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Published: Tue Jan 30 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Trading Letters and Riffs

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

“Jam or scram,” wrote Albert Murray enthusiastically from Morocco, after seeing Arab public storytellers in action. The writer-artist, said Murray, “belongs right out there among them healers, peddlers, dancers & snakecharmers.” Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray is just such a jam session. It’s the literary equivalent of what in jazz is called “trading twelves”-when one musician plays twelve bars, the other responds, and so on.

In their intimate, sharp-witted correspondence, which spans the decade between 1950 and 1960, Ellison and Murray take stock of everyone from Ray Charles to Shakespeare and everything from pickling spice to duck hunting. What’s most striking is not the occasional brilliance or assortment of their observations, but the way their shared sensibilities about almost everything are expressed through two utterly distinctive tones of voice. If Ellison is swing, Murray is bebop. To Ellison’s more voluptuous, carefully wrought sentences are counterposed Murray’s short, brassy riff-packed with ellipses, ampersands, capitalized words, parentheticals, and slang. The intellectually charged cross-rhythms, melodies, and embellishments of one balance and play of those of the other.

Ellison and Murray had an intensely literary friendship. In their first exchanges, they discuss the critic Leslie Fiedler, The New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review, Accent, T. S. Eliot’s verse play The Cocktail Party, and W. H. Auden’s book on Romanticism. As undergraduate at the Tuskegee Institute, Murray recalls admiring Ellison from afar-for carrying books across campus. Ellison’s name appeared on library cards above Murray’s-theirs were often the only names on the cards. When they officially met in 1942, in New York, they had a common frame of reference-both loved Malraux, Faulkner, and jazz. It quickly becomes clear that as jazz and literary critics their sensibilities, if not always their styles, were deeply in sync. Though the tone of their first letters is stiff and referential, a jaunty intellectualism, spiced with slang, quickly takes over.

The letters start in 1950, when Ellison was finishing The Invisible Man and Murray was in graduate school at New York University. The war in Europe was over, and hope and the economy were on the upswing. Highways were built, and people were moving in droves to California-it was easy to leave the past behind. On the surface, the American identity was socially cohesive. Blacks in America got a bite-size piece of the pie. In 1954 the Supreme Court ended segregation, and black music and performers were finally given credibility-the Newport Jazz Festival premiered in 1954, and contralto Marian Anderson had her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera House in 1955. Yet desegregation took a terrible toll on the South. There were showdowns in the streets, and as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, fears of integration caused panic and backlashes among whites.

It is characteristic of these letters that the events of the fifties are presented as one thread in an intricately woven correspondence. From talk of “Egyptian belly dancers posing with rifles” and “crackers in Tennessee being stood off by the fixed bayonets of the all-cracker National Guard,” Ellison switches easily to book news-new editions of Henry James’s essays and Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music. Throughout the letters, political events in the South are given weight and urgency. But running through every conversation is hard thinking about books.

For both Ellison and Murray, being a writer came first: “I done told them I ain’t no gentleman, black or white, and I definitely ain’t colored when it comes to writing,” Ellison asserts. The point is that good writing has nothing to do with the color of your skin. “A master is a goddamned MASTER, man,” said Murray about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Yet identity was a core concern for both, and the Civil Rights movement was crucial to understanding and properly representing that identity to the world. The point of The Invisible Man, for example, was not only that blacks needed to be seen and heard, but that there are good and bad ways of getting that attention. The method embraced by the half-blind, rabble-rousing Brother Jack, whom Ellison cast as a fool, was clearly the bad way.

Both Murray and Ellison are quick to criticize other black writers, such as Richard Gibson, who shake off their identity to win approval from whites: “He’s complaining that Negro writers are expected to write like Wright, Himes, Hughes, which he thinks is unfair because, by God, he’s read Gide!” Murray, Ellison believes, is on the right track: “You’ve written a book out of your own vision of life, and when it is read the reader will see and feel that you have indeed read Gide and Malraux, Mann and whoever the hell else had something to say to you-including a few old Mobile hustlers and whore ladies, no doubt.”

Both Murray and Ellison were equally unsparing with whites who misrepresented black people and black writing. Murray condemned Faulkner for suggesting in Life magazine that desegregation was moving too fast; Ellison condemned him for seeing black people in relation to white people, not for who they really are.

Nuts! He thinks that Negros exist simply to give ironic overtone to the viciousness of white folks, when he should know very well that we’re trying hard as hell to free ourselves, thoroughly and completely, so that when we got the crackers off our back we can discover what we (Moses) really are and what we really wish to preserve out of the experience that made us.

I pointed out to him that it wasn’t African, but American. That’s Hemingway when he pretends to be a sportsman, or only a sportsman; Faulkner when he pretends to be a farmer; Benjamin franklin when he pretended to be a “child of nature,” instead of the hipped operator that he was; even Lincoln when he pretended to be a simple country lawyer.

I knew mose lore yes, but I didn’t really know it until I knew something about literature and specifically the novel, then I looked at Negro folklore with a shock of true recognition. I was trying to write novels in the great tradition of the novel, not folk stories. The trick is to get mose lore into the novel so that it becomes a part of that tradition.

Hyman couldn’t understand the blues because, said Ellison, “he can’t really see that Bessie Smith singing a good blues may deal with experience as profoundly as Eliot, with the eloquence of the Eliotic poetry being expressed in her voice and phrasing.” Hyman’s inability to understand what was going on in African-American literature and jazz, however, was perhaps less unusual than one would expect-Ellison said he kept trying to get his (presumably white) editors to understand that his work wasn’t Kafka, it was the blues. (Blues deals with injustice by making something creative out of it. Kafka faces terror and isolation head-on-and there’s no redemption for doing so.)

Perhaps what makes both Ellison and Murray so intriguing as writers is the way they pretend to be less literary than they are: “Sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners-the American joke, man,” said Ellison. That also happens to be a pretty accurate description of Murray. Here he is at his best:

Man, that goddamned Ray ass Charles absorbs everything and uses everything. Absorbs it and assimilates it with all that sanctified, stew meat smelling, mattress stirring, fucked up guilt, touchy violence, jailhouse dodging, second hand American dream shit, and sometimes it comes out like a sermon by one of them spellbinding stem winders in your work-in-progress, and other times he’s extending Basie’s stuff better than Basie himself.

Murray’s tone is utterly unlike Ellison’s. Besides his sheer ebullience, he switches topics on a dime. A letter from Casablanca-where Murray was stationed with the Air Force for several years-begins with an anecdote about the drummer Jo Jones. Then he moves on to books he’s reading (gleefully he announces he bought seventy, for ten cents each), travel plans, available newspapers, places to buy rugs and blankets, local cuisine (which fortunately included “North African collard greens, hog maws, and chitterlin’s”), possibility of getting a decent haircut, jazz radio stations, and terrorism against the French. It is these Moroccan letters that Murray most entertains. His amusingly detailed itineraries (he preferred the whirlwind tour to the extended stay) and technical specifications about camera equipment reveal how exacting a man he is-despite the offhand, seemingly conversational tone of his quick-change riffs.

Murray also appreciates a good joke. With a 1957 letter from Casablanca, he sends Ellison some tapes of live jazz performances, including Ellington at Newport. In the letter, he describes the performance of “Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue”: “And as if that new suped-up rhythm section weren’t enough in itself, there’s old JO JONES standing down there beating on the edge of the stage with a tightly rolled copy of the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR!” Like a jazzman, Murray makes his point and moves on.

Although less ironic, Ellison’s anecdotes are often hysterically funny. The book is worth a look if only to listen to Ellison obsess about food. Here he is hunting for pickling spice in Rome:

I went into stores and did everything from inventing new dances to standing on my head and pulling out my pecker trying to make them understand pickling spice and they dragged out everything from tomato paste to embalming fluid-everything and anything except pickling spice. Never in the history of the world did a mess of pigs feet cause so much exasperation. I returned to the academy beat to my socks and prepared to assassinate the first person who spoke to me and fortunately no one did.


Diane Mehta is a Brooklyn-based poet and critic. Her most recent work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, and Bomb. (2001)

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Diane Mehta is the author of the poetry collection Forest with Castanets (Four Way Books, 2019). She received a 2020 Spring Literature Grant from the Café Royale Cultural Foundation for her nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Common, AGNI, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Southern Humanities Review, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The Literary Review, Prairie SchoonerSubtropics, The Believer, BOMB, and Foreign Policy. She is also the author of How to Write Poetry (Spark Publishing, 2008). Connect on Twitter: @DianeMehta. (updated 4/2021)

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