Ronald L. Fair Biography
Fiction writer, poet
Ronald L. Fair's body of work displays contradictory qualities. On one hand, he was a realistic chronicler of the lives of urban African Americans in the 1960s, one who captured the disillusionment of blacks who fled Southern white racism only to discover that Northern cities brought oppression and dislocation of a different kind. On the other, he was a literary experimenter, one who wrote in economical, clipped, often ironic and satirical styles quite distinct from the expansive, preacherly prose of some of his African-American contemporaries. Audiences of the 1960s and 1970s never knew quite what to make of Fair's writing; he remained less well known than other African-American writers of the period, and he eventually left the United States for Europe, never to return. Yet he had several strong advocates in the literary world, and his output, with several finished but unpublished works, seemed ripe for rediscovery in the new millennium.
Born in Chicago on October 27, 1932, Fair was the son of Herbert and Beulah Hunt Fair, Mississippi farmworkers who took pride in their African heritage. Fair attended public schools in Chicago. He started writing as a teenager as a way of questioning the world in which he found himself and of expressing angry feelings. He was inspired by the example of Richard Wright, one of his prime influences, and a black English teacher encouraged him to keep writing. Fair joined the U.S. Navy in 1950 and served for three years as a hospital worker. He married while he was in the Navy and had two children, but that marriage ended in divorce.
Back home, Fair attended a business college, the Stenotype School of Chicago. He got a job as a court reporter after finishing school in 1955 and remained in that profession for 12 years. Fair kept writing outside of work hours, and he published various short writings in the Chicago Defender, Ebony, Chat Noir, and other publications. His first novel, Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable, was issued by Harcourt in 1965.
Fair's first novel covered a span of a century, from the Civil War to the 1960s, in 120 terse pages. It presented a fictional town called Jacobsville, Mississippi, whose residents remained unaware that slavery was no longer in existence. Against this backdrop, Fair unfolded the various forms of governmental and extralegal horrors that befell African Americans beginning in the Reconstruction era. Reviewers praised the unique bitter tone of Fair's descriptions of rape and lynching, but many failed to appreciate the symbolism of the novel's plot, which was directed toward the idea that African Americans had to wake up to the repression under which they lived.
Fair worked as a writer for a year as an Encyclopedia Britannica writer while readying his second novel, Hog Butcher, for publication. Hog Butcher remains perhaps the best known of Fair's writings. In 1975 it was made into a film called Cornbread, Earl and Me, featuring future superstar Laurence Fishburne as the ten-year-old protagonist and narrator, and it was published in paperback under that title. The book tells the story of a police coverup intended to conceal a mistaken fatal shooting of budding basketball star "Corn-bread" Maxwell. Rich with detail about the lives of transplanted Southern blacks in Chicago and about the myriad ways in which the city's government and society were stacked against them, Hog Butcher, in the words of Bernard W. Bell in The Contemporary Afro-American Novel, showed "the continuing appeal of traditional realism and naturalism to some contemporary black novelists."
In 1967, Fair took a job teaching literature at Chicago's Columbia College. He moved on to Northwestern University the following year and also married his second wife, Neva June Keres, with whom he had one more child. With the help of awards and fellowships that included a stint at Wesleyan University's Center for Advanced Studies in 1969 and an Arts and Letters Award the following year, Fair became a full-time writer. He taught at Wesleyan as a visiting professor in the 1970-71 academic year.
Despite his new freedom from a nine-to-five workday, Fair's productivity as a writer slowed down somewhat. His next book, World of Nothing, did not appear until 1970. True to form, Fair changed direction and confounded expectations yet again with that book, which consisted of two short novellas, both with elements of pointed, edgy satire. The story that gives this book its title is a picturesque but sharp and partly surreal portrait of a group of black Chicagoans whose lives interact, while "Jerome" dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic church and, like several of Fair's earlier works, featured a youthful central character.
In 1971 Fair went to Europe. Later in life he would bemoan the lack of opportunities available to African-American writers, but he was drawn to Europe while he was still riding high career-wise. Like many black creative figures before him, Fair felt liberated in Europe from American racial tensions. He and his wife spent several months in Sweden with support from that country's government culture ministry, and then enjoyed six months in 1972 in a French villa on an academic house exchange. Fair, according to From Harlem to Paris author Michel Fabre, announced a plan to "buy a house over here and return HOME to France." Later, however, despite having disliked Sweden's cold climate, he moved to Finland and remained there.
The book Fair considered his supreme effort, We Can't Breathe, was published in 1972. Another realistic tale, it followed five Chicago friends, one of whom becomes a writer by the book's end. Strongly autobiographical, We Can't Breathe won the American Library Association's Best Book award in 1972 but was criticized, to use the words of New York Times critic George Davis, as "not as well shaped as his previous books." We Can't Breathe sold well at first, but sales eventually tailed off.
Fair continued writing after this setback. He won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1975 and worked on an epic novel called The Migrants, which traced a large cast of characters through black America's Great Migration from South to North. He published two collections of poetry and several short stories in the late 1970s. The Migrants remained unpublished, however, and Fair grew disillusioned. "I'm still writing—seven books looking for a publisher, perhaps that will happen again.…Sorry I can't be more helpful, but I don't care to talk about many of these things, …" he told Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor R. Baxter Miller in the early 1980s. "[S]orry they haven't published more of my books, but you know…they cut off the Black writer…they really cut him off."
Fair finally dropped completely off the literary radar screen, even disappearing from directories of creative artists. He announced a new commitment to Christianity in 1980, and he was reported to have taken up sculpture. Fair's unusual life and his unique body of work awaited serious consideration by researchers as the importance of Chicago writers in black cultural history became apparent in the early 2000s.
Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable (short novel), Harcourt, 1965.
Hog Butcher (novel), Harcourt, 1966; republished as Cornbread, Earl and Me, Bantam, 1975.
World of Nothing: Two Novellas, Harper, 1970.
We Can't Breathe (novel), Harper, 1972.
Excerpts (poetry), Paul Breman, 1975.
Rufus (poetry), P. Schlack (Germany), 1977; 2nd ed. Lotus Press, 1980.
Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Davis, Thadious M., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.
Fabre, Michel, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 1965, p. 11. Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1966, p. 129.
New York Times, January 10, 1965, Book Review, p. 27; February 6, 1972, Book Review, p. 6.
Washington Post, February 6, 1972, p. BW8.
Mootry, Maria K., "Post-World War II African-American Literature in Illinois," Northern Illinois University Library, www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/il960136.html (August 6, 2004).
"Ronald L. Fair," Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (August 6, 2004).
—James M. Manheim