Murray, Albert and John F. Callahan, eds. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
The art of writing letters seems to be lost on twenty-first century sensibilities; the contemporary forms of intimate communication are the IM, the text-message, and the chit-chat among “friends” on Facebook. Intimacy (privacy) and the baring of deep feeling are cheapened. The thoughtful discipline that once informed the letter is displaced by immediacy.
Scholars find it a small blessing that some twentieth-century writers did save their letters. For the purposes of critical judgment about the past, letters are oyster knives for shucking shells of concealment; writers had the freedom to share with their real friends what they dared not share with their publics.
Such is the case with the selected letters of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. Although their references to Richard Wright are limited, what they said to each other about him is very telling. Both confess fear of being influenced or stained by Wright.
In the Preface for Trading Twelves, Murray writes that he assumed when he became reacquainted with Ellison, that Ellison “was as involved with Marxism as Richard Wright was and [he] had spent much of my first year out of college studying and rejecting Marxism. [Murray] also assumed that [Ellison] regarded himself as a refugee from the South, much as Wright did” (xxii). Murray graduated from Tuskegee in 1939, the year before Native Son created shockwaves inside and outside of Marxist circles. Murray was pleased to discover that his early assumptions about Ellison were ill-founded, that he and Ellison “accepted the challenge of William Faulkner’s complex literary image of the South” (xxii).Murray implies from hindsight that Wright’s critical image of the South was simple and insufficiently literary. His remarks in the Preface allow us to think that Faulkner’s image was holistic and made palatable by the flavoring of myth. Or, as Murray declared in The Hero and the Blues (1973), “fiction of its very nature is most germane and useful not when it restricts itself to the tactical expediencies of social and political agitation and propaganda as such, but when it performs the fundamental and universal functions of literature as a fine art, regardless of its raw material or subject matter” (10). Wright did not traffic enough in aesthetics to please Murray.
What would please Murray is Ellison’s remark in a letter dated June 6, 1951, noting that Richard Gibson complained in Kenyon Review that “Negro writers are expected to write like Wright, Himes, Hughes, which he thinks is unfair because, by God, he’s read Gide!”(20). Wright had also read Gide in the 1940s. Ellison’s remark to Murray about Gibson and Gide is ambiguous, for it could be read as a double-edged smirk. If that is the case, Ellison is signifying both on non-Negro expectations and on Gibson’s and Murray’s assumed willingness to accept Gide as a touchstone. As Wright’s erstwhile friend, Ellison has the advantage of a perspective for which Murray might only yearn.
Ellison is more direct in defining the relationship he and Murray have with Wright in his letter of February 4, 1952 to “Dear Albert.” Ellison invokes certain superiority in writing
“Because, as you know, we’ve taken on in our first books a task of defining reality which none of the other boy had the equipment to handle -- except Wright, and he could never bring himself to conceive a character as complicated as himself. I guess he was too profoundly dissatisfied with his life, his past life, to look too long in the mirror; and no doubt he longed for something, some way of life so drastically different that it would have few point of contact with what he knew or the people he knew it with” (29).
When we consider what writers do with the social construction of reality, Ellison’s remark betrays a certain poverty of imagination. He was incapable of considering how smart Wright was in longing for distance and difference from what he saw in the ethnographic mirror he constructed in Lawd Today! Ellison unwittingly confirms the very position about fidelity to one’s culture that he would object to when it was articulated by Irving Howe. The letter casts some light on Ellison’s innate contradictions, because a few paragraphs later he would tell Murray that a certain English instructor at Tuskegee needed to make “more than a provincial estimate of Wright” (31).
Ellison’s deliberate misunderstanding of Wright is nicely delineated in his letter of April 9, 1953 to Murray. “Incidentally,” he mentions, “I’m doing a piece on the background of Negro writing for P.R., in which I plan to touch on Wright and Baldwin, both [of] whom have novels. Take a look at their works, I don’t think either is successful, but both are interesting examples of what happens when you go elsewhere looking for what you already had at home. Wright goes to France for existentialism when Mose, or any blues, could tell him things that would make that cock-eyed Sartre’s head swim. As for Baldwin, he doesn’t know the difference between getting religion and going homo” (43). Such unfiltered remarks suggest that Ellison truly did not know how to discern that Wright was existential some years before he chose exile or how to deal with Baldwin’s engagement of a taboo.
However much we now have the freedom to condemn Ellison’s views, we do have to consider that they were quite “normal” and American in the 1950s. Their normality is confirmed by Murray’s reply to the letter in spring 1953:
“Am looking forward to that PR piece. Incidentally, I have already red The Outsider and I seem to have had exactly the same reaction that you had. Look man, you can lose your hat ass and gas mask farting around with them damned French cats if you don’t know what you are doing. I know how you feel about Wright and all that, but I just cain’t help say that that oscar looks more and more like an intellectual parasite to me everyday, a sort of white man’s NEW NIGGER, if you know what I mean. So now he’s hep to Camus’ The Stranger; that was the very first thing I said to myself. Ain’t nothing happening in this one, Ralph” (47-48).
It was quite normal that in pointing the finger at Wright, Murray was pointing three fingers at himself as a black man’s soi-disant nigger. In their mutual self-congratulations, reveal a blindness that never afflicted Wright. Despite his flaws, Wright saw life clearly enough to avoid begging for the approval of the Other that apparently Murray and Ellison were convinced that could not live without and still be genuine artists.
Ellison demonstrates more than a modicum of common sense, however, in what he writes to Murray in a letter dated August 9, 1954:
“I’ve also just read the galleys of Wright’s book on the Gold Coast, Black Power, and though I’m somewhat annoyed with his self importance I think the book is important and I’m trying to work out a comment” (79).
But two years later on November 7, 1956, Ellison writes from Rome to Murray that
“Wright was still het up over the Presence Africaine conference, which he feels is of great future importance; says the American Negro is in the position to help them, which perhaps we are. But who the hell wants to live in Africa?” (152).
Ellison’s ambivalence is golden.
Ellison’s riff on Countee Cullen’s classic question “What is Africa to me?” is all of a piece with the jazz improvisations that echo in those portions of correspondence with Murray that pertain to Richard Wright. Ultimately, the jazz of their letters serve as omni-American glosses on the critical reception of Wright’s work in the 1950s. One may not like the sound of the music, but one is compelled to listen attentively. One certainly learns a bit more about the deep anxiety of influence within African American literature from the letters than one can from the literary criticism Ellison and Murray have produced. Indeed, the thoughtful discipline of the letter is invaluable for our efforts to know more about Richard Wright by examining responses to his person and his works. We become much wiser in knowing what we were not initially intended to know.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.