the unsquarest person around

Albert Murray's defiance of separatism and celebration of the "Omni-American," inspired a generation of freethinking black intellectuals

Published March 9, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

A new generation of African-American intellectuals has moved into the spotlight in the past few years, spearheaded by such figures as Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, and Stephen Carter. These thinkers don't share any specific party line -- indeed, the trio listed above have violent disagreements on any number of issues. But in various ways, they have all tried to shift the national debate on race away from a polarized position, in which black and white Americans square off as inevitable antagonists. They've also cast a skeptical eye on the sacred cows and cast-iron clich&eacutes of the debate, and demolished a good many of them in the process.

If I had to name a candidate for the Great Anticipator, my hands-down choice would be Albert Murray. This brilliant critic, novelist, and biographer has spent a quarter-century staking out the very terrain now being defended by his intellectual progeny. Not for nothing has Stanley Crouch described him (in "The All-American Skin Game") as "my mentor and far more my father than the fellow whose blood runs in my veins."

Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1916. He attended the Tuskegee Institute in the early 1940s, and after a year of graduate studies at NYU, he divided his time between teaching at Tuskegee and serving in the air force. It wasn't until 1962, at the age of 46, when he retired from the military, that Murray began writing in earnest. He soon made up for lost time with a flurry of astonishing books, kicking off with "The Omni-Americans" in 1970.

In this collection of essays, Murray argued that black and white Americans are partners, willing or unwilling, in a single enterprise: "For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other." After establishing this point to his satisfaction, Murray saw no reason to pay lip service to either group. Thus he proceeded to pour out his comical, non-discriminatory disdain on a wide range of targets, from the black nationalist movement and the 1969 Moynihan Report on black families, to protest fiction and the Ku Klux Klan.

In doing so, he confounded both his opponents and his potential allies. "Those were the years," Crouch told me, "when black nationalist insanity and white paternalism locked arms. Murray was breaking away from all that. He was breaking away from everything&nbsp that was limiting to his conception of American life -- sociology, inferiority complexes, simple-minded ideas about class, white liberal guilt, perverted versions of American history, and so on."

As Murray demonstrated over the next five years, "The Omni-Americans" was no fluke. Four more books followed in short order, each of which put a fresh spin on our multicolored culture. In "South to a Very Old Place," Murray traveled back below the Mason-Dixon line for a look-see, recording his memories and perceptions as a "Remus-derived, book-oriented downhome boy (now middle-aged)..." His novel "Train Whistle Guitar" extended the lyrical and syncopated textures of Murray's prose, adding the author's native Nokomis -- transformed into the rural hamlet of Gasoline Point -- to our nation's literary atlas. "The Hero and the Blues," a book of criticism, sketched out Murray's artistic philosophy, which drew equally upon Andr&eacute Malraux and Duke Ellington. And in "Stomping the Blues," he dynamited almost every clich&eacute about this quintessential American music.

After this eruption, Murray slowed down during the 1980s. He did produce a sequel to his first novel called "The Spyglass Tree," and he collaborated with Count Basie on the bandleader's autobiography. Now, just in time for his eightieth birthday, Murray has delivered not one but two new books, which recapitulate his favorite themes even as they run new variations on them.

"The Blue Devils of Nada" represents the author's last word on aesthetics. In Murray's case, any consideration of this subject leads directly to the blues -- which are not&nbsp the sorrowful cries of a downtrodden people but "a fundamental device for confrontation, improvisation, and existential affirmation: a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament." What's more, the blues artist's knack for reinventing reality from one moment to the next amounts to a kind of heroism, as does his (or her) resistance to cant.

Here as elsewhere, Murray is a universalist. He's fascinated by the way an artist transcends a particular time and place (and race) and strikes archetypal pay dirt: "Beneath the idiomatic surface of your old down-home stomping ground, with all of the ever-so-evocative local color you work so hard to get just right, is the common ground of mankind in general." So it shouldn't surprise us that his exemplary figures include Ernest Hemingway as well as Louis Armstrong. More than 25 years after the appearance of "The Omni-Americans," Murray is still insisting that our similarities are more striking than our differences.

"The Blue Devils of Nada" is a summation of Murray's abstract thinking, and it makes an excellent point-of-entry for newcomers to his writing (assuming they can overlook Pantheon's slapdash copy editing.) "The Seven League Boots," however, finds the author looking forward, continuing the novelistic trilogy he began with "Train Whistle Guitar." Scooter, the protagonist of the earlier stories, has now graduated from college in Alabama, and landed himself an enviable postgraduate gig: he's the bassist for a band not unlike Duke Ellington's classic ensemble of the early 1940s. His privileged position at the elbow of America's greatest composer might seem like a touching bit of wish-fulfillment on the author's part. Let's recall, however, that it was Ellington himself who called Murray "the unsquarest person I know."

In any case, Scooter spends the first half of the novel crisscrossing the country by bus, discovering that improvisation is a metaphysical as well as a musical principle. His tutors are his bandmates -- a crew of memorable personalities like Joe States, Big Bloop, and Osceola Menefee -- and their conversations allow Murray to exercise his gift for downhome repartee. Eventually, though, Scooter leaves the band to finish his education, returning to Gasoline Point in the final pages. His trajectory as a character is far from complete; indeed, "The Seven-League Boots" takes him only as far as the 1950s, ending Scooter's saga on an oddly tentative note. Still, given the forward momentum of its language and its composite portrait of American life, the trilogy more than meets the author's own criterion for excellence: "Whatever you do, if you do it with enough class, you can make your ancestors smile in their graves."

No doubt Murray's ancestors are grinning ear-to-ear, but his descendants -- his intellectual ones -- should be just as grateful. Nobody has wrestled more creatively with the dilemmas of race and American identity. And by his refusal to don ideological blinders, Murray has steered clear of quick fixes and canned wisdom, shifting the very ground upon which contemporary polemicists like Crouch, West and Carter fight their battles (not to mention such extraliterary acolytes as Wynton Marsalis).

"He's like the general in the tent on the hill," Crouch put it. "The guys in the cavalry below get most of the glory -- the gold braid, the blood on their uniforms. But the victories are made possible by his strategizing." A tent on a hill? The image would probably please Murray, who has spent his career surveying our culture from the highest possible ground, and reporting what he has seen with cheerful, unflinching candor.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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