Riffs

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

edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan
Modern Library, 237 pp., $24.95

1.

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…


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