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Clarence Major Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 1936. Education: The Art Institute, Chicago (James Nelson Raymond scholar), 1952-54; Armed Forces Institute, 1955-56; New School for Social Research, New York, 1972; Norwalk College, Connecticut; State University of New York, Albany, B.S. 1976; Union Graduate School, Yellow Springs and Cincinnati, Ohio, Ph.D. 1978. Military Service: Served in the United States Air Force, 1955-57. Career: Research analyst, Simulmatics, New York, 1966-67; director of creative writing program, Harlem Education Program, New Lincoln School, New York, 1967-68; writer-in-residence, Center for Urban Education, 1967-68, and Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Columbia University Teachers College, 1967-71, both New York; lecturer, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, 1968-69, Spring 1973, 1974-75, Cazenovia College, New York, Summer 1969, Wisconsin State University, Eau Claire, Fall 1969, Queens College, City University of New York, springs 1972, 1973, and 1975, and Fall 1973, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1972-75, and School for Continuing Education, New York University, Spring 1975; writer-in-residence, Aurora College, Illinois, Spring 1974; assistant professor, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1974-76, and University of Washington, Seattle, 1976-77; visiting assistant professor, University of Maryland, College Park, Spring 1976, and State University of New York, Buffalo, Summer 1976; associate professor, 1977-81, and professor, 1981-89, University of Colorado, Boulder. Director of Creative Writing, 1991-93, and since 1989 professor, University of California, Davis. Visiting professor, University of Nice, France, 1981-82, Fall 1983, University of California, San Diego, Spring 1984, and State University of New York, Binghamton, Spring 1988; writer-in-residence, Albany State College, Georgia, 1984, and Clayton College, Denver, Colorado, 1986, 1987; distinguished visiting writer, Temple University, Philadelphia, Fall 1988; guest writer, Warren Wilson College, 1988. Editor, Coercion Review, Chicago, 1958-66; staff writer, Proof and Anagogic and Paideumic Review, Chicago, 1960-61; associate editor, Caw, New York, 1967-70, and Journal of Black Poetry, San Francisco, 1967-70; reviewer, Essence magazine, 1970-73; columnist 1973-76, and contributing editor, 1976-86, American Poetry Review, Philadelphia; editor, 1977-78, and since 1978 associate editor, American Book Review, New York; associate editor, Bopp, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977-78, Gumbo, 1978, Departures, 1979, and par rapport, 1979-82; member of the editorial board, Umojo, Boulder, Colorado, 1979-80; editorial consultant, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1984, and University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1987; since 1986 fiction editor, High Plains Literary Review, Denver. Also artist: individual shows—Sarah Lawrence College, 1974; First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Colorado, 1986. Awards: National Council on the Arts award, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1970, 1975, 1979; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1971; Fulbright-Hays Exchange award, 1981; Western States Book award, for fiction, 1986; Pushcart prize, for short story, 1989. Agent: Susan Bergholtz, 340 West 72nd Street, New York, New York 10023.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

All-Night Visitors. New York, Olympia Press, 1969.

NO. New York, Emerson Hall, 1973.

Reflex and Bone Structure. New York, Fiction Collective, 1975.

Emergency Exit. New York, Fiction Collective, 1979.

My Amputations. New York, Fiction Collective, 1986.

Such Was the Season. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1987.

Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1988.

Dirty Bird Blues. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1996.

Short Stories

Fun & Games. Duluth, Minnesota, Holy Cow! Press, 1990.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Church Girl," in Human Voices 3 (Homestead, Florida), Summer-Fall 1967.

"An Area in the Cerebral Hemisphere," in Statements, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. New York, Braziller, 1975.

"Dossy O," in Writing under Fire, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer. New York, Dell, 1978.

"Tattoo," in American Made, edited by Mark Leyner, Curtis White, and Thomas Glynn. New York, Fiction Collective, 1987.

Poetry

The Fires That Burn in Heaven. Privately printed, 1954.

Love Poems of a Black Man. Omaha, Nebraska, Coercion Press, 1965.

Human Juices. Omaha, Nebraska, Coercion Press, 1965.

Swallow and Lake. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.

Symptoms and Madness. New York, Corinth, 1971.

Private Line. London, Paul Breman, 1971. The Cotton Club: New Poems. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1972.

The Syncopated Cakewalk. New York, Barlenmir House, 1974.

Inside Diameter: The France Poems. Sag Harbor, New York, and London, Permanent Press, 1985.

Surfaces and Masks. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1988.

Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1989.

Parking Lots. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1992.

Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1998.

Other

Dictionary of Afro-American Slang. New York, International, 1970; as Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk, London, Routledge, 1971.

The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. New York, Third Press, 1974.

Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang. New York, Viking, 1994.

Editor, Writers Workshop Anthology. New York, Harlem Education Project, 1967.

Editor, Man Is Like a Child: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Students. New York, Macomb's Junior High School, 1968.

Editor, The New Black Poetry. New York, International, 1969.

Editor, Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories. New York, Harper Collins, 1993.

Editor, The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry. New York, Harper Collins, 1995.

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Bibliographies:

"Clarence Major: A Checklist of Criticism" by Joe Weixlmann, in Obsidian (Fredonia, New York), vol. 4, no. 2, 1978; "Toward a Primary Bibliography of Clarence Major" by Joe Weixlmann and Clarence Major, in Black American Lierature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Summer 1979.

Critical Studies:

In Interviews with Black Writers edited by John O'Brien, New York, Liveright, 1973; "La Problematique de la communication" by Muriel Lacotte, unpublished dissertation, University of Nice, 1984; Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist, edited by Bernard W. Bell, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

* * *

"In a novel, the only thing you have is words," Clarence Major told the interviewer John O'Brien. "You begin with words and you end with words. The content exists in our minds. I don't think it has to be a reflection of anything. It is a reality that has been created inside of a book." Major's fiction exists as a rebellion against the stereotype of mimetic fiction—that telling a story, one of the things fiction can do, is the only thing fiction can do.

His first novel, All-Night Visitors, is an exercise in the imaginative powers of male sexuality. Major takes the most physical theme—the pleasure of the orgasm—and lyricizes it, working his imagination upon the bedrock and world of sense not customarily indulged by poetry. The pre-eminence of the imagination is shown by blending Chicago street scenes with fighting in Vietnam—in terms of the writing itself, Major claims that there is no difference. His second novel, NO, alternates narrative scenes of rural Georgia life with a more disembodied voice of fiction, and the action advances as it is passed back and forth, almost conversationally, between these two fictive voices. In both books, language itself is the true locus of action, as even the most random and routine development is seized as the occasion for raptures of prose (a fellatio scene, for example, soon outstrips itself as pornography and turns into an excuse for twelve pages of exuberant prose).

Major's best work is represented in his third and fourth novels, Reflex and Bone Structure and Emergency Exit. In the former, he describes an action which takes place legitimately within the characters' minds, as formed by images from television and film. "We're in bed watching the late movie. It's 1938. A Slight Case of Murder. Edward G. Robinson and Jane Bryan. I go into the bathroom to pee. Finished, I look at my aging face. Little Caesar. I wink at him in the mirror. He winks back./I'm back in bed. The late show comes on. It's 1923. The Bright Shawl. Dorothy Gish. Mary Astor. I'm taking Mary Astor home in a yellow taxi. Dorothy Gish is jealous." Throughout this novel, which treats stimuli from social life and the output of a television set as equally informative, Major insists that the realm of all these happenings is in language itself. "I am standing behind Cora," he writes. "She is wearing a thin black nightgown. The backs of her legs are lovely. I love her. The word standing allows me to watch like this. The word nightgown is what she is wearing. The nightgown itself is in her drawer with her panties. The word Cora is wearing the word nightgown. I watch the sentence: the backs of her legs are lovely."

As a result, the action of this novel takes place not simply in the characters' behavior but in the arrangements of words on the page. Here Major makes a significant advance over the techniques of his innovative fiction contemporaries. Many of them, including Ronald Sukenick (in Up) and John Barth (in the stories of Lost in the Funhouse), took a metafictive approach, establishing fiction's self-apparency and anti-illusionism by self-consciously portraying the writer writing his story. In Reflex and Bone Structure, however, Major accomplishes the task of making the words function not as references to things in the outside world but as entities themselves; the action is syntactic rather than dramatic, although once that syntactic function is served the action, as in the paragraph cited, can return for full human relevance. Indeed, because the activity is first located within the act of composition itself, the reader can empathize even more with the intensity of feeling behind it.

Emergency Exit is Major's most emphatic gesture toward pure writing, accomplished by making the words of his story refer inward to his own creative act, rather than outward toward the panoramic landscape of the socially real. The novel's structure makes this strategy possible. Emergency Exit consists of elementary units of discourse; words, sentences, paragraphs, vignettes, and serial narratives. The novel is composed of equal blocks of each, spread out and mixed with the others. At first, simple sentences are presented to the reader. Then elements from these same sentences (which have stood in reference-free isolation) recur in paragraphs, but still free of narrative meaning. The plan is to fix a word, as word, in the reader's mind, apart from any personal conceptual reference—just as an abstract expressionist painter will present a line, or a swirl of color, without any reference to figure. Then come a number of narratives, coalescing into a story of lovers and family. When enough sections of the serial narrative have accumulated to form a recognizable story, we find that the independent and fragmentary scenes of the sentences and paragraphs have been animated by characters with whom we can now empathize. Forestalling any attempt to rush off the page into incidental gossip is the memory and further repetition of these words—whether they be of black mythology, snatches of popular song, or simply brilliant writing—all within Major's arresting sentences and paragraphs. A word, an image, or scene which occurs within the narrative leads the reader directly back to the substance of Major's writing. All attention is confined within the pages of the book.

Silent as a writer for the better part of a decade, though actively engaged in teaching, speaking, and world travel, Major takes the occasion of his fifth novel, My Amputations, to comment on his own identity as a writer and person. His protagonist, named Mason Ellis, has a biography which matches Major's own, and his responsiveness to black music and folklore recalls the techniques of Emergency Exit. Mason's writing is like a closet he steps into in a recurring dream: a "door to darkness, closed-off mystery" through which his muse leads him in search of his personal and literary identities, both of which have been assumed by an "Impostor" nearly a decade ago (when Major's last novel was written). Mason's personal struggle has been with "the unmistakable separation of Church and State," which for him produces an unbearable polarity between spirit and body, mentality and sexuality, and eventually a contradiction between "clean" and "dirty" which he refuses to accept. His muse must guide him away from this middle ground of separation where he languishes; imprisoned in various forms of life (which correspond to Major's background growing up in Chicago and serving in the Air Force), he must literally "write his way out" by constructing a different paradigm for God's interests and Caesar's. Falsely jailed while "the Impostor" continues his career, Mason joins a group of urban terrorists who rob a bank to finance their dreams—in his case, the recovery of his role as novelist. To do this, Mason adopts the pose of the black American writer abroad, living in Nice and speaking at various universities across Europe. But at every stage the concerns of State intervene, as each country's particular style of political insurgency disrupts his visit. Even his idealistic goal of Africa is torn by conflicts of body and spirit, and he finds himself either caught in the crossfire of terrorists or imprisoned as a political suspect. These circumstances, while being complications in the narrative, prompt some of the novel's finest writing, as Major couches Mason's behavior in a linguistic responsiveness to the terroristic nature of our times. The achievement of My Amputations is its conception of Mason Ellis as a creature of the world's signs and symbols. He moves in a world of poetic constructions, where even crossing the street is an artistic adventure: "Mason Ellis sang 'Diddie Wa Diddie' like Blind Blake, crossed the street at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second like the Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road and reaching the curb leaped into the air and coming down did a couple of steps of the Flat Foot Floogie." Not surprisingly, Major points his character toward a tribal sense of unity in Africa, pre-colonial and hence pre-political, where the separations of "Church" and "State" do not exist.

With his novels Such Was the Season and Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar Major makes his closest approach to narrative realism, yet in each case the mimesis is simply a technical device that serves an equally abstract purpose. Such Was the Season is ostensibly a gesture toward that most commercially conventional of formats, the family saga, as a nephew from Chicago returns to the Atlanta home of an old aunt who helped raise him. His visit, however, entails not just the usual thematics of family history and a touch of matriarchy but rather a spectrum study of African-American culture in its many forms, from bourgeois society to political power-playing. Because the narrator is Aunt Eliza herself, the novel becomes much more a study in language than social action, however, for the emphasis remains not on the events themselves but upon her blending them into an interpretive narrative. That Major is ultimately interested in these aesthetic dimensions rather than in the simply social is evident from Painted Turtle, in which the story of a native American folksinger's career is told only superficially by the episodic adventures surrounding her work; at the heart of her story is the nature of her poetic expression, passages of which are reproduced as transcriptions of her songs—which are unlike any folksongs the reader may have heard, but much like the linguistic constructions Aunt Eliza fashions in the previous novel as a way of making the emerging reality of her family meaningful to her.

The 1990s saw Clarence Major's position in the American literary canon strengthened, as he edited a major text anthology for HarperCollins, expanded his original lexicological work into Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang for Penguin Books, and had his own fiction included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Solidifying his own canon were three key volumes: his stories, Fun & Games ; his novel, Dirty Bird Blues ; and the unexpurgated version of his first novel, All-Night Visitors, published in a university press edition introduced by the distinguished scholar Bernard W. Bell. The short story collection displays the full range of Major's talents, from the language-based lyricism of his early work to the autobiographical reminiscences that also motivate Such Was the Season. As in All-Night Visitors, a sexual energy runs through the collection. But as the restored text of the first novel shows, Clarence Major was as far as possible from being a pornographer; indeed, Bell's edition is probably the first in literary history that had to restore nonsexual material that the original publisher had cut in order to make the book appear salacious (which it isn't). Instead, the restored novel and stories such as "Fun and Games" and "My Mother and Mitch" reveal sexuality as innocent as a child's quest for self-discovery (where the passion is his mother's) and as complex as a Vietnam veteran's attempt to reintegrate himself into a society more violent than the world in which he waged war. In each case, sex may be the stimulus to thought, but language is its resolution, as in the novel's scene where the protagonist is assaulted by a rival in love: "He dashes over—picks me up as though I'm a feather. One becomes the word, the name very quickly. Like a cunt or a flirt."

Dirty Bird Blues becomes Major's most accessible work by virtue of locating this same dynamic in the world not of words but of music. As tools of literary realism, words inevitably point to their references, things in the outside world. Notes of music and even blues lyrics themselves are more easily considered in their artistic dimension, and in letting the life of musician Manfred Banks parallel his own writer's experience, Clarence Major constructs a narrative that needs no metafictive devices to remind readers that the essence of his story is imaginative. As Banks's music struggles against the hard reality of blue-collar employment, the author's narrative wends its way through the complexities and challenges of being a man to one's self but also a husband to one's wife and a father to one's daughter. Accomplishing the task lets readers appreciate how doing so is a masterpiece for both character and writer.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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