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.

What he took from these models, which were literary rather than journalistic, was a belief in elaborately stylized prose and deep-dish subjectivity. Not so different, you might say, from the New Journalists who were just then hitting their stride—especially the other Tom Wolfe, who had long since knocked down the Chinese wall between himself and what he was describing. But Murray went further, and made up his own rules. You argued with others but primarily with yourself. You observed the world with finicky accuracy but then transformed it into art. And the cartwheeling, conversational tone of his sentences was his alone, as were the onrushing rhythms and the pungent, hyphenated adjectives marching along in single file—or more often sprinting.

* * *

In the initial chapters of South to a Very Old Place, these qualities are something of a mixed blessing. Murray’s musings are comical and attractively cantankerous, yet they seem to exist in a vacuum—in the sealed chamber of his own sensibility. He can’t stop ruminating, arguing, saddling up one hobbyhorse after another: house slaves, sociology, tokenism, black matriarchy, protest fiction. The reader becomes increasingly desperate for some hard evidence that Murray has actually left his apartment on Lenox Terrace.

In the second half of the book, however, something marvelous happens: The outside world finally gets equal billing. Perhaps Murray sensed the need to dilute his argumentation with some sinus-clearing actuality. It also seems likely that his personal connection to Tuskegee and Mobile (where he grew up) made him more impressionable and open to his surroundings. In any case, while en route to Tuskegee, Murray is overwhelmed by memories. He recalls his first Greyhound bus ride to the college, the songs that were playing on the radio that summer, and “the whiteness of academic columns as you saw them through the flat preautumnal greenness of the elms lining Campus Avenue.”

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.