The man of letters—the cultural critic who ranges over genres to effect “the meeting of literature with social actions and attitudes and manners,” in the words of Lionel Trilling—has been a vanishing breed in American literature. Indeed, the species may well have gone extinct in 2013 with the death of Albert Murray. Although he did not appear in print until the age of forty-eight or publish his first book until six years later, he more than made up for lost time. In the thirty-three years before his death at the age of ninety-seven, Murray produced three novels, a book of poetry, and seven additional works of nonfiction, including the ghostwritten autobiography of Count Basie and a collaboration with the jazz drummer Jo Jones. (Murray also has two photographs in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was a co-founder and board member of Jazz at Lincoln Center.) He garnered the perks of the littérateur: academic appointments, lectureships, honorary degrees, election to the Century Association (its second black member, following his friend and Tuskegee classmate Ralph Ellison) and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Now he has been given the ultimate memorial, a thousand-page collection of his nonfiction from the Library of America.
A monument, alas, can also be a mausoleum. “The pieces never should have been brought together in a book,” the always perspicacious black critic J. Redding Saunders declared in a New York Times review of Murray’s first book. “It is probably a mistake to read The Omni-Americans straight through. . . . The book is just too much for the average reader to take in one uninterrupted dose.” He recommended, instead, that it be perused “one essay at a time with intervals of days or weeks duration between readings.” That was for 200 pages. Imagine this response multiplied by five.
A monument, alas, can also be a mausoleum.
The defects Saunders cited in The Omni-Americans are equally evident in this collection. Murray’s prose—“a dense mixture of pseudoscientific academic jargon, camp idiom, and verbal play”—Saunders complained was “characterized by an unrestrained use of coordinate phrases and modifiers and long, loose sentences.” And Murray’s effort to combine the insights of “sociologist, political scientist, psychologist, cultural anthropologist, musicologist, and literary critic . . . leads to contradictions and to the drawing of conclusions that are not only irrelevant to the thesis, but are scarcely supported by the adduced facts—of which, incidentally, there is a notable lack.”
The last point would be reiterated three decades later by James Marcus. “Murray’s musings are comical and attractively cantankerous, yet they seem to exist in a vacuum—in the sealed chamber of his own sensibility,” he writes. “The reader becomes increasingly desperate for some hard evidence that Murray has actually left his apartment on Lenox Terrace.” It points to Murray’s most significant limitation, one not evident in his debut: his lack of intellectual breadth. Even though he was “trying, or pretending to use the basic perceptions and the tools of so many intellectual disciplines,” as Saunders groused, Murray’s message was remarkably repetitious; after you have read all of his books, you’ve read just one. Even his friendliest commentators—like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., co-editor of the Library of America volume—concede the point. “Murray himself doesn’t mind returning to notes he played twenty-five years ago,” he writes. “His nonfiction books explore the same set of issues.” Or, as Sanford Pinsker more directly puts it: “Murray’s work often seems to pluck at a single string.”
His message is summarized in its most oft-quoted and, according to the historian Douglas Brinkley, most controversial assertion: “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.”
The force of Murray’s contention did not arise from its originality. The notion that American culture is hybrid, though never embraced by its Anglophiliac custodians, dates at least to William James, and had been persuasively argued by cultural critics ranging from Randolph Bourne and Harold Sterns to Constance Rourke and Gilbert Seldes. It was a central tenet of the Harlem Renaissance, whose writers anticipated Murray in depicting the traditional mulatto figure as triumphant rather than tragic.
But what Murray enjoyed was the good fortune of the right timing. In 1970, when The Omni-Americans appeared, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the country was suffering profound malaise from the frustrating pace of racial reform. Summers of urban riots led to official pronouncements that America was becoming two nations, and earnest appeals for integration were being drowned out by shrill demands for black nationalism and racial separatism. Murray’s declarations of interracial unity (“the people of the United States are being misled by misinformation to insist on exaggerating their ethnic differences”; “Any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black people are not black. They are interrelated one way or another”) may now seem “relatively mild as such statements go,” as Marcus comments, “the sort of bumper-sticker piety you might see on a passing Volvo.” But at the time, they were welcomed across the racial divide.
As Gates writes, “A great many blacks—who, suborned by ‘solidarity,’ had trained themselves to suppress any heretical thoughts—found Murray’s book oddly thrilling: it had the transgressive frisson of samizdat under Stalinism.” For whites, the message may have been even more heartening; the Georgia-born Brinkley praises The Omni-Americans as “a book that changed my way of thinking about American identity.” In one intellectual stroke, Murray seemed to expunge history, to produce racial reconciliation: integration without effort. (As Gates comments, “In Murray’s hands, integration wasn’t an act of accommodation but an act of introjection.”) Particularly grateful have been white writers on jazz (Gary Giddins, our foremost jazz critic, has called Murray’s work “more than liberation”), perhaps because he removed any taint of cultural appropriation.
Murray enjoyed the good fortune of the right timing.
“Since the negative aspects of black experience are constantly being publicized,” Murray wrote, “justice to U.S. Negroes, not only as Americans citizens but also as the fascinating human beings that they so obviously are, is best served by suggesting some of the affirmative implications of their history and culture”; he set himself to provide “an affirmative rebuttal to negative allegations and conclusions about some aspects of Negro life in the United States.” In this he was joined by Ellison, who increasingly substituted acting as a racial pundit for producing a second novel. “The two were, in a sense, part of a single project: few figures on the scene shared as many presuppositions and preoccupations as they did,” Gates writes. “In their ardent belief that Negro culture was a constitutive part of American culture, they had defied a literary mainstream, which preferred to regard black culture as so much exotica—amusing, perhaps, but eminently dispensable. Now they were also defying a new black vanguard, which regarded authentic black culture as separate from the rest of American culture—something that was created, and could be appreciated, in splendid isolation.”
Paradoxically, however, the striking deficiency in Murray’s (and Ellison’s) contentions about the inextricable racial interweaving of American culture is the failure to identify the distinguishable components and to explicate their interaction. As Toni Morrison observes, Murray slights “the Afro-part of Afro-Americans.”
What Alfred Kazin once called “the peculiar nemesis” of minority writers, that they “feel they can fit themselves to American life only by trying to give universal meaning to each piece of their experience,” is all too applicable to Albert Murray. He absorbed (with the accompanying formidable erudition) the aesthetic concepts of André Malraux, whose “museum without walls” posited a universal “quality of man,” achievable through art. Murray compulsively sought to absorb black culture into the universal: “Stylization could make small-town down-home stuff, even Mississippi down-home small-town stuff, as universal as anything from anywhere else.” Believing “absolutely” that all experience is shaped by myth, he tortuously found such analogues, Odysseus being a particular favorite. “My concerns are more fundamentally existential, which is perhaps to say epical, if by epic we mean to suggest an account of a hero involved with elemental problems of survival rather than social issues as such.”
This emphasis on putatively timeless dimensions may account for Murray’s intransigent refusal to acknowledge the here and now. He has been celebrated for his opposition to black protest fiction and the supposed tendency of social science to reduce black life to pathology. He chose instead to accentuate black resiliency: “Slavery and oppression may well have made black people more human and more American . . . given only half a chance black people can do better than white people who have had all the advantages.” But for Murray, the term “protest” was endlessly elastic. It seems to include any description of the deleterious effect of racial oppression. His rebuttals (or, as he liked to call them, “counterstatements”) extend from the fantastic—Saunders correctly scorned Murray’s assertions that the “term ghetto does not apply to Harlem” or to any “segregated housing area in the U.S.”—to the breathtakingly aggrandizing: the boxer Jack Johnson was “an American Work of Art to compare with anything in the major phase of Henry James.” For someone who so vociferously decried “protest,” Murray’s work is an extended and exaggerated example.
For Murray, the term “protest” was endlessly elastic.
Murray’s compulsive rejection of any adverse racial ascription is of a piece with his determination to deny any racial restriction in his life. “I was beating them,” he said of Jim Crow in his native Alabama. “I wasn’t their conception of me, I was my conception of me.” As much as Zora Neale Hurston, whose disdain of “the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal” (and who publicly scorned the U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing school segregation: “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”), Murray professed an elevated sense of self. “I was not interested in ‘escape,’ I was interested in conquest,” he told an interviewer. “I thought, ‘This is a rough place, I’m going to have to be a hero.’ Or you could say, ‘This is a rough place, and it shouldn’t be that way—why me?’ ”
It should be remembered, however, that his preadolescence in the mid-1920s coincided with what scholar calls “the high point of racism’s scientific respectability,” when “biologists, psychologists, psychologists, and sociologists proclaimed with one voice the inherent and immutable inferiority of the black race.” (One dean at Harvard proposed that blacks were becoming extinct.) Murray was far from the first black writer who felt compelled to present what are now called “positive images.” (“There are certain phases of life that he does not touch, certain subjects that he dare not critically discuss,” James Weldon Johnson wrote of “The Dilemma of the Negro Writer,” adding, “I judge there is not a single Negro writer who is not, at least secondarily, impelled by the desire to make his work have some effect on the white world for the good of his race.”) His demand that black art present only mythopoetic black figures has become standard in black literature since Invisible Man was named the most distinguished postwar novel by a critics’ poll in 1965. It now seems to have become the norm in Hollywood, whose recent depictions of blacks—think of The Help, Race (about Jesse Owens), Creed, 42 (about Jackie Robinson), Hidden Figures—are vacuous cartoons of hollow heroism. A film like Fences, with its gritty realism, precisely rendered historic setting, and fully realized characterizations, Murray would have decried as “protest.”
It is all too easy to adopt an attitude of facile condescension toward the efforts of previous generations to counteract centuries of pervasive racial denigration. It well may be that Murray’s importance, like that of the Obama administration, is mostly historical, in the mere fact of it, not its enduring accomplishment. It is difficult to make another case for his enduring achievement. Generations of black children were raised to the clenched-teeth chant of “Stick and stones”; few have constructed such elaborate alternate worlds. Perhaps the best judgment on Albert Murray comes from his idol, Malraux: “He had fought for what in his time was charged with the greatest meaning and the greatest hope.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7, on page 61
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