Why Ralph Ellison Never Published a Second Novel During His Lifetime

Hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, “Invisible Man,” established Ralph Ellison as one of the most celebrated writers in America. Fans, critics and scholars alike waited impatiently for his second novel, which Ellison had begun writing by the mid-1950s. They would wait a long time.

Ellison exploded onto the literary scene in 1952 with the publication of his debut novel “Invisible Man,” which spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list and snagged the National Book Award (beating out Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” among others), becoming the first black author to win the prize.

Ralph Ellison in Italy, 1957. (Credit: James Whitmore/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

In the years following “Invisible Man,” Ellison published acclaimed essays but failed to produce the sweeping, ambitious second novel he had promised. In late 1965, Ralph Ellison finally published an excerpt of that long awaited book in the Quarterly Review of Literature. The excerpt, titled “Juneteenth,” referenced the June 19 holiday marking the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Texas, and announced that the state’s 250,000 slaves were free according to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The story, about a black Baptist minister who raises a child of undetermined race, only to see him reinvent himself as a race-baiting U.S. senator, whetted the public’s appetite for a forthcoming Ellison novel. Fans hoping to read a new Ellison work in the coming months, however, would be sorely disappointed. In 1967, a fire raged through the author’s summer home, and parts of the unfinished second book were lost in the flames. In the late ‘70s, Ellison’s wife, Fanny, claimed he had been ready to hand the novel to his publisher, right before the fire claimed the manuscript.

Ellison had begun writing his follow-up to “Invisible Man” as early as 1954. Over the next 13 years, he continued to work…

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