Friday, May 4, 2018

Manifest Destiny U.S.A.

Albert Murray (1916–2013)
From Albert Murray: Collected Novels & Poems

The four Scooter novels: Front jackets of the first hardcover editions of Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), The Seven League Boots (1996), and The Magic Keys (2005).
Saul Bellow met Albert Murray in Paris in the summer of 1950 and the encounter was apparently memorable. A few months later Ralph Ellison, who was putting the finishing touches on Invisible Man, reported to Murray, “I was talking with Bellow and he told me about you in Paris. He was both amazed and amused over your ease of operation. And I said, ‘Who him? Hell, man, the world is his briar patch.’ If he didn’t understand me then he will when your book comes out.”

Ellison’s oblique reference was to “The Briarpatch,” Murray’s semi-autobiographical novel that, in fact, was never published. Murray had been working on the novel, originally titled “Jack the Bear,” since the late 1940s. An excerpt, “The Luzana Cholly Kick,” appeared in 1952 as a short story in the semiannual New World Writing, which that year went through two press runs totaling 140,000 copies. During the late 1960s and early 1970s “The Luzana Cholly Kick” appeared with the title “Train Whistle Guitar” in several anthologies—including The Norton Introduction to Literature—and Murray made a number of revisions when it appeared in the 1968 collection Dark Symphony: Negro Writing in America. Murray continued to polish the novel yet, in spite of the widespread attention and praise for the excerpt, it remained unpublished, rejected by numerous publishers.

Finally, following the success of his memoir South to a Very Old Place in 1971, McGraw-Hill offered him a contract for Train Whistle Guitar, which corresponds, roughly, to the first half of “The Briarpatch.” Published in 1974, Murray’s debut novel introduces Scooter, a boy raised in the fictional Alabama community of Gasoline Point, where he learns as much from musicians and “the old folks” as he does in school. Over the next thirty years, Murray wrote three more novels chronicling Scooter’s journey into adulthood and through America: The Spyglass Tree (1991), a portrait of the young man as a Tuskegee undergraduate; The Seven League Boots (1996), in which Scooter plays bass in a touring band not unlike Duke Ellington’s; and The Magic Keys (2005), which follows Murray’s hero to Greenwich Village, where he finds his true vocation as a writer.

When he was done writing The Magic Keys, Murray began thinking of a fifth book that would focus on the lives of the secondary characters in Train Whistle Guitar, but a serious fall in March 2005 set off a series of health problems that, a few months later, made it almost impossible for the 89-year-old to stand up without assistance. Although Murray lived for another eight years, declining health—including a complete loss of his hearing—prevented him from working on his last project, and “Manifest Destiny U.S.A.,” featuring Scooter's uncle Jerome, is the only portion to have been completed. It was drafted on a yellow legal pad and typed by Paul Devlin under Murray’s supervision in late 2004 and early 2005.

In Train Whistle Guitar, Uncle Jerome commands a special place in Scooter’s childhood: “It was not until Uncle Jerome not so much nicknamed as ordained me Scooter that I could say That’s me, that’s who I am and what I am and what I do.” In one scene, old Sawmill Turner sees Scooter reading about Valley Forge and launches into a “histry” lesson based on the historical figures pictured on paper currency (“Old George Washington is number one because he was first in war and first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen”). After Sawmill Turner leaves,
. . . Uncle Jerome was on his feet again, saying he was talking about the word made manifest for Manifest Destiny; and I knew he was going to take over where Sawmill Turner had left off and preach a whole sermon with me in it that night. And so did everybody else, and they were looking at me as if I really had become the Lamb or something. So I looked at the mantlepiece, and I heard the Mother Goose clock and outside there was the Valley Forge bitter wind in the turret-tall chinaberry tree.
“Manifest Destiny U.S.A.” imagines that sermon (or one just like it), with Uncle Jerome offering his idiosyncratic take on the history—and biblical foundations—of American slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond and concluding with the importance of education as exemplified by the arrival of B. Franklin Miller, the new school principal in Gasoline Point. This tantalizing glimpse of what Murray planned for his finale has been published for the first time in a newly released Library of America volume collecting all four of the Scooter novels, and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: On the second page, Uncle Jerome mentions the ruins of Crowtillie or Flotilla. The Clotilda (often spelled Clotilde in older sources) was the last ship on record to have transported enslaved Africans to the United States. Fearing prosecution under federal law, the ship’s captain had it burned and sunk shortly after its arrival in Mobile Bay in 1860. Many descendants of its passengers lived in the Magazine Point and Plateau neighborhoods outside Mobile where Murray spent his childhood. The ruins have vanished but several historical sources attest to the visibility of the ship’s hull in the period when Train Whistle Guitar takes place.

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It was during those never to be forgotten midwinter night tell-me-tale times in the semicircle of miscellaneous chairs around the brick-red and mortar-gray fireplace beneath the Mother Goose chime-clock mantelpiece. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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