Books
11:26 am
Mon August 30, 2010

Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation by Barbara A. Baker

It might better have been titled "An Introduction to Albert Murray," because without doubt Murray, who is still alive at 94 and living in Manhattan, is the most important Alabama writer that few Alabamians know much about.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

Do not be put off by the academic-sounding title. This is a highly readable collection, accessible and of interest to the common reader.

It might better have been titled "An Introduction to Albert Murray," because without doubt Murray, who is still alive at 94 and living in Manhattan, is the most important Alabama writer that few Alabamians know much about.

Born in 1916 and raised in Magazine Point, a black hamlet outside of Mobile, Murray attended the North Mobile Training School and then went to Tuskegee where he was a freshman while his soon-to-be friend for life Ralph Ellison was a junior. The two bonded, talked, read widely in the school library. Ellison left without graduating and moved to New York City. Murray graduated in 1939, stayed on to teach, served in the Army Air Corps in '44 and '45, took an M.A. at NYU with a thesis on Eliot and Hemingway, and, after another stint teaching at Tuskegee, rejoined the Air Force in 1951 and retired with the rank of major in 1962.

During the 1950s Murray was stationed in California, Europe and North Africa, and he and Ellison exchanged letters, now published as Trading Twelves. What those letters show is that even though Ellison had published "Invisible Man" in 1952, and was now hugely successful and famous, Murray was never his disciple or prot?g?, always his peer, exploring the same ideas at the same time.

Murray's first major publication, The Omni Americans, did not appear until 1970 but was the culmination of many years of reading and serious thinking. At a moment when black power, Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam were at their height and the Moynihan Report and other sociological studies were finding black culture separate and injured, Murray came out against this neosegregation. He refused to see himself as a hyphenated American. He offered the idea that not only were blacks 100 percent American, but that all Americans were mixed. We were, in a manner of speaking, a mulatto nation.

After his first book in 1970, Murray published a four-volume novel, beginning with Train Whistle Guitar and a half-dozen more nonfiction books, of which the best is perhaps the travelogue/memoir South to a Very Old Place, done for Willie Morris while Morris was editor of Harper's.

Murray read Thomas Mann, and found the Joseph story a useful metaphor. Thrown into slavery, Joseph ultimately prevails. Reading Hemingway, Murray agrees that the end for all of us is death, so it is how we live, with attention to duty and honor, that really matters. Otherwise, all is ultimately futile.

The controlling metaphor for Murray, however, who is the founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC, is jazz, American jazz, especially the blues. What happens in our lives is a low-down rotten shame and it shouldn't happen to a dog, so what matters is how we swing, tap our feet, face the blue devils another day. In jazz, you must be agile, able to improvise. There are moments for solos and heroics, as there are in real life. For Murray, heroism meant fighting the dragons, including, in the South, The Grand Dragons. His response, learned from thinkers like Joseph Campbell, was creative engagement. The dragon is an opportunity for heroism, not protest, not complaint.

This volume has several essays about Murray's life. The best overview is "King of Cats" by Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., and the best on Murray's relationship to Ellison is by John F. Callahan. Murray's reading, which was prodigious, is examined in several essays, and there are a number of interviews with Murray and reminiscences by long-time friends including Wynton Marsalis

This book, if it gets the right kind of attention, may be the catalyst for a surge of interest in the work of Albert Murray, one of America's premier literary intellectuals.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on August 30, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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