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Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation

By: Barbara A. Baker, ed.
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
The University of Alabama Press-Pebble Hill Books, 2010
$45.75 Hardcover; $25, Paper

The title, Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation, certainly gets to the heart of what the book is about, but it seems to me that it runs the risk of making some readers expect that it is meant for those especially interested in matters of aesthetics. I think that would be a false assumption. The twenty-seven essays, interviews, and short statements of appreciation included in the volume create, slowly and steadily, a profound portrait of Albert Murray as a thinker, a reader, a writer, a teacher, and a friend. From the pages of this book, a project of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, emerges a present-day Coleridge, who seems to have taken all knowledge as his province and then has set out to reconcile all the pieces.

The authors of these pieces—from nationally-known figures such as Wynton Marsalis and Henry Louis Gates to Alabamians Barbara A. Baker (the book’s editor), Anne-Katrin Gramberg, Louis A. Rabb, Bert Hitchcock, Caroline Gebhard, Roy Hoffman, Jay Lamar, and Don Noble—might have all subtitled their pieces “What I’ve Learned from Albert Murray.”

Putting all the compositions together, we begin to see a person who from an early age seemed to see himself as a chosen one, a vision reinforced by some of his teachers, who numbered him among the “talented tenth,” underscoring the notion of his exceptionalism. At Tuskegee, we see a young man who was not like most of the other students: he read constantly and deeply, as did his older fellow student Ralph Ellison, seeking out, with the help of a mentor in the library, the best books and journals.

Throughout his life, Murray seems to have pursued and collected books, and he adopted what might be called a “great books” attitude, valuing most those books that broke through the limitations of time and space to speak of universals. The writers he most prized were largely Europeans, with a few Americans, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, thrown in. Most were males. He developed a great distaste for writers such as Richard Wright, whom he viewed as being more sociologists than real writers, failing as he thought they did to transcend present circumstances.

Despite his valuing works that had this transcendent vision, Murray understood quite well that one did not scant the local in the pursuit of the universal, and the Alabama landscape of his youth greatly informed his writing. But even more important than depicting place, he chose the blues as his central metaphor, arguing that this music, emanating from the black community, best explained the evolution of American culture. Several of the essays in this book go deeply into Murray’s appreciation and understanding of the blues and are well worth reading.

The volume depicts Murray as an integrationist and synthesizer in almost every facet of his life. He despised the black separatist movement, chiding one of his young disciples for wearing a jacket with an African print. “I’m not an African,” he would say. “I’m an American.” America is, he argues, a mulatto country. Some of the essays in this book explain quite well Murray’s position on race and its connection to essential nature of American culture.

The book also contains essays that cogently explain how Murray’s impulse to integrate is reflected in his belief in the interconnectedness of all the arts—literature, visual arts, and dance especially. The impulse is also seen in his desire to place his own art within the context of other literature, of history, of philosophy, and of anything else he could learn. He urged other serious artists to do the same. Wynton Marsalis says that before he knew Al he thought that “you just played.” But Murray taught him that he had to learn the whole tradition so he wouldn’t be one-dimensional and not explore the many complexities of jazz. Murray faults B. B. King for knowing only one note and never learning another.

What the “the professor”—as some of Murray’s admirers called him—taught, he also followed. I cannot think of another writer who has struggled more with his self-education. Murray’s writings, in which he tries to explain or illustrate his ideas, are challenging for many readers, not that that would bother him much. He said that he was writing for the “highest and most sophisticated reader,” one who would be capable of understanding. Ralph Ellison thought Murray’s desire to explain worked against him as a fiction writer, and later Stanley Crouch made the same point, but much more severely. Murray, however, could not have written other than he did nor would he, one assumes, have wished to.

In the end, Murray comes through in this book as being more teacher than anything else. His joy in sharing his discoveries is detailed by some of the writers in this volume, and one of the most satisfying images that recurs in the book is of Murray in his apartment in Harlem, surrounded by books and art, talking to a visitor, pulling books from the shelves to illustrate a point, holding forth for hours on the subject at hand. In this scene he appears to be more a lecturer than a dialogist, and his visitors seem to be rather sitting at his feet.

Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation is a most satisfying celebration of this “all-purpose literary intellectual,” as Murray dubbed himself. By book’s end, the reader has been able to see Murray in all his fullness, and we in Alabama might be especially proud that one of our own has defined so profoundly the aesthetic imagination of our nation. Aug 2010

Norman McMillan is author of the memoir Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood and of the plays Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses, based on stories of Mary Ward Brown.

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