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David (Henry Bradley Jr.) Biography - David Bradley comments:

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Nationality: American. Born: Bedford, Pennsylvania, 1950. Education: Bedford Area High School, graduated 1968; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Franklin scholar, Presidential scholar), 1968-72, B.A. (summa cum laude) in creative writing 1972; King's College, University of London (Thouron scholar), 1972-74, M.A. in area studies 1974. Career: Reader and assistant editor, J.B. Lippincott, publishers, Philadelphia, 1974-76; visiting lecturer in English, University of Pennsylvania, 1975. Visiting instructor, 1976-77, assistant professor, 1977-82, associate professor of English, 1982-89, professor, 1989-96, Temple University, Philadelphia. Editorial consultant, Lippincott, 1977-78, and Ace Science Fiction, New York, 1979; visiting lecturer, San Diego State University, 1980-81. Member of the Executive Board, PEN American Center, 1982-84. Awards: American Academy award, 1982; PEN-Faulkner award, 1982. Agent: Wendy Weil, Julian Bach Literary Agency, 747 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

South Street. New York, Grossman, 1975.

The Chaneysville Incident. New York, Harper, 1981; London, Serpent's Tail, 1986.

The Lodestar Project. New York, Pocket Books, 1986.

Uncollected Short Story

"197903042100 (Sunday)," in Our Roots Grow Deeper than We Know, edited by Lee Gutkind. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Play

Sweet Sixteen (produced Louisville, Kentucky, 1983).

Other

From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre: Preparing the Play for the Stage. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991

Editor, with Shelley Fisher Fishkin, The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America. Armonk, New York, Sharpe Reference, 1998.

*

(1996) I believe a work of fiction ought to more or less speak for itself—certainly the author ought to keep his mouth shut about it; he's had his chance. On the other hand, I have noticed a few things about my own attitudes that might bear mentioning. Nothing so deliberate as a "what I am trying to do with my writing" statement (which I find pretentious and usually wrong), but just observations about what I tend to think is good. I am, first of all, an Aristotelian writer. Meaning that I believe in the Gospel as laid down in The Poetics. Plot is paramount, and I do not like any thing that does not have one. Second, I do not believe in a sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Most of my writing is grounded in real places and people. I always find myself "adapting" reality to the writing, as one might "adapt" a novel for a film. Third, I do not believe in art for art's sake. Art has no sake; people do. A work of art that cannot be understood is a voice crying in the wilderness. Fourth, I demand a lot from readers. I do not write "easy" things; they require effort and emotional commitment from me—and they require the same from readers. I hope only that readers feel their time and sweat are well spent.

* * *

For David Bradley, place matters, and history haunts. If the Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tries desperately to fly over the nets of family, church, and state, Bradley speaks lyrically of those cords that bind him to his birthplace (the rural community of Bedford, Pennsylvania), to the black church in which he grew up, and to the family that nurtured his early interest in history, and in writing about that history. As put in "A Personal View from the Third Generation" (New York Times Sunday Magazine):

For he [Bradley] realizes this is his church. Three generations of his family have occupied Mt. Pisgah's pulpit and worshipped in its pews. A plaque on the wall dedicates the 1960s redecoration to his grandmother. The Bible on the lectern was an offering by his father when his mother survived a dangerous illness. In the truest sense, he, not the denomination, owns Mt. Pisgah. And owes it.

For, in a day when and a place where opportunities were restricted, Mt. Pisgah gave him the chance to speak, to lead, to learn the history of his people. When opportunities became available, it was the experience gained at Mt. Pisgah that equipped him to take advantage of them. But, after taking advantage of them, he abandoned the church that had nurtured him. He walked from Mt. Pisgah down into the Promised Land and never really looked back. Perhaps the time has come to turn around.

These are eloquent, confessional words. For Bradley has moved with astonishing speed from the raw, lusty talent that described the "street people" who hold forth on Philadelphia's South Street (published in 1975, when Bradley was only 24) to the sweep and ambition of The Chaneysville Incident, the novel that brought Bradley national recognition.

South Street is a novel anchored in the naturalism of "elephantine cockroaches and rats the size of cannon shells," but it is also a novel that reaches well beyond the geography of urban despair. Bradley's South Street poises itself at the border of Philadelphia's black ghetto, where it ties "the city's rivers like an iron bracelet or a wedding band, uniting the waters, sewer to sewer, before they meet at the city's edge." Place matters deeply, of course—in this case, the locus seems to be Lightnin' Ed's Bar—but it is the people, and Bradley's ear for their colorful language, that matters even more:

Leo, the two-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pound owner-bartender-cashier-bouncer of Lightnin' Ed's Bar and Grill, looked up from the glass he was polishing to see a one-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pound white man walk into his bar. Leo's mouth fell open and he almost dropped the glass. One by one the faces along the bar turned to stare at the single pale face, shining in the dimness. "Yes, sir, cap'n," Leo said uneasily, "what can we be doin' for you?"

George looked around nervously. "I, ah, had a little accident. I, ah, ran over a cat in the street, and I, uh, don't know what to do about it."

"Whad he say?" a wino at the far end of the bar, who claimed to be hard of hearing, whispered loudly.

The jukebox ran out and fell silent just as somebody yelled to him, "Paddy says he run over some cat out in the street." The sound echoed throughout the bar. Conversation died.

"Goddamn!" said the wino.

Leo leaned over the bar, letting his gigantic belly rest on the polished wood. "Yeah?" he said to George. "Didja kill him?"

"Oh yes," George assured him. "I made certain of that."

Bradley is at his best when he moves inside the set pieces, the extended anecdotes, that give South Street its resonance. What might well have become yet another unrelenting grim account of sordid conditions and despairing lives transmogrifies itself into a high, more humane key. It was, in short, a novel that prompted reviewers to say "Keep your eye on Mr. Bradley." In this case, they were righter than they knew.

The Chaneysville Incident both widened and deepened the scope of Bradley's obvious talents. His postgraduate research in American history at the University of London sent him back, ironically enough, to a story he had heard in Bedford about 13 escaped slaves who asked to be killed rather than recaptured and about the 13 unmarked graves his mother once discovered.

The Chaneysville Incident tells this story from the perspective of John Washington, a black man who has bootstrapped himself from humble, rural origins to become a history professor at a Philadelphia university and who lives with Judith, a white psychologist. The question the book raises is simply, and perplexingly, how should a black man live in a world white men have made. The result is a thickly textured, multi-layered book, one that inextricably combines theory, historical research, and domestic tension. As Washington, the historian, puts it: "The key to the understanding of any society lies in the observation and analysis of the insignificant and the mundane …. If you doubt it [i.e. that America is a classed society], consider the sanitary facilities employed in America's three modes of public long-distance transportation: airplanes, trains, and buses."

Washington, however, not only discovers the historical truth of the "Chaneysville incident," but also that the truth is more complex, more riddling than he had imagined. If part of his character serves as Bradley's mouthpiece, part of him must, finally, be rejected by Bradley, the novelist. Luckily, it is the latter part that matters most, when one has recovered from the racial anger that gives this important novel much of its initial energy.

—Sanford Pinsker

John Ed Bradley Biography [next]

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