Yesterday, novelist and critic Albert Murray died at the age of 97. I had written about his novel Train Whistle Guitar not long ago. A native of the tiny community of Nokomis, Alabama, Murray far transcended his Deep Southern roots by creating literature and writing criticism of both literature and music that brought home the point that art is best and greatest when the personal becomes the universal.
Though I never knew Albert Murray, his critical ideas have had a heavy influence on me since I read them years ago. In a speech given at City College, New York in 1997, which was later transcribed as the essay, “Context and Definition,” Murray said:
You, of course, know that the ambition to produce world-class literature involves the matter of processing or stylizing idiomatic folk and pop particulars, which is to say extending, elaborating, and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art. (9)
When I read that statement and others like it, all of a sudden I understood, for instance, why William Faulkner was great. Murray’s critical essays and reviews explain with grace and simplicity what true greatness is and why we should value it above works of temporal popularity. And if you ever do read, or have read, Train Whistle Guitar, you’ll also understand that he practiced as a writer what he preached as a critic.
I can’t speak for other people’s feelings, especially ones who may have known him well, but for me Albert Murray was a saving grace. Fifteen or twenty years ago, as a young literature student who shunned Shakespeare and Chaucer in favor or Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, I needed someone like Albert Murray to explain to me why I was making a foolish mistake by ignoring the best writers of the Western literary tradition. Since being set straight by a person I never even met, I have re-read many of the classics – with a new attitude – and have regretted my previous brash immaturity. Before, I read many things with voraciousness but simply tolerated the “great books” because I had to— if I wanted ever to graduate from college with an English degree . . . let’s just say that now, since reading Murray’s work, I’m thankful to be constantly revisiting those poems and novels and plays that I had previously only given a scant bit of my time and attention.
God bless you, Albert Murray.