Albert Murray, Alabama-born, Harlem-based, essayist, novelist, and cultural critic, was, in the words of his friend and favorite subject, Duke Ellington, “the unsquarest person I know.”
Murray was a champion of the positive, resilient aspects of black culture, found in the down-home truths of the jazz and blues idioms he wrote about so incisively in his books. A lifelong opponent of the notion of inescapable black pathology, Murray viewed African American culture as a creative and ingeniously vibrant human response to a national legacy of racist suppression. He saw the broad expanse of American culture as a mixture of black and white traditions, a cultural “composite”, and his books featured iconoclastic ideas about the fallacy of race, the complexity of culture and the centrality of the arts and humanities.
Indeed Murray’s intellectual legacy—what he called “Cosmos Murray”-- encompassed a broad constellation of literary and vernacular influences and included such writers and thinkers as Thomas Mann, Constance Rourke, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as his celebrated fellow Tuskegee Institute alumnus, Ralph Ellison. But when Murray died in 2013, at the age of 97, most of his books were out-of-print, or available only via print-on-demand editions. Now, marking the centennial year of his birth, The Library of America is publishing Albert Murray: Collected Essays and Memoirs, a collection of his nonfiction works, in October, with a second volume of his fiction to follow.
The first volume – a compendium of his essays, reviews, autobiographical writing, literary and musical criticism and some previously unpublished materials – includes three of his best known and critically-acclaimed works: The Omni-Americans (1970), which challenged the “social science fiction of white supremacy” and “the fakelore of black pathology” found in the infamous Moynihan report, and in the work of such black literary figures as James Baldwin and Richard Wright; South to a Very Old Place (1971), Murray’s evocative, personal travelogue, a vivid account of his travels through the deep South; and Stomping the Blues (1976), a lushly illustrated treatise on the importance of blues and jazz in American culture, as reflected in the artistry of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Count Basie. The second LOA volume, which will be published in February, 2018, contains Murray’s quartet of picaresque novels featuring his alter-ego Scooter, in addition to his lone book of poetry, and a long and unpublished interview with Murray on the craft of writing fiction.
Both of LOA’s collections have been overseen by the editorial team of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, author, historian and literary/cultural critic, and Paul Devlin, a professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and editor of Murray Talks Music (2016), a collection of rare and unpublished writings on jazz and blues.
Publishers Weekly spoke to Gates and Devlin about Albert Murray’s intellectual legacy.
Professor Gates, you met Albert Murray in the early seventies. Prof. Devlin, you met him in 2001. What does the publication of this volume do for those who have studied him for years, and for those who may be unfamiliar with his work?
Henry Louis Gates: I was a sophomore at Yale in 1970, and at the time, we were surrounded by black ideological bullies, whether it was a black ideological bully espousing the Black Panther program, or Amiri Baraka’s and Maulana Karenga’s Black Cultural Nationalism, as well as the Nation of Islam. And we had white groups like the SDS trying to tell us how to be black and how to be radical [laughs]. You had to run the gauntlet of ideologies just to get through the day.
So when I read The Omni-Americans, it was like a burden was lifted from my shoulders. I read it from cover to cover, and savored every word. To have an adult, strong black male, very secure in his blackness, say ‘no, you don’t have the right to tell me how to be black’ was so empowering and ennobling. Albert Murray stood for complexity. [Which meant:] ‘Tell the truth about the black experience in its complexity.’ Since the day I read that [book] I’ve been calling it the way that I’ve seen it. Don’t edit it. Don’t shoehorn it. Don’t try to make it conform to someone’s ideological program. Just tell it like it is, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what Murray did. That’s what I do, and Paul’s in the same camp.
Paul Devlin: We learned from a master! This is the definitive scholarly edition of Murray’s nonfiction and thus it will be essential for longtime readers as well as for those readers discovering his work for the first time. Murray completists will appreciate seven previously uncollected pieces and one previously unpublished essay – on the relationship between black and Jewish communities – which happens to be among his very best essays. Scholars will find our bibliographical essay indispensable, while new readers, especially younger ones, will find valuable context in the extensive notes. For all readers, Murray offers precise diagnoses of some of the pressing social problems that are, unfortunately, still so relevant today. But his essays on art are just as incisive. And he perfected a personal style of irreverent, deadpan humor.
Murray’s non-fiction appeared in print a decade after his close friend Ralph Ellison published his novel, Invisible Man in 1952, and his oeuvre overshadowed Murray’s work. How do both of you address the long-held belief by some scholars that Murray was an echo of Ellison?
Devlin: They share some of the same concerns and in broad strokes their ideas about American culture and its African American influences look similar, but Murray is very much his own man. Ellison’s essay collections are composed entirely of occasional pieces – as are some of Murray’s – but there are no fully conceived nonfiction books in Ellison’s oeuvre, like Murray’s South to a Very Old Place, Stomping the Blues, and The Hero and the Blues. Murray covers plenty of terrain that Ellison did not. But to give Ellison credit where it’s due, he did help Murray get a writing assignment or two when Murray retired from the Air Force after two decades as a Major. Ellison was three years older and had been a professional writer that entire time.
Gates: Paul, just a footnote: The lines of influence went both ways. Murray influenced Ellison, if not more, than Ellison influenced Murray. Murray wrote more than Ellison. Ellison would call him and read passages of his second novel, and Al would critique them. And they shared letters [published as Trading Twelves]. They would have lunch all the time at the Century Club. They had a reciprocal relationship.
One of Murray’s central themes expressed in all of his work was his unrelenting attack on the social sciences for not being “scientific enough” in their observations of black life.
Gates: One of Albert Murray’s greatest contributions is his concept of the Social Science Fiction monster [laughs]: that you could reduce the literary complexities of the literary text to a sociological formula. That somehow, the Negro was a sociological problem. And everything the Negro did was reduced to sociology. That’s The Social Science Fiction Monster. And it robbed so many works of art, and so many creative artists in literature, music and the visual arts of their complexity. [Works of art] are buried in layers of ambivalence, ambiguity and complexity.
When I wrote The Signifying Monkey, I was looking for precedents in the black tradition, when artists and critics said you need to plow the grounds of the African-American [cultural] tradition. Ellison and Murray said this tradition is rich enough to be the basis of a whole new theoretical approach to art, and a discourse in the analysis of literature. They were fluent in the folk tradition, the vernacular tradition. [Murray and Ellison] talked about it all the time. Murray’s word for it was idiom. People now take it for granted that you don’t have to fly to Paris or Berlin in order to theorize about African-American literature.
Murray's pro-literary stance and ideals are perfectly in line with the kind of writers generally described as Men of Letters. Was Murray part of that tradition?
Gates: Murray was a profoundly learned man. John Holloway – my dissertation advisor at the University of Cambridge, and chair of the English department – wrote a book called The Victorian Sage (1953) about this sort of Man of Letters. These people were polymaths, polylinguistic, polyvocal, and you don’t find them anymore. Al was the last of a breed.
Proof positive of Murray’s polymath prowess will be on display in the second LOA volume, which includes a never-before-published, extensive interview with Murray, conducted in 1978 by Gates and Robert G. O’ Meally, who now teaches at Columbia University.
Gates: That interview, which miraculously turned up on Al’s 100th birthday, which would have been this year, was transcribed by Paul with lightning speed; it will also be published in the Paris Review this December. It’s all about his approach to writing. It’s really Al Murray’s theory of the novel and it’s amazing.
Devlin: I second that! It’s unique among his interviews for its focus on fiction – almost as if it were done for the Paris Review – but it was not. I think he’d be thrilled with its publication, and also thrilled that his books will be in print in perpetuity in elegant editions from the Library of America.