An open window into a literary friendship and beyond.
The late novelist Ralph Ellison and novelist and cultural critic Albert Murray were undergraduate acquaintances at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before later becoming friends in New York in the 1940s. But it was mostly in the 1950s (when for two years Ellison was at the American Academy in Rome and Murray was a US Air Force officer stationed in Morocco) that the bulk of these delightfully engaging exchanges were written. This is Ellison and Murray at their relaxed best, shooting the breeze about photography, music, or cooking; riffing on Faulkner, Malraux, Robert Penn Warren, or T.S. Eliot; propounding their own literary and cultural theories; or critiquing the Eisenhower administration’s halfhearted efforts at school integration. Ellison, as it turns out, was as fussy about language as he was particular about the ingredients he used for his beloved pigs’ feet. They both were astute observers of the Jazz scene and seemed to know every bit of minutiae involving the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. (It is from jazz, in fact, that the title—a reference to the 12 bars of music that are “traded” back and forth during a riff—is derived.) Murray, two years Ellison’s junior, published his first novel (Train Whistle Guitar) some 20 years after Invisible Man. In that respect, he often comes across as the student to Ellison’s teacher. But there seemed to be no competition between them. Ellison disclosed to Murray as early as the 1950s that he was at work on a second novel that was never completed before Ellison died in 1994. John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor, was able eventually to cobble together notes from this work-in-progress and finally to publish it last year as Juneteenth. Callahan also helped Murray select and edit his correspondence with Ellison.
A small treasure.