W&L's Conner Discusses Ellison's Unpublished Writings, Letters (Audio)

At one point in his inaugural lecture on Oct. 21 as the new holder of Washington and Lee University's Ballengee Professorship, Marc Conner brought his two primary areas of scholarship together in discussing the unfinished second novel of Ralph Ellison.

Conner, the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee 250th Anniversary Professor of English and associate provost at W&L, has been exploring the unpublished writings and letters of Ellison. At the same time, he writes and teaches about the great Irish novelist and poet James Joyce.

In describing Ellison's unfinished novel, "Three Days Before the Shooting. . .," which was published in 2010 as an edited manuscript, Conner drew a comparison between Ellison and Joyce. Ellison had spent 42 years after the publication of his award-winning "Invisible Man" writing the second book, but he never finished it.

" 'Three Days Before the Shooting. . .' is a space-clearing revisionist reading of both 'Ulysses' and 'Finegan's Wake,' " said Conner, referring to two of Joyce's primary works. "We can understand this as Ellison's supreme literary effort following the success of 'Invisible Man' to mirror, rival and perhaps surpass Joyce's great modern epics.

"This is what he aims for in 'Three Days,' and it partly explains why the book remains unfinished, because his ambition was so high, which means his 40-year struggle is also a struggle with James Joyce, the strongest figure in the tradition of modernist narrative."

Conner also discussed his current work compiling and co-editing, with Ellison's literary executor John Callahan, Ellison's “Selected Letters,” which will form a chronicle and autobiographical account of the writer's major ideas, struggles and triumphs.

Conner joined the W&L faculty in 1996. He received bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Washington and his master's degree and Ph.D. in English literature at Princeton University.

The Jo M. and James M. Ballengee 250th Anniversary Professorship was created in 1999 in honor of Washington and Lee's 250th anniversary. Ballengee was a member of the Law Class of 1948 and served as the rector of W&L’s Board of Trustees.

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