Editor’s note: Essayist, critic, and novelist Albert Murray died on Sunday at his home in Harlem. He was 97. Earlier this year, James Marcus, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine, reread Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971). In his review below, Marcus calls the classic work an “anti-travel book”—one in which Murray “puts the torch to every bit of received wisdom about the [American South] and its racial conundrums.” — CJR 8/22/13
There is nothing quite so liberating for a journalist as failing to carry out an assignment. I’m not talking about a blown deadline or minor change in game plan—I mean missing the original target by such a wide margin that it’s clear the writer should have been aiming elsewhere in the first place. And there is no better example of such a fortuitous misfire than Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971). The book was first assigned as a rueful tour of the American South, aimed primarily at northern readers who might never set foot below the Mason-Dixon line. Instead Murray produced a kind of anti-travel book, in which the observable facts are constantly eclipsed by the author’s memories and associations—even as he puts the torch to every bit of received wisdom about the region and its racial conundrums.
The germ of the book was a commission from Harper’s Magazine back in 1969, when Willie Morris ruled the roost and his traditional sense of literary decorum was giving way to the more bumptious vibe of the New Journalists. The original idea was that Murray, an Alabama native who lived in Harlem, would take a swing through the South to talk with the rising generation of newspapermen and writers, including Edwin Yoder, Marshall Frady, Joe Cumming, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy. All of these men were white. Murray, who was black, seemed intent on using his conversations with them as a cultural and intellectual barometer.
This was a shrewd idea, give the drastic atmospheric changes then under way in the region. The South had already begun its reluctant transformation in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The same year that Murray took his trip, Charles Evers became the first black mayor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of 33 Mississippi school districts, whose foot-dragging interpretation of “all deliberate speed” was essentially an act of defiance. Progress, and a dogged determination to squash it, were visible everywhere. By talking to white southerners who were also indisputable progressives, Murray may have hoped for a fresh spin on what was still the American dilemma.
At 53, he had published relatively little. Almost two decades in the U.S. Air Force, with postings all over the country and abroad, had put a crimp in Murray’s career as a writer. During his military service, he tinkered with a novel, part of which appeared in New World Writing in 1953. And once he left the Air Force and moved to New York City in 1962, Murray began contributing to The New Leader, Life, and Harper’s, which ran a short story called “Stonewall Jackson’s Waterloo” in 1969. Yet his track record was still fairly skimpy when he floated his idea for a Deep South odyssey.
No matter. Morris was impressed by Murray, whom he had met through Ralph Ellison. Both, Morris would later recall, refused to accept any prefabricated notions about race, politics, and identity. It was Ellison “and our mutual friend Al Murray, also a Negro writer from the South and a former teacher at Tuskegee, who suggested to me as much as anyone else I had ever known the extent to which the easy abstractions, the outsider’s judgment of what one ought to feel, had simplified and dogmatized and hence dulled my own perceptions as an outlander in the East.”
Harper’s, meanwhile, was about to launch a series called Going Home in America, which would send a motley crew of writers on roots-excavating forays to Minnesota (Midge Decter), Michigan (John Thompson), and Kentucky (Elizabeth Hardwick). And Murray’s proposal was more or less folded into the series, at least in Willie Morris’s mind. So Murray picked up his travel advance and set off on his journey, “not as a reporter as such and even less as an ultra gung-ho black black spokesman but rather as a Remus-derived, book-oriented downhome boy.”