But then there are the writers who pour everything they have into one perfect life-work and then for some reason never publish another word of fiction. A prime example of this second category of writers is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a novel whose tremendous worth at once begs for further literary contributions and merits the author a well-deserved (if not particularly satisfying) retirement after changing the lives of so many readers. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the example of Ralph Ellison and his only completed novel, Invisible Man, because unlike Lee, Ellison was a vital and vocal member of the world literary scene both before and after his one great book changed the literary landscape in 1952.
Ellison published two other books in his lifetime-Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory-but they were collections of essays. Even though he was a major critical voice, readers were still eagerly awaiting a second novel when Ellison died in 1994. The main reason for Ellison's inability to finish another novel was probably his own self-proclaimed dissatisfaction with the imperfection of his writing-even with the National Book Award-winning Invisible Man.
Soon after his death, Ellison's literary executor, John F. Callahan, collected and published Flying Home and Other Stories, and then in 1999, manuscripts found in Ellison's home provided the material for Juneteenth, an unfinished novel that the same literary executor edited down from more than 2,000 pages (written over a period of forty years) to fewer than 400 pages.
Music and Literature
Ellison's original passion and training were for music, but he also loved literature, and when he was in college at the Tuskegee Institute, he fell under the spell of literary Modernism, which eventually led to him writing his one dazzling, challenging, disturbing, and extraordinary novel. While the events of Invisible Man are rooted in very serious modern social events, Ellison himself stated that its main importance as a work was in its style and experimental nature. Ellison never abandoned music, and Invisible Man attains to the perfection of form that’s almost solely available to sonic composers.
Ellison cited T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land as a major influence, but it's more likely that Invisible Man's labyrinth of seemingly picaresque but in fact highly controlled progressions are more inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses. While Ulysses echoes the form and music of Homer's Odyssey, Invisible Man resounds with the forms and resonances of music itself. In a rapidly evolving literary scene, though, which soon introduced the endlessly innovative works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, this obsession with form and pitch-perfection clearly kept Ellison in constant revision and never again allowed him to achieve such an accomplished and sustained totality (and tonality) in his writing.