Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation
By Barbara A. Baker
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2010 Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities at Auburn University
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8173-5593-7
In Response to Being Awarded a Citation for Distinguished Literary Achievement by an Alabamian (2003)
It didn't take me very long to realize that fairy tales, fables, nursery rhymes, and fire circle and fireside and barbershop lies, store porch and cracker barrel tall tales and yarns, no less than the great national sagas, epics, and classical masterpieces regardless of geographical origin and cultural, which is to say environmental variations, applied to everybody.
Because they all are a form of art. And, according to Susanne K. Langer, the author of Feeling and Form and other philosophical studies in aesthetic theory, what all art represents or expresses is human feeling, how human beings feel about what they are aware of.
For me, this means that local circumstances and predicaments and the idiomatic procedures evolved to cope with them may have worldwide implication and application. Indeed, such is the function of fiction, which is also to say poetry, which is to say metaphor. Social science surveys are really about one place at a time. But the local metaphor is about all mankind.
I want readers to identify with the protagonist in my fiction, not in terms of social science survey-derived political ideology-but in terms of the universal implications of the hero's humanity as I hope I've been able to render it.
Scooter, the main character of Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots, and my current work in progress, is an Alabama boy who is by way of becoming an omni-American, which is to say the personification of the definitive ideals of the nation as a whole, as promulgated by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
In other words, in Scooter I have tried to create and project what I hoped would be a captivating image of an Alabamian as an efficient protagonist whose briarpatch upbringing enables him not only to cope with but also to transcend the inevitable obstacles in the contemporary world at large.
Originally delivered as an acceptance speech, May 2, 2003, for the Distinguished Artist Award given by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
King of Cats (1996)
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
What does it mean to be black? In part, it means rejecting all exclusionary answers to the question, as Albert Murray, the great contrarian of American cultural criticism, has inspired generations of thinkers to do.
In the late seventies, I used to take the train from New Haven to New York on Saturdays, to spend afternoons with Albert Murray at Books & Company on Madison Avenue. We would roam-often joined by the artist Romare Bearden-through fiction, criticism, philosophy, music. Murray always seemed to wind up fingering densely printed paperbacks by Joyce, Mann, Proust, or Faulkner; Bearden, typically, would pick up a copy of something daunting like Rilke's Letters on Cézanne and then insist that I read it on the train home that night.
In those days, Murray was writing Count Basie's autobiography-a project that he didn't finish until 1985. ("For years," he has remarked more than once, "when I wrote the word 'I,' it meant Basie.") But he had already published most of the books that would secure his reputation as a cultural critic-perhaps most notably, his début collection, The Omni-Americans (1970), which brought together his ferocious attacks on black separatists, on protest literature, and on what he called "the social science-fiction monster." Commanding as he could be on the page, Murray was an equally impressive figure in the flesh: a lithe and dapper man with an astonishing gift of verbal fluency, by turns grandiloquent and earthy. I loved to listen to his voice-grave but insinuating, with more than a hint of a jazz singer's rasp. Murray had been a schoolmate of the novelist Ralph Ellison at the Tuskegee Institute, and the friendship of the two men over the years seemed a focal point of black literary culture in the ensuing decades. Ellison's one novel, Invisible Man, was among the few unequivocal masterpieces of American literature in the postwar era, satirizing with equal aplomb Garveyites, Communists, and white racists in both their southern-agrarian and their northern-liberal guises. Murray's works of critique and cultural exploration seemed wholly in the same spirit. Both men were militant integrationists, and they shared an almost messianic view of the importance of art. In their ardent belief that Negro culture was a constitutive part of American culture, they had defied an entrenched literary mainstream, which preferred to regard black culture as so much exotica-amusing, perhaps, but eminently dispensable. Now they were also defying a new black vanguard, which regarded authentic black culture as separate from the rest of American culture-something that was created, and could be appreciated, in splendid isolation. While many of their peers liked to speak of wrath and resistance, Murray and Ellison liked to speak of complexity and craft, and for that reason they championed the art of Romare Bearden.
In terms of both critical regard and artistic fecundity, these were good days for Bearden, a large, light-skinned man with a basketball roundness to his head. (I could never get over how much he looked like Nikita Khrushchev.) He, like Murray, was working at the height of his powers-he was completing his famous "Jazz" series of collages-and his stature and influence were greater than those which any other African American artist had so far enjoyed. The collages combined the visual conventions of black American folk culture with the techniques of modernism-fulfilling what Murray called "the vernacular imperative" to transmute tradition into art.
After a couple of hours at the bookstore, we'd go next door to the Madison Café, where Romie, as Murray called him, always ordered the same item: the largest fruit salad that I had ever seen in public. He claimed that he chose the fruit salad because he was watching his weight, but I was convinced that he chose it in order to devour the colors, like an artist dipping his brush into his palette. He'd start laying the ground with the off-white of the apples and the bananas, and follow them with the pinkish orange of the grapefruit, the red of the strawberries, the speckled green of the kiwifruit; the blueberries and purple grapes he'd save for last. While Romie was consuming his colors, Murray would talk almost nonstop, his marvelous ternary sentences punctuated only by the occasional bite of a BLT or a tuna fish on rye. Murray was then, as now, a man with definite preoccupations, and among the touchstones of his conversation were terms like discipline, craft, tradition, the aesthetic, and the Negro idiom. And names like Thomas Mann, André Malraux, Kenneth Burke, and Lord Raglan. There was also another name-a name that never weighed more heavily than when it was unspoken-which sometimes took longer to come up.
"Heard from Ralph lately?" Bearden would almost whisper as the waitress brought the check.
"Still grieving, I guess," Murray would rasp back, shaking his head slowly. He was referring to the fire, about a decade earlier, that had destroyed Ellison's Massachusetts farmhouse and, with it, many months of revisions on his long-awaited second novel. "That fire was a terrible thing." Then Murray, who was so rarely at a loss for words, would fall silent.
Later, when Bearden and I were alone in his Canal Street loft, he'd return to the subject in hushed tones: "Ralph is mad at Al. No one seems to know why. And it's killing Al. He's not sure what he did."
The rift, or whatever it amounted to, used to vex and puzzle me. It was a great mistake to regard Murray simply as Ellison's sidekick, the way many people did, but he was without question the most fervent and articulate champion of Ellison's art. The two were, in a sense, part of a single project: few figures on the scene shared as many presuppositions and preoccupations as they did. Theirs was a sect far too small for schismatics. At the very least, the rift made things awkward for would-be postulants like me.
When The Omni-Americans came out in 1970, I was in college, majoring in history but pursuing extracurricular studies in how to be black. Those were the days when the Black Power movement was the mode and rage de rigueur. Just two years before, the poets Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka had edited Black Fire, the book that launched the so-called Black Arts movement-in effect, the cultural wing of the Black Power movement. Maybe it was hard to hold a pen with a clenched fist, but you did what you could: the revolution wasn't about niceties of style anyway. On the occasions when Ralph Ellison, an avatar of elegance, was invited to college campuses, blacks invariably denounced him for his failure to involve himself in the civil rights struggle, for his evident disdain of the posturings of Black Power. For me, though, the era was epitomized by a reading that the poet Nikki Giovanni gave in a university lecture hall to a standing-room-only crowd-a sea of colorful dashikis and planetary Afros. Her words seemed incandescent with racial rage, and each poem was greeted with a Black Power salute. "Right on! Right on!" we shouted, in the deepest voices we could manage, each time Giovanni made another grand claim about the blackness of blackness. Those were days when violence (or, anyway, talk of violence) had acquired a Fanonist glamour; when the black bourgeoisie-kulaks of color, nothing more-was reviled as an obstacle on the road to revolution; when the arts were seen as merely an instrumentality for a larger cause.
Such was the milieu in which Murray published The Omni-Americans, and you couldn't imagine a more foolhardy act. This was a book in which the very language of the black nationalists was subjected to a strip search. Ever since Malcolm X, for instance, the epithet "house Negro" had been a staple of militant invective; yet here was Murray arguing that if only we got our history straight we'd realize that those house Negroes were practically race patriots. ("The house slave seems to have brought infinitely more tactical information from the big house to the cabins than any information about subversive plans he ever took back.") And while radicals mocked their bourgeois brethren as "black Anglo-Saxons," Murray defiantly declared, "Not only is it the so-called middle class Negro who challenges the status quo in schools, housing, voting practices, and so on, he is also the one who is most likely to challenge total social structures and value systems." Celebrated chroniclers of black America, including Claude Brown, Gordon Parks, and James Baldwin, were shown by Murray to be tainted by the ethnographic fallacy, the pretense that one writer's peculiar experience can represent a social genus. "This whole thing about somebody revealing what it is really like to be black has long since gotten out of hand anyway," he wrote. "Does anybody actually believe that, say, Mary McCarthy reveals what it is really like to be a U.S. white woman, or even a Vassar girl?" But he reserved his heaviest artillery for the whole social science approach to black life, whether in the hands of the psychologist Kenneth Clark (of Brown v. Board of Education fame) or in those of the novelist Richard Wright, who had spent too much time reading his sociologist friends. What was needed wasn't more sociological inquiry, Murray declared; what was needed was cultural creativity, nourished by the folkways and traditions of black America but transcending them. And the work of literature that best met that challenge, he said, was Ellison's Invisible Man.
The contrarian held his own simply by matching outrage with outrage-by writing a book that was so pissed off, jaw-jutting, and unapologetic that it demanded to be taken seriously. Nobody had to tell this veteran about black fire: in Murray the bullies of blackness had met their most formidable opponent. And a great many blacks-who, suborned by "solidarity," had trained themselves to suppress any heretical thoughts-found Murray's book oddly thrilling: it had the transgressive frisson of samizdat under Stalinism. You'd read it greedily, though you just might want to switch dust jackets with The Wretched of the Earth before wandering around with it in public. "Very early on, he was saying stuff that could get him killed," the African American novelist David Bradley says. "And he did not seem to care." The power of his example lingers. "One February, I had just delivered the usual black-history line, and I was beginning to feel that I was selling snake oil," Bradley recalls. "And right here was this man who has said this stuff. And I'm thinking, Well, he ain't dead yet."
As if to remove any doubts, Murray has just published two books simultaneously, both with Pantheon. One, The Seven League Boots, is his third novel and completes a trilogy about a bright young fellow named Scooter, his fictional alter ego; the other, The Blue Devils of Nada, is a collection of critical essays analyzing some favorite artists (Ellington, Hemingway, Bearden) and expatiating upon some favorite tenets (the "blues idiom" as an aesthetic substrate, the essentially fluid nature of American culture). Both are books that will be discussed and debated for years to come; both are vintage Murray.
The most outrageous theorist of American culture lives, as he has lived for three decades, in a modest apartment in Lenox Terrace in Harlem. When I visit him there, everything is pretty much as I remembered it. The public rooms look like yet another Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Legal pads and magnifying glasses perch beside his two or three favorite chairs, along with numerous ballpoint pens, his weapons of choice. His shelves record a lifetime of enthusiasms; James, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Proust, and Faulkner are among the authors most heavily represented. Close at hand are volumes by favored explicants such as Joseph Campbell, Kenneth Burke, Carl Jung, Rudolph Arnheim, Bruno Bettelheim, Constance Rourke. On his writing desk sits a more intimate canon. There's Thomas Mann's four-volume Joseph and His Brothers-the saga, after all, of a slave who gains the power to decide the fate of a people. There's André Malraux's Man's Fate, which represented for Ellison and Murray a more rarefied mode of engagé writing than anything their compeers had to offer. There's Joel Chandler Harris's The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, a mother lode of African American folklore. One wall is filled with his famously compendious collection of jazz recordings; a matte black CD player was a gift from his protégé Wynton Marsalis. You will not, however, see the sort of framed awards that festooned Ellison's apartment. "I have received few of those honors," he says, pulling on his arthritic right leg. "No American Academy, few honorary degrees."
A quarter of a century has passed since Murray's literary début, and time has mellowed him not at all. His arthritis may have worsened over the past few years, and there is always an aluminum walker close by, but as he talks he sprouts wings. Murray likes to elaborate his points and elaborate on his elaborations, until you find that you have circumnavigated the globe and raced through the whole of post-Homeric literary history-and this is what he calls "vamping till ready." In his conversations, outrages alternate with insights, and often the insights are the outrages. Every literary culture has its superego and its id; Albert Murray has the odd distinction of being both. The contradictions of human nature are, fittingly, a favorite topic of Murray's. He talks about how Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder but how he also helped to establish a country whose founding creed was liberty. "Every time I think about it," he says, "I want to wake him up and give him ten more slaves." He's less indulgent of the conflicting impulses of Malcolm X. Dr. King's strategy of nonviolence was "one of the most magnificent things that anybody ever invented in the civil rights movement," he maintains. "And this guy came up and started thumbing his nose at it, and, to my utter amazement, he's treated as if he were a civil rights leader. He didn't lead anything. He was in Selma laughing at these guys. God damn, nigger!"
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