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Conversations with Albert Murray.

Roberta S. Maguire, ed. Conversations with Albert Murray. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 167 pp. $17.00.

In recent years, it has become quite customary to refer to Albert Murray with any number of superlatives, such as African American literature's "best kept secret," African American culture's "national treasure," an American generation's "intellectual Godfather," or simply as contemporary America's "unsquarest person." Yet for all the praise that friends and admirers heap upon him, Albert Murray has not become a household name that ranks with Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden, Alvin Alley, or Wynton Marsalis, fellow artists with whom Murray is frequently compared. With the publication of Conversations with Albert Murray, however, literary enthusiasts and cultural devotees can now become more familiar with the quintessential modernist writer and cultural critic whose musings on the jazz trope have transformed our understanding and appreciation of African American literature and culture.

Conversations with Albert Murray is part of the Literary Conversations Series produced by the University Press of Mississippi. The volume brings together previously published interviews with the author and critical articles on his works with an introduction, a chronology, and a recent, previously unpublished interview by the editor. The selections in this collection range from early short reviews of Murray's work to in-depth contemporary examinations of Murray's canon, a small but provocative body of work that has grown in considerable estimation in the last several years.

Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama, and raised on the outskirts of Mobile in a little place called Magazine Point. He was educated formally at the Mobile County Training School and at Tuskegee Institute, where he majored in English. As several of the essays point out, though, Murray received a parallel education while he was growing up by being steeped in the vernacular culture and traditions of African Americans. It is this vernacular community that shapes Murray's perceptions and informs his sensibilities, and it is the touchstone to which he returns time and time again as he seeks to articulate the essence of the African American experience to a world that seems to insist upon what Murray calls "a folklore of white supremacy and a fakelore of black pathology." In the first essay in the book, for example, which dates back to 1972, Murray is taking on the world of the social scientists, whom he accuses of "promot[ing] a negative image of Negro life in the United States." Elsewhere he refers to their work a s "social science fiction" and resolves to correct their misinformed analysis of "the Negro problem," an idea that Murray vehemently dismisses. Murray's resolution manifests itself in astute analyses of the Black Experience--namely, The Omni Americans (1970) and South to a Very Old Place (1971)--as well as in the fictional trilogy comprised of Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (1996). In each of these works, and countless lectures, interviews, and letters-to-the-editor, Murray provides an insider's view of the Black Experience that establishes, authentically, its beauty, its complexity, and all of its contradictions.

One of the more insightful essays in Conversations is Mark Feeney's "The Unsquarest Person Duke Ellington Ever Met" (1993). In this essay, Feeney elaborates on Murray's idea of the "ancestral imperative," or "the heroic requirements of black people" to live up "to the standards set for us by previous generations." In advancing this idea, Murray promotes the heroism of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman as historical and cultural icons who embodied this imperative. Another idea that Murray espouses is "diversity predicated on fluidity," or in vintage Murrayesque language, the idea that "American culture is . . . incontestably mulatto." Such ideas have gained Murray no small number of critics who attempt to pigeonhole him as a conservative or reactionary, but his wide-ranging knowledge of literature and culture, his keen intellect, his abundant "capacity for combining the abstract and downhome," his willingness to employ protest in the heroic tradition in his writing, and his emphasis on stylizing the Black Experience all defy easy categorization. Murray himself acknowledges the richness and contradictory nature of his style by calling it "the chitterlings of the Waldorf."

Albert Murray started late as a writer--he was 54 years old and had retired from the Air Force before he published his first book. Also, when Murray's first writings appeared, they seemed to be out of step with the prevailing tastes of the times. Consequently, it has taken a long time for Murray to receive the literary evaluation that he deserves. However, with works like Conversations with Albert Murray and occurrences such as a National Book Award nomination, Murray has begun his long overdue rise to a place of prominence among America's great writers, and he continues to emerge as a literary "Old School" master and cultural patriarch for a new generation of writers and scholars. Indeed, for the late twentieth century and beyond, Albert Murray is "a culture hero . . . the bringer of indispensable, existential equipment for the survival of humanity."
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Carson, Warren J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Previous Article:Conversations with John Edgar Wideman.
Next Article:Conversations with Maryse Conde.

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