ralph Ellison’s second novel'” (4). Not unusually for cases such as this, and justifying Callahan’s unease, the editorial history of the book might indeed be receding from view as Menand’s gloomy prophecy is vindicated.

By contrast, Weil, who shaped the published work much more actively, strenuously downplays his editorial role. For example, the jackets of the first two volumes proclaim that Roth has completed work on the six volumes of the Mercy series. After Roth died, however, there was a gradual backsliding, in tacit recognition that the last two volumes were not ready for publication. Volumes three and four were nevertheless tendered to the public as if completed by Roth, the ‘About the Author’ section concluding Requiem for Harlem evasively stating that “Roth was able to revise both the third and fourth volumes in 1994 and 1995 shortly before his death” (290), without admitting that these revisions were far from final. The whole is presented as a unified and complete series, again foregrounding the commercial imperatives underlying Weil’s function as an in-house editor; a fuller acknowledgement of his role in bringing the text to the public would severely undermine its authenticity. This would have had a damaging effect, both critically and commercially. Moreover, it suggests that Weil and Callahan perhaps perceived markedly different audiences for the works they were editing. The tone and presentation of Juneteenth hints at more academic interest – Callahan’s ‘Afterword’, for example, is subtitled, ‘A Note to Scholars’ – whereas Weil’s editorial choices throughout indicate that he had a more commercial readership in mind.

The tensions between the publishers’ commercial obligations and the intentions of the two authors are evident in both Ellison’s and Roth’s case. Both were engaged, over many years before their deaths, in writing works with many significant differences from what has so far been published. Roth, as mentioned above, projected Mercy of a Rude Stream as a six volume series, of which only four, often severely edited and indeed censored, have emerged. To a certain extent, the compromised nature of the Mercy series, as published, is demonstrably the result of the text having been forced to comply with often inappropriate commercial, as well as legal, pressures in excess of those undergone by other texts. Regardless of its undoubted strengths, Roth’s highly personal confessional narrative was perhaps never likely to be the commercial opportunity Weil envisaged. As for Ellison, according to Callahan, he was aiming to produce “an epic novel charting the immense, and uneasily settled, moral and racial territory of America” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 32). All that has been published, however, is the disappointing 350 pages of Juneteenth. As with Roth, this raises certain ethical issues with regard to the gap between the intended and resulting text.

Finally, and to return to similarities in the literary fates of Roth and Ellison, the relative critical reception of the two sets of works is again revealing. Given the unusual, even freakish, careers of Roth and Ellison, it is not surprising that reviewers demonstrated a preoccupation with the way the events of their lives had so protractedly affected their inability to complete second novels. Unavoidably, it seems, reviewers found it impossible to assess the merits of the new work without reference to the old, published decades previously. Sometimes, this involved a relatively sensitive reevaluation of the old work in the light of the new. In Roth’s case, for example, many reviewers now perceived Call It Sleep‘s status as fiction rather than autobiography somewhat challenged in the new light of Mercy of a Rude Stream. In the worst cases, however, reviewers often made simplistic comparisons between the earlier and later works. Predictably, given the esteem in which Invisible Man and Call It Sleep are held, the new works were generally found wanting. Tellingly, in his ‘Afterword’ to Requiem for Harlem Weil comments not only on the fatuousness of such comparisons, but alludes also to the other writer here under consideration:

As the first two volumes of the Mercy series came off the press, most reviewers felt compelled to compare these new works to a book published in 1934 when its author was a mere twenty-eight years old, as if a man in his late eighties was simply expected to pick up writing in the exact manner as he had done as an unexamined young man. The notion was absurd, and this wretched form of comparison would be enough to dissuade any blocked writer, like J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, or the late Ralph Ellison, from even contemplating a new work late in life (276).

Ellison indeed suffered similarly from sometimes reductive comparisons to his earlier novels. James Wood, in a markedly critical review (both of Ellison and Callahan), claims that Juneteenth “veils in faded colors the bright, remembered perfections of Invisible Man” (38). Menand, as suggested above, is especially uncomfortable about the editorial process, declaring that “It seems unfair to Ellison to review a novel he did not write” (4). Like Weil, Callahan was clearly aware of the intractable position in which editing the great literary comeback placed him, stating that “It was inevitable…that whatever was published would be measured by the yardstick of Invisible Man” (‘Riffer’s Muse’, 31).

The editor of the long-awaited posthumous work of major literary icons is in an unenviable situation. Even if they perform their task with utmost proficiency, critical praise is more likely to be directed at the writer. If, as in these cases, the resultant texts are perceived as multifariously unsatisfactory, they are likely to be the recipient of heavy criticism. Given what I have said about Callahan and Weil it would be easy to assume that I, too, am highly critical of their respective work. This is not the case, and I merely wish to draw attention to the unusually difficult role of the editor in bringing to light texts such as Juneteenth and Mercy of a Rude Stream. Moreover, one must acknowledge that different pressures – commercial, moral, even legal in Weil’s case – were operating to make their tasks yet more onerous. To return to Claudine Raynaud’s assertion cited earlier in this essay, the published versions of these texts indeed resemble minefields of “excisions, deletions, changes,” that are at some remove from apparent authorial intention. Nevertheless, both editors finally deserve praise for their sincere efforts in an impossible situation, regardless of the imperfect resultant texts.

Works Cited

Berman, Marshall. ‘The Bounds of Love.’ The Nation 263: 8, (23 Sep. 1996): 25-30.

‘Brief Review.’ The New Masses 16: 7 (12 Feb. 1935): 27.

Bronsen, David. ‘A Conversation with Henry Roth.’ Partisan Review 36: 2 (1969): 265- 80

Callahan, John F. ‘The Riffer’s Muse.’ The New Republic 27 Sep. 1999: 31-35.

– – – . ‘Afterword: A Note to Scholars.’ Juneteenth. By Ralph Ellison. New York: Vintage, 1999. 365-68.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man (1952). London: Penguin, 1964.

– – – . Juneteenth. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Gretlund, Jan Nordby. ‘In a Run-Away Buggy,’ Frames of Southern Mind: Reflections on the Stoic, Bi-Racial and Existential South. Odense: Odense U P, 1998.

Howe, Irving. ‘Life Never Let Up.’ The New York Times Book Review 25 Oct. 1964: 1, 60-61.

King, Richard H. ‘The Uncreated Conscience of My Race/The Uncreated Features of His Face: The Strange Career of Ralph Ellison.’ Journal of American Studies 34: 2 (2000): 303-10.

Menand, Louis. ‘Unfinished Business.’ The New York Times Book Review 20 Jun. 1999: 4-6.

Porter, Horace A. Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001.

Raynaud, Claudine. ‘”Rubbing a Paragraph with a Soft Cloth”? Muted Voices and Editorial Constraints in Dust Tracks on a Road.’ De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep (1934). London: Penguin, 1977.

– – – . Shifting Landscape (ed. Mario Materassi). New York: St. Martin’s, 1987.

– – – . Mercy of a Rude Stream, volume 4: Requiem for Harlem. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

Weil, Robert. Personal Interview. New York City. 14 & 21 March 2002.

– – – . ‘Editor’s Afterword.’ Mercy of a Rude Stream, volume 4: Requiem for Harlem. By Henry Roth. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. 273-82.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. New Essays on Call It Sleep. Cambridge UP, 1996.

Wood, James. ‘The Writer and the Preacher.’ The New Republic 28 Jun. 1999: 38-42.

University of Nottingham


[1] In its 25th anniversary Autumn 1956 edition, The American Scholar conducted a symposium in which it asked prominent literary critics and academics to name their ‘Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years’. The only novel to be mentioned by two different contributors – Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler – was Call It Sleep. A further correspondence: a 1965 Book Week poll of writers and critics named Invisible Man as the most distinguished novel published during the previous twenty years.

[2] The influence of Irving Howe’s highly complimentary review, referring to Call It Sleep as “one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American” (1), and appearing on the front page of The New York Times Book Review on October 25th, 1964, should not be underestimated. This was the first time in the history of the newspaper that a paperback reprint had been given front page treatment.

[3] See Irving Howe’s essay ‘Black Boys and Native Sons’ (in Decline of the New [London: Lowe and Brydone, 1963]) for criticism of Ellison’s allegedly misguided ideology, and Ellison’s response ‘The World and the Jug’ (in Shadow and Act [London: Trinity Press, 1967]). The exchange is discussed thoroughly in chapter three of Jerry Watts’s Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life (Chapel Hill: UP of North Carolina, 1994). Ellison was also reproached for attending a White House Arts Festival in 1965, which had been boycotted by many other artists and writers in protest against the Vietnam war.

[4] See ‘If We Had Bacon’ in Shifting Landscape, the 1987 collection of Roth’s shorter pieces. This rather stilted surviving fragment betrays Roth’s uneasiness both with the aesthetic demands of social realism, and with trying to write less autobiographically-rooted material.

[5] The issue of the writers’ contrasting economic statuses should not be overlooked. While Ellison enjoyed a relatively prosperous lifestyle based on the proceeds of his writing, Roth and his family lived barely a step above penury, at least until Call It Sleep became commercially successful. It might be argued that neither circumstance is particularly conducive to producing major new writing: the former being too comfortable to be in a hurry to publish, the latter being too preoccupied with mere survival to be able to write.

[6] Ellison himself employs the phrase in his introduction to the 1982 edition of Invisible Man, xix.

[7] The Greg-Bowers method has in the last two decades come increasingly under fire from revisionist scholars who advocate taking greater account of editing as a necessarily social process. See, for example, Jerome McGann’s A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[8] One character, Jane, appears briefly in the contemporary interludes of volume one, but was, on Weil’s advice, cut from subsequent volumes. In his words: “The sections concerning her were kind of obsessive; they never went anywhere. It reflected [Roth’s] obsessions of the moment. He agreed immediately, so she was cut from the book” (Personal interview).

[9] To be fair to Berman, he also attests that “Robert Weil did a heroic job of transforming [the manuscripts] into roughly coherent volumes” (25).