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The ghost of Hemingway

By Bradford Senning
Arizona Summer Wildcat
August 9, 1999
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Arizona Summer Wildcat

Arizona Summer Wildcat

Ask many people who the greatest American novelist is and they will say Ernest Hemingway. Ask some people what the greatest American novel is and they will say Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

By now their greatness is considered a foregone conclusion and the discussion centers instead, on comparisons: Is Hemingway really better than Faulkner? Is Invisible Man as good as The Catcher in the Rye?

This summer, readers are offered an opportunity to throw some more variables into the equation.

Though they have passed on, Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Ellison left behind unfinished manuscripts for the reading public to weigh with the best of their works.

Hemingway's True at First Light (Scribner's $26.00), is actually the fifth of his posthumous works. It is a fictional memoir about Hemingway's 1953 Kenyan safari, introduced and edited by his son Patrick.

The story follows Hemingway on hunting expeditions with his wife Mary, a blandished love affair with a local girl named Debba, and faux-sentimental conversations with everyone.

As critics have said about prior works, Hemingway is the kind of author you wish you had as a grandfather. He lays back as if it were on an old sofa chair and with a mellifluous journalistic style, practically puts you within the yarns he spins.

But there's not much of that here. True at First Light is a memoir that wants to be A Moveable Feast, but Hemingway is less adept in invoking the feeling of the African soil than he is, the feeling of the Parisian cobblestones.

What we do get, is a series of sometimes fun vignettes, sometimes good descriptions and a few attempts at what Hemingway once called "true sentences," which here come out barely essential: "All a writer of fiction really is, is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men" and "lunch was always an armistice of any misunderstandings."

A more formidable offering is found in Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth (Random House $25.00). Ellison wrote one published novel, Invisible Man (1952) and one unpublished novel (Juneteenth), in his lifetime.

He started the unpublished one in 1954 and was still working on it when he died in 1993. Juneteenth is a sort of anthology of Ellison's 800-page manuscript-in-progress, but it reads like a powerful, if unfocused novel.

Juneteenth opens with an assassination attempt on a senator named Sunraider. Reeling from his gunshot wounds, the senator works through memories of his boyhood raised by a black revivalist preacher named Hickman and his young adult life as a film-maker.

Ellison works up the senator's feverish tale with some delicious prose and as with Invisible Man, he treats some essential themes.

What makes Ellison the greatest African-American novelist behind Toni Morrison, is his audacity to denounce the white-black bargain that Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass before him accepted - education and economic gain are inroads toward social equality.

Ellison challenged this acceptance by writing stories in which black men who ignorantly consign themselves to American systems of opportunity, find their identities shucked from them like corn husks.

Although Juneteenth is unfinished, it reads better than most finished novels. It should be regarded as an indispensable addition to the world of American literature.