Some people wondered if there had ever been a second novel at all, or if Ellison had just suffered from five decades of writer's block.

John Callahan knew better. Ellison's close friend and literary executor, the Lewis & Clark English professor had undeniable proof of Ellison's attempts: crate after crate of manuscript pages, notes and computer files from Ellison's Manhattan apartment that began arriving at his door. Callahan believed there was a second novel buried in the material — but to find it, he needed help.

"There was one person I thought could do it," remembers Callahan: Bradley, one of his undergrads. "There was rawness and shyness about him, and a curiosity about the world and about literature. He was still growing into his own stance," he says. But as a scholar, Bradley was far from raw: "The way Adam Bradley went about his own work, there was earnestness and seriousness to it. This was a guy with a very, very good mind."

Adam Bradley dug through Ralph Ellison's notes to find his mythic second novel.
Courtesy of Glenn J. Asakawa-University of Colorado
Adam Bradley dug through Ralph Ellison's notes to find his mythic second novel.
Jack Monahan, aka J.Familiar, the resident DJ in "Hip Hop Poetics," along with resident MC Nick Webb (aka Eckho).
anthony camera
Jack Monahan, aka J.Familiar, the resident DJ in "Hip Hop Poetics," along with resident MC Nick Webb (aka Eckho).

Ensconced in an attic room in an old manor house on campus, Bradley started cracking open boxes of material that hardly anyone but Ellison had seen. And almost immediately, he began discovering characters and scenes that had nothing to do with Invisible Man. "I had almost a conversion moment," Bradley remembers. "I realized these were fragments of the mythic second novel."

But how would they piece all those fragments together? Decades of work stretched out across thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper, from handwritten pages to yellowed typescripts to scribbles on the back of envelopes and telephone bills; Ellison had left few directions to tie them together. So Bradley began the monumental task of inventorying and organizing everything, using clues like ink colors, typefaces and paper stocks to come up with a chronology for when the words had been written. He'd spend hours after class holed up in the attic, and worked there in the summer, too.

Over time, he realized that much of the writing involved Ellison's reworking the same passages over and over. Scenes he wrote in the '50s and '60s were revised in the decades that followed, then revised again. And in the 1980s, when Ellison began working on computers, the freedom of the new technology — the ability to cut and paste as he pleased, to rework typed sentences on the fly — seemed to release his writing from all sense of restraint. The eight-page prologue written in the '70s had ballooned to 350 pages when Ellison reworked it on the computer. And while the central narrative seemed to take place in the 1950s, Ellison peppered his revisions with anachronisms, everything from black men sporting Afros to references to the lunar landing.

Bradley came to believe that Ellison had set a Sisyphean task for himself: not just to write a second novel, but to pen the great American novel. "He was seeking to achieve the aura of 'summing up,' of explaining America to itself and to the world," says Bradley. "Think about how daunting a task that is. It's like he would look up from the keyboard and the world would have shifted. So he goes back to work, and he looks up from the keyboard and ten years have passed, and the country has changed again."

The years were passing for Bradley, too. While Callahan published a portion of Ellison's work as the book Juneteenth, Bradley went off to Harvard to pursue his Ph.D. in American literature — and met his future wife, Anna Spain Bradley. Still, he and Callahan kept returning to their original mission, chipping away at Ellison's lost novel. "When he takes on a project or an initiative that most of us would think of as work, he sees it as his craft, as a labor of love," says Anna. "He sees his work as something that contributes to him as a person."

A narrative was gradually emerging from Ellison's papers. It was the story of the light-skinned Adam Sunraider and a black man named Alonzo Hickman who raised Sunraider like a son. The similarities with Bradley's background were impossible to ignore. Callahan, who was estranged from his own father and had found a father figure in Ellison, had come to see Bradley as a son; he encouraged him to see his own father. "I told him, 'I can sense how painful this is, but I think you can track your father down,'" remembers Callahan. "'This is none of my business except I love you, and if you don't do this, you are going to regret it.'"

While Bradley was still in college, his father had made a tortured, ten-minute call to him — then never called again. Now Bradley took the initiative and dialed. When the man on the other end said something about wanting to do a paternity test, Bradley swallowed his pride and agreed. And then, when his father didn't call back, Bradley showed up on his doorstep in Encino in 2003.

At the time, Bradley was interviewing for a job at Claremont McKenna College. He took the position and got to know his father — a onetime television producer who'd married but never had any other kids. They discovered they had a common love of jazz, and Bradley would share stories of his life with the exuberance of Ellison's prose and the enthusiasm of his favorite rappers.

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6 comments
Musician
Musician

rap is often negative, ethnic and gang related and this can be proven. NOT a true style of music, more of a justification of expression and way to get rich for some. NOT the intention originally of music

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hoho11

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Paulie P
Paulie P

So, this is what passes for higher ed these days? Cutting funding is sounding more reasonable.

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