Some of these memories, oddly enough, are ascribed to other Tuskegee students of the era, as if Murray can creep out of his solipsistic shell only by degrees. And some have a collegiate friskiness to them, which seems only appropriate. Here, for example, Murray runs down the faculty roster, culminating in that agricultural wizard George Washington Carver, who was then so old that Henry Ford would soon pay to have an elevator installed in Carver’s Tuskegee lodgings:
They all will remember W. Henri Payne with his brownskin Frenchman’s moustache whether they took French or not that year. They will remember Alphonse Henningburg and his beautiful wife. Nor will anybody have forgotten that the only way to repeat anything Dr. Carver said was to imitate him in as high a pitch as possible (adding precisely enunciated dirty words which would have horrified him: “They ask me: ‘Dr. Carver what makes rubber stretch?’ and I say to them quite frankly I don’t cop what the fuck makes that shit act up like that, I don’t dig no rubber-stretching shit. I dig peanuts, I dig potatoes.”)
It’s instructive to compare Murray’s Tuskegee interlude with the one V. S. Naipaul included almost 20 years later in A Turn in the South—after Murray himself prepped him for the visit! Naipaul’s account is careful and cumulative. He gets the facts, elicits testimony from a couple of locals, and as he explores the broiling interior of Tuskegee’s Dorothy Hall, notes that the “colors in the hot paneled club upstairs were like the colors of a gentlemen’s club.” The irony is unmistakable, but also quiet: a murmur. Whereas Murray is sweeping, breathless, atmospheric. He wants the feeling of the place, and the memories of it, and he wants to surprise himself in the act of remembering.
In Mobile, at last, he is really back home. There the Scott Paper Towel factory has gobbled up the landscape of his youth like a “storybook dragon disguised as a wide-sprawling, foul-smelling, smoke-chugging factory, a not really ugly mechanical monster now squatting along old Blackshear Mill Road.” There Murray wanders the streets and connects with half-remembered acquaintances. And there, for the first time in the book, other voices climb confidently into the driver’s seat.
In fact, the chapter is jammed with lengthy, back-porch soliloquies. Murray seldom identifies who is talking. And given the preoccupations of the speakers, which happen to be his preoccupations, it’s pretty clear that he orchestrated and intensified what they had to say (much as he would later channel Count Basie in the bandleader’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues). In any case, the results are frequently hilarious. One such speaker gives the back of his hand to the Black Power dream of African repatriation. The Africans, he says, will
take one look at them goddam jive-time Zulu haircuts and them forty-dollar hand-made shoes and they going to lock your American ass up in one of them same old slave-trading jails they put our ancestors in, and they going to have you writing letters back over here to this same old dog-ass white man in the United States of America asking for money. Hey, wait. Hey, listen to this. Ain’t going to let them get no further than the goddam waterfront. They go lock them up with a goddam Sears, Roebuck catalogue. I’m talking about right on the dock, man, and have them making out order blanks to Congress for Cocolas and transistors, and comic books, cowboy boots and white side walls and helicopters and all that stuff.
This is identity politics as black comedy, with some incidental buckshot fired at American-style consumerism. It is also a sly bit of self-mockery, since Murray himself was an avid consumer of fine clothes, fine art, audio equipment, and probably the occasional transistor. And as a boyhood admirer of Tom Mix, he must have longed for the cowboy boots as well. Maybe he should have shared the microphone more often.
Murray’s chronicle of his journey never appeared in Harper’s. Perhaps Willie Morris found it too weird and wandering for his taste. It was one thing, after all, to devote an entire issue of the magazine to the heavy-breathing theatrics of Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex,” quite another to publish Murray’s unclassifiable (and occasionally unreadable) circuit of the South. More to the point, Morris himself was forced out in 1971. The owners argued that revenue was down and blamed the editor’s penchant for long, liberal, supposedly ad-repelling articles. In that climate, it’s no wonder that the raw materials for South to a Very Old Place got spiked.