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Riffs

Maybe Ellison planned to write more about the civil rights movement than he did. He left very little as an observer, but he did pay attention to some things going on in New York. He prefers, he says, to overhear conversations in hallways than to listen to speeches at meetings. In 1958 he says he knows what black people want, “I just like to hear the idiom.” This was at the time when blacks were debating the prudence of mass protests, though 30,000 people had turned out at the Lincoln Memorial the year before to mark the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. After the attempt on King’s life by a deranged woman in September 1958, many blacks became convinced of the need for an all-out mass effort. Here we begin to get some of Ellison’s misfit with his times. He says he’s heard that some black leaders don’t know where to go after the legal struggle has been won. He faults their provinciality for not being able to see “that we have a hell of a lot of advantages beyond the mere legal.” Ellison may sound naive but nobody then could have said what additions were needed or how deep the problems were, not to mention that the legal phase would not be over forty years later.

Nevertheless he criticizes himself for not being more productive and for not having more influence “upon how we think of ourselves and our relationship to what is truly valuable in the country.” He says that he doesn’t “fight the race problem in matters of culture,” meaning perhaps that the contributions of African-Americans to the national culture were too obvious for debate. He regards the novel he is trying to write as his contribution, his subversive gesture. Indeed, it was the shift away from movement or activist politics, from the “mere legal,” to cultural politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s that revived Ellison’s reputation after his seeming distance from the civil rights struggle made him a target of criticism from militants in the 1960s. Once the politics were supposedly gone, it became more important to read Invisible Man as a blues work.

Black nationalists who denounced Ellison back then will be surprised to find in these letters an Ellison mightily opposed to what he calls “ofay” set-ups. Perhaps Ellison meant to refuse to let whites define the terms of discussion of American culture. After all, a great deal of Shadow and Act is taken up with reproaching others for daring to tell him what the limits of black culture were and where its influence could be felt. “Just tell those dog-ass-pseudo-critics that you are writing for Negroes with enough integrity to accept themselves and when you do that white folks are bound to like it just like they like jazz which originally was mose signifying at other moses.” He tells Murray that if they don’t write about jazz, then the “fay” critics will do to jazz what Stalin did to history.

In fact, what marks the passage of time in Trading Twelves—more than their talk of getting on to the next thing, organizing the next book, wanting to feel alive again—is the change in jazz style. The lyrical, exuberant big-band sound has been replaced by “miserable hard-bopping noise.” They would write philosophically in essays about the music in their youth of New York’s “noisy lostness,” when the “world was swinging with change,” and the reasons for the rise of bebop.3 But their letters express what sounds like disgust with Coltrane’s “badly executed velocity changes,” with Charlie Parker, and their imitators. “If Bird shits on you, wear it.” Charles Mingus’s best is straight out of Duke, but he also seems to be out of the conservatory, keeping “the fay boys all shook,” and carried away with being modern and experimental. “Nothing worse than a half-educated Mose unless it’s a Mose jazz-modernist whose convinced himself that he’s a genius.” They can’t bear what to them is the new music’s lack of taste.

They are offended by loss of authenticity as well, and so their authoritative talk about Lester Young, King Pleasure, Joe Williams, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke is replaced by snide remarks about “that creep Eartha Kitt,” and “Louis…wearing his ass instead of his genius.” They don’t like the dumbing down, but they also don’t like the music becoming academic, so self-consciously modernist.

3.

Ellison and Murray were not competitive with each other, Callahan reminds us. Their ambitions were parallel, they apportioned things out somehow, and so the mood of these letters is unfailingly generous, upbeat, entertaining—to each other. Chances are that difficulty and prickliness were carefully apportioned between Ellison and Murray throughout their many years of knowing each other. But as for other black writers, though Ellison claims that hunting is healthier than the “verbal murder” and backbiting among intellectuals, Trading Twelves has in its index a roster of the roasted.

I have never had much sense of competition,” Ellison declares in 1951, but in view of the book that first one year and then the next isn’t yet finished, he looks to other black writers to define himself by what he is not. He tells Murray to get J. Saunders Redding’s Stranger and Alone, which he has just reviewed, because, though not much as a novel, it is an “important job of sociological statement.” Again, in 1951:

I’m sick to my guts of reading stuff like the piece by Richard Gibson in Kenyon Review. He’s complaining that Negro writers are expected to write like Wright, Himes, Hughes, which he thinks is unfair because, by God, he’s read Gide! Yes, and Proust and a bunch of them advance guard European men of letters—so why can’t these prejudiced white editors see it in his face when he goes in with empty hands and asks them for a big advance on a book he’s thought not too clearly about? No, they start right out asking him about Wright-Himes-Hughes, with him sitting right there all cultured before them, fine sensibilities and all. The capon, the gutless wonder! If he thinks he’s the black Gide why doesn’t he write and prove it? Then the white folks would read it and shake their heads and say “Why, by God, this here is really the pure Andre Richard Gibson Gide! Yes, sir, here’s a carbon copy!” Then all the rest of us would fade away before the triumph of pure, abstract homosexual art over life.

And writing to Murray in February 1952 about a manuscript Murray has sent:

Because, as you know, we’ve taken on in our first books a task of defining reality which none of the other boys had the equipment to handle—except Wright, and he could never bring himself to conceive a character as complicated as himself. I guess he was too profoundly dissatisfied with his life, his past life, to look too long in the mirror; and no doubt he longed for something, some way of life so drastically different that it would have few points of contact with what he knew or the people he knew it with.

Of Wright and Baldwin, both of whom had novels out in 1953, Ellison advises Murray:

Take a look at their works, I don’t think either is successful, but both are interesting examples of what happens when you go elsewhere looking for what you already had at home. Wright goes to France for existentialism when Mose, or any blues, could tell him things that would make that cock-eyed Sartre’s head swim. As for Baldwin, he doesn’t know the difference between getting religion and going homo. Here he is trying to write about storefront religion with a style that one good riff from a Negro preacher’s sermon would smash like a bomb.

Murray concurs:

Look man, you can lose your hat ass and gas mask farting around with them damned French cats if you don’t know what you’re doing…. That oscar [Wright] looks more and more like an intellectual parasite to me every-day, a sort of white man’s NEWNIGGER…. As for that style, Baldwin has already admitted to me that he really doesn’t know anything about the actual grain and texture of Negro expression. But what the hell, man, you been going around signifying for years about castration.

Ellison concedes the value of Wright’s book about his travels to the Gold Coast, Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), but objects to what he sees as its tone of self-importance. Wright, who had published in only small and Communist periodicals, and the younger, unpublished Ellison met in Harlem in 1937. In a lecture given in 1971 Ellison remembered Wright’s postcard to him: “Langston Hughes tells me that you are interested in meeting me.”4 Wright and Ellison were friends, Wright’s biographers insist. They talked often in their brief WPA years; Wright published Ellison in one of his short-lived magazines. In the early 1940s, Ellison worried how Wright and his Jewish wife would get along in their Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, but at a party around this time Ellison, drunk and disagreeing, pulled a knife on him.

In 1945 Ellison had aired his strenuous criticisms of Native Son in a review of Black Boy. Wright, Ellison says, denied his black fictional creations the complexity and individuality that Wright had revealed of himself in his autobiography. The complexity of “Mose”—i.e., Negroes and Negro culture—was the defining tenet of Ellison’s aesthetic creed. In any case Wright was soon living abroad and never really figured again in Ellison’s Manhattan. Ellison was busy developing his own ideas about folk material in literature because he said he wasn’t interested in the novelist and the folk tradition, but rather in “the novel, the form which is itself a depository of folk and other traditions reduced to formal order.”

The real problem between Wright and Ellison was that, although Wright had some feeling for gospel, he didn’t know anything about jazz, which, in those days, was similar to lacking humor. On the other hand, Albert Murray was as knowledgeable about jazz and as fervent as Ellison about its centrality to US American culture. As Murray explains, or riffs, in his preface to Trading Twelves,

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.

All this, and more, including friendship, from jazz.

And so in literature, as in music, looking for a new way to “see and feel” what is already there, they are a two-man avant-garde. In the tradition of American avant-gardes, they are very nasty toward other factions, especially that of which Wright became the leader in their minds—blacks imitating postures of left-wing alienation, blacks looking for something in Europe. Their attitude perhaps goes back to the insult of the Tuskegee classroom that Ellison makes fleeting reference to in one of his essays: the sociological textbook that described the black race as “feminine.” Perhaps this was why Ellison and Murray were against books that seemed to plead the humanity of blacks and to ask “white folks” for acceptance and recognition. Imitation was a kind of passivity, special pleading a kind of weakness. They believed in Jack Johnson. “Absorption” and “synthesis” are words Ellison and Murray use a lot. They elevated the trickster tale, the trickster mask, and the attitude about “the good life, manhood, courage, cunning, the wholeness of being colored, the beauty of it.” Never let “them” see behind the mask; never let “them” see the pain.

In the late 1970s, Herbert Aptheker edited a three-volume edition of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Correspondence. Louis Harlan and Raymond Smock were bringing out The Booker T. Washington Papers around the same time, and then the Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers and The Frederick Douglass Papers were accumulating like stone work. But black literary figures of the twentieth century have not done as well as historical figures. The Langston Hughes–Arna Bontemps Letters (1980), The Journals of Alice Dunbar Nelson (1984), The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (1993), and To Be an Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1889–1905 (1997) are pretty much on their own.[5 ]It’s a pity that Countee Cullen’s journals, Wright’s journals, and Baldwin’s journals and letters are not being published. Editions of letters and diaries say that a writer has arrived, or is still with us, much more than biographies do. And sometimes there are discoveries about a writer’s prose through these forms. Trading Twelves is perhaps a beginning of all that for Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

They stopped writing to each other in 1960, when all they had to do to be in touch was to pick up the telephone. No doubt Murray’s jam-session enthusiasm for Ellison’s second novel in progress helped to sustain his friend’s faith. “Boy, you got yourself a cat that blows history.”

  1. 3

    See, for instance, Ellison’s “Minton’s” in Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb (Pantheon, 1996).

  2. 4

    Included in Going to the Territory (Random House, 1986), as “Remembering Richard Wright.”

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