Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Unfinished Work: Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting

            The Enigma of Arrival; or, When Should We Have Read Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting? by Richard Purcell explores the historical context and political climate  during the long years spent writing Ellison’s novel as well as the more recent implications for the Obama presidency once it was released posthumously. Purcell points out that many critics of Obama said he was ‘not black enough’ just as one character said of the main character in Invisible Man but others also criticise that Obama also suppressed his black heritage in a similar fashion to Senator Sunraider in Three Days Before the Shooting. While I found these points to be well made, my interest lay more with his explanation as to why Ellison was unable to finish Three Days Before the Shooting;  namely the rapidly shifting political and cultural climate, Ellison’s desire to ‘rebuke the dangerous, anti-human forces he saw represented in Reagan’ (Enigma,183), and the shift in Ellison’s style and craft which sent him into an editing loop.
            In another article by Richard Purcell titled “Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?” he explores the idea that Ellison’s purchase of a personal computer was a major contributing factor to the status of‘Three Days Before the Shooting’. He refutes the notion that Ellison was the very first author to use a word processor, citing Len Deighton’s ‘Bomber’ in 1970 as the first novel written with the technology. While Ellison did purchase the very first P.C. released in 1981 called the Osborne 1 pre-installed with WordStar, Purcell asserts that many more factors should be considered when speculating Ellison's unfinished novel. Those reasons are better explored in his first article ‘The Enigma of Arrival’.
            Could changing from handwritten manuscripts or a typewriter to a word processing program make a big enough difference in his writing process to cause Ellison to fail? Purcell reports that Ellison had 489 files stored away with 423 of them containing old scenes for Three Days Before the Shooting and some held edits done a decade apart-- many of those edits were not significant ones. I am left wondering if the easily saved files with endless opportunities to edit and change the prose somehow stalled out Ellison’s creative project and left him chasing his tale (misspelling and pun intended) in hopes of making his story perfect.  This limitless and easy editing could lead to over-editing, lends itself to perfectionism, and ultimately could cause a writer to become frozen in one story that would remain forever unfinished.
            Modern writers often suggest switching to pen and paper to help cure writer’s block by removing unnecessary distractions, and even go so far as to say it uses a different part of our brain in order to ‘shake something loose.’ They argue that writing on a computer gives one less time to think and that the writing process itself becomes much more ‘sudden’. There is no way for me to know what Ellison did in the quiet moments spent tapping away on his P.C., though I think it’s safe to say in those days he didn’t have the same level of distractibility as we do today with the long list of websites sucking away our time.  Nor can I say what his experience of the two different modes of writing were or which one he found to be more appealing. I can only stick to the facts: he produced a prodigious amount of words (Three Days Before the Shooting is no small book, coming in at a hefty 1,101 pages) and he spent 42 years on his sequel to Invisible Man.
As a writer who has had a pet project for more than ten years, I can speak with experience when I say that perfectionism plays a large part with drawn-out stories. Add to that the desire to have the story reflect the current times and I see a pitfall that most anyone could fall into. The question remains, did the process of writing change so drastically when using a P.C. that Ellison was unable to finish his novel or would the result still be the same even if Ellison had ‘kept it old school’ and stuck with pen and paper?
I agree with Purcell.  Ellison’s inability to finish his novel is more nuanced than the purchase of a computer, however he does little to explore this notion despite the title of his article (Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?).  While this article in particular was a review of Adam Bradley’s novel “Ralph Ellison In Progress; From ‘Invisible Man’ to ‘Three Days before the Shooting”, the core question of literary death by computer is left unanswered.
No. The laptop did not kill Ellison’s novel but it didn’t help him either. The laptop enabled him to fall into an over-editing trap simply by making it easier. The mode of writing changed the feel of the process itself, made him compose his prose in real time which gave him less time to think. However, these two issues on their own do not stop a writer from completing a novel. Otherwise, we would have no new novels to speak of in our modern times. Ellison may have simply run out of time, for who among us can predict the day of our death? Many issues piled atop Ellison and while he did his best, continuing to write up until weeks before his death, he simply could not overcome them. Firstly, he missed the big moment for his novel’s release with the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 when the United States overthrew segregation laws. His character’s reality in the story no longer fit America’s narrative. Next, his changing style led him to go back over his decades old work to nitpick and his perfectionism didn’t allow him to declare it finished.
Ray Bradbury has a short essay entitled ‘The Joys of Writing’ and in it he extols the virtues of writing one’s passion and allowing that passion to lead the way to the end of the story. He speaks of his process as being one that leaps onto the page with a quickness that both delights him as an author but also allows him to finish his work. Reading Bradbury’s take on the writing process and the way it is free flowing speaks to the exact opposite style of Ellison who seems to deliberate and put much emphasis on the deeper meaning of his stories. Perhaps on top of all the other factors keeping Ellison from finishing, he had lost the joy and the spark of excitement that would carry him through to the end of his novel.
Whatever Ellison’s reasons might have been for leaving Three Days Before the Shooting unfinished, there is no doubt that what he did accomplish has lasting impact on our culture today. From Obama to addressing racism in its more insidious form in which it strips individuality away and makes a man invisible, Ellison is a leading voice and points toward what American can and should be.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. New York, NY: Bantam Book, 1992.
Bradley, Adam. Ralph Ellison in Progress: From Invisible Man to Three Days before the Shooting. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2010. (viii, 244 pp.).
Purcell, Richard. "Did the Digital Age Kill the Literary Star?" Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture (2017 May): 241-256.
—. "The Enigma of Arrival, or, When Should We Have Read Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting?" Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture (BoundaryII) (2012 Fall: 39): 169-189.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bartleby is about charity, dammit.

Many people think Bartleby the Scrivener is about capitalism, but I would prefer not to.

At first glance, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville is a simple story.  A lawyer describes his employee, Bartleby, and his idiosyncrasies. Bartleby proves to be more trouble than he’s worth, so the lawyer washes his hands of him and moves on. Bartleby as a consequence, dies in jail. However, a closer look can gives us a chilling picture of charity gone wrong.

Melville’s story starts with a quick statement of intent to tell of Bartleby followed by an overview of the status quo for his office. He gives quite a bit of detail about his employees Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, but he does not give their true names. I find it worth noting that the lawyer is more concerned about their superficial appearance and the way their behavior affects their work (and thus him as their employer) than he is with their personal lives. Perhaps he is more concerned about telling Bartleby’s story and glosses over the other characters to get to Bartleby’s tale more quickly. However, this notion is belied by the fact that he spends almost three whole pages on these characters, almost to the point of causing the descriptions drag on, with absolutely no mention of family or aspirations. His focus on superficial details speaks to the lawyer's self-interest.

Bartleby does well at first, but before long he begins to ignore the lawyer’s instructions and does not comply with what would seem like the simplest requests. This catches the lawyer’s attention, not only because it is an affront to his authority, but because it causes him hardship. He does little to explore why Bartleby behaves in this eccentric manner, instead focusing on how it made him feel. Anger and frustration are a recurrent theme.

While it is easy to say the lawyer is a push-over who easily backs down, the actions he ultimately takes (moving his office to be rid of Bartleby and allowing the police to take over) shows something more. This is a man who wants to feel good, to feel like he did the right thing with as little effort as possible. Instead of helping Bartleby in a meaningful way, which would require time, effort, and money on the lawyer’s part, he would rather take the fast and easy solution, one that pushes the responsibility of Bartleby onto other people, but one that also allows him to avoid criticism.  After all he could argue, he offered to pay Bartleby extra, to help him find another job, even went so far as to make the empty offer of opening his home.  These offers are empty because the lawyer knows that what troubles Bartleby is more than simple material needs as evidenced by his thought: “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.” (Norton,1496)

Adding another layer to the falseness of the lawyer’s offers to help Bartleby is the fact that these offers came only after he wished to be rid of the problems Bartleby created. The lawyer was willing to allow Bartleby to remain in his office until his peers began to take notice and gossip. He also did not go back to visit Bartleby until his old landlord came to him to tell him he was responsible. The lawyer goes to the jail to visit, but again pushes the care of Bartleby onto others by paying the cook to attend to him. In the eyes of the lawyer, it is preferable to part with money than it is spend time with Bartleby-- hence my assertion that the lawyer’s ‘charity’ is self-serving. The lawyer gets to go home guilt-free with little real effort on his part.

While I can understand the theory that this story is a tale of the American workforce and the role capitalism plays with Bartleby standing in for civil disobedience, I think this is a study in the nature of charity. The lawyer falls into the trap of false charity, one that is best described as a two way street. He expected Bartleby to do something for him; to improve himself, to work, to go away… he never once practiced true charity by giving without expecting anything in return. The lawyer’s view of charity is understandable and one that we all are vulnerable to subscribing to, but Melville shows us that such charity can end up doing more harm than good with Bartleby’s death in the end. While it is incumbent upon us all to be responsible for ourselves, and to recognize that there are people who no matter how much we might do for them cannot be helped, we must also be careful to examine our own motives and reasoning when offering help. The easy thing would be to say, ‘don’t be selfish’ but as Melville shows us, sometimes such selfishness is not easily recognized. I’m sure if the lawyer could speak directly on the subject he would be indignant at the accusation and make all kinds of excuses.  The ending of Melville’s story tells as much. The lawyer blames Bartleby’s problems on his time spent in ‘dead letters’ and takes no responsibility for his part. 

I believe the story of Bartleby is Melville's way showing us how to give purely and with good intentions. A simple story at first glance, yes, but one that reveals a heart of gold upon closer examination.


Goldfarb, Nancy D. "Charity as Purchase: Buying Self-Approval in Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'." Nineteenth-Century Literature  (2014 Sept): 233-261.
Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Healing in Room Twenty

This story is a continuation of Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen'. Lessing's powerful story is about a woman, Susan, who ...