Sometime last week, I was reading the forward to The Essential Harold Cruse reader, written by Stanley Crouch. An acerbic critic of many African American radical intellectuals, Crouch’s forward—an ode to Cruse’s brilliance as a writer and thinker—made for exciting reading. I was stopped by the following passage, where Crouch mentioned Cruse (and his magnum opus, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) in concert with two other important 1960s intellectuals, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray:
“With that book, Cruse did, in his own way, what Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray have become either well known for or barely known for arguing. He recognized that the call and response between the Negro and America at large is central to what Negroes became and what this nation became (iii)” (emphasis mine)
In essence, Crouch argued that Murray deserved far more credit among African American intellectuals for his work in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. Crouch went on to point out that Murray “produced far more material than Ellison did while living” (iii). Of course, quantity does not always equal quality. But Murray’s work is important to gaining an understanding of African American life during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Books such as The Omni-Americans (1970) argued that American culture was a mélange of various cultures, such as African American and white cultures. Further, it pushed for an understanding of African American culture that Murray felt was beyond the grasp of social science (an argument written about extensively in Daniel Matlin’s On The Corner). Murray’s work, like that of Ellison, rejected many tenants of Black Power ideology within African American intellectual circles.
Further, Murray is important to understanding the continuing importance of regionalism in American history. South to a Very Old Place (1971) is a memoir by Murray of his life in both the South and the North. His exploration of places such as Atlanta or Tuskegee makes for fascinating reading. In the future I’ll examine South to a Very Old Place in a close read. But for now it is worth thinking about Murray’s work and how it fits into both African American and Southern intellectual history.
Albert Murray’s career also included other essay collections, such as The Blue Devils of Nada (1996). His lengthy letter exchanges with Ralph Ellison, Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (2001) should also be read by intellectual historians interested in the history of America after 1945.
Finally, Sanford Pinsker’s 1996 piece on Murray, “Albert Murray: The Black Intellectuals’ Maverick Patriarch,” tried to save the African American writer from anonymity. In comparing Murray with another writer never afraid of writing against the status quo, Saul Bellow, Pinsker argued that the biggest difference between the two men was Murray’s near-anonymity in modern debates about American culture and letters. Writings by Stanley Crouch and others, of course, brought Murray into some piece of the spotlight he deserved. One of my earliest writings for this blog, in fact, was a remembrance of Murray after he passed away, arguing for more to be done on his life. In an era of increased debate about phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” Murray’s abiding faith in the American democratic tradition—along with a skepticism of any form of racial separatism—are intriguing to think about. After all, African American intellectual history in the twentieth century has always existed beyond the traditional poles of separatism and integration. Murray’s body of work is such a reminder of that.
EDIT: Right after posting this, I discovered that the Library of America is releasing in October a collection of Murray’s works. No doubt this is further proof of Murray’s importance to American letters.