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.

Yoder reminds him of an earlier newsman and diagnostician of the American South, Jonathan Daniels. Which reminds him in turn of his first trip out into the great world as a Tuskegee graduate in 1939, when he missed his bus connection in Columbus, GA, and “spent the night on a couch in the red-velvet-draped, tenderloin-gothic, incense-sultry sickroom of the legendary but then long since bedridden Ma Rainey.” (How typical of Murray to toss off that last anecdote, which many a writer would have milked for a novel-length slab of pathos!) Which reminds him in turn of Faulkner, and then of Thomas Wolfe: two more Southern boys endlessly exploring the riddle of their own origins.

Murray’s next stop is Atlanta, where he visits Joe Cumming, the local Newsweek bureau chief. Cumming, we are told, “is at work on one of Newsweek’s periodic roundup reports on the progress of the so-called black revolution.” And unlike Yoder, he manages to get in an occasional word edgewise. But as usual, the real action is elsewhere, as Murray pulls another contrarian ace from his sleeve. Tokenism, he argues, is good. “[W]hen you are talking about revolutionary change, tokens and rituals are often more important than huge quantities.” And to bear out this argument, he spies none other than Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron on the sidewalk—a “statistically unique, statistically insignificant, but no less symbolically overwhelming figure.”

It should be clear by now that we’re not going to learn much about the South’s rising generation of white newspapermen. No doubt Murray, who was celebrated as a champion conversationalist—in a 1996 New Yorker profile, Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted his “astonishing gift of verbal fluency”—had some fascinating exchanges with them. But even if the author had carefully taped and transcribed this material, it would have produced a modest report for Harper’s. And I’m guessing that after 20 years of delay, during which he saw his old friend Ralph Ellison race to the head of the literary pack with Invisible Man, Murray was eager to open up the throttle.

So instead of the reportage he had promised Willie Morris—and instead of the short, pugnacious New Leader pieces he would soon collect in The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (1970)—Murray aimed at something more ambitious. In his rearview mirror were the modernist giants: Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Auden, Proust. There were also a number of formative critics, including Kenneth Burke, Constance Rourke, and that supremely British eccentric Lord Raglan, whose The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (1936) shaped many of Murray’s ideas about literary art.

James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.