Some friendships spring instantly to life, while others require a lengthy period of germination. The rapport between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray fits into the second category. Both attended the Tuskegee Institute in the fall of 1935, and while they were never formally introduced, Murray recalls being impressed by his fellow student's formidable intellect, not to mention his snappy wardrobe. It wasn't until 1947, however, that their relationship got rolling. The two shared a love for jazz and photography and the American vernacular, along with a comically skeptical view of the social sciences. They were also joined by a sense of literary vocation that seems truly bracing in our own age of ironic retrenchment: "He and I conceded nothing to anybody," recalls Murray, "when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet."
Their intention was to create a "universally appealing American epic." Ellison delivered his epic, Invisible Man, in 1952, while Murray's arrived on the installment plan, parceled out among nine books and three decades. Yet this divergence in their careers, which might have easily divided them into literary turtle and hare, never made a dent in their friendship--a fact amply testified to by the letters collected in Trading Twelves. The title refers to the old custom whereby jazz soloists would lob 12-bar phrases back and forth, upping the ante with each exchange. Murray and Ellison seem similarly energized by their epistolary cutting contest. Here's the latter on the as-yet-unpublished Invisible Man, which he describes in surprisingly gutbucket terms:
For me it's just a big fat ole Negro lie, meant to be told during cotton picking time over a water bucket full of corn, with a dipper passing back and forth at a good fast clip so that no one, not even the narrator himself, will realize how utterly preposterous the lie actually is.
Elsewhere he urges his correspondent to hurry up "that low-down southern cullud jive of yours and spread it all over western civilization," while Murray takes their mutual idol William Faulkner to task: "As for Marse Faulkner, he's good, but he ain't never come to terms with poro & straightening combs, let alone jazz and all that cadillac kick dynamism." Decades after they were written, the letters in Trading Twelves
remain an ardent and entertaining conversation about art, politics, race, and the intricacies of what Murray would later call
Omni-American life. --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
"I had chosen to re-create the world, but, like a self-doubting god, was uncertain whether I could make the pieces fit smoothly together. Well, its done now and I want to get on to the next one." In this passage from a 1951 letter to his literary colleague and all-around good buddy Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison is referring to his masterpiece Invisible Man; it is both this fly-on-the-wall intimacy, as well as the now-ironic mention of Ellison's "next," never to be completed novel that help to make this book such a pleasure to read. Ellison was an accomplished and dapper upperclassman and Murray a respectful but equally ambitious freshman when they first encountered each other in 1935 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were not to become close friends until 1947, when Murray was studying for his masters degree in New York City. The letters begin in 1949 and end in 1960, when easy long-distance phone calls brought the need for longhand correspondence (but not their everlasting friendship) to an end. While the 1952 publication of Invisible Man rocketed Ellison to literary stardom, his letters always treat Murray, who taught at Tuskegee and labored on his own unpublished first novel until the 1970s, as his genuine equal, both as a writer and as a cultural thinker. The letters recapitulate their travels around the world (European fellowships for Ellison and cushy postwar Air Force assignments for Murray, who was a colonel in the reserve); their quirky black hipster idiom; Ellison's ambivalence toward Tuskegee and his responses to literary fame, including a brief description of an encounter with William Faulkner at the old Random House offices. There are also funny, thoughtful exchanges on jazz figures, biting comments on literary foes and ample details of the literary and domestic lives of these two gifted and iconoclastic American writers. (June)
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