The Ralph Ellison Project: Literary Executor John Callahan is interviewed about the author of Invisible Man

Being named literary executor of any writer’s estate would be quite an honor, let alone if the writer whose works you now caretake is Ralph Ellison, author of one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, Invisible Man.  For long time Ellison friend John Callahan, “It was a challenge, and it was intimidating, exhilirating…”

Among the work left for Callahan was editing Ellison’s long awaited second novel, released as Juneteenth in 1999.  This proved to be no small task, as it involved the editing of over 2000 pages of Ellison’s manuscripts. Because this novel was over 40 years in the making, there was great anticipation throughout the literary community and among Ellison’s fans.  “The fact is, there is this posthumous work that needs to be out there, that’s wonderful stuff, that will allow many readers a shot to read what he wrote. You do the best you can, knowing there will be criticism,” Callahan said.

Callahan currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a humanities professor at Lewis and Clark College. Besides Juneteenth, as literary executor to Ellison’s estate, he has edited The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Flying Home and Other Stories, and Trading Twelves : The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Additionally, he is well known for his work in American and African-American literature.

Callahan offers an expert perspective on the life of Ralph Ellison in our exclusive interview…Hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.




JJM What is your background?

JC It’s pretty much stone Irish. I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, in an ethnically diverse neighborhood and was pretty much taken with writing.

JJM Where did you go to school?

JC I started in the public schools and then my mother was determined to put me into the parochial schools. I went to Notre Dame High School and then to my father’s college, Holy Cross. I went to University of Connecticut and from there to University of Illinois, where I got my PhD. I came here to Oregon in 1970.

JJM Did you want to be a writer from the time you were a child?

JC Yes, I thought I might become a lawyer or a writer, which is the Irish way.

JJM Was there a book you read that made you want to become a writer?

JC I suppose Fitzgerald’s stuff had a real impact on me when I was in college. I also was struck by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Something that was going on in that book stirred me.

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

JCI loved Whitey Ford. I was a left-hander and wanted to be a pitcher and identified with Ford. Also, there was a black athlete named Levi Jackson who was the first black captain of the Yale team. My father took me to games. Levi Jackson broke my heart twice in one year, when I was about seven years old. It must have been 1948 or ’49. There was a football game that year, and Holy Cross was ahead 13 – 7.  They had the ball on the Yale one yard line in the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t get the ball in. Jackson played both ways, offense and defense, and made the tackle to stop Holy Cross from scoring. They subsequently got the ball, and Jackson carried the ball for the winning touchdown. Later that year, during the basketball season, which was Bob Cousy’s great year, Holy Cross was ranked #1 in the country. We went to the game against Yale. Holy Cross started out in control of the game, going ahead something like 20 – 12. Yale called a time out and put Levi Jackson in the game. He immediately made a couple of quick baskets, even stole the ball from Cousy once, and Yale upset Holy Cross. I realized Jackson was very special, and I looked up to him after that.

JJM How did you get to know Ralph Ellison?

JC  I had been interested in Invisible Man for a long time. It had a very strong impact on me, probably even a greater impact than the Fitzgerald stuff. Once I started to write about literature and became a literary scholar, I always had a sense that I would write something about Invisible Man. Ellison was important to me because I was writing on Fitzgerald, and there was a problem I wanted to solve in Tender is the Night. I was convinced it had something to do with race, but I didn’t know what. This friend of mine, a black poet named Michael Harper, told me to look at some chapters in The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois.  While you are at it, he said, look at these essays of Ralph Ellison’s, that were not published in his collection of essays Shadow and Act.  So, I did, and they really opened up my eyes and enabled me to do the best that I could do with this issue in Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s view on the Civil War, reconstruction and the trail of American values, including the value of equality. I thought, when I get done with Fitzgerald, I wanted to explore Ellison deeper.

In 1977, I wrote an essay where I argued that Ellison’s essays provided a way to read not only Invisible Man, but really to read American literature. For me, it was an important piece. When I got done with it, I found Ellison’s address and sent it to him. I didn’t expect to hear from him, but I was wrong. About five weeks later, I got a long single-spaced letter from Ellison, and it was a really wonderful letter. It was as if I had known him for a very long time. The letter was written as if it were a continuation of a conversation. He said at the end of the letter to look him up if I were ever in New York. A couple months later, I went to New York. He and his wife (Fanny) were very formal, very warm people. They welcomed me into their home, at precisely four o’clock in the afternoon. You really wanted to be on time with the Ellison’s. As I said, they were very warm and very formal. They called me Mr. Callahan and I referred to them as Mr. and Mrs. Ellison. He ushered me into this lovely mid-town apartment that had a stunning view of the Hudson River. There was a study through an archway. In the middle of the living room was a glass coffee table and a couch on either side of it. He put me on one side and he on the other. We sat there and talked and it was always “Mr. Ellison” and “Mr. Callahan.” You never would have known that he was a vernacular guy from Oklahoma City, and I was a vernacular character from up the line in New Haven. It was if we were from the pages of The Wings of the Dove. It was very formal, and we talked about this and that. Obviously it was an initiation of some sort, and I was aware of that. At precisely five minutes before five, he slapped his hand on the table and said, “Well, John, would you like a drink?” I said, “Yes Mr. Ellison.” He said rather loudly to me, “What?” I understood his meaning and said, “Sure, Ralph!” He said, “That’s better!” He goes out to the kitchen and comes out with a bottle of bourbon for me, Jack Daniels for him…

JJM Who were the people that were most inspirational to him in terms of his interest in becoming a writer?

JCA number of people from his past were inspirational to him. His father was very important to him. His teacher at Tuskeegee Institute, Hazel Harrison. If you read his essay, “Going to the Territory,” you see the people that he grew up with, in the segregated schools of Oklahoma City. Inman Page, who was the first black graduate of Brown University, who in his later years in the 1970’s became the principal of Frederick Douglas High School in Oklahoma City. He was a very stern task master. His daughter was a woman named Zelia Breaux, who was the music teacher who taught Ellison a great deal. Ellison used to cut grass for a man named Hebestreet, who was a conductor for one of the symphonies, in exchange for trumpet lessons. Hebestreet felt Ellison had talent and taught him some things about orchestration. Harrison had been a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni’s, and owned an autographed manuscript of Prokofiev. The famous composer William L. Dawson was very important to Ellison. He wrote a symphony that was very much in vogue in the 1930’s and 40’s, and when Radio City Music Hall opened he was asked to be on the program – he and his choral group from Tuskeegee. Those were influences on Ellison in terms of music. In literature, you get into a number of people, certainly some who exalt the left will make the case that Richard Wright was a pivotal figure. I don’t think that’s true. Wright was a good friend, and he encouraged Ellison, and Ellison was always very warm in his feelings for Wright. As far as literary ancestors, Wright and Ellison both tried to learn from Dostoyevsky, Conrad…Andre Malraux was very important to him….

JJM You hear about Mark Twain a lot when you read about Ellison. How much influence did Huckleberry Finn have on him?

JC  I think there was some. You think about Huckleberry Finn and Invisible Man you have a similar use of the vernacular in a picaresque form. Huck is of course not as naïve as Invisible Man. Invisible Man has got to be one of the most naïve protagonists in American literature.

JJM How so?

JC Well, he is so damn dumb. He won’t get it through his head that he is being shucked and jived at every turn. Whereas Huck was a guy who would shuck and jive. There is a wonderful echo of Huck Finn in Invisible Man when Huck is on the raft with Jim and he is feeling guilty, because here he is with this slave, leading a guy to escape from slavery. He is somebody’s property, determined to help him get away. He goes on a little skiff off the raft, and he wants to lay there and say, “Look, there is a slave on the raft.” On the way to shore his path crosses the path of this boat, and there are three guys who are slave captors, looking for runaways. Even though Huck wants to turn Jim in, as he gets closer and closer to the boat with the captors, he can’t do it. Not only can’t he do it, when the captors say to him ,”What about that raft? We want to search it,” Huck goes through all this feinting about how he was glad they showed up. The captor questions Huck about whether anyone here has small-pox, and he says, “Well, I was going to tell you that.” When Invisible Man is in Bledsoe’s office after the Norton fiasco, Bledsoe says, “For God’s sake, you are black and live in the south and you have forgotten how to lie, boy?” Invisible Man’s response was, “What? Me? Lie to a trustee?” Bledsoe says, “Couldn’t you say they had small-pox?” I have to believe that’s an echo of Huck Finn…Invisible Man so much wants the Booker T. Washington gospel of social progress to work that he blinds himself to what’s around him.

JJM So much of Ellison’s work exposes and attempts to transcend the hopelessness of racism. Did he talk to you much about his own personal experiences?

JC Yes, a good deal. That is one of the connections that we had. He was fascinated by the Irish and saw a lot of parallels in what he as a Negro confronted in race – namely language and politics. He often talked about growing up. He said to me on a number of occasions, that one of the things that really was important to him when he was growing up, when he was 2 and 3, was that his father had a wide acquaintance in Oklahoma City. There would be white folks – Irish and French – and Negroes and American Indians who would all be in the house. He said that it was natural, this is the way things were supposed to be. Later on, those early experiences stuck to his ribs when he encountered racism. Not to say that Ellison couldn’t be a very tough customer when it came to racism, because he could if he wanted to be…

JJM One of the essays I read was “Being the Target of Discrimination,” where he wrote about seeing a school across the field from his house, but he had to walk to a different school…

JC Yes, he had to walk through a neighborhood where he learned about race relations, namely the “red light district,” where the black prostitutes were servicing their white guys all hours of the day and night.

JJM When did you discover that you were named his literary executor?

JC Shortly after he passed away. His wife, Fanny, and Random House asked me to edit the Collected Essays. Of course, the thing everyone was asking about was the second novel. She asked if I would help with that, based on the recommendation of some other people. We formalized it and asked me to serve as executor.

JJM Was that intimidating to you at all?

JC Yes. Sure. It was a challenge, and it was intimidating, exhilirating…

JJM It seems to me that it’s a “no win” thing. To put yourself out in an environment where if you do the best job in the world, people will say it is because Ellison was the writer. If you do a sloppy job…it’s a tough position to be in.

JC Well, Ellison had written about that, of course, in his metaphor of invisibility. It mostly struck me as something that needed to be done. It has been and continues to be an honor. Picasso once said, “First you do something and then someone comes along and does it prettier.”  The fact is, there is this posthumous work that needs to be out there, that’s wonderful stuff, that will allow many readers a shot to read what he wrote. You do the best you can, knowing there will be criticism. Some of the criticism is foolish if not outright contentious. When somebody dies, and doesn’t leave any instructions, and leaves chaos of manuscripts and papers, there are choices that somebody has to make.

JJM You had 2,000 pages or more to go through, much of the work written on scraps of paper, matchbook covers…

JC Yes. There was a whole set of manuscripts, I don’t want to distort the case. There were scraps of paper, yes, notes and scribblings that were notes written to himself, such as, “Work in anti-war demonstration in 1965 in Seattle.”  So, yes, it was a mess. Some of his early work, it was clear what he was doing. In the beginning, he handled the manuscript using the methods used for Invisible Man. Later on, that changed.

JJM When he wrote Invisible Man he was an unknown writer, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on him to write. But, after Invisible Man was written, there must have been an enormous amount of pressure on him to come up with another novel.

JC Sure, he had made a commitment to himself and others to be a novelist. A novelist writes novels. He started writing this book, in terms of putting things on paper, a couple years after writing Invisible Man.  He used to say he would “finish the book at the end of this year,” or “maybe next year.” Year after year goes by…To be really scrupulous about it, early on he was an essayist. He wanted to write and did write about music, literature, the culture, politics. He wrote autobiographically. The novel was, I think, primary in his mind.

JJM You mentioned music, and he once said, “I am not particularly religious, but I am claimed by music.” His wife, Fanny, said “When he can’t find the words in the typewriter, he goes upstairs and plays the trumpet.” How was music a model for him?

JC I think the craft of it – music as an expression as something that is rooted in a very specific set of notations and has a kind of inevitability about it. Then, of course, you get into the vernacular, amazing mix of styles and techniques that pertain to the music that Ellison loved, in the classical tradition and in opera and jazz, the American music of improvisation, a music that is inspired and driven by the American Negro experience. It is not African, it is not French. It’s a mix, and it is improvisatory, it’s fluid, always changing.

JJM He was really intrigued by the ritual. His essays indicate he was perturbed by bebop. When Charlie Parker was at his peak, Ellison criticized Parker big time, seemingly because bebop took the ritual of the dance out of jazz…

JC The swing and dance of jazz was very important to Ellison, yes. I think he eventually mellowed a little on Parker.

JJM I came across something that Norman Mailer said about Ellison…”That Ralph Ellison is very good is dull to say. He is essentially a hateful writer – and when his satire is pure he writes so perfectly that one can never forget the experience of reading him. It is like holding an electric wire in one’s hand.”  Was Ellison a hateful writer?

JC No I don’t. I think Ellison was able to tap into all the frequencies of human emotion,  and hate is one. If you think about Ras the Exhorter and his speech, where do they come from? Hate and hurt. Ellison was able to represent and project hatred through his characters, in the case of Bliss and Sunraider in Juneteenth, and other characters. Very often that gets transcended.

JJM One of Ellison’s great influences was T.S. Eliot. He enjoyed Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” and made a connection between this poem and what Ellison referred to as “the rowdy poetic flights of Louis Armstrong.” He was quoted as saying this about “The Wasteland.” “Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets. Even though I could not understand them, its range of illusion was as mixed and varied as Louis Armstrong.” Maybe I am simplifying this too much, but when he says that he “couldn’t understand them,” it brought me to the realization that I have difficulty understanding Ellison at times, particularly in Juneteenth. Is Ellison a difficult writer for the reader to connect with?

JCSomewhat. I think he gives a clue there, and that is the breaks. He saw “The Wasteland” as being organized into a succession of breaks, and in this unpublished autobiographical piece he wrote in the 1940’s he made a very explicit comparison of it to the choruses of Armstrong’s “Chinatown.” Breaks and discontinuities, and all the things we associate with modernism. The other thing he says about Eliot, and this is true of James Joyce as well, is that “what these guys were doing with myth, creating mythic structures, I saw similar possibilities in my own experience.”  That’s pretty damn new, for a black American writer to play around as consciously, deftly, skillfully and consistently, with the relationship between every day experience, and specifically the black folk experience in a quest for myth.

JJM The book Juneteenth was written over a period of 40 years. There was a huge setback with the fire that destroyed much of the manuscript in the 1960’s. How much work did he lose?

JC  He says he lost a year’s worth of revisions. I am not sure what that means. There is book one, which was written before the fire, then there is book two, a partial version of which I suspect was done before the fire, and there are notes beyond those. He published a piece called “Night Talk,” in 1969, which I think was Chapter 13 in Juneteenth.  I would bet my bottom dollar – I don’t have absolute, forensic proof – but my hunch is that is one of the things he wrote after the fire. A number of questions about the book were structured ones, formal ones, for example, was the material meant for more than one book?

JJM Did he delay the writing of the book because he thought it was possible his views on race would be considered antique? He started it in 1952…

JC I don’t think it had anything to do with that. I think Ellison was very conscious that what a novel needed to do was tell a story and elicit a movement. There are so many notes I found about “movement.” “Dramatize,” “action,” etc., that indicated a need to have action infused into the story. I think what he had trouble with, when you look at the manuscripts and the stuff he was doing at the end of his life, there were sections that he spent a month on, basically to rewrite and revise and embellish a little bit a scene he had written in 1959. He didn’t improve it. If anything, I think the first scene was probably somewhat better. That was true of the Lincoln scene in Juneteenth, where you have Hickman at the Senator’s bedside and he starts to think as a reverie, and in the midst of that reverie he remembers going to the Lincoln Memorial the previous day. Later on, toward the end of his life, when Ellison has Hickman in Washington, he is not at the Senator’s bedside anymore. He is killing some time with some members of his congregation. They get on one of those silly tour buses that goes around the mall in Washington. They go from the hotel, to the Lincoln Memorial, and they get out of the bus, go up to the Memorial, they get back on the bus, and get back to the hotel. He wrote that in 1989, and he tried it again in 1991. It was ok, but it doesn’t seem to me to have the kind of novelistic tension or drive or splendidness that he wrote in the 1960’s. Not all the tinkering and revisions were salutory.

JJM In the notes section of Juneteenth he wrote, “Reverend Hickman has staked a great part of his life on the idea that by bringing up the boy with love, sacrifice and kindness he would do something to overcome the viciousness of racial division.” Did Ellison feel that Invisible Man was too racially divisive?

JC No. Not at all.

JJM So, this theme of forgiveness in Juneteenth, where Hickman raised Bliss – who as Senator Sunraider then turned against him, yet Hickman forgave him – that theme wasn’t as a result of anything from Invisible Man.

JC I don’t think so. He was fascinated with the black church. I think there are a number of connections between the books. One of the things Invisible Man has to do is forgive himself.

JJM Did Ellison put himself in the character of Hickman? I found it interesting that Hickman was a trombone player that turned preacher, and Ellison was a trumpet player that turned writer……

JC I think you can play with that. I think what is more interesting to me in a way than that parallel is a matter of “voice.” One of the things I found in going through the manuscripts is that the older Ellison got, the more indistinguishable Hickman’s thoughts, Hickman’s voice became from Ralph Ellison’s. Early on in Juneteenth, it seems to me that Hickman and Ellison were more distinct and Hickman really has a voice of his own, with his own persona and character. Later on, I felt, after working through all the material, it was as if, late in his life, Ellison was trying to put every thing he knew or thought into Hickman. That’s kind of tough – it’s an easy temptation, I think, for writer to get into. On the other hand, there has got to be the kind of “hanging judge” that reminds him that he is not Hickman. I think that became an aesthetic problem for him.

JJM Another interesting point from the book…Sunraider was a Senator from New England. When you think about a racist Senator, I think about the Mason-Dixon line. Why did he put Sunraider in New England?

JC  That’s the American joke, it seems to me, that nothing is as it appears to be, and if you think about it, he was rather prophetic if you think about George Wallace’s political success in 1968 and 1972, when he carried Michigan. I think Ellison was trying to communicate that racism is a national problem.

JJM In other words, racism lurks everywhere, don’t ever stop looking over your shoulder..

JC Yes, and what he tried to get at too that the reviewers really missed the boat on is the allegory that Hickman is too perfect. Hickman has his flaws. He puts his little boy, Bliss, through a lot of awful stuff that a grown man has no right to put a little boy through. He was made to be put into a box and petrifying him and so on…The little boy, who kind of talked “black” and was considered to be black. But this woman who claims to be his mother kidnaps him and he goes back and forth about who he is, and he airbrushes out a good deal of his past and connect with what seems to be in vogue, what seems to enable him to be successful. Yet he misses something. At the extreme hour at which he is assassinated, and as he begins to become delirious and lose consciousness, he remembers the words of the old refrain, “Lord, Lord, why hast thou forsaken us?” But he doesn’t say “Lord, Lord,” he says “Lord, LAWD.” He dips into the black idiom that never goes away.

JJM What is Ralph Ellison’s legacy?

JCWell, he gave us his metaphor for the 20th Century – which still continues to be crucial now – invisibility. “I am an invisible man.”  Invisible Man is one of the great books, it starts with a metaphor, and one of the reasons the metaphor works so well is because it is so indisputably rooted in a particular tradition, particular person, particular group and then by virtue of that specificity, it becomes universal. I think the other legacy of Ellison is the defiant complexity of his mind, in his views about America. Ellison was a very patriotic writer. That is, his “love of country” in its orderliness, its concreteness, its diversity, its ideals. At the same time, as any patriot, he was an obstinent critic of the country when it falls short of its own values and ideals.

JJM Is there other work ahead for you concerning Ellison?

JC Yes. There are letters. He wrote letters over a 60 year period, starting with letters to his mother when he was in Tuskeegee. Marvelous letters. I published a short selection of letters a couple years ago. So, there will be a volume of what will likely be called The Collected Letters of Ralph Ellison.  This will be a volume of major importance, covering some 60 years in American life.

JJM Is the letter he wrote to you in there?

JC Yes, I think so. I have about five or six letters from him and I will put something in the book from those.

JJM I have only just begun reading the letters in Trading Twelves, the book of letters written by Albert Murray and Ellison.

JC Yes, some of those letters will be in this book as well.

JJM How would you characterize their friendship?

JC They were running buddies at the time. They would let their hair down with each other. They were both “vernacular dudes”…Their friendship was at its height during that period, the 1950’s. Somehow, there was a need that they had to write those letters to each other. Those letters provided the closest bond between the two of them. They grew in their own ways beyond that point.

JJM They shared an interesting philosophy around music, and perhaps on the simplest terms the thing that most connected them was their love of Duke Ellington.

JC Yes, and they both wanted to be writers. They thought they had a point of view that was as good if not better than any other point of view, and it was a viewpoint they thought had to be out there. When Robert O’Meally was a student at Harvard, he meets Ellison and asks him if he doesn’t think it’s a shame that we don’t have any (American) institutions? Ellison said, “What do you mean? We have the Constitution, and we have jazz.” O’Meally says to himself, “What does he mean? What are the connections?” He figured them out, and Ellison wanted us to figure them out as part of a process. The Constitution is always able to be amended. It can be changed, it is a resilient, fluid document, just as jazz allows you to keep going. The individual and the group and ceaseless kind of contention, what Ellison called the “antagonistic cooperation.”

JJM The Ken Burns documentary on jazz really followed that theme. Burns felt there are three great institutions that document American history, the Constitution, baseball and jazz.

JC They used Ellison quite a bit in the documentary. You asked about his legacy, it was this wonderful vernacular. His work is lyrical, analytical, and he masters a number of different styles…

JJM While reading Juneteenth, I found myself reading it as I read poetry, putting the book down after passages and thinking about what was written…

JC I knew that was the case with Juneteenth, that this was dense stuff. It is the primary narrative in this long saga, that is really Ellison at his best, in his prime. But, I know damn well it’s going to take awhile…It’s like Faulkner. Faulkner was the guy Ellison was most intimately conversing with in the book. There is a kind of prophetic quality to Ellison’s work. It’s amazing to think that Invisible Man was written and published when “separate but equal” was the law of the land, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before integration. What you have, it seems to me, is a certain kind of prophetic quality of his work, about the 60’s, about the fight over integration on both sides of the color line. Black power movement, women’s movement, even identity politics, a “rainbow” in America’s future, 35 years before Jesse Jackson’s “rainbow coalition.” I think the same thing is true of Juneteenth, that last scene of the book, where Sunraider hallucinates this destructive, brilliant vision of these black characters in the car. They are not Schofield and Dupree, throwing a woman out of the tenement in Invisible Man. These guys have mastered the whole thing and made it run and made it work. You have Hickman on one side, with a lot of structure, and these guys on the other side, each with a different accent, and that’s what we got. Sunraider hallucinates the potential future of America…

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This interview took place on July 18, 2001




If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Ralph Ellison biographer Lawrence Jackson.