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Riffs

But Murray understood Ellison’s intentions, was receptive to his explanations of them, admired what he had published, clearly admired him for being published, and all at a time when he, Murray, wasn’t. “Thanks very much for seeing to it that a few Negroes read my reviews; I get the feeling that most times the stuff is seen only by whites and that, I’m afraid, doesn’t mean much in the long run,” Ellison tells Murray after Murray has told him that he has discussed one of Ellison’s reviews with students and colleagues.

In April of 1951, Ellison finished writing Invisible Man. On May 14 he announces to Murray, “You are hereby warned that I have dropped the shuck.” He says that he has been depressed since, starting with a high fever. With Invisible Man, the novel for which he did odd jobs as a hi-fi phonograph installer, the book that he tells Murray he needs in order to justify his thinning hair and his wife’s having a job, he knows he has achieved something. Soon “things are rolling, alright and I guess I’m now a slightly mammy-made novelist.” “[Philip Rahv] does know that it isn’t Kafka as others mistakenly believe. I tell them, I told Langston Hughes in fact, that it’s the blues, but nobody seems to understand what I mean.”

As the letters go on, Ellison’s schedule of college tours becomes busier and reaches a sort of climax with his return in the summer of 1953 to his hometown, Oklahoma City, “the top town in the nation for the study of bearology [aggressive women].” He listens hopefully to reports he hears about the progress of integration in his home town even as he savors the futility of his having come full circle:

And it’s still a town where the eyes have space in which to travel, and those freights still making up in the yard sound as good to me as ever they did when I lay on a pallet in the moon-drenched kitchen door and listened and dreamed of the time when I would leave and see the world.

Forgiveness is what growing up and homecoming are for, he says. As time goes by, Ellison’s talk of Harvard or Antioch, of a conference on the art of narration or a symposium there on the art of the novel, becomes routine. “Publicity,” lectures and appearances, becomes a primary source of what income he had. For his part, Murray goes to Cuba and manages at least to meet the old black man who lives by the gates to Hemingway’s house.

The letters of the mid-Fifties, 1955 to 1958, find Ellison as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and Murray back on active duty and stationed at the Nouasseur Air Force Base out-side Casablanca during a time of anti-French, pro-independence terrorist attacks. The violence poses no immediate threat to US personnel. Ellison has been trying to settle into his second novel. He has sharp observations about the American colony in Rome, lovely passages about the beauty of Tuscany and the sun on Ravello, and even humble moments concerning the chore it would be to master Renaissance history the way he would like to know it, but everything comes back to “my old agony of trying to write a novel.”

Ellison is wary of getting side-tracked like other black expatriates by approaches to literature and culture that, he believes, have no relevance to his material and heritage. He doesn’t really spell out what these misguided approaches are, though in general they would seem to have to do with attitudes that did not value American culture enough in his view. Perhaps he had Wright and Existentialism in mind, or what he calls Wright’s “racial approaches to Culture.” He rejects French “intellectuals and their chauvinism,” is very impressed by a book about French culture’s loss of prestige, Herbert Luethy’s France Against Herself (1956), but is also against digging around in African myths in order to give indigenous American culture a lineage that is both unnecessary and distorting. Because there are no specific references to the writers or the books he had in mind when he said this, we have to assume he’s objecting to a tendency that goes back to Herskovits. He dismisses the idea of the American as the innocent abroad:

Hare and bear [are] the ticket; man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners—the American joke, man. Europeans dream of purity—any American who’s achieved his American consciousness knows that it’s a dream so he ain’t never been innocent, he’s been too busy figuring out his next move. It’s just that the only time he ever comes out from behind that mask is when he’s cornered—that’s when you have to watch him. Unless, of course, he’s Mose [i.e., black], who has learned to deal with a hell of a lot more pressure.

Ellison interviewed Robert Penn Warren for Paris Review in 1957. He tells Murray that they “were axing straight through a lot of marble-hard bullshit.” The interview gave him, he says, his chance to measure his mind against “one of the best Southerners,” but, as “we” [he and Murray] have been saying, “if Mose [the Negro] takes advantage of his own sense of reality he doesn’t have to step back for anybody.”

2.

In these letters from Europe, written at a time when the South they knew was being shaken up by the Montgomery bus boycott, the deployment of federal troops at that high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Ellison and Murray aren’t above letting certain Tuskegee faculty members and administrators have what-for as emblems of the cringing racial order they despised. Tuskegee, they agree, was a parochial, provincial environment. After reading Dean Christian Gauss’s correspondence with Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson, Ellison can’t imagine having had a teacher like “Old Gauss.” When he thinks of teachers at Tuskegee his mind “flies swiftly to satire.”

They agree that the intention of whites was to “bribe the school into staying third-class.” However, given “the cracker’s madness” in the South, their head-shaking about Tuskegee’s characters gives way to resentment of the failure of the school to respond adequately to the historical moment. While “Africans and West Indians are taking over governments and Montgomery Negroes are showing their quality,” Ellison laments, the “scobes” of Tuskegee “continue to act like this is 1915.” To them, Tuskegee was anachronistic, because it was still dependent on Northern white philanthropy and local goodwill, relationships that Booker T. Washington had been able to make in the late nineteenth century as the spokesman of racial accommodation. As Callahan notes, these remarks are of course different from the tone of Ellison’s published essays in which he praises Tuskegee for the richness of his experience there.

On the other hand, the “preachers” leading the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and “the master strategists,” the NAACP legal team, win his admiration. Comments like these show that he wasn’t as emotionally aloof from the civil rights struggle as his conservative image during the late 1960s suggested:

Mose is fighting and he’s still got his briarpatch cunning; he’s just been waiting for a law, man, something solid under his feet; a little scent of possibility. In fact, he’s turned the Supreme Court into the forum of liberty it was intended to be, and the Constitution of the United States into a briar patch in which the nimble people, the willing people, have a chance.

It was about this time that Faulkner said in an interview in Life magazine that the desegregation effort was moving too quickly. Ellison, child of Faulkner, goes on to say that “Bill Faulkner” forgets that “Negroes” have no sectional allegiances and that they aren’t in the market for his advice; he has “delusions of grandeur because he really believes that he invented these characteristics which he ascribes to Negroes in his fiction”; “he thinks that Negroes exist simply to give ironic overtone to the viciousness of white folks, when he should know very well that we’re trying hard as hell to free ourselves.”

Ellison may have had “a belly full of acid” when thinking about Little Rock, but he was very secure in his feeling that the US was his home and that black people were as much a part of American culture as white people. While he was in Italy dramatic events had taken place back home, “the Z.I., Zone of the Interior,” as Murray, the military man, calls the continental US. But because Ellison never seriously considered living abroad, there is none of the torment about his distance as an African-American from the growing civil rights movement that black expatriates like Baldwin expressed. He misses the creative tension in New York and feels sorry for one black couple he meets in Rome who measure their lives against what they see in Europe, he says, like pilgrims striving for a piece of the true Cross.

He leaves Rome in 1957. Albert Murray, still in Morocco, is also going home. “I’m packing to unass the area this evening,” they are fond of saying. Down in the marketplace of Marrakesh, he had found, among the healers with foxes’ teeth, stuffed lizards, dried adder powder, vendors of camel shit, Berber dancers, fire eaters, singers, and instrumentalists, “Arab public STORYTELLERS”:

They say them cats can blow a thousand & one riffs on each one of them 1001 nights, and I got to believe it because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Talking about the role of the writer-artist etc, his ass belongs right out there among them healers, peddlers, dancers & snakecharmers. Jam or scram.

Finding an intimation of the universal is consoling, because it tells him that his own back yard contains what he needs for his writing. “Dignity lies at home, and that’s a fact,” Ellison agrees. Perhaps they wanted to be home for their work, but, as often happens in letter-writing, their most engaging correspondence is written while they are away, traveling.

The last letters in the collection take in the two-year period when Ellison is back in New York and Murray is at the Air Reserve Flying Center in Long Beach, California. They settle into their work. The essays and introductions that Ellison has been writing will eventually make up the collection Shadow and Act (1964); the fiction that Murray has been trying to make time for will, in some form, become his first novel, Train Whistle Guitar, published in 1974, twelve years after his retirement as a captain from the Air Force. They also settle into their criticisms of American materialism.

Out in L.A., people simply have too much in the way of automobiles and lawn mowers. Ellison tells Murray that it depresses him, too, to see Negroes getting lost in the “American junk pile.” His students—all white?—at Bard College, he says, lack any grasp of the sense of the tragic; they are suffering from the excesses of their parents’ sentimentality.

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