U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading the Way Home: Some Thoughts on Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place

I’ve spent the last day or two doing a relatively close reading the critic Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971). Readers of this blog will probably remember an introduction to Murray from several weeks ago thanks to Robert Greene.

I’m not entirely certain what to make of the book as a whole yet, but I thought it would be good to put together a few early thoughts about it. The book is a travelogue of a trip Murray made through the South around 1969 or so. It first appeared in print in 1971.

To call South to a Very Old Place a travelogue is probably dead wrong. Murray gets around to telling the reader what he’s up after about seventy pages or so. Willie Morris, then the editor of Harper’s Magazine, enlisted Murray to write a piece for a series called “Going Home in America.” Murray would talk to several Southern journalists about the many changes then happening below the Mason-Dixon line, eventually offering his take on things. What came out ended up being delightful and strange. I’ll let Murray tell it. He uses the second person to refer to himself, which is wonderfully dislocating:

He [Morris] then went on to reiterate that it didn’t have to be anything at all like the usual news report. So you’ve decided to take the literary options. But still and all if you could bring it off, the ever so newsworthy political implications would be obvious enough; and after all doesn’t anything that any black, brown, or beige person says in the United States have the most immediate political implications? No strain for that. But the overall statement would be literary—as literary, which is to say as much of a metaphorical net, as you could make it. (Emphasis Murray, 72)

You asked for it Willie. The book turned out to be a real humdinger. Murray riffs on any number of topics in its pages. He changes voices, merges time and place, skips around between past and present, signifies all over creation, and peppers in quotes from Finnegan’s Wake whenever he feels like it. It’s raucous some of the time, curmudgeonly lots of the time, and criminally enjoyable to read. Murray does stake out some pretty clear political positions in the book, some of which might be called “idiosyncratic” for their time and place, at least for most general histories of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’m going to leave that mostly alone here, since it deals directly with things I’ve been working on for a while. I also want to understand him better before disagreeing with him, which is only fair when it comes to a thinker like Albert Murray.

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For now I’m interested in this “literary—as literary” thing Murray does. He uses this metaphor of a “net” on more than a few occasions in the book. The most revealing use comes when Murray gets behind a consistent stalking horse of his: social science and social scientists. Most journalists, thrown off by social scientific thinking and terminology, miss the point. Murray had no patience for what might be called the “social pathology” school of thinking still prevalent at the time, which tended to emphasize black “damage” from a history of racism or structures of racism. In South, he has clear moral reasons for disagreeing with these ideas, but he doesn’t disentangle them from aesthetic ones. This is Murray recalling a conversation, so the “you” is both the author and some general “you”:

[S]o many reporters mistake social-science metaphor for facts these days, without realizing that even the most precise concepts are only nets that cannot hold very much flesh-and-blood experience. Whereas the most pragmatic thing about poetic metaphor is that you know very well that your net cannot trap all of the experience in question. Indeed, you often feel that maybe most of it has eluded you…You readily concede that formulations generalized from scientific-research findings may be nets with a closer weave, still not only do they remain nets, but at best they trap even smaller areas of experience than literary configurations, expressly because they are necessarily in a narrower weave (59-60).

Social scientists think they can capture a whole lot, but they explain very little and certainly not the important things. Worse, reporters who popularize social scientific work don’t recognize their metaphors for what they are. Literary metaphors may be looser, but they capture bigger things. There is a singularity to African American experience that things like statistics or numbers, social categories and concepts, for all their precision, can’t possibly capture.

This is a simple enough claim, but the devices Murray uses to get at it are remarkably creative. The form and the content of the book come together. He has plenty to say about William Faulkner in South to a Very Old Place. He mentions “how by having Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon talking years later at Harvard make up details about events not actually witnessed in Mississippi, Faulkner renders the essential truth of the climax of the story of Thomas Sutpen, and of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, the ill-fated brothers in Absalom, Absalom (59).

The legend, the tall tale, the yarn, is truer to experience than any collection of social scientific facts or statistics. Faulkner, by using a literary device that explicitly calls into question the veracity of the tale, gets closer to the essential truth. So when Murray tells us what persona he means to try on in the book, he means to act “not as a reporter as such and even less as an ultra gung-ho black black spokesperson but rather as a Remus-derived, book-oriented downhome boy (now middle aged) with the sort of Alabama buster-brown hip curiosity” (73).

To get the work done then, Murray uses the second person pronoun like a first person pronoun throughout the book. It’s impossible not to notice it. This reminded me of Henry James, but James sometimes used third person pronouns like first person pronouns. He meant to represent a singular consciousness by indirection. By making distance that way, James focused on consciousness as an object, better matching up words and consciousness.

Murray does something different but it resembles somewhat a Jamesean species of aestheticism. Murray, like his friend Ralph Ellison, had limited patience for James, but both men shared the older novelist’s cosmopolitanism, but in their own black-inflected way. In the American Scene somewhere (I can’t remember where, but it’s in there) Henry James wrote that America was “a bad country to be stupid in.” Murray doesn’t mention that quote, but he salts the observation with some fabled folk wisdom, giving James’ detached irony some hard-won existential depth: “so far as you were personally concerned it was Uncle Bud-Doc-Mose-Ned-Remus, not Henry James, who first said: “Boy, keep your eyes and ears open. Boy, try to be one on whom nothing is lost” (64).

So James and Murray in their own ways try to get at the experience of consciousness and the consciousness of experience. Murray gathers up experience by representing it in dialogue with another self in South. He never addresses an imagined reader. When he does address someone directly, he mentions people he knows already: “Ralph Ellison, who was there from Oklahoma City will also remember those days.” He moves back and forth in time relatively seamlessly. The person writing the book exists in a kind of specious authorial present, while the “you” referred to in the book is the person in Murray’s recollection. Imagine groups of people who know one another. They once sat around telling stories at different times with different people. One person recalls the stories much later, compiling them by using a literary device that effectively splits him into two people, merging that older, other, remembered self with the other “yous” in this or that group in other places and times.

In the middle of a colossal riff recalling the books he and his friends read and conversations had while students at Tuskegee, Murray connects a memory of place to Faulkner’s fiction. For he and his friends, the Alexander house near the campus grounds (today part of the campus) recalled not Tara of Gone with the Wind but the terrifying, haunted spaces of Light in August and Absalom, Absalom. But that antebellum home in Tuskegee made them all think about their grandparents too, who had been slaves. (This recalls one of the famous lines in Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves, I am ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.”) Murray muses on the idea that, for the students at Tuskegee in the 1930s, slavery seemed far more removed than it really was:

But then such is the miraculous nature of memory and make-believe and hence the very essence of human consciousness that not only do forgetfulness and recollection go hand in hand they are in truth indispensible to one another. Thus, sometimes even in the most immediate press of circumstances and consequently for the most urgently pragmatic intents and purposes when you say ante-bellum you are not only conceiving but also functioning in terms of something antediluvian…Nor is any such recollective forgetfulness in any fundamental sense unrelated to the reciprocal interaction of mythology and actuality in the whole question of your personal identity. For more often than not when you say: slavery time, folks back in slavery time, Grandma and Grandpa back in the olden days on the old plantation, you are neither thinking nor feeling in terms of the literal time involved. You are almost always thinking: Once upon a time. After all, isn’t the oldness of Uncle Remus, who is of necessity less old than Aunt Hagar (mother us all) every bit as ancient as the oldness of Aesop? (121-122)

Recall that this “you” here is at once Murray and African American people writ large. Murray’s experience is black experience. It’s American experience too, at least for those willing to get with it. He means to merge what he calls elsewhere a “collective experience” of black America with his own as he travels along through the South of his past and his present. Steeped in the fables and tall tales of slaves, existentially burnished under Jim Crow, ancient in historical consciousness, wherever they may be in this country black people are home, carrying with them the essential truth of America.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post. Murray’s career and writings are starting to get more and more scrutiny–just as they should, because as you point out in your essay, he addressed a great many questions that still plague American intellectuals to this day. Chief among them: how does one square the “black experience” with the “American experience”? For him and Ellison, one could not exist without the other.

    I think it’s also worth thinking about Murray in dialogue with other writers addressing the South of the 1970s–I’m thinking about folks like John Egerton (whose later volume, “Shades of Gray,” I’m looking at on my coffee table right now). In short, there’s a lot to already address in your post, but that’s only fair with someone like Murray.

    • Thanks for the comment Robert. As you say, for Murray and Ellison, American culture is largely black American culture. I teach this essay by Ellison from Time Magazine in 1970 called something like “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” It’s a good summary of the position done with real verve and humor.

      This is why Murray is so interesting when he gets into C. Vann Woodward and Robert Penn Warren in the first chapter on New Haven. There’s a great bit about what he calls later in the book, Warren’s “paper fugitives.” Murray wants to know how Warren and the others in that Nashville group could have called themselves fugitives when the great tales of fugitives in America come from slaves who escaped the South. And of course Warren’s infamous “briar patch” essay has obvious resonances with folk tales too. Murray seems to appreciate the white “downhome” folks, but he puzzles at what they miss. There’s a riotous section on the trope of white Southerners, Faulkner included, worshipping their mammies that’s just priceless. (Do you really think these women existed just to raise you?) I’m not doing it justice at all. Anyway, there’s the so close and yet so far thing in there. Intimate social relations and colossal blindnesses. Murray is great at getting at that stuff.

      • I’m sorry I am just responding, but that’s a great point! Murray’s greatness as a writer was in precisely what you’re talking about here. And I think that’s what makes him so worthy of going back to and reading again and again.

  2. At the risk of possibly sounding like a contrarian(!), something about this use of 2nd person pronouns has struck me. As it was pointed out: “…this ‘you’ here is at once Murray and African American people writ large.” This quintessence of the African American body and mind is quite volatile, no?

    It carries a similar kind of token quality that can be found in the rhetoric of those who look to cast characteristics, behaviors, ideologies against the African American community.

    I understand Murray is playing with metaphor and perhaps other literary forms, but isn’t this casting of the “net” still loosely akin to the narratives found in white supremacy?

    So I’m curious, does he explore this potential double-edged quality of the symbolism inherent in his personal and universal “you” any further?

    • Murray was at times what might be called a “romantic racialist.” His insistence on hard-won endurance and cultural accomplishment could make it seem that racist structures and institutions in a sociological sense had little effect at all on the lives of African Americans.

      If one doesn’t read him carefully, it can appear that he indulges old myths about a people happy with their lot, so best left alone. Daniel Matlin gets into this stuff in his book On the Corner.

      I would say that in South to a Very Old Place Murray is far more subtle than any white supremacist notions I’ve ever read anyway, and this definitely includes the old “Moonlight and Magnolias” or “Plantation Myth” claptrap that many white Southerners still hold on to today. His net has a looser weave, but that doesn’t mean it fails to capture complexities at all. Not to mention, I can’t imagine a white supremacist describing the positive influence of black artists on his thinking in the way that Murray praises Faulkner or Joyce. He’s attuned to ironies and thinks at the intersection between folk wisdom and the feeling/experience of being a black Southerner. And white Southerners, if they happen to be honest anyway, know that racial purity–biological or cultural–is nonsense. He just wants the whole story, not the partial story, and telling the whole story requires telling stories about black Americans.

      • Right. Murray is not a Grand Wizard: that’s the difference.

        Welp, I guess when you cast a net that lets nuance and context slip through, you have these kinds of thoughts… how silly of me.

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