Raymond Fleming Biography
"Much like Tennyson's Ulysses I would like to think that I am a part of all that I have met," Raymond Fleming told Contemporary Authors Online. The remark was a revealing one, for Fleming has been a border-crossing figure in many ways, comfortable in many realms but at the same time not quite at home in any of them. As an African-American scholar who has specialized in European literary subjects he is unusual; as a poet who has succeeded in the high-pressure world of academic literary studies he is perhaps even more of a solitary figure. Nevertheless, Fleming has gained wide recognition for his many and various endeavors.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 27, 1945, Fleming enjoyed the benefits of a top-notch education at the University of Notre Dame, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1967. He spent one summer before graduation working at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., at a time when African Americans were finding new opportunities in the world of diplomacy. But another, more unusual interest proved stronger: the language and literature of Italy. With support from a Ford Foundation fellowship and a Fulbright grant, the promising young student spent the 1967-68 academic year studying at the University of Florence in Italy.
After returning to the United States, Fleming spent a year as assistant director of an Upward Bound program at St. Mary's College and studied comparative literature—the investigation of literature and literary theory from an international perspective—at Harvard University on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. That experience would lead to his admission to Harvard's doctoral program in comparative literature, but for the next three years after that, from 1969 to 1972, Fleming worked as an Italian instructor at Notre Dame. He recalled that experience in his poem "Young Black Man Teaching Italian to Middle-Class White Students," a work that typified many of his poems in its mixture of personal themes, a serious outlook on the American racial divide, and a certain wry humor. "May your lives not always be/sad polemics like your fathers' lives," Fleming addressed his students in verse. "Next year the intrepid will discover/that Dante, too, was a nigger."
Fleming's poems began to find publication in a wide variety of journals, and he won the Ingram-Merrill Poetry Award in 1971. A partial list of the publications in which his poetry appeared in the 1970s includes: Midwest Quarterly, America, Texas Quarterly, the Black American Literary Forum, Kansas Quarterly, Black Opinion, Forum Italicum, and Roadwork. Fleming taught literature at the University of California at San Diego from 1973 to 1980, and his reputation as a poet increased. He received his Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1976. The only detour from this literary career came when Fleming, a sports enthusiast since childhood who described himself in his book Diplomatic Relations as "a frustrated jock," had a tryout with the San Diego Chargers professional football team in 1977.
Fleming's first book, Ice and Honey, was published in 1979. It revealed a writer who addressed specifically African-American themes and drew strongly on memories of his own childhood in Cleveland, yet also touched on evocations of the other places he had traveled and lived, from Italy, Germany (where Fleming spent the 1978-79 academic year on an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship), England, and Norway to California. "The Hough Ghetto of Cleveland" spoke of store-front churchgoers: "from a midsummer to midsummer they prayed/to the black God for a year without/a layoff, without rats, without cops.…" Some of the poems in the book reflected Fleming's love of sports; they were short, fleeting images of African-American sports heroes. And in the poem "Aretha" he praised singer Aretha Franklin as "the moving/sister of my soul/plunging deep down, darkly/into melodious shadows of my heart.…"
The follow-up to Ice and Honey, entitled Diplomatic Relations, was published in 1982 by Lotus Press, a Detroit publishing house long associated with African-American writers. It included the long serious poem "Diplomatic Relations with America," an examination of the ambiguous position of African-American soldiers who have given their lives for a country that has long denied them full citizenship. Fleming also turned to international themes and included several translations of works by the Italian poet Diego Valeri. In "Pragmatic Sanction" he offered a wry look at the poet's life: "The poet is/a cop-out artist/and a bit of a fool,/but sometimes he writes down/good excuses."
Quoted in Contemporary Authors Online, Fleming linked the academic and creative sides of his writing life. "My training as a comparatist has enabled me to be at home within the contexts of both European and Afro-American poetry, and my reference seeks to combine those traditions when possible and to point out the contradictory assumptions of these cultures with humor and compassion." Fleming was hired as associate professor of Italian by Miami University of Ohio in 1980, becoming assistant graduate school dean in 1985. With the help of a 1981 fellowship from Northwestern University's School of Criticism and Theory and a 1984 stint as a visiting professor of literary theory at the Centre Universitaire in the small European nation of Luxembourg in 1984, he began to delve more deeply into literary studies.
In 1987 Fleming published a full-length work of literary criticism comparing Romantic-era poets of three different nationalities: Keats, Leopardi, and Hölderlin: The Poet as Priest of the Absolute. He also wrote shorter articles on a variety of writers, mostly poets, from Dante and Boccaccio of the Medieval Era through John Milton, John Keats, Daniel Defoe, and writers of the modern era such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Fleming became a professor at Penn State University in 1987. He attended National Institute for the Humanities summer seminars from 1985 to 1989, and his academic reputation grew. However, Fleming told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education that "prestige, as a matter of course, continues to be attached to scholarship that excludes the contributions, experiences, and perspectives of women and people of color."
Fleming left Penn State for the post of distinguished university professor at Florida State University in 1995. Fleming won Florida State's Teaching Excellence Award for the 1998-99 school year and the Florida Poetry Award in 2000. His activities in the early 2000s included the delivery of the Britsch Lectures at Brigham Young University in 2002 and a stint as Djerassi Artist Residency in Woodside, California, in 2003. He was president of the American Conference on Romanticism from 1998 to 2000 and an executive board member of the International Association for the Study of Italian Language and Literature from 1999 to 2002.
Ice and Honey (poetry), Dorrance, 1979.
Diplomatic Relations (poetry), Lotus, 1982.
Keats, Leopardi, and Hölderlin: The Poet as Priest of the Absolute (literary criticism), Garland, 1987.
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, December 31, 1993, p. 40.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 11, 1987, p. A29.
"Ray Fleming," Contemporary Authors Online, the Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, The Gale Group, 2004, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 13, 2004).
"Fleming, Raymond," Florida State University, www.fsu.edu/~modlang/divisions/italian/rfleming.html (September 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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