The man of letters—the cultural critic who ranges over genres to effect “the meeting of literature with social actions and attitudes and manners,” in the words of Lionel Trilling—has been a vanishing breed in American literature. Indeed, the species may well have gone extinct in 2013 with the death of Albert Murray. Although he did not appear in print until the age of forty-eight or publish his first book until six years later, he more than made up for lost time. In the thirty-three years before his death at the age of ninety-seven, Murray produced three novels, a book of poetry, and seven additional works of nonfiction, including the ghostwritten autobiography of Count Basie and a collaboration with the jazz drummer Jo Jones. (Murray also has two photographs in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was a co-founder and board member of Jazz at Lincoln Center.) He...


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