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

4.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

ISBN-13: 978-0375708053
ISBN-10: 0375708057
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Editorial Reviews Review

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 Here's the latter on the as-yet-unpublished Invisible Man, which he describes in surprisingly gutbucket terms: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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3847 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (April 19, 2010)
  • Publication Date: April 28, 2010
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003FCVE5U
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,293,739 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on August 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book. Fans of Ellison and Murray will appreciate the intimate look at the lives of these writers that can be gained from reading the letters published in this work. Moreover, the call and response nature of the letters beautifully mimic that which can be heard in some of the classic jazz and gospel songs of America. You'll have a hard time putting this one down...
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Format: Paperback
The above quote is from one of Ralph Ellison's letters to Albert Murray and it summarizes both of these two men's positions on both art, as well as their outlook on African-American advancement in this country. I found this book to be extremely inspring, partly because these two men are/were very brilliant, partly as black history, partly as literary criticism, and very much for the fact it changed my conception of these two men. While these two cats are seen in the public imagination as some sort of conservatives in American culture, their letters show them to be two men very involved in black vernacular expression and very understanding and apprecieative of regular, as Sly Stone said, "Everyday People", and also, as people who show great disdain for bourgeise pretensions.

One of the striking things for me about this book is the fact that both of these men are older than my father, who was born in the thirties. It totally explodes my misconceptions about black people before 1954 (Brown vs Board). While messrs. Murray and Ellison talk about many issues pertaining to blacks and that include prejudice, they are in no way limited by racism, and it only periphirally comes up during their letters. Their focus is on how black expression is deeply ingrained in the American sensibility. And this is prior to the advent of Elvis Presley and Rock & Roll (for the most part). Jazz and Blues of course are the primary conduits of this. But the two also discuss Willimam Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain in terms of how the motif of the black American influences their work.
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Cardinal Ratzinger once called the theologian Hans urs von Balthasar the most cultured man in Europe. On the evidence of this ten years of correspondence, the two most cultured men in twentieth century America may very well have been Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. The breadth, depth and brilliance of these letters, their genius, earthiness, saviness, creative spark and critical acumen, whether talking music or literature, race or politics, culture, travel, food or the achievements and foibles of other writers, together with the humor and affection, the concern and support the authors show for each other and the welfare of their families, make this book an almost Promethean gift of light and warmth to those who value individual and collective culture forged through the cultivation of friendship and candid, challenging intellectual exchange. Very highly recommended
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Why are private letters by famous people published? Because confirmation of their published essays is interesting? Or because there is a prying interest into what they 'really' thought? Ellison published one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. And a string of excellent essays in which he wrote about the jazz he loved, a subject he had very circumscribed views about, as well as polemical and critical essays about why he didn't want to be cast as a militant African-American writer like Wright or Baldwin, or LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
Albert Murray is the writer of an excellent book about the blues as an esthetic very much influenced Ellison's essays on blues.
But in addition to the readily available public stuff by these two writers there's here, not entirely unexpected, macho and locker-room talk: Patronising contempt for Wright and Baldwin is to be expected, but reference to the "homo" jazz of Gil Evans-Miles Davis recordings is new and might pass for a parody of football enthusiasts. Read also, for example, what Ellison writes about the Davis quintet at Newport in 1958, or his rants about Charlie Parker's imitators. Why not concentrate on Parker's music itself? But he seems to have been possessed by a tin ear for the developments in jazz after 1940. It is particularly interesting that Ellison fought so hard not to be cast as the 'let's-now-hear-the-"Negro"-point of view.' But when he writes about Parker og Davis he implicitly takes a racialized view of all those ignorant, privileged "white" boys who have taken over African-American jazz.
Getting a glimpse of the private selves of great writers is not necessarily one to be welcomed.
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Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison are the greatest thinkers of our era. They capture with great clarity what it means to be an American in modern society.
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