The New York Times Book Review asked a couple of literary stars, “What literary figure is overdue for a biography?” Both answers were rather shocking, at least by the middle-of-the-road standards of the Gray Lady.
Ready? Thomas Mallon suggested Tom Wolfe. And Ayana Mathis, author of the “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” made the most astounding recommendation: Albert Murray. Albert, who? One of the most neglected intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century, Albert Murray was an original and rare thing: an intellectual who was hip to everything. He fails to be widely known because (1) he started his literary career in middle-age during the rancid period of radical black protest (2) he remained under the shadow of his more famous homeboy Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man, a hallmark of African American literature, and required summer reading for every AP student in uber-square suburban high schools across the USA) and (3) he had the worst protege in Stanley Crouch.
But all that aside, Murray wrote 12 books, had a vast erudition, a Faulknerian sense of the South, a buoyant writing style of considerable originality and verve, developed an aesthetic theory, resisted cookie-cutter views of black life and insisted upon its complexity (which meant: social science got its butt kicked in fine Cassius Clay-style), and furthermore, made an effective case for the black invention of the USA through the musical idiom of jazz. (Like Ellison, Murray believed jazz contributed a considerable sum to the advancement of American democracy.) So then, Murray was a race man extraordinaire, and an exemplary American: here’s to a biography, perhaps written by Henry Louis Gates (who once wrote a glowing New Yorker profile of Murray), Isabel Wilkerson, David Levering Lewis, or John McWhorter. (Here’s a selection of Albert Murray’s Books.)
A taste of Mr. Murray talking about American music: