That self-description alone suggests that conventional journalistic practice has been tossed out the window. Another clue that Murray’s expedition will not proceed by normal means: his first stop is New Haven. That dour Connecticut city is not, he allows, part of the Deep South. But the Yale campus “has some very special downhome dimensions indeed these days,” thanks to the presence of Robert Penn Warren and C. Vann Woodward. Which is to say that home is a more portable concept than we might think—that it’s primarily a mental construct, ready to be unpacked whenever and wherever the imaginary traveler cares to rest his bones.
Murray, of course, had already tipped his hand on the very first page of the book. Going home, he writes, “has probably always had as much if not more to do with people as with landmarks and place names and locations on maps and mileage charts.” So it makes sense that having sought out two southerners at Yale—a “veritable citadel of Yankeedom”—Murray immediately identifies them with two figures from his childhood. Woodward, the distinguished author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, is a dead ringer for an old Mobile insurance agent. And Warren evokes a ginger-haired auto mechanic known as Filling Station Red.
Murray wasn’t really there for a stroll down some honeysuckle-scented memory lane. With Woodward he took up the hot-button topic of antebellum “house slaves”—whom black nationalists were then vilifying as traitorous Uncle Toms for having supposedly savored the perks of plantation life while the “field slaves” stewed in their cabins. (Woodward, like Murray, found the distinction specious and misleading.) In Warren’s office, the conversation wandered from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales to Frederick Douglass to the passel of Nashville poets who dubbed themselves the “Fugitives” during the 1920s.
What Murray was after in each case was an alternative to what he called the “folklore of white supremacy and [the] fakelore of black pathology.” To his mind, black Americans of the late 1960s were caught in an ideological squeeze play. On one side were the statistical, cookie-cutter theories advanced by white sociologists, which suggested that the black experience in America was primarily a hotbed of “frustration and crime, degradation, emasculation, and self-hatred.” On the other side was the Black Power movement, with its separatism, fire-breathing militancy, and increasing contempt for mainstream civil-rights crusaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
Murray resisted both. The back-to-Africa rhetoric struck him as no less absurd than the infantilizing analysis of ghetto life. He believed instead that “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite”—that we were a black-and-white nation, in which the fate of the two races was forever intertwined. American Negroes (the term Murray preferred) were full participants in the American enterprise.
This seems relatively mild as such statements go—the sort of bumper-sticker piety you might see on a passing Volvo. But during the late 1960s, these were fighting words, and Murray would articulate them over and over in South to a Very Old Place. It wasn’t merely that he enjoyed butting heads with his opponents (although he did). He was also trying to convey a deeper truth about life in the American South, which he thought was invisible to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Malcolm X alike. Murray had no intention of sweeping the historic crime of slavery under the carpet, nor of soft-pedaling its destructive impact on black Americans. But he refused to view them as outsiders grafted onto some sort of Anglo-Saxon armature. No, they had gotten in on the ground floor, and their resilience and ingenuity in the face of epochal misery was now “indigenous to the United States, along with the Yankee tradition and that of the backwoodsman.” They were, as he liked to say, Omni-Americans—as were we all.
Leaving New Haven behind him, Murray finally heads south. In North Carolina, he drops by the Greensboro Daily News to interview its associate editor, Edwin Yoder. He is struck by the young newspaperman’s temperament, which he describes in typically additive fashion as “seed-store-feed-store plus courthouse square plus Chapel Hill plus Oxford Rhodes scholar.” But like Woodward and Warren before him, Yoder is hardly visible (or audible) during the conversation, having been displaced by the whirring mechanism of Murray’s free-associative fancy.