When eighty-four-year-old Albert Murray came to an Upper West Side bookstore last August to read from Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, he expressed his gratitude to John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor and editor. He said that no one had done more than Callahan to see that Ellison’s work was in print. Murray meant The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Flying Home and Other Stories, and Juneteenth, a novel, a narrative sequence, a book-length excerpt of the long, mysterious, obsessive work that Ellison still had not let go of at the time of his death in 1994.1 Thanks to Callahan, there are more Ellison titles now than existed during his lifetime.
Callahan also deserves praise for Trading Twelves, an exchange of eighty-nine letters between Ellison and Albert Murray during the 1950s, written from what Callahan calls “both men’s determination to bring their vernacular Negro American point of view to bear” on the wider intellectual and cultural life of the US. Praise must fall to Murray, too, with whom Callahan edited this volume, because the relaxed, congenial sound of Ellison in his letters was made possible by his trust in his fellow former avid reader in the Tuskegee library and, when their exchange of letters begins, fellow hopeful novelist.
In these letters their shared passion for jazz, that saving grace, gave them license to say or string together all kinds of bop wisdom. In his introduction, Callahan compares Ellison to “a horn man improvising long, meditative, lyrical solos” while Murray “swings along on piano in offhand syncopation.” This is very much how the two in these letters—and elsewhere—talk about themselves and about each other. Trading twelves, Callahan explains, refers to the jazz jam session, the exchange of riffs, of twelve bars of music, between two instruments.
Yet while Ellison’s and Murray’s tone in their letters is relaxed, confidently complicit, the letters are not without self-consciousness. The last thing the world needs is another book, and both write knowing serious writers must back up the nerve they have in asking for the world’s attention by offering something that is more than merely worthwhile. Sometimes their letters are almost bravely grandiose because of the feeling that there is no turning back, even with families to support.
Even after Ellison has published Invisible Man and Murray his first short story, there is still a sense in their letters that they are testing out on each other the language with which they want to explain to their audiences how to read what can be called Ellison’s blues essentialism and Murray’s extreme bop extension of it. The letters are also intriguing in what they capture of the postwar period of graduate school opportunities made possible by the GI Bill, when travel to Europe was again possible, and in what they say about themselves and their conception of the black writer as civil rights struggles took hold in public consciousness.
Here is Ralph Ellison, in 1955, to Albert Murray, about having seen a jazz character, a “great drummer” and a “fool” in the “colored sense,” who was a former pupil of an unpopular music instructor back at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where all three had gone to school:
…I went into a store on Madison Avenue the other day and saw a slightly built, balding mose [black guy] in there stepping around like he had springs in his legs and a bunch of frantic jumping beans in his butt (pronounced ass), and who was using his voice in a precise, clipped way that sounded as though he had worked on its original down home sound with great attention for a long, long time—a true work of art. I dug this stud and was amazed. I was sitting across the store and waiting to be served when he got up and came across to the desk to pay for his purchase and leave his address—when the salesman made the mistake of asking him if he wasn’t the Joe (pardon me, Jo) Jones.
Well man, that definite article triggered him! His eyes flashed, his jaw unlimbered and in a second I thought ole Jo was going to break into a dance. His voice opened up like a drill going through thin metal and before you could say Jackie Robinson he had recalled every time he had been in this store, the style of shoes he bought and why he’d bought them and was going into a tap dancing description of his drumming school, politics, poon-tang in Pogo Pogo and atomic fission—when I remembered what you had told me of his opinion of Alton Davenport and uttered the name. Man, his voice skidded like a jet banking up there where the air ain’t air and he started stuttering. “Did you say Davenport?” he said. “And Birmingham, Tuskegee, and points south,” I said. And he was off again.
Good to hear you in there riffing like that…. Remember what he told that fay [white guy] drummer that time. This poor square cat was clunking and plunking up there on 52nd and one night he looked out there’s old Jo sitting there not even looking. Whereupon this cat falls to and commences to fair-thee-well all but cook supper on them skins as only a grayboy feels he’s got to do. Sweated himself into a double krupa trying to make old Jo take notice, then at the end of the set he came over and asked if he dug him. “You’re distorting me, man,” old Jo lectured him right then and there, his teeth set into that razor-edged footlights not-smile, his eyes crowfooted, his nose narrow, his voice nasal, “This way, man, this way. Lighten up, lighten up and loosen up. Watch your elbows, man. Watch your shoulders. What you mad about? It’s music, man, music, music. From here man, here, here, here. It’s heart and soul, pardner. Man, you’re distorting the hell out of me.” Man, that cat didn’t use nothing but brushes the rest of the night.
Their style is defined by humor and their humor by amplified uproar, determined vitality, robust ironies. Yet these letters also reveal a quiet reverence for the artistry to be found in black culture, the belief that true art teaches control, not abandon, a faith in music as a “depository” of living American traditions, and their search for a literary equivalent.
Throughout the letters there are interesting remarks on literary figures Ellison knew, such as Bellow, Mailer, and R.P. Blackmur, and Faulkner in his suede shoes; and entertaining portraits of artists like Ray Charles and the white choreographer Maya Deren, whose films made her a conservationist of black dance in Harlem. Both Ellison and Murray know a lot about hi-fi equipment and cameras. And as guys they talk cars, boxing. But Trading Twelves assumes a great deal of familiarity with the works of both Ellison and Murray. The story the letters tell is narrow. As apprentices, Murray and Ellison don’t talk shop, they talk literature. They are not so much interested in personalities or in private lives, not even in their own, at least not in the letters presented here. Though the letters aren’t personal, they are intimate. Hardly a letter goes by without mention of what they are reading, and perhaps the reason some of the now-obscure works that excite them—Abraham Kardiner’s The Mark of Oppression, for example—are left underidentified is that the intellectual friendship these letters testify to is their main concern as literary history.
The two men confess plans, anxieties, and encourage each other. “I’m glad to see you getting into print. This is a very necessary part of writing, until the work is printed it’s still tied to your own subjectivity. Put it into print and the spell is broken and self-criticism is born.” Trading Twelves is touching in what the letters record of the arduous schedule of young writers who could not have known how long it would take each to be as nonprolific as they turned out to be.2
Ellison is thirty-five years of age when the letters begin and Murray is thirty-three. Murray had been aware of Ellison since 1935, when Ellison was an upperclassman at the Tuskegee Institute and he a freshman. To Alabama-born Murray, the upperclassman who had come to Tuskegee from Oklahoma to study music already had a reputation. Murray found Ellison’s name on the cards for the books that he himself had checked out of the school library in his passion for supplementary reading. But the two didn’t actually meet until 1942, in New York. Murray says that although he knew that by then Ellison had published some fiction and articles, he didn’t then know that music was no longer his main interest.
Murray ran into Ellison for the second time in Harlem, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 135th Street. Murray, who had already studied and rejected Marxism, had assumed that Ellison shared Richard Wright’s interest in it. But after he mentioned to Ellison his “musette bag of poetry by Auden, Spender, and C. Day Lewis,” treasures from the Gotham Book Mart, how much more Ellison had in common with him than with Wright became clear, including their hope to answer in their writings what Murray calls “the challenge of William Faulkner’s complex literary image of the South.”
Murray had already been teaching at Tuskegee when he and Ellison became friends. He had been a second lieutenant in what was then the US Army Air Corps, stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Tuskegee and the Air Force, to which Murray was transferred as a reservist (first lieutenant) when it absorbed the Air Corps, were to have long claims on him. The early letters were written while Murray was still teaching at Tuskegee, and Ellison was in New York, spending a lot of time with the narrator of his novel, inside the conceit of first-person invisibility and his narrator’s secretive project of speaking “on the lower frequencies” for “you.” It is easy to imagine how necessary being in touch with another sympathetic black writer was for Ellison.
Just how wary of others or superstitious about saying too much Ellison perhaps was back then, either by temperament or from his experience of literary Manhattan, is evident in an early letter, before his novel was published, about his having been asked, by someone whom he describes as “an exponent of the Herskovits myth-of-the-Negro-past-school of anthropology,” to lecture at NYU on the sociological background of southwestern jazz:
With my fear of having my poor little brain picked I probably won’t say much of anything. So let that be a warning to you; if you have any ideas write them before you talk to these white boys, ’cause they’re all eager beavers aspiring to win their spurs in [Partisan Review], Accent or anywhere else that will print a by-line. So write it before you talk it—if you plan to write it, and don’t say too much even then.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
January 11, 2001
One of Callahan’s footnotes promises a scholarly edition of Juneteenth soon. ↩
Albert Murray has published nine books, and the night he read from Trading Twelves he mentioned three other works in progress, including the last novel in his “Scooter” trilogy. Ellison has long been one of his subjects. See, for instance, his memoir South to a Very Old Place (1971). Several of the photographs included in the book are by Ellison who, when he first came to New York in 1937, was thinking about being a photographer as well as being either a sculptor or a musician. Van Vechten’s portrait photography, in Ellison’s opinion, was “photo-castration of a few so-called poets.” ↩
See, for instance, Ellison’s “Minton’s” in Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb (Pantheon, 1996). ↩
Included in Going to the Territory (Random House, 1986), as “Remembering Richard Wright.” ↩