When Albert Murray died in August 2013, a friend of mine expressed surprise that his obituary had appeared on the front page of The New York Times. “He seems incredibly accomplished, a powerhouse thinker and provocative cultural critic,” she said, “but I’ve never heard of him before.”
As a personal friend of Murray’s, this bothered me, but, truth be told, it didn’t shock me. Murray — a prolific essayist, novelist, and critic, as well as a founding member of Jazz at Lincoln Center — is not a household name.
Yet in recent years, there have been symposia and other events celebrating Murray’s life and work, in addition to a growing body of literature around the writings of this Alabama native. The Library of America’s recently published Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs is an important compilation, and will surely do much to extend this trajectory, further cementing Murray’s impact on American arts and letters.
Co-edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and Paul Devlin, an essayist and literary scholar who teaches English at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the book is expertly organized. The beautiful hardcover edition presents Murray’s best known nonfiction writings alongside much lesser known pieces, and includes the never-before-published essay “U.S. Negroes and U.S. Jews: No Cause for Alarm.” With these latter cases, Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs gives attention to work that has remained quite underexplored by literary and cultural critics. Gates and Devlin supplement the volume with an extensive chronology of Murray’s life, notes on the background of the texts in this collection, and comprehensive endnotes.
Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs opens with a seminal piece, The Omni-Americans. In 1970, Murray took on black protest writers and defied establishment thinking with his claims of “a folklore of white supremacy and a fakelore of black pathology.” His brazen words challenged prevailing views on black identity and the social science behind it, and pushed back against the dialogue around black separatism that occurred through the rising Black Power movement. “[A]ny fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another,” Murray writes in his typically punchy manner. He goes on to elaborate: “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.” It’s a claim that may sound less trenchant today, but it was nothing short of audacious at the time. And on the heels of such a divisive presidential campaign, any careful reader will recognize just how relevant these observations are now to everyday American life.
Among the other major texts in this collection are Stomping the Blues and The Blue Devils of Nada, works of cultural criticism that provide assessments of music and artistic aesthetic. Blues music can serve, as Murray has said, as “a statement about confronting the complexities inherent in the human situation…. It is also a statement about perseverance and about resilience and thus also…about achieving elegance in the very process of coping with the rudiments of subsistence.” The Hero and the Blues, included here as well, also explores aesthetics, particularly in literature (by such authors as Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Wright), through the prism of the blues idiom.
Born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1916, Albert Murray graduated from Tuskegee Institute (now called Tuskegee University), where he was a classmate of Ralph Ellison, with whom he developed a close friendship after his graduation. Murray helped to shape Ellison’s thinking on Invisible Man, the two men trading ideas and observations, and carrying their conversations well beyond the publication of Ellison’s award-winning novel. Speaking to Murray and Ellison’s shared ideologies, Gates has written elsewhere: “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.”
Murray’s output includes not just the essays and memoirs, but novels, too. Beginning with Train Whistle Guitar in 1975, the picaresque fictions trace the development of Murray’s alter ego, Scooter, a riff-style improviser from the American South who comes of age amid complex social dynamics of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Train Whistle Guitar has even been characterized as one of the greatest African American Bildungsroman narratives. Powerful words — ones that would seem to describe a canonical writer.
In fact, powerful words — like seminal, bold, brilliant, influential, and decisive — are often employed in description of Murray’s writings. Still, my friend’s response upon reading his obituary was not unpredictable. The effort to establish Albert Murray — a seminal, bold, brilliant, influential, decisive thinker — as a household name continues. In recognition of Murray’s centenary, this Library of America edition is a welcomed, essential addition, celebrating a formidable, omni-American writer.