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Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan Random House, June 2000, $24.95, ISBN 0-313-29424-0

Reading the correspondence between these two towering figures of African American literature is like being a kid and listening to the grownups swap stories full of humor and wisdom. In the 1930s, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray overlapped by one year as students at Tuskegee University, where they barely knew each other; they became friends a decade later, crossing paths in New York. The letters cover the years 1949-60, as Ellison rose to international fame with the novel Invisible Man and Murray took the slow road to a writing career, by way of the military and academia.

The down-home tone of their dispatches, rather than the words themselves, makes their affection for each other dear, even as they discuss books, music, the nature of identity, both American and black, or the burgeoning civil rights movement. Some passages are laugh-out-loud funny--such as Ellison's account of his attempt to cook pig's feet in Rome, where he was living on a fellowship--others are poignant. Murray discusses his novel-in-progress, Train Whistle Guitar (McGraw, 1974), which would not be published for two decades after his letters with Ellison, along with his celebrated nonfiction works, such as The Omni-Americans (DaCapo Press, 1990). Ellison talks about his second novel, which would be left unfinished when he died in 1994 (a book-length excerpt, titled Juneteenth was published in 1999).

Some letters, about camera equipment or plans to meet up in Europe, were dearly not meant for posterity. But just when the book threatens to become mired in the mundane, there is a take-no-prisoners discussion of contemporary jazz, literature or politics that affirms Ellison's powers of perception and foreshadows what Murray would later accomplish. A must-read for black literary connoisseurs and anyone interested in the thought processes of these two brilliant, yet often misunderstood, authors.

Clifford Thompson is a fiction and essay writer and editor of Current Biography.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ellis, Kelly
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Words:336
Previous Article:Fruit of the Learning Tree.
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