A decade ago, when my fiancée and I were living in a semilegal converted nylon factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and I’d just published my first book—a coming-of-age memoir into which I’d put the near entirety of my twenty-nine years but which had failed to change the world—my landline rang. On the other end was a voice I simultaneously knew and did not know. I no longer remember when I first heard the name Stanley Crouch or saw his indomitable visage dropping jewels in a jazz documentary, howling with laughter in photographs with Wynton Marsalis, or glowering from the cover of a paperback. But I knew who he was, and I had already inhaled his essay collections—Notes of a Hanging Judge, The All-American Skin Game, The Artificial White Man. Whatever he said when I picked up, I’m certain it was as simple and disarming as, “Hey, man, so, how you doing?” He was immediately that familiar, intimate, conspiratorial, as if, having read each other—and that was the astonishing thing: he’d called because he’d read me—we were already well into mutual understanding and camaraderie, even friendship.
“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot,” Truman Capote wrote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Stanley, who died this September at seventy-four, wasn’t a teacher or a peer. He swept into my life as an utterly brilliant friend—albeit a famous one with a résumé that comprised everything I felt I wanted and some things I feared could not be replicated: Whiting, MacArthur, and Guggenheim grants; a myth-building profile in The New Yorker and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; regular appearances on 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose, back when television mattered; friendships with Olympian writers and jazz immortals.
Stanley was a genius not for having been blessed with a grant, but in the genuine sense. He had a nimble, synthesizing mind and a tremendous verbal gift. He cloaked extraordinary insights inside mellifluous, sui generis phrases. Here he is on his spiritual father Albert Murray, though he could just as easily be describing himself:
Murray is, to make a Joycean allusion heel, concerned with the burning brightness within a blackness, a brownness, a beigeness, and a boneness as varied in humanity as in skin tones, a brightness unpredictably softened and intensified by the broad and mythic range of Americana—the sweep of spirit and grit that was given such charismatic reiteration in those poetic snake hip patterns of rhythm that rose from the gutbucket of the blues and evolved into jazz.
Perhaps more impressive than his style was his courage. He was not afraid to go it alone, and his best essays were bold deviations from consensus. Even when you disagreed with him, you had to give him credit. His emails, which soon began filling my inbox, were literary, hilarious, poignant, and sometimes, like his conversation, ribald in the extreme. They were never pro forma.
“Your internal sense of life is also true,” he once wrote to me, “and will prevail over many of the challenges and burdens you will have to face out here in a mongrel world looking for purebreds too far after the fact of worldwide mulatto making.” I had needed such encouragement more than he could have imagined. “We are all here to help others understand what we are sure remains true about the depth and resilience of the human soul.” Stanley could be a severe moralist—in his view, a lot of pop culture was not just bad, it was practically evil—but he was never a drag. He couldn’t have been boring if his life depended on it, and it probably did at times, because his braggadocio and uncompromising sense of art’s gravity could get him into trouble, such as when he socked his Village Voice colleague Harry Allen or smacked the critic Dale Peck at a West Village bistro over a negative review. Stanley reminded me in certain profound ways of my own learned, swift-fisted father. “Just because I write doesn’t mean that I can’t also fight,” Crouch once told the journalist Robert Boynton. Our mutual friend Paul Berman, who came up at the Voice alongside Stanley at a time when independent, heterodox liberalism was in much more robust shape than it is today, described Crouch perfectly: “He was his own greatest creation, wasn’t he?”
Stanley Lawrence Crouch was an authentically American success story. He was born on December 14, 1945, in Los Angeles. His mother, Emma Bea Crouch, “Little Miss Perfect Lower Class,” as Stanley lovingly called her, provided for her three children by cleaning houses. She taught Stanley to read before he entered school. His father, James Crouch, who went west from Texas, was described by Stanley as a hustler and a heroin addict serving time in a San Francisco prison when his son was born. The two were introduced over the phone, and twelve years elapsed before they properly met. Asthma kept Stanley out of the streets and in his bedroom reading books and listening to jazz records. He taught himself to play the drums. In 1968, after attending two community colleges without graduating from either, he was named a poet in residence at Pitzer College, outside L.A. Soon, he was a star literature professor at neighboring Pomona.
By 1975, after having tried on Afrocentrism and avant-garde musicianship, Crouch established himself in downtown Manhattan as a freelance writer of considerable energy and talent. The rest is well known: he went uptown and became a lifelong devotee of Ralph Ellison and Murray (though, sadly, he eventually fell out with the latter), embracing and powerfully extending their Ellingtonian vision of jazz and the dignity, complexity, and inexorable Americanness of what they proudly (and stubbornly) insisted on terming Negro life.
By the time I met him, in 2010, Stanley was sixty-four and trimmer, less physically imposing. He’d stride into Bar Tabac on Smith Street, in Brooklyn, proudly undoing his bicycle helmet. He was staying fit. Some days he’d drain a glass of red wine with his steak; others he’d declare himself dry—adding with a wink, “But when I get back on it, I’ll be on it.” It was impossible to predict whether he’d respond with a patient smile or a brutal dismissal to the strangers who would inevitably approach the table to pay their respects. That was if he showed up, though. Frequently, he canceled. “I guess we should see what they’re trying to do with this new Harry Potter movie,” he’d call to say, and we’d make a plan. (“See what they’re trying to do” immediately became an expression my wife and I used in all manner of situations: “Let’s see what they’re trying to do with this organic spirulina powder,” she might say.) “Burning the proverbial candle at the very front and the very back is definitely a younger man’s business,” he once wrote, asking for a rain check. He kept preposterous hours. Emails could hit my inbox at any time of day or night, often containing vivid, feverishly composed passages from the new manuscript he was working on, tentatively titled Two Heads on a Pillow. Hugely ambitious, he was implacably wounded that his first novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (2000), had failed to garner the same esteem as his nonfiction.
I couldn’t tell you what to think about either work. I was and am too much in awe of him to assess his fiction impartially. What I learned, to my amazement, was that he seemed to need words of encouragement himself. I was honored to do whatever I could. He would call up and ask what I thought about something he had sent me to read. It could feel daunting, but his incessant desire to learn and improve, and to intertwine the life of the mind with everything else, was infectious.
Once, he sent a long section from Two Heads accompanied by a note, explaining,
I added some things to make the female character more real—for me, at least. Looking at the Georgetown revelations of your protagonist again, and then discussing your book with two intelligent women, one a teacher and the other a restaurant manager, I was inspired to work some other things into Leola.
That was Stanley: art was everything to him, and his fundamental conviction was that one’s group identity—sexuality, gender, ethnicity, class—did not determine one’s aesthetic identity. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he loved “exchanging points of view,” an expression it gave him pleasure to note he’d borrowed from Bellow. He was thoroughly elite, but he was no elitist. Poring over these old messages, I see that he wrote me twice to discuss the insights he’d gleaned from this pair of black women from well outside the world of publishing whose chance conversation had set his imagination alight.
In the summer of 2011, my wife was offered a job at a magazine in Paris, and we decided to move. Before we left, Stanley drove all the way out to Berkeley Heights, New Jersey—in fact, a friend drove him—to attend our U.S. wedding celebration in my parents’ backyard. He brought me a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and asked to meet my father. I will never forget the vision of him standing in the book-lined study, beads of sweat streaking down his forehead, as he passionately detailed for my father—a black man also with roots in Texas and southern California, and about a decade his senior—what my portrayal of him in my memoir had elucidated. I am dismayed that I no longer recall the specifics. But I can still remember the skin-tingling amazement I felt witnessing my father fail to get a word in. He was, my mother told me later, touched by Stanley’s exuberance. Of course, at times like this, Stanley could forget that my mother—or my wife—was present, but I couldn’t hold that against him, and they couldn’t either. Discussing ideas with him, even when it was a lopsided affair, felt like the most urgent business.
I went back to New York often, and at first I presented my new living situation to Stanley as something far more fluid and temporary than it was. I feared disappointing him by abandoning what we’d established. We stayed in touch through late 2013. The last message I have from him is from August of that year. It included a PDF of the first volume of Kansas City Lightning, his biography of Charlie Parker, some thirty years in the making and sadly never to be concluded. I congratulated him and thanked him for sharing the book with me, assuring him I’d read it, before adding that we were expecting our first child soon—did he have any words of wisdom?
It was 2015 before I got back to him about Charlie Parker, and he never responded about my daughter, though I didn’t notice for a long while. Life was full, and my center of gravity had shifted to Paris. When I was asked to suggest someone for a new and lucrative award, I remembered conversations in which Stanley had confessed to having financial difficulties. And I thought, too, of how much I wanted to see him finish that biography and publish his second novel. I put everything I could into a letter of recommendation, though his life and career were self-explanatory. When he won the award, I was ecstatic. I wrote to him once more, to congratulate him.
The obscenity of youth is that time seems so abundant. When there was still no answer, I simply continued living, pursuing my interests, my thoughts drifting. The next time I received news was in 2018, when a friend emailed to update me on Stanley’s health. Most seriously, the friend wrote, Stanley had fallen at home and it was days before someone discovered him. He’d been moved to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, in the Bronx, and though there were glimmers of his former self, whatever had happened to him in those horrific hours changed him. Another close friend was collecting funds to see if we could buy Stanley a better TV. I wept as I sent the payment.
I would like to say that the next time I was in New York I went straight up to the Bronx to pay my respects and search his face for recognition and answers, but I didn’t. The truth is that I was deeply afraid he might reject me, that he might say something that would diminish the memory of our friendship, or that he might not even recall how much his presence had meant to me. And so I put it off until a mutual friend who had visited him convinced me that this was ridiculous. We made a plan to go together. As it happened, that was just before the novel coronavirus made the Atlantic an insurmountable barrier. I would not get another chance to muster the courage.
These days, because of who he was and because of the public arguments I’m involved in, I think about Stanley constantly. “Our priorities have gotten totally turned around,” he told Boynton some twenty-five years ago.
The test used to be “Can you, as a minority group, live up to these bourgeois standards?” This was something Jewish immigrants had down. They knew, as a minority group in a democratic situation, that more sophistication is demanded—not less—because in the end you’ll never be able to bully your way to what you want. But now the test is “Can you, faceless white America, put up with me acting obnoxious and not get irritated? Because, if you do get irritated, then you’re the racist pig I always knew you were.” Now, I tend to believe that people are getting pretty sick of that old con.
In a sense, I’m relieved that he’s no longer obliged to wage the same Sisyphean battles—or chart the degree to which American culture has moved only further away from his democratic vision. One of the many fine qualities that so attracted me to Stanley, and reminded me in no small part of the noble black masculinity of my father, was that although—like everyone—he suffered, perhaps even greatly, he remained constitutionally incapable of thinking of himself as a victim. Looking back at his emails, it’s his sign-off that never fails to move me: “VIA, S.C.” (Victory Is Assured.)
“The mountain we have to climb is very tall and quite imposing,” his first email to me began. “But somebody has to try to go up—why not you and me and anybody else we know who is not afraid of the heights?”
Why not, indeed?