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Trading Twelves
RALPH ELLISON

Trading Twelves by Ralph Ellison
3 reviews (2000) (272p)
Amazon.com Best Books

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Book Description
A joyous and important collection of letters between two great American writers and old friends, baring their hearts to each other about life, work, and the American scene.

When two jazz musicians trade twelves with each other in a jam session, one musician begins by riffing off twelve bars of music, the other musician throws the twelve bars back through his instrument, the first answers, and so on, back and forth, in an ecstatic exchange of ideas and emotions. So it is with these letters, joyful music created by the exchanges between two dear friends. Reading these letters, you sense that each man was the other's lifeline, that the emotional and intellectual companionship they found in each other was unique in their lives. They spill it all out here--their struggles, frustrations, ambitions, fears; thoughts on literary gossip, jazz, photography--and the result is literary history, and a book that reminds you what friendship is all about.


Amazon.com Review
Some friendships spring instantly to life, while others require a lengthy period of germination. The rapport between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray fits into the second category. Both attended the Tuskegee Institute in the fall of 1935, and while they were never formally introduced, Murray recalls being impressed by his fellow student's formidable intellect, not to mention his snappy wardrobe. It wasn't until 1947, however, that their relationship got rolling. The two shared a love for jazz and photography and the American vernacular, along with a comically skeptical view of the social sciences. They were also joined by a sense of literary vocation that seems truly bracing in our own age of ironic retrenchment: "He and I conceded nothing to anybody," recalls Murray, "when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet."

Their intention was to create a "universally appealing American epic." Ellison delivered his epic, Invisible Man, in 1952, while Murray's arrived on the installment plan, parceled out among nine books and three decades. Yet this divergence in their careers, which might have easily divided them into literary turtle and hare, never made a dent in their friendship--a fact amply testified to by the letters collected in Trading Twelves. The title refers to the old custom whereby jazz soloists would lob 12-bar phrases back and forth, upping the ante with each exchange. Murray and Ellison seem similarly energized by their epistolary cutting contest. Here's the latter on the as-yet-unpublished Invisible Man, which he describes in surprisingly gutbucket terms:

For me it's just a big fat ole Negro lie, meant to be told during cotton picking time over a water bucket full of corn, with a dipper passing back and forth at a good fast clip so that no one, not even the narrator himself, will realize how utterly preposterous the lie actually is.
Elsewhere he urges his correspondent to hurry up "that low-down southern cullud jive of yours and spread it all over western civilization," while Murray takes their mutual idol William Faulkner to task: "As for Marse Faulkner, he's good, but he ain't never come to terms with poro & straightening combs, let alone jazz and all that cadillac kick dynamism." Decades after they were written, the letters in Trading Twelves remain an ardent and entertaining conversation about art, politics, race, and the intricacies of what Murray would later call Omni-American life. --James Marcus


Other Award Winning Books by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
300 reviews (1952) (608p) (NBA) (Modern100) (Novel100)
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Ralph Ellison Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 1 Invisible Man ·  
National Book Award Nominations 1 Invisible Man ·  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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