The Schomburg Library, Harlem’s grand institutional collection of Afro-Americana and scholarship, immediately grabs PW’s attention upon exiting the 135th Street IRT station, setting just the right tone for an interview with novelist and critic Albert Murray. It seems quite appropriate that the Schomburg should be just around the corner from Murray’s apartment; it probably comes in handy for him. An enduring symbol of Harlem’s legendary role as the center of African American intellectual and creative life, the Schomburg evokes the depth and range of scholarship that characterizes Murray’s writing.
This month, a bumper crop of Murray’s work arrives from the Random House family. Pantheon is publishing his third novel, The Seven League Boots, and a collection of critical essays, The Blue Devils of Nada (both, Forecasts, Dec. 18, 1995), and Vintage is reprinting The Hero and the Blues, his classic critical study of blues and the art of literary fiction.
Murray’s wife, Mozelle, a retired New York City public-school teacher, opens the door to a modest light-filled honeycomb of an apartment that almost seems to be a branch of the Schomburg. Murray’s formidable library takes up most of one long wall, photographs of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and drawings and watercolors by Romare Bearden (an old friend and the subject of a typically lucid essay in Blue Devils of Nada) are arranged throughout the room. Mrs. Murray disappears into the apartment, which they share with their daughter, Michel, a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Murray, who turns 80 this year, emerges gingerly but enthusiastically from his study, a simple, neatly arranged desk tucked informally into a corner of the main room. His hair is grayer than it appears in his book-jacket photographs, and he now uses a cane (the result of an operation for an arthritic knee), but he still looks robust.
Murray projects an instantly engaging combination of professorial erudition and down-home joviality. A marathon conversationalist, he effortlessly delivers a tsunamic outpouring of learned, hip commentary on jazz, world literature, literary theory and, of course, the blues, all of it peppered with jokes, quips, snatches of vivid rural Alabama black dialect, wordplay and barbershop trash talk, periodically punctuated by spasms of unrestrained laughter from both author and interviewer, and by judicious sips of bourbon.
Born in 1916 just outside of Mobile, Ala., Murray is the real-world counterpart ot Scooter, the “brownskin boy” hero of his first two novels, Train Whistle Guitar (Pantheon, 1974) and The Spyglass Tree (Pantheon, 1991). Much like Scooter, Murray was raised in a rural black community in the 1920s, fished and hunted in the rivers around the Gulf and along the Bayou, listened to the blues and spirituals, the whistle of freight trains and the tales of Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and life in the briar patch.
In 1939, he graduated from the famed Tuskegee Institute (his good friend, the late Ralph Ellison, was a distant and impressive upperclassman at the time) and remained there teaching literature until he joined the Air Force in 1943. He retired as a major in 1962, managing along the way, to pick up an M.A. and squeeze in innumerable teaching and lecturing gigs at a variety of universities around the world. He published his first book, The Omni-Americans (Da Capo Press), an acclaimed collection of critical essays, in 1970 at the age of 54. His 1971 memoir, South to a Very Old Place (McGraw-Hill), ws nominated for the National Book Award, and he collaborated with Count Basie on the late bandleaders’s equally acclaimed autobiography, Good Morning Blues (Random House, 1985). “for five years,” says Murray, “whenever I wrote ‘I,’ I meant Basie.”
Train Whistle Guitar introduces the citizens and stories of Gasoline Point, Ala., as seen through the eyes of Scooter and his best friend, Little Buddy Marshall. Murray uses this classic coming-of-age story to provide a literary equivalent of the blues, creating a work rich in what he calls the “idiomatic particulars” of black life and presenting the people, stories, tall tales, folk traditions and music of his own background as a representative example of contemporary human consciousness.
His writing is an effort to create a framework for understanding the depth and power of the black American idiom, Murray explains. “There ain’t no U.S.A. that the world loves without us. You can put the spirituals right in there against the stained windows of the great cathedrals without a drop in aesthetic sophistication or profundity. I’m proud of that. I want to stake our claim to that. The world loves what we stylize.”
But he is also quick to emphasize that he is not claiming a racially based creative superiority. Great Art, Murray points out constantly, is about mastering an idiomatic style. American culture, he emphasizes, is “incontestably mulatto. Americans constantly confuse culture with race.”
He’s concerned with “extending, elaborating and refining,” his Southern black folk tradition into fiction, crafting that experience within the literary traditions represented by Mann, Joyce, Eliot and Faulkner. “Life is just particles and waves until we make a story out of it. Until we can get to a metaphor it doesn’t mean anything. It’s what Joyce called the “ineluctable modality.’ So when I’m talking about the blues I’m not talking about downtrodden people picking cotton in Mississippi. I’m talking about man just like Malraux is talking about Pascal’s image of man’s fate.”
Pointing to shelves, crammed with literary classics, Murray says his work is part of a literary “colloquium” of all the best that has been written. “You’re adding on. You had Mark Twain, Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne then Hemingway. And we look at these guys differently because each conception is affected by each new statement.”
But no matter how abstruse his theoretical foundations, Murray makes it clear that it is the “idiomatic particulars” that bring a work to life. In portraying “the problems of human consciousness in our time,” he says, the artist must “never give up the barbershop or the street. The novelist has to take it back to that. Like the musician, once he gets away from human feeling and away from dance, he’s just running exercises. If you don’t swing, forget it.”
Murray’s stories are epic, unlike the “social science fiction fiction,” of Richard Wright and James Baldwin he elegantly lambastes in The Omni-Americans and The Hero and The Blues. “Most of our black writers are not really interested in literature. They’re interested in justice, or they’re interested in power; not this intrinsic thing of being alive and getting the most out of life whether you have power or freedom. We can’t say all those lives that were spent in slavery were absolutely meaningless. Somewhere they got something. They found earthly salvation either in some formal thing they received or something they brought with them but somehow they had to feel it. That’s the basic problem of art.”
It is improvisation and “swing”—that elemental sense of motion, time and stylish existential response—that defines the jazz musican’s art and ultimately, says Murray, life itself. “Midway, middle passage, that’s where we start swinging. When I talk about swinging, I’m talking about resilience, flexibility. And I’m talking about perpetual creativity. That’s American and that’s us, grace under pressure—that’s what Hemingway said. If you get yourself boxed off into these political categories, you don’t get the universality. The blues is going to start—like life, like time—with 1 and 2 and then how many choruses can you swing?”
Like an arranger, Murray transcribes Scooter’s choruses, his growth and education, both in the classroom and out. In The Spyglass Tree, Scooter leaves behind the timeless patterns, “the also and also” in Murray’s lyrical riff of a phrase, of life in Gasoline Point to enroll in a black Southern college very much like Tuskegee. He has accepted the community’s “ancestral imperative,” that tradition and responsibility (to African American social aspirations and to the world at large) to learn and to make something significant of himself. The new novel, The Seven League Boots, follows Scooter out into the world of art and experience: he has graduated from college and, now a jazz bass player, is touring in a big band led by the Bossman, a fictional composite of Basie and Ellington, and his education (as well as ours) continues, illuminating the heroic, almost fairy tale-like existence of the jazz musician.
Of course, Scooter’s story is very much Murray’s story. “Yeah I’m Scooter. I’m working on the next book. He’s entering graduate school now.” Like Scooter, who learns his craft on the road, under the tutelage of journeymen and master musicians, Murray came late to publishing, spending time in the literary “woodshed” (as jazz musicians refer to practice time), teaching and working to develop his voice. “I didn’t think I was good enough. It’s like looking up and seeing Michael Jordan and thinking, I can play with him. I didn’t have anything to say. I’m coming from a foundation that has been really thought through. You take the challenge of all this stuff. Then when someone asks, ‘why did this old brownskin boy do so and so?’ You say, ‘Man, look at all them goddamn books, that brownskin boy went to school. This is serious stuff.’ ”
Murray is his own “representative anecdote” of black American life: “I am the ancestral imperative, I’m a role model. I know it. You want Colin Powell? I’ve done that too.” His characters are easily traced to his life but expand and resonate in the “timeless time of the fable.”
Murray was an athlete himself (high school quarterback, captain of the basketball team), and baseball saturates the pages of the first two novels. Murray has written some of the best fictional evocations of the game’s sensibilities, and his passages recall both the Negro Leagues and the insistent allure, for small-town boys, of faraway Big League Cities. Murray’s school years, described so memorably in South to a Very Old Place, provide the experiential basis for the fictional college life he creates in The Spyglass Tree.
Murray’s first published fiction, an excerpt from Train Whistle, appeared in a literary anthology, New World Writing (NAL, 1953) alongside contributors such as Nadine Gordimer and Gore Vidal. He was recommended to the editor Arabel Porter by Ellison. He moved to McGraw-Hill to work with Joyce Johnson, who edited South to a Very Old Place. He is currently represented by Andrew Wylie after many years with James Brown Associates. By 1985, when Good Morning Blues was published, Murray had a new publisher, Random House, and a new editor, Errol Mcdonald, then at Knopf. When McDonald moved to Pantheon, he took Murray and his long-anticipated second novel, The Spyglass Tree, with him (“The schoolboy in me was disappointed,’ said Murray. “I wanted that Borzoi on my book.”)
Much like the jazz musicians he so admires, Murray has achieved a kind of influential obscurity. He’s an intellectual’s intellectual, cited for his influence by writers as diverse as Stanley Crough, Walker Percy and John Edgar Wideman, and yet he is not much known among a general readership that would likely embrace his buoyantly lyrical fictional imagination.
Does it bother him? He pauses a beat: “Life is a low-down dirty shame. But I’m not going to cut my throat. I think my books are good. The irony is that they are all very well reviewed, they are not ignored. So I have enough evidence,” he laughs, “that I’m not insane.”
Walker Percy said ‘The Omni-Americans is the most important book on race relations of our time.’ So I’m not going to get caught up with that Fire Next Time stuff or those guys [rappers] on the cover of the New York Times magazine, because those are not representative anecdotes. They are not telling you about the possibilities. One will tell you how to get lynched but he can’t tell you how to be a Louis Armstrong. As Ralph [Ellison] would say, it’s enough to give the blues the blues. But I’m conditioned to deal with the blues. I really believe what I write so I have to apply it.”