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“The greatest pleasure to be found in Trading Twelves is the warmth of friendship.”–The New York Times Book Review
“The prospect of reading letters exchanged between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray suggests an opportunity to eavesdrop on history in the making.”–The Washington Post Book World
As soon as we began to discuss his current project, however, both of these assumptions changed. It was immediately clear that, like me, he had accepted the challenge of William Faulkner's complex literary image of the South, and that he shared other of my enthusiasms as well.
When I happened to run into Ralph again while I was on another trip to New York during the war, I had a very specific literary matter to talk to him about. He had written a short story about a flying cadet at an airfield obviously based on the one where I was stationed. The story was called "Flying Home," as in Lionel Hampton's popular jazz instrumental, and I had read it in Cross Section, a new collection of contemporary writing edited by Edwin Seaver. In this story a student pilot has had to crash-land his plane onto an Alabama plantation after flying into a buzzard. Ellison had made up the incident, but I couldn't wait to tell him that one of our planes actually had flown into an Alabama buzzard not before, but after his story was published. The buzzard that he had concocted at his writing desk in New York had actually come to life! The plane had not crash-landed, because it was a twin-engine medium bomber, rather than a single-engine BT-11 Basic Trainer or AT-6 Advanced Trainer. The impact had caused the vulture to get stuck in the partially split Plexiglas of the pilot/copilot cabin, and when the crew returned to the base the ground level temperature plus that of the plane itself was such that by the time I heard about what had happened and got down to the flight line, the cabin was reeking with barbecued buzzard.
He was delighted by the coincidence of the buzzard in "Flying Home," but he was certainly not amazed, because he then reminded me playfully that "stories endure not only from generation to generation but also from age to age because literary truth amounts to prophecy. Telling is not only a matter of retelling but also of foretelling." So the incident of the buzzard in "Flying Home" was entirely consistent with Ralph's conception of literature. (Incidentally, Ralph was also amused by my account of one of our cadets who could not resist temptation and zonked his AT-6 down to deck level and buzzed an Alabama cotton field at the peak of harvest time, leaving a stalk-brown right-of-way down the middle of all that infinity of post-Confederate whiteness. Some cotton picking black eagle, man!)
It was that Seventh Avenue exchange that turned out to be the prologue to what became our lifelong dialogue about life, literary craft, and American identity, a part of which is collected here. As for the most basic and most comprehensive assumptions underlying that dialogue, given the oversubscription to social science surveys and platitudes that now characterizes so many discussions about American culture in our time, perhaps the source of our orientation may not be as obvious as one might have once hoped. Ellison and I regarded ourselves as being the heirs and continuators of the most indigenous mythic prefiguration of the most fundamental existential assumption underlying the human proposition as stated in the Declaration of Independence, which led to the social contract known as the Constitution and as specified by the Emancipation Proclamation and encapsulated in the Gettysburg Address and further particularized in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.
Yes, it would be the likes of him from the Oklahoma Territory and me from the Deep South, the grandchildren of slaves freed by the Civil War, betrayed by Reconstruction and upstaged by steerage immigrants, it would be us who would strive in our stories to provide American literature with representative anecdotes, definitive episodes, and mythic profiles that would add up to a truly comprehensive and universally appealing American epic. Whatever the fruits of that grand ambition, he and I conceded nothing to anybody when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet.
The exchange of letters between Ellison and myself reprinted here took place between 1949 and 1960. The letters are arranged in the following chronological sequence: from Tuskegee and New York, 1949 to 1955; from Casablanca, Rome, and New York, 1955 to 1958; from Los Angeles and New York 1958 to 1960.
All our written correspondence ended when it did because by that time not only had long-distance personal telephone calls become more routine, but so also had long-range air travel, which meant that for an Air Force captain, space-available flights to and from the New York area were fairly easy to come by. Then in 1961 I was transferred from California to Hanscom Air Force Base outside Boston, only four hours north of New York by automobile. I retired in the permanent grade of major in 1962, moved to New York and began my full-time career as a writer, and so regular local calls ended all written correspondence between us except for Christmas cards.
From the Hardcover edition.