Back Watch: Ayana Mathis, Albert Murray, and “the old Clotilda

Here at Library of America we’re naturally excited about the release this week of Albert Murray: Collected Novels & Poems, the companion volume to the edition of Murray’s Collected Essays & Memoirs we published in 2016. But, rather than tell you about the new book ourselves, we’d like to let contemporary novelist Ayana Mathis sing the praises of Murray’s fiction—and read a stirring excerpt from it.

Speaking as part of a Murray tribute at the 92nd Street Y in New York City back on November 30, 2016, Mathis related her excitement after discovering Murray’s first novel, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), in a used bookstore in upstate New York. Before she’d even finished reading the book, Mathis said, “I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this person.”

Watch:

Albert Murray:
Collected Novels & Poems
Recent headlines have made Mathis’s remarks unexpectedly timely. In the video clip above, she reads an excerpt from Train Whistle Guitar centered on the character Unka Jo Jo, whom Murray modeled after the real-life Cudjo Lewis (d. 1935), a survivor of the Clotilda (spelled Clotilde in Murray’s novel), the last known ship to have brought enslaved Africans to the United States, in 1860. Congress had made it illegal to import slaves decades before the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay, so after unloading their human cargo the captain and crew scuttled and burned the ship to avoid detection. In Train Whistle Guitar, set in the 1920s and ’30s, the hull of the Clotilda is occasionally still visible from the working–class African American neighborhood where the novel takes place—a detail whose veracity has been confirmed (as an end note in the Library of America’s new Murray volume explains) by subsequent historical research.

The wreck has never been positively identified, however, and the Clotilda seemed lost to history and local legend—until last month. Taking advantage of low tides and an unusual weather pattern to visit a location suggested to him by older local residents, Alabama reporter Ben Raines discovered the remains of a two-masted schooner that may very well be the Clotilda, pending further corroboration. (Update: Subsequent research into the vessel discovered in the Mobile-Tensaw delta revealed that it wasn’t the Clotilda after all but a different nineteenth-century shipwreck.)

Meanwhile, we can’t forego an opportunity to mention that the wreck of the Clotilda appears in the striking endpapers map of our new Murray volume. Catch a glimpse below:


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