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Critical Review by David Nicholson
SOURCE: A review of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, February 4, 1996, p. 7.
In the following review, Nicholson examines The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and two works by Albert Murray, providing a laudatory assessment of all three works and characterizing the two authors as "giants" in terms of their talent and achievements as writers.
The critic Stanley Crouch, himself no mean chronicler of the American scene, has dubbed Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison "the twin towers" of our national literature. The appellation is apt, invoking as it does both basketball (a game to which black athletes have brought both style and breath-taking improvisation all the more remarkable because performed with grace under pressure), and the black monoliths that dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan. The essays collected in these three volumes [The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement and The Hero and the Blues by Albert Murray, and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan] allow us to witness Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison in the full glory of their wit and style, and to marvel at their flights of intellectual synthesis, accomplished with all the nonchalant daring of a Charlie Parker solo. Time and again, we are reminded of their centrality as American writers—for their fiction and their essays—and American thinkers.
Only one of these books, Murray's The Blue Devils of Nada, is new in the strictest sense of the word, although it goes without saying that all are welcome. Murray's The Hero and the Blues, first published in 1973 by the University of Missouri Press, has long been unavailable. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ably edited by John F. Callahan, includes the entire contents of Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), as well as 20 other pieces. All told, The Collected Essays includes about half of the 75 occasional pieces and addresses Ellison wrote between 1937 and his death in 1984.
Reading these three volumes in concert, one is struck by how much Ellison and Murray must have influenced each other. While it would take a keener intelligence than mine to determine whose influence was the more profound, certain matters are, nonetheless, well established. Ellison, born in 1914, was just two years older than Murray. Both attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where they were at least nodding acquaintances, but it was not until 1942, when Murray came to New York (Ellison had arrived six years earlier, and both would make their homes in Harlem), that they began the lifelong friendship that ended with Ellison's death in 1994.
As a result of that friendship, perhaps, certain themes recur again and again in their work. Both, for example, are insistent that black American life is best examined via art, not sociology (Ellison sharply rebuked "the specialists and 'friends of the Negro' who view our Negro American life as essentially nonhuman"). Both view the black experience as inseparable—perhaps even, in its fundamentals, indistinguishable—from the American experience, and the blues as black (and white) America's tragic poetry. Further, each sees improvisation as a hallmark, not merely of jazz, but of the American character, evident even in what seem on the surface the most prosaic activities. Thus, in an essay on Louis Armstrong, Murray remarks that "the ever-resilient and elegantly improvised ballroom choreography … was an idiomatic representation of an American outlook on possibility and thus also was an indigenous American reenactment of affirmation in the face of the ever-impending instability inherent in the nature of things."
That last is one of Murray's favorite themes, one that he developed at length in The Hero and the Blues, and that can be summarized by this passage from The Blue Devils of Nada: "The improvisation that is the ancestral imperative of blues procedure is completely consistent with and appropriate to those of the frontiersman, the fugitive slave, and the picaresque hero, the survival of each of whom depended largely on an ability to operate on dynamics equivalent to those of the vamp, the riff, and most certainly the break, which jazz musicians regard as the Moment of Truth, or that disjuncture that should bring out your personal best" [emphasis added].
Time and again, then, he and Ellison return to celebrating American improvisation and innovation, shrewdness and ingenuity, our love of adventure and exploration, our adaptability and our sense of humor, ringing new changes on these themes in much the same way as the jazz musicians who are among their favorite subjects.
Ellison, born in Oklahoma just seven years after it became a state, more than once referred to himself as a frontiersman, adding, "And isn't one of the implicit functions of the American frontier to encourage the individual to a kind of dreamy wakefulness, a state in which he makes—in all ignorance of the accepted limitations of the possible—rash efforts, quixotic gestures, hopeful testings of the complexity of the known and the given?"
At bottom, I think, Murray and Ellison were both intellectual frontiersmen, seekers of the promise of America. They went into the treacherous wilderness of our history, armed only with their imaginations and their intellects, using those tools in much the same way the frontiersmen each admired tamed the wilderness with axe and Kentucky long rifle.
It is not simply that both men are thoughtful writers, precise and insightful. ("He did not think that unguarded or loose expression represented one's true, honest, and material self," Murray notes of Count Basie, whose autobiography he co-authored. It is an observation he could easily have made of himself or of Ellison, and that painstaking quality is a large part of what makes each of them worth reading.) Nor is it that, as these essays make clear, they were men of catholic tastes, possessed of an inexhaustible intellectual curiosity, believers that the examined life, the life of the mind, was well worth living.
Were that all to Albert Murray and to Ralph Ellison, it would certainly have been enough. Where they proved themselves originals, however, breaking new ground and claiming new territory, was in uncovering and analyzing the mythopoetic aspects of black life. They did it taking the ordinary, most common stuff of life and obeying what Murray called "the vernacular imperatives to process (which is to say stylize) the raw native materials, experiences, and the idiomatic particulars of everyday life into aesthetic (which is to say elegant) statements of universal relevance and appeal."
Unlike some who would follow in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and after, they did so in thoroughly unsentimental fashion, unreservedly acknowledging the similarities between cultures as well as their debt to other writers. Ellison, for example, cited Eliot, Joyce and Lord Raglan, author of The Hero, as influences or, as he would have put it, "ancestors." Murray acknowledged Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux, and both he and Ellison owed—and readily admit to—a substantial debt to Hemingway.
In the end, however, they did what only great artists do—they took from others and made it their own. And why not? It was, and continues to be, after all, the American way.
Writing about his first months in New York, a city that he found more than a little confusing, not least because it lacked the familiar, if oppressive, guideposts of the segregated South he had known, Ellison notes that he came to the realization that "if I were to grasp American freedom, I was compelled to continue my explorations." He meant explorations of Manhattan outside of Harlem, but the idea can easily serve as a statement of his (and Murray's) artistic and aesthetic intentions.
They are truly, as Stanley Crouch implies, giants. We shall not see their like again.
This section contains 1,282 words
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