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Ralph Ellison: Juneteenth

Ellison spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and working on a colossal second novel that he never finished. In 1964, he published Shadow and Act, a collection of essays. In 1967, a fire gutted his home in the Berkshire Mountains, destroying hundreds of pages of material written for his second novel. The loss was devastating and significantly derailed his progress on the novel. (It also prompted him to purchase a photocopier and always make at least two copies of his work thereafter.)

Meanwhile, Ellison received the honors and the recognition that society gives to a distinguished man of letters. He was named a Trustee of the Kennedy Center, became a member of the exclusive Century Club (a social circle whose criteria for membership can be roughly summarized as "Be Awesome at What You Do"), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and held visiting professor appointments at Bard College, Rutgers, Yale, and New York University.

The question that dogged him for the rest of his career was: Where was the second novel? Did he have writer's block? Why wasn't he writing? Ellison's responded that he had plenty to write about, thank you very much—he was just very hesitant to release anything before it was ready. "I learned long ago that it's better not to have something in print that you feel isn't ready," he said.15 In 1986, he published a second essay collection entitled Going to the Territory. It was the last book he would publish in his lifetime.

On 16 April 1994, Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer and was buried in New York City. Five years later, his literary executor edited Ellison's 2,000 pages of unfinished manuscript and published just over 360 of them as Juneteenth, Ellison's long-awaited second novel. The novel received mixed reviews, with some wondering if the final product was true to the novel that Ellison envisioned. But perhaps the best commentary on his work came while he was still alive, from a 17-year-old girl who had recently read Invisible Man. Told that Ellison had not written a second novel, the young woman was shocked—not that he hadn't written the book, but that anyone expected him to. "How could he?" she said. "This novel has everything in it."16

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