by Albert Murray
Ralph Ellison and I became close friends and literary colleagues during the academic year of 1947-1948, while I was in New York earning my master of arts degree in English at New York University, and he was working full-time on the manuscript of the novel that was to become Invisible Man
I had been aware of him and of his interest in serious fiction since the fall term of 1935-1936, when I was an eager young freshman at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on a scholarship from the Mobile County Training School, and he was a junior year upperclassman in the School of Music and a leading trumpet player in the famous Tuskegee School Band. I did not meet him during the one term that we overlapped, but I did know that he was there from Oklahoma City on some kind of special scholarship grant; and of all the upperclassmen, he was the one by whom I was most strongly impressed. I liked his very stylish collegiate wardrobe and was struck by the fact that he seemed as serious about supplementing course requirements with further reading as I was. And I also liked the fact that he seemed to do things very much on his own rather than as a member of a group.
The trumpet was his major instrument, but I also came to know that in fact he was enrolled in the School of Music because he wanted to become a composer of concert hall music. I found out later on that he had chosen to come to Tuskegee because its School of Music was directed by William L. Dawson, the conductor of the renowned Tuskegee Institute Choir who had also recently composed a work that received national acclaim as the first Negro folk symphony when it was premiered by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
What made Ralph an upperclassman of special interest to me, however, was the fact that he seemed more involved with literary matters than any of the upper-class English majors whom I could observe. When you saw him on his way back and forth across the campus he was more likely to be carrying a clutch of library books on history and literature than his trumpet case or a folder of music scores. I remember him doing copy work on sheets of music at a table by himself in the library every now and then, but even so I was more impressed by the fact that his student self-help scholarship supplement job was not in the School of Music but at the circulation counter in the main reading room of the library. Also, in a matter of weeks I became aware of the fact that he was enrolled in a special advanced course in the English novel that included works by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and so on to Thomas Hardy, taught by Mr. Morteza Drexel Sprague, head of the English Department, who was also teaching the special section of freshman English 101, 102, and 103 for which my placement test score qualified me.
The only direct face-to-face verbal exchanges I had with Ellison that year consisted of a few polite words we said to each other at the circulation counter when he was on duty and I was checking books out or returning them. There were freshmen that year who lodged in Ralph's memory, mainly because they were musicians, athletes, or irrepressible hotshots of one sort or another, but I was not one of them.
Ralph did not return to complete his senior year and get his degree in music at Tuskegee, but my memory of his sojourn there was kept vivid by the sight of his name on checkout slips of so many of the library books of fiction, poetry, history, and literary criticism that had become the main part of my own personal extracurricular reading program. Some of the books had been checked out by him more than once between 1933 and 1936, and in many instances he was the only previous borrower.
I didn't actually meet Ralph until we were introduced by a mutual friend and Tuskegee graduate and staff member named Louis A. "Mike" Rabb, who was taking a graduate course at Columbia University when I came to New York on my first visit in 1942. I had graduated in 1939 and had returned as a part-time instructor of freshman remedial English in 1940, after taking graduate courses in education at the University of Michigan following a term as principal of a junior high school in southwest Georgia.
I began teaching regular courses in freshman and sophomore English the following year. At the time I did not know that Ellison had given up music as his main interest, but I was aware of the fact that he had published some articles, sketches, and some short fiction, which, given my awareness of his reading interests, did not surprise me. Nor was I really surprised to find that he no longer thought of music as his primary vocation; he now thought of himself as a writer.
But what he and Mike Rabb and I talked about the afternoon that Mike and I went across from the Harlem Y and up the hill to the CCNY area and the apartment on Hamilton Terrace was not books and writing, but mainly about who was doing what at Tuskegee and what Tuskegeans were doing elsewhere. Even so, what I remember most vividly about being there
sipping whatever we were sipping as we went on talking was the bookcase on the wall beyond the writing table where Ellison sat. There, along with copies of André Malraux's Man's Fate
and Man's Hope
, I also finally saw copies of Malraux's The Conquerors
and The Royal Way
, which I had never seen before.
I had read Man's Fate
, Man's Hope
, and Days of Wrath
at Tuskegee and at the time I assumed that he had too. I found later that he hadn't read Man's Fate
until he came to New York and was introduced to Langston Hughes, who was carrying a copy which he suggested that Ralph read and return to a friend. Before I left New York I found copies of The Conquerors
and The Royal Way
at Gotham Book Mart on Forty-seventh Street and began reading The Conquerors
on the train back to Tuskegee.
The next time I saw Ralph in New York he was making wartime Atlantic crossings in the Merchant Marine, and I was a second lieutenant in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field where the "Tuskegee Airmen" were being trained. I hadn't looked him up; I just happened to run into him on Seventh Avenue near 135th Street. I may have mentioned the musette bag of poetry by Auden, Spender, and C. Day Lewis that I had bought in the "We Moderns" section of Gotham Book Mart, but only because I knew he had read a lot of contemporary poetry at Tuskegee. At the time I had no idea that we would become lifelong friends and literary colleagues. For one thing, I thought that he was as involved with Marxism as Richard Wright was and I had spent much of my first year out of college studying and rejecting Marxism. I also assumed that he regarded himself as a refugee from the South, much as Wright did.
As soon as we began to discuss his current project, however, both of these assumptions changed. It was immediately clear that, like me, he had accepted the challenge of William Faulkner's complex literary image of the South, and that he shared other of my enthusiasms as well.
When I happened to run into Ralph again while I was on another trip to New York during the war, I had a very specific literary matter to talk to him about. He had written a short story about a flying cadet at an airfield obviously based on the one where I was stationed. The story was called "Flying Home" as in Lionel Hampton's popular jazz instrumental, and I had read it in Cross Section
, a new collection of contemporary writing edited by Edwin Seaver. In this story a student pilot has had to crash-land his plane onto an Alabama plantation after flying into a buzzard. Ellison had made up the incident, but I couldn't wait to tell him that one of our planes actually had flown into an Alabama buzzard not before, but after his story was published. The buzzard that he had concocted at his writing desk in New York had actually come to life! The plane had not crash-landed, because it was a twin-engine medium bomber, rather than a single-engine BT-11 Basic Trainer or AT-6 Advanced Trainer. The impact had caused the vulture to get stuck in the partially split Plexiglas of the pilot/copilot cabin, and when the crew returned to the base the ground level temperature plus that of the plane itself was such that by the time I heard about what had happened and got down to the flight line, the cabin was reeking with barbecued buzzard.
He was delighted by the coincidence of the buzzard in "Flying Home", but he was certainly not amazed, because he then reminded me playfully that "stories endure not only from generation to generation but also from age to age because literary truth amounts to prophecy. Telling is not only a matter of retelling but also of foretelling." So the incident of the buzzard in "Flying Home" was entirely consistent with Ralph's conception of literature. (Incidentally, Ralph was also amused by my account of one of our cadets who could not resist temptation and zonked his AT-6 down to deck level and buzzed an Alabama cotton field at the peak of harvest time, leaving a stalk-brown right-of-way down the middle of all that infinity of post-Confederate whiteness. Some cotton picking black eagle, man!
It was that Seventh Avenue exchange that turned out to be the prologue to what became our lifelong dialogue about life, literary craft, and American identity, a part of which is collected here. As for the most basic and most comprehensive assumptions underlying that dialogue, given the oversubscription to social science surveys and platitudes that now characterizes so many discussions about American culture in our time, perhaps the source of our orientation may not be as obvious as one might have once hoped. Ellison and I regarded ourselves as being the heirs and continuators of the most indigenous mythic prefiguration of the most fundamental existential assumption underlying the human proposition as stated in the Declaration of Independence, which led to the social contract known as the Constitution and as specified by the Emancipation Proclamation and encapsulated in the Gettysburg Address and further particularized in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.
Yes, it would be the likes of him from the Oklahoma Territory and me from the Deep South, the grandchildren of slaves freed by the Civil War, betrayed by Reconstruction and upstaged by steerage immigrants, it would be us who would strive in our stories to provide American literature with representative anecdotes, definitive episodes, and mythic profiles that would add up to a truly comprehensive and universally appealing American epic. Whatever the fruits of that grand ambition, he and I conceded nothing to anybody when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet.
The exchange of letters between Ellison and myself reprinted here took place between 1949 and 1960. The letters are arranged in the following chronological sequence: from Tuskegee and New York, 1949 to 1955; from Casablanca, Rome, and New York, 1955 to 1958; from Los Angeles and New York 1958 to 1960.
All our written correspondence ended when it did because by that time not only had long-distance personal telephone calls become more routine, but so also had long-range air travel, which meant that for an Air Force captain, space-available flights to and from the New York area were fairly easy to come by. Then in 1961 I was transferred from California to Hanscom Air Force Base outside Boston, only four hours north of New York by automobile. I retired in the permanent grade of major in 1962, moved to New York and began my full-time career as a writer, and so regular local calls ended all written correspondence between us except for Christmas cards.
Excerpted from Trading Twelves by Edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan Preface by Albert Murray, Introduction by John F. Callahan. Copyright © 2000 by Edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan Preface by Albert Murray, Introduction by John F. Callahan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.