- Ralph Ellison Remembered:An Interview with Albert Murray*
I would like to begin with you talking about your student days at Tuskegee in the 1930s and how you first became acquainted with Ralph Ellison.
When I came to Tuskegee Institute as a freshman in September of 1935, Ralph Ellison was a junior. I noticed that he had a prominent position in the school's marching band. Since everybody was a cadet in those days, we all had to wear the blue cadet uniforms to drill three days a week, and when we had parade practices, you would see him. When the band was playing in the Alumni Bowl during football games and Captain Drye, who was the bandmaster at that time, would be sitting on the other side of the Bowl with the faculty, Ralph would be the one who would direct the band. He was sort of the concertmaster for the band. Then, when it was time to play "The Tuskegee Song," Captain Drye would come back and direct the band. At that time, Tuskegee had a School of Music, which was directed by William L. Dawson, the conductor of the renowned Tuskegee Institute Choir. Ralph was a music major, and I was in the School of Education majoring in English. I had a very good English teacher in Morteza Drexel Sprague, who was head of the English department, and he had a list of books that a well-rounded intellectual should read. So I was a regular user of the Hollis Burke Frissell Library, and I would see Ralph in the library where he worked at the main circulation desk. Because I scored high on the entrance exam, I qualified for a special section of freshman English that Mr. Sprague taught, and I was aware that Ralph was in Mr. Sprague's special advanced course in the English novel. Although he was majoring in music, he seemed to be very much interested in literature. I had become very much interested in contemporary literature—novelists like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and poets like T. S. Eliot and Robinson Jeffers. Well, I found out that he was very much interested in these contemporary writers, too.
What about Ezra Pound? Did you and Ralph Ellison read him, since he had such a great influence on T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land?
We knew Ezra Pound because Mr. Sprague attended Hamilton College, a small elite liberal arts college in upstate New York, and Pound attended Hamilton, too. Another person we were reading who was very popular in literary circles was Alexander Woollcott. He [End Page 31] was a part of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York writers who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel. He had also gone to Hamilton College. Ralph and I were reading stuff that none of the teachers was reading. When I would check out books at the library, I would see Ralph's name on the checkout slips because, during those days, you had to sign your name on the slip in the back of the book that had the date you took it out and the date you returned it. From the checkout slips, I knew what he had read and when he had read it.
I remember those checkout slips when I was a student at Tuskegee in the 1960s. Recently, I searched through the literature section of Tuskegee's library to see if I could find a book with Ralph Ellison's name on the checkout slip, and I found a copy of T. S. Eliot's Poems: 1909 - 1925, which was published in 1932. On the checkout slip was Ralph Ellison's name in his own hand and the date June 26, 1936.
One time, I checked out Robinson Jeffers's book of poems Roan Stallion that Ralph had already checked out, and he had written a little poem in the margin of the book about life and death being two beautiful nothings: "Death is nothing,/ Life is nothing,/ How beautiful these two nothings!" The Hollis Burke Frissell Library, which was headed by Walter Williams, was an up-to...