In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Albert Murray's Magical Youth
  • David A. Taylor (bio)

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Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch's literary father and the man whom Henry Louis Gates Jr. dubbed the "King of Cats," courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It's a short walk from the 125th Street subway station to the Harlem home of Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch's literary father and the man whom Henry Louis Gates Jr. dubbed the "King of Cats" in the New Yorker a few years ago. Murray, a student with Ralph Ellison at Tuskegee in the 1930s and later Ellison's sparring partner for decades (their long-running cultural dialogue was published in 2000 as Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray), began publishing novels after he retired from the Air Force in 1962. He may be best known for his trilogy Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (1996), but his critical writings include South to a Very Old Place (1972) and From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure and American Identity (2001), as well as countless articles. I was calling on him in my research for a documentary on the Federal Writers' Project, and his early friendship with Ellison.

As I covered the blocks I mentally retraced my phone calls with Murray, searching for some encouragement. Found none. He was generally indifferent to questions about his friend's early days on the Federal Writers' Project. Murray wasn't interested in politics "and all that bullshit," he warned. But he was gracious enough to welcome a visit. I lowered my expectations and kept walking.

The apartment building dominated an otherwise patchy block. I signed in at the desk and took the elevator up. Mrs. Murray let me in graciously before letting herself out to go to the market.

Their apartment was packed to the transom with books and artwork, including a striking collection of African art and Romare Bearden prints of Ellington and Ulysses. What dominated the place, though, was the spectacular south-facing window, wide as the living room, and its down-island vista of all Manhattan.

Murray moved slowly and used a walker, and occasionally he rambled. But at ninety, his mind was agile. Out of nowhere, he launched into a discourse on Booker T. Washington's philosophy for Tuskegee, outlining "the talented tenth" idea, taking it back to Frederick Douglass, then forward to his own essay in From the Briarpatch File, and the award he received as a notable Alabama writer. Not black writer! Alabama writer. He was proud of that. He gave an impersonation of Washington ("Yes, the Lord made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland") and laughed. He said that Washington's point, missed by many of his detractors, was that blacks should work to secure their own property and economic base.

Murray remained uninterested in my list of questions. Emergency relief work on FDR's New Deal was too ideological for an artist, he said.

Murray is famously allergic to labels, especially the label of black writer, and resents political baggage. He knew Ellison not as a black writer, but as an artist and intellect beyond categories, beyond simple views of race—like the multiracial characters in Ellison's unfinished second novel, published posthumously in 2000 as Juneteenth and this year as Three Days Before the Shooting.

"Everybody's related in the United States, see?" Murray said. "Everybody is [End Page 110] part white and part black . . . Those abstractions [white and black] get you around the complexity. But the epic and literature of the thing will deal with the metaphors that help you to cope with the complexity."


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Murray's apartment was packed to the transom with books and artwork, including a striking collection of African art and Romare Bearden prints of Ellington and Ulysses. Romare Bearden, c. 1950, taken outside the famed Apollo Theatre, over which he rented an apartment, photographed by Sam Shaw, from the Romare Bearden Papers, 1937-1982, courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 109-116
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-20
Open Access
No
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