- Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation ed. by Barbara A. Baker
That this festschrift is the first book-length work devoted to the life and writings of Albert Murray—who died on August 18, 2013, at the age of 97—is a startling reminder of how much of African American intellectual life remains to be explored. Too often glossed as a junior partner to his literary comrade Ralph Ellison, Murray’s works of fiction, poetry, biography, social and cultural criticism, and aesthetic theory amount to a formidable body of writing that has staked out new discursive territory in the theorization of African American culture and identity, and, as the contributors to this volume amply testify, has won a devoted following.
As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues here, in an article first published in the New Yorker in 1996, the standpoint adopted by Murray and Ellison during the 1960s was simultaneously a rebuke to the longstanding characterization of black American culture as marginal (if charming) exotica and a rebuff to the rising force of black nationalism, which posited no less of a gulf between the authentically “black” and the “American.” What these two writers contended was that American culture is, in Murray’s phrase, “incontestably mulatto,” and teeming with the idiomatic influence of black music, speech, and dance. In this, as both men acknowledged, they were elaborating the claim in Constance Rourke’s American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) that all Americans, regardless of skin color, are culturally a composite of the Yankee, the backwoodsman and Indian, and the black. In a bold variation of emphasis, as Gates observes, in Murray’s writings for the most part “‘American,’ roughly speaking, means ‘black’” (27).
Of the twenty-seven contributions that follow Barbara A. Baker’s introduction, the first fifteen form a section entitled “Observations, Interpretations, and Conversations.” While these include a short address by Murray from 2003 and a couple of interviews, the majority of these entries are scholarly essays, albeit written in a self-declared spirit of “homage” (2). Baker’s own chapter, “Cosmos Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation,” usefully explicates the central concepts of Murray’s aesthetic theory: the “representative anecdote” (as conceived by Kenneth Burke), through which the particularities of real or imagined experience are rendered with universal significance; “antagonistic cooperation” (a notion derived from the writings of the mythologist Joseph Campbell), a dialectic which refigures crises and misfortunes as opportunities for heroic action; and the “vernacular imperative,” Murray’s determination to take the idiomatic particulars of black American expressive culture as the basis for stylization as art (53). As Baker and several other contributors observe, a major and original element of Murray’s work is his insistence that the blues is not only a musical genre but also an existential philosophy and aesthetic practice rooted in African American experience, and one that articulates the universal dynamics of “heroism,” a mode of engagement with and transcendence of the exigencies and cruelties of human existence.
Lauren Walsh’s illuminating essay shows how Thomas Mann’s novels stimulated the young Murray, at the point of graduating from Tuskegee Institute in his native state of Alabama, to conceive of literature as an exploration of “the universal human condition, the common experiences of human endeavor that transcend specific [End Page 661] locales” (86). Walsh nicely captures similarities between the two writers’ conceptions of myth and time, and describes Mann’s Joseph as a “true blues hero, a riff-style improviser and literary antecedent” of Scooter, the protagonist of Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar (1974) and of his three subsequent semi-autobiographical novels (86). Other entries range widely over Murray’s literary practice and thematic concerns. John F. Callahan’s reflections on the Murray-Ellison correspondence suggest that both writers were engaged in a mutual genesis of ideas that Ellison was often the first to convey in print. Paul Devlin meditates on Murray’s collaborations with the painter and collagist Romare Bearden. Roberta S. Maguire makes an intriguing...