The Omni-american

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WHEN HE WAS SEVENTY, ALBERT MURRAY SCUTTLED AROUND MANHATTAN with the energy of a far younger man. A decade later, two spinal operations having cruelly diminished his orbit, Murray needs one of those four-pronged aluminum canes to inch down a sidewalk, bitter punishment for a naturally impatient man. Albert Murray’s big, handsome grin, which turns a listener into a coconspirator in whatever iconoclasm he is hatching at the moment, gets flashed less often now.

 

WHEN HE WAS SEVENTY, ALBERT MURRAY SCUTTLED AROUND MANHATTAN with the energy of a far younger man. A decade later, two spinal operations having cruelly diminished his orbit, Murray needs one of those four-pronged aluminum canes to inch down a sidewalk, bitter punishment for a naturally impatient man. Albert Murray’s big, handsome grin, which turns a listener into a coconspirator in whatever iconoclasm he is hatching at the moment, gets flashed less often now. Still, Murray keeps his pique pretty much under control (there is too much to do). One day last summer he journeyed to a lower Fifth Avenue show room. Since Murray spends most of his time in chairs, a good one is vitally important. “Something,” he said, disarming the suave salesman with that smile, “something that’ll let me write two, three more books.”

Albert Murray didn’t publish a book until he was fifty-four. A fellow who prides himself on being at home anywhere in the Western world, a connoisseur of Paris’s sights and sounds as well as New York’s, he was too busy accumulating experiences and perceptions to work at getting them down on paper. When he finally did, the books came in a flood, nine in twenty-five years: the essay collection The Omni-Americans (1970); the autobiographical travelogue South to a Very Old Place (1971); three lectures on art titled The Hero and the Blues (1973); an essay on jazz called Stomping the Blues (1976); Good Morning Blues , Count Basic’s auto-biography, as told to Murray (1985); a fictional trilogy, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (just published); and a second essay collection, The Blue Devils of Nada , also just out.

 

In a fairer world (which he doesn’t expect; life, he loves to repeat,is nothing but a “low-down dirty shame”), Albert Lee Murray, who became an octogenarian last May, would be prized as one of our great men of letters, a polymath whose immediate concerns may be American culture and jazz music, but whose glance takes in the entire sweep of Western history, literature, and art. To the extent that Murray is known, it is as the theorist of (and coiner of the term) omni-Americanism , which holds that American culture is composite at its core, that black and white Americans are each other’s cultural ancestors. But Murray’s ideas about our common heritage, as fascinating and fruitful as they are, are a mere byproduct of his primary goal: to understand the nature of art and to defend artistic activity as a basic, utterly indispensable response to the human condition.

THERE’S A richness in the Negro response to adversity.... We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis.”

MURRAY’S LIFE STORY doesn’t strike him as improbable, though it is: to him it’s just a piece of what he calls “America’s incontestably mulatto culture.” Born out of wedlock in 1916, he was adopted by an Alabama working couple and given a happy childhood in a neighborhood outside Mobile known as Magazine Point. Bright and curious, he was earmarked early by teachers and sent to the Mobile County Training School (whose principal, Benjamin Francis Baker, was the sort of model of passionate turn-of-the-century rectitude Murray’s lifelong friend Ralph Ellison repeatedly memorialized in essays: ramrod-straight educators, the sons and daughters of slaves, tirelessly and in near-total obscurity steering the grandchildren of slaves into America’s mainstream).

Booker T. Washington was only two decades dead when Murray enrolled in Washington’s school, the Tuskegee Institute (Ellison, a mysterious, alluring upper-classman, was already there), where he would later teach. Losing himself in the library stacks, he devoured the entire Western canon—but especially Mann, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, Malraux, and Faulkner, cultivating, meanwhile, an expert taste in what was then black popular music—Ellington’s, Basic’s, and Armstrong’s jazz—and becoming as much of a fashion plate as limited means allowed. He saw no incongruity in a black crosstie-cutter’s son from Alabama aspiring to the literate elegance he pored over in the pages of his favorite magazine, the then brand-new Esquire .