(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Spyglass Tree is the story of a young African American who grows up in Gasoline Point, Mobile County, Alabama, and who attends a famous African American college, identifiable geographically as Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. The story is a continuation of Murray’s first novel, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), which follows Scooter from the ages of ten to fourteen. This novel is told in a series of flashbacks, dealing alternately with Scooter’s days at the Mobile County Training Academy and at the university, ending with his full entry into the African American adult world after he spends a night riding shotgun as the bodyguard of Miss Hortense Hightower, a singer.

The early teen years of Scooter and Little Buddy Marshall are driven by their two ruling passions, blues and baseball. They are torn between the world of respectable people—the one that Scooter finds at school—and the unrespectable realm of bad men, exemplified by legendary local blues player Luzana Cholly, master of the twelve-string guitar. The two inseparable companions become distant, however, when Scooter is chosen as one of the “talented tenth” by his teacher, Miss Lexine Metcalf, at the Training Academy. With Scooter spending an increasing amount of time after hours at school, Little Buddy soon decides that he will take to the road in emulation of Luzana Cholly.

Scooter finds the distinction between the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Contains detailed descriptions of Gates’s concept of “signifying,” using three novels and several slave narratives to provide examples.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “An Old Grad Aces the Course.” Newsweek 118 (December 9, 1991): 71. A positive review of the novel, emphasizing the second half of the book. The reviewer concludes that Scooter is on his way to becoming the wise man who wrote the novel.

Karrer, Wolfgang. “The Novel as Blues: Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar. ” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1982. A complete survey of the influence of the blues on the prequel to The Spyglass Tree. Karrer concludes that Murray’s views are too “middle class” to do justice to the blues tradition.

Maguire, Roberta S. “Albert Murray’s Swing Poetics.” In Blue Notes: Toward a New Jazz Discourse, edited by Mark Osteen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Analysis of Murray’s literary style as incorporating the aesthetics and rhythms of swing music.

Mercier, Vivian. “Gasoline Point Blues.” Saturday Review/World 1 (May 4, 1974): 51. A negative review of the novel, comparing the author Murray to Uncle Tom, the fictional character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852).

Schiff, David. “Blues and the Concrete Truth.” The New Republic 206 (February 3, 1992): 39-41. An extended positive review of the novel, presenting an overview of Murray’s career along with a review of the novel. Schiff places Murray in the context of the debate over African American art forms since the 1960’s and outlines theories of the roles of blues and jazz music in American and African American culture. He concludes with a comparison of Murray’s description of Tuskegee Institute with that of Murray’s friend and classmate Ralph Ellison.