Murray wrote the book anyway. When South to a Very Old Place was published in 1971, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and reviewed most prominently by a young novelist named Toni Morrison. She praised Murray’s resistance to racial stereotypes and his mixture of “tender familiarity and brutish alienation.” What Morrison didn’t like was his chuckling disdain for “the Afro- part of Afro-Americans”—i.e., his unwillingness to view himself as part of a great diaspora—as well as the short shrift he gave to black nationalism.

Who was right? Murray’s voice is so persuasive that it’s tempting to declare him the victor, but the argument is no simpler now than it was then. In a way, these two formidable intellects were restaging the old quarrel between Booker T. Washington, with his emphasis on stoic self-reliance, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who crusaded relentlessly for equal rights at home and Pan-African solidarity abroad. That Murray would opt for the former position is no surprise—he was a product of Tuskegee, which Washington had founded in 1881. As for Morrison, she was not only a generation younger, but had taught and mentored such firebrands as Stokely Carmichael, who made the phrase “Black Power” part of the popular lexicon. A meeting of the minds was unlikely.

Morrison would go on to celebrity, success, and the Nobel Prize. (Murray, never a huge Morrison fan, told Gates that the award was “tainted with do-goodism.”) His own path was more circuitous, and never quite yielded the sort of fame that he deserved. Still, Murray would publish many volumes of fiction and criticism, as well as sui-generis productions like Stomping the Blues (1976), a euphoric study of American music. And his influence on the next generation of black intellectuals, including Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, and Stephen Carter, was enormous. They didn’t necessarily endorse all of Murray’s ideas, but they inherited his allergic reaction to received wisdom. They also saw their own role in the nation’s cultural life as central—they were, as Murray put it to Robert Boynton in 1995, “just a bunch of Negroes trying to save America.”

And it all began with South to a Very Old Place. The book’s speed, intensity, tenderness, and pugilistic laughter remain as fresh as ever. It is by no means a perfect creation. There are stretches where you wish the author would simply stop talking and let the particulars speak for themselves. Blazing a fresh trail through the briar patch, turning every assertion about race and identity and the storied South on its head, he seems almost determined to leave the reader behind. Yet you keep turning the pages, eager as ever to accompany Murray around the next bend and to share with him the purest of all literary intoxicants: self-discovery.

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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.