This absorbing collection of letters spans a decade in the lifelong friendship of two remarkable writers who engaged the subjects of literature, race, and identity with deep clarity and passion.
The correspondence begins in 1950 when Ellison is living in New York City, hard at work on his enduring masterpiece, Invisible Man, and Murray is a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Mirroring a jam session in which two jazz musicians "trade twelves"—each improvising twelve bars of music around the same musical idea-their lively dialog centers upon their respective writing, the jazz they both love so well, on travel, family, the work literary contemporaries (including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway) and the challenge of racial inclusiveness that they wish to pose to America through their craft. Infused with warmth, humor, and great erudition, Trading Twelves offers a glimpse into literary history in the making—and into a powerful and enduring friendship.
"I had chosen to re-create the world, but, like a self-doubting god, was uncertain whether I could make the pieces fit smoothly together. Well, its done now and I want to get on to the next one." In this passage from a 1951 letter to his literary colleague and all-around good buddy Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison is referring to his masterpiece Invisible Man; it is both this fly-on-the-wall intimacy, as well as the now-ironic mention of Ellison's "next," never to be completed novel that help to make this book such a pleasure to read. Ellison was an accomplished and dapper upperclassman and Murray a respectful but equally ambitious freshman when they first encountered each other in 1935 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were not to become close friends until 1947, when Murray was studying for his masters degree in New York City. The letters begin in 1949 and end in 1960, when easy long-distance phone calls brought the need for longhand correspondence (but not their everlasting friendship) to an end. While the 1952 publication of Invisible Man rocketed Ellison to literary stardom, his letters always treat Murray, who taught at Tuskegee and labored on his own unpublished first novel until the 1970s, as his genuine equal, both as a writer and as a cultural thinker. The letters recapitulate their travels around the world (European fellowships for Ellison and cushy postwar Air Force assignments for Murray, who was a colonel in the reserve); their quirky black hipster idiom; Ellison's ambivalence toward Tuskegee and his responses to literary fame, including a brief description of an encounter with William Faulkner at the old Random House offices. There are also funny, thoughtful exchanges on jazz figures, biting comments on literary foes and ample details of the literary and domestic lives of these two gifted and iconoclastic American writers.