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Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray Paperback – May 15, 2001
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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 Here's the latter on the as-yet-unpublished Invisible Man, which he describes in surprisingly gutbucket terms: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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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. They're fans of great writers like Andre Malraux, Dostoyevsky, and James Joyce, and in their work they see parallels in their work to the black struggle and want to in their work describe the black experience with the same type of literary mastery.
Also very heartwarming is these two mens concern for each other and each others families. It's big fun to follow their adventures through Europe and the United States and the insights they get from them. Not to mention their love of cameras and photography.
What impressed me the most about this book though, besides the literary/cultural concerns which resound throughout all of these writers work, is the down home, city slicker, hipster black language and viewpoints of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. In their own way, they remind me of the "keep it real" hip hop generation and the "no sellout" soul/black power generation. In one example, Ellison tells Murray that Murray is the type of cat who would, "eat chitlins at the waldorf (astoria)", and that he'd do it not just to "slum" or "keep it real", but becuase he thought they were as good a food as any other. These two cats exemplify that old black, old American goal of not fogetting where you come from. As black intellectuals, they also have their times when they're very disdainful of black bourgeise institutions.
As an example in one instance of discussing response to Ellisons "Invisible Man", Murray refers to "...also saw Jet (magazine)'s expected stupidity. This reminds me of a line Chuck D said in Ice Cube's "Endangered Species", "When we die, then we'll make Jet." In several instances Murray and Ellison talk about things that prefigure the attitudes of hip hop. And I know this is ironic becuase Stanley Crouch, a disciple of these two men, is one of the most vocal black critics of hip hop in the world today. Examples of this are definetly these two men using the "b" word at certain points, Ellison actually takes being called a "hell of a n...." as a compliment, and Murray uses the "n-word"to denounce his former employees at Tuskeegee. Of course these men are not gratuitous with this type of language, but they take poetic liscence with them (as the greatest of tasteful M.C's like Chuck D, B.I.G, Tupac, Nas, Daddy Kane etc.) do. They totally explode the silliness of some of the cultural gatekeepers in the black community that these words should never be uttered. As artists they don't look at words morally, they use them were they fit. However they do use them with taste, and being middle aged men and educated men, they don't hafe to use them for every other word. But some of the language in this book is proof to me that the hip hop generation by no means came up with this lingo on their own, we got if from our pops, and uncles, and men in the community. However, we could also get a good lesson in taste, and how to take our "chitlins to the waldorf" from these two cats.
If you love black history, get this book. If you want to see the genesis of the modern African-American mentality and how it relates to the old, get this book. If you want fresh literary perspectives, get this book. If you want an example of black intellectuals who didn't forget where they came from, get this book. If you want inspiration for your own art, run and get this book, becuase in the words of Albert Murray:
"Maybe I really broke the bed down, and then maybe I ain't done nothing but hit it a lick and promise. Maybe I ain't no certified cocksman yet, but that g-ddamn chick is pregnant due: you examine her. Maybe i'tll be a nine-pounder and maybe we'll hafe to put it in an oxygen tank, and maybe it'll be a f*c***g miscarriage; you examine it....
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. Neither man here seems particularly self-conscious about where they were or what they were doing: Ellison travelled comfortably on lecture tours and enjoyed 'free lunches' by the USIA and US Embassies. In return he took the appropriately patriotic view, while he lectured about why literature should not be subject to race and politics.