Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

Overview

This absorbing collection of letters spans a decade in the lifelong friendship of two remarkable writers who engaged the subjects of literature, race, and identity with deep clarity and passion.

The correspondence begins in 1950 when Ellison is living in New York City, hard at work on his enduring masterpiece, Invisible Man, and Murray is a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Mirroring a jam session in which two jazz musicians "trade twelves"—each improvising twelve bars...

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Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

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Overview

This absorbing collection of letters spans a decade in the lifelong friendship of two remarkable writers who engaged the subjects of literature, race, and identity with deep clarity and passion.

The correspondence begins in 1950 when Ellison is living in New York City, hard at work on his enduring masterpiece, Invisible Man, and Murray is a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Mirroring a jam session in which two jazz musicians "trade twelves"—each improvising twelve bars of music around the same musical idea-their lively dialog centers upon their respective writing, the jazz they both love so well, on travel, family, the work literary contemporaries (including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway) and the challenge of racial inclusiveness that they wish to pose to America through their craft. Infused with warmth, humor, and great erudition, Trading Twelves offers a glimpse into literary history in the making—and into a powerful and enduring friendship.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An invaluable slice of literary history.... Fascinating and endlessly informative.”–The Miami Herald

“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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I had chosen to re-create the world, but, like a self-doubting god, was uncertain whether I could make the pieces fit smoothly together. Well, its done now and I want to get on to the next one." In this passage from a 1951 letter to his literary colleague and all-around good buddy Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison is referring to his masterpiece Invisible Man; it is both this fly-on-the-wall intimacy, as well as the now-ironic mention of Ellison's "next," never to be completed novel that help to make this book such a pleasure to read. Ellison was an accomplished and dapper upperclassman and Murray a respectful but equally ambitious freshman when they first encountered each other in 1935 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were not to become close friends until 1947, when Murray was studying for his masters degree in New York City. The letters begin in 1949 and end in 1960, when easy long-distance phone calls brought the need for longhand correspondence (but not their everlasting friendship) to an end. While the 1952 publication of Invisible Man rocketed Ellison to literary stardom, his letters always treat Murray, who taught at Tuskegee and labored on his own unpublished first novel until the 1970s, as his genuine equal, both as a writer and as a cultural thinker. The letters recapitulate their travels around the world (European fellowships for Ellison and cushy postwar Air Force assignments for Murray, who was a colonel in the reserve); their quirky black hipster idiom; Ellison's ambivalence toward Tuskegee and his responses to literary fame, including a brief description of an encounter with William Faulkner at the old Random House offices. There are also funny, thoughtful exchanges on jazz figures, biting comments on literary foes and ample details of the literary and domestic lives of these two gifted and iconoclastic American writers. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In jazz, two musicians are said to be "trading twelves" when they trade feelings and ideas by alternating riffs of 12 bars of music. In much the same manner, Ellison and Murray, in letters written between 1949 and 1960, exchange views on literature and music, among other subjects. The letters shed light on the literary processes of Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) remains one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature, and Murray, the undervalued author of such novels as Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (1996). However, these letters are important not only for their views on literature and culture but also for their warm and engaging record of a friendship that began when the two men met at Tuskegee in 1935 and endured no matter how vast the geographic distance between them. Brief but insightful prefatory material by Callahan (who edited Ellison's posthumous novel, Juneteenth, LJ 5/1/99) and Murray sets the letters in context. Recommended for all collections of American literature and/or African American culture.--Louis J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Campus Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Anderson
Ultimately, the greatest pleasure to be found in Trading Twelves is the warmth of friendship.
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
...their corrspondance is without boundaries, as they devour books and art and music, comparing impressions and sharing discoveries. One regrets that Murray moved to Ellison' s adopted city, New York, in 1962, so that their marvellous dialogue moved from paper to voice, and thus was lost to posterity.
Kirkus Reviews
An open window into a literary friendship and beyond. The late novelist Ralph Ellison and novelist and cultural critic Albert Murray were undergraduate acquaintances at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before later becoming friends in New York in the 1940s. But it was mostly in the 1950s (when for two years Ellison was at the American Academy in Rome and Murray was a US Air Force officer stationed in Morocco) that the bulk of these delightfully engaging exchanges were written. This is Ellison and Murray at their relaxed best, shooting the breeze about photography, music, or cooking; riffing on Faulkner, Malraux, Robert Penn Warren, or T.S. Eliot; propounding their own literary and cultural theories; or critiquing the Eisenhower administration's halfhearted efforts at school integration. Ellison, as it turns out, was as fussy about language as he was particular about the ingredients he used for his beloved pigs' feet. They both were astute observers of the Jazz scene and seemed to know every bit of minutiae involving the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. (It is from jazz, in fact, that the title—a reference to the 12 bars of music that are "traded" back and forth during a riff—is derived.) Murray, two years Ellison's junior, published his first novel (Train Whistle Guitar) some 20 years after Invisible Man. In that respect, he often comes across as the student to Ellison's teacher. But there seemed to be no competition between them. Ellison disclosed to Murray as early as the 1950s that he was at work on a second novel that was never completed before Ellison died in 1994. John Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, was able eventually tocobbletogether notes from this work-in-progress and finally to publish it last year as Juneteenth. Callahan also helped Murray select and edit his correspondence with Ellison. A small treasure.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375708053
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/15/2001
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,287,234
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma in 1914. He is the author of the novel Invisible Man (1952), as well as numerous essays and short stories. He died in New York City in 1994. Random House published Juneteenth, the book-length excerpt from his unfinished second novel,  posthumously in 1999.

Albert Murray was born in Alabama in 1916. A cultural critic, biographer, essayist, and novelist, he has taught at several colleges, including Colgate and Barnard, and his works include The Omni-Americans, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, The Blue Devils of Nada, and The Seven League Boots.  Murray lives in New York City.  

John F. Callahan is Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He is the editor of Juneteenth and the Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Callahan is the literary executor of Ralph Ellison's estate.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Ralph Waldo Ellison, named after the preacher-philosopher Emerson, was born in Oklahoma in 1914. His father died when he was three years old, and he was brought up by his mother, who worked as domestic help in white households in order to support herself and her two sons.

At the age of nineteen, he won a scholarship to study music at the Booker T. Washington Tuskegee Institute. In 1936, he went to New York and there met the black writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He started contributing to the Federal Writers' Project, set up as part of Roosevelt's New Deal, and soon his short stories and articles began to appear in magazines and journals. In 1943 he joined the United States Merchant Marines returning to New York after the war. Awarded a Rosenwald fellowship he was able to concentrate on his writing and, seven years after starting it, his masterpiece Invisible Man (1952) was published. Immediately recognized as a classic in its own time, and described as a "touchstone of the 1950s", it won the American National Book Award and established Ellison as one of the major figures of twentieth-century fiction. He also published two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), but his second novel, which he worked on for over four decades and repeatedly declared to be 'virtually finished', never appeared. Flying Home and Other Stories (Penguin 1996) is a collection of both published and previously unpublished short stories.

Ellison was highly regarded by both the literary and academic worlds. He was Fellow of the American Academy in Rome from 1955 to 1957 and on his return held several visiting professorships; latterly being Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at New York University. He received the United States Medal of Freedom in 1969, became Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1970, and received the National Medal of Arts in 1985. Ralph Ellison died in 1994, survived by his wife of forty-eight years. In his obituary, The Independent declared him "a great gentleman, indeed a noble man, and the remarkable mythologising author of ... the great American Negro novel."

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Books LTD.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Ralph Waldo Ellison (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 1, 1914
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
    1. Date of Death:
      March 16, 1994
    2. Place of Death:
      New York City

Read an Excerpt

PREFACE

by Albert Murray

Ralph Ellison and I became close friends and literary colleagues during the academic year of 1947-1948, while I was in New York earning my master of arts degree in English at New York University, and he was working full-time on the manuscript of the novel that was to become Invisible Man.

I had been aware of him and of his interest in serious fiction since the fall term of 1935-1936, when I was an eager young freshman at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on a scholarship from the Mobile County Training School, and he was a junior year upperclassman in the School of Music and a leading trumpet player in the famous Tuskegee School Band. I did not meet him during the one term that we overlapped, but I did know that he was there from Oklahoma City on some kind of special scholarship grant; and of all the upperclassmen, he was the one by whom I was most strongly impressed. I liked his very stylish collegiate wardrobe and was struck by the fact that he seemed as serious about supplementing course requirements with further reading as I was. And I also liked the fact that he seemed to do things very much on his own rather than as a member of a group.

The trumpet was his major instrument, but I also came to know that in fact he was enrolled in the School of Music because he wanted to become a composer of concert hall music. I found out later on that he had chosen to come to Tuskegee because its School of Music was directed by William L. Dawson, the conductor of the renowned Tuskegee Institute Choir who had also recently composed a work that received national acclaim as the first Negro folk symphony when it was premiered by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

What made Ralph an upperclassman of special interest to me, however, was the fact that he seemed more involved with literary matters than any of the upper-class English majors whom I could observe. When you saw him on his way back and forth across the campus he was more likely to be carrying a clutch of library books on history and literature than his trumpet case or a folder of music scores. I remember him doing copy work on sheets of music at a table by himself in the library every now and then, but even so I was more impressed by the fact that his student self-help scholarship supplement job was not in the School of Music but at the circulation counter in the main reading room of the library. Also, in a matter of weeks I became aware of the fact that he was enrolled in a special advanced course in the English novel that included works by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and so on to Thomas Hardy, taught by Mr. Morteza Drexel Sprague, head of the English Department, who was also teaching the special section of freshman English 101, 102, and 103 for which my placement test score qualified me.

The only direct face-to-face verbal exchanges I had with Ellison that year consisted of a few polite words we said to each other at the circulation counter when he was on duty and I was checking books out or returning them. There were freshmen that year who lodged in Ralph's memory, mainly because they were musicians, athletes, or irrepressible hotshots of one sort or another, but I was not one of them.

Ralph did not return to complete his senior year and get his degree in music at Tuskegee, but my memory of his sojourn there was kept vivid by the sight of his name on checkout slips of so many of the library books of fiction, poetry, history, and literary criticism that had become the main part of my own personal extracurricular reading program. Some of the books had been checked out by him more than once between 1933 and 1936, and in many instances he was the only previous borrower.

I didn't actually meet Ralph until we were introduced by a mutual friend and Tuskegee graduate and staff member named Louis A. "Mike" Rabb, who was taking a graduate course at Columbia University when I came to New York on my first visit in 1942. I had graduated in 1939 and had returned as a part-time instructor of freshman remedial English in 1940, after taking graduate courses in education at the University of Michigan following a term as principal of a junior high school in southwest Georgia.

I began teaching regular courses in freshman and sophomore English the following year. At the time I did not know that Ellison had given up music as his main interest, but I was aware of the fact that he had published some articles, sketches, and some short fiction, which, given my awareness of his reading interests, did not surprise me. Nor was I really surprised to find that he no longer thought of music as his primary vocation; he now thought of himself as a writer.

But what he and Mike Rabb and I talked about the afternoon that Mike and I went across from the Harlem Y and up the hill to the CCNY area and the apartment on Hamilton Terrace was not books and writing, but mainly about who was doing what at Tuskegee and what Tuskegeans were doing elsewhere. Even so, what I remember most vividly about being there sipping whatever we were sipping as we went on talking was the bookcase on the wall beyond the writing table where Ellison sat. There, along with copies of André Malraux's Man's Fate and Man's Hope, I also finally saw copies of Malraux's The Conquerors and The Royal Way, which I had never seen before.

I had read Man's Fate, Man's Hope, and Days of Wrath at Tuskegee and at the time I assumed that he had too. I found later that he hadn't read Man's Fate until he came to New York and was introduced to Langston Hughes, who was carrying a copy which he suggested that Ralph read and return to a friend. Before I left New York I found copies of The Conquerors and The Royal Way at Gotham Book Mart on Forty-seventh Street and began reading The Conquerors on the train back to Tuskegee.

The next time I saw Ralph in New York he was making wartime Atlantic crossings in the Merchant Marine, and I was a second lieutenant in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field where the "Tuskegee Airmen" were being trained. I hadn't looked him up; I just happened to run into him on Seventh Avenue near 135th Street. I may have mentioned the musette bag of poetry by Auden, Spender, and C. Day Lewis that I had bought in the "We Moderns" section of Gotham Book Mart, but only because I knew he had read a lot of contemporary poetry at Tuskegee. At the time I had no idea that we would become lifelong friends and literary colleagues. For one thing, I thought that he was as involved with Marxism as Richard Wright was and I had spent much of my first year out of college studying and rejecting Marxism. I also assumed that he regarded himself as a refugee from the South, much as Wright did.

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.

&

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