Back Albert Murray, “Tall Tale Blue Over Mobile Bay in Harlem”

Albert Murray (1916–2013)
From Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs

Restaurant owners Marion and Toots Evans pose in front of The Sisters, their soul-food restaurant at 119 West 135th Street, Harlem, June 27, 1967. Photograph by Patrick A. Burns (1908–1973). (New York Times / Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place was published.

Part memoir, part travelogue, the book recounts the author’s return, in his mid-fifties, to his childhood home in Alabama and weaves together accounts of his interviews with several Southern writers and his conversations with “folks” in and around Mobile.

The book received excellent reviews, with one critic calling it “a disciplined work of art: a reflective and elegant rendering of one man’s coming to terms with his roots.” But the most unexpected notice came the following year from Jack Valenti, who had served as Special Assistant to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson until 1966, when he began his four-decade tenure as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. In September 1972, he sent a short letter to Murray, which read in part:

“While visiting President Johnson, he sat me down and read to me portions of your book. . . . in which the old black man relates his instinctual reaction to LBJ’s civil rights fight. It is hilarious, wise, perceptive, must reading for anyone. At any rate, you should know the President found what you wrote poetically and structurally, as well as emotionally, to his taste.”

Although Murray later claimed that he did not set out to write “a civil rights report or anything like that,” the years of desegregation were unavoidably in the background of his “counterimage” of Alabama at the end of the Sixties. In celebration of the book’s fiftieth anniversary, we present Murray’s prologue to the book, on the Southern heritage he sees every day in Harlem, where he was “north but also south and home again.”

Read the selection at our Story of the Week site, with an introduction describing the torturous road the book took toward publication.

Read “Tall Tale Blue Over Mobile Bay in Harlem” by Albert Murray

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