William Demby Biography
While he has never quite achieved the stature of such contemporaries as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, William Demby is without question one of the most important African American authors of the twentieth century. His novels address issues of race and national identity with an unsurpassed power and command of imagery. An expatriate living in Rome for much of his career, Demby brought to his writing a unique insider/outsider perspective on the American experience.
William Demby was born on December 25, 1922, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he and his six siblings spent their early childhood. His father, William Demby, worked as a file clerk for Hopewell Natural Gas Company. Both the elder Demby and his wife, Gertrude Hendricks, had aspired to better careers in architecture or medicine, but were denied entrance into college because of their race.
After the younger William graduated from Langley High School in 1941, the family moved to an ethnically diverse, middle-class neighborhood in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where William Sr. landed a job with Standard Oil Company's natural gas division. This move southward, where Demby had greater contact with African-American culture, proved pivotal in his development as an artist. He enrolled at West Virginia State University, where he studied writing with poet-novelist Margaret Walker. He spent most of his time, however, pursuing his other, greater passion: jazz. Demby spent so much time playing music in area jazz clubs that he often neglected his studies, and he had a tough time deciding whether to strive for a career in music or in literature. One of Demby's cousins was the renowned alto saxophonist Benny Carter, and having Carter as a role model only strengthened the tug of jazz on Demby's loyalties.
Demby's college career was interrupted by war. He joined the U.S. Army in 1942, and while stationed in Italy began writing for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. That experience—in combination with a realization that he could not compete with the top bebop players of the day—helped tilt his career decision toward writing. Upon his return from World War II, Demby resumed his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he received his B.A. in 1947. From there, he returned to Italy, where he began studying art and art history at the University of Rome. Apparently Italy agreed with Demby; he became one of a generation of expatriate African-American artists. He continued to live in Italy for more than two decades, returning to the United States only for occasional visits or temporary teaching gigs. He married an Italian woman, Lucia Drudi, and his son, James (a composer), was born in Italy.
In Rome, Demby became connected with artists working in a variety of fields. He obtained steady work translating Italian films into English. He adapted two films for acclaimed director Roberto Rossellini. Demby's first novel, Beetlecreek, was published in 1950. Beetlecreek reflects many elements of Demby's own childhood. Set in a community similar to the West Virginia one in which he grew up, it is the story of a white former carnival worker who has chosen to live in Beetlecreek's black section, and a black teenager sent from his hometown of Pittsburgh to live with relatives in Beetlecreek. The novel received international acclaim and quickly placed Demby among the elite of contemporary African-American authors.
It would be 15 years before Demby's next important work, the novel The Catacombs, was published. The Catacombs, which takes place in Rome and features a character who bears a striking resemblance to the author himself, is about the process of writing, tracking an author's progress from a germ of an idea to an all-consuming spell. The main character, like Demby—an African American author living in Italy—is attempting to write a novel that contrasts the lives of a sexy actress/model and an African nun. The Catacombs met with mixed reactions from critics. Its avantgarde style confused some readers, while others considered it a modernist masterpiece and compared Demby to the likes of Gertrude Stein. Critic Helen Jaskoski wrote in the journal Critique that the novel "draws on significant formal and thematic traditions with a long history in Western literature. Within the specifically African-American tradition, Demby engages the themes of freedom and literacy,...the recurring hallmark of African American tradition; however, modernist Demby recasts the quest in light of the expatriate intellectual's relationship to a worldwide struggle for national independence."
Between novels, Demby wrote shorter pieces for publication, including a series of magazine essays with such titles as "The Geisha Girls of Ponto-cho," and "Blueblood Cats of Rome." In 1969 Demby returned to the United States and took a teaching job at the College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. His third novel, Love Story Black, came out in 1978. Like The Catacombs, Love Story Black features a Demby-like character, an expatriate African American novelist teaching in a New York City College. This time, the Demby alter ego is attempting to unravel the mysterious past of Mona Pariss, an elderly entertainer, for a magazine article he is writing. According to some sources, Demby published another book, Blue Boy, shortly after Love Story Black, but it is unclear whether it was actually made available to the public in any legitimate way. In fact, as Demby told Contemporary Black Biography, he has never seen a copy of it, and does not really remember what it was about.
Upon his return from Italian exile, Demby settled in Sag Harbor, New York, a site of great importance in African-American history. Blacks have lived in Sag Harbor since the time before the American Revolution, trading freely with both colonial Americans and the British. Some early black residents relocated to England and eventually moved to Sierra Leone.
Demby retired from CUNY in 1987, and has lived a relatively quiet life since then. In 1987 he worked with noted feminist author Betty Friedan to organize the Sag Harbor Initiative, a three-day gathering of leading writers and intellectuals to discuss important social and political issues of the time. While Demby continues to maintain a residence in Sag Harbor, he has lived primarily in Italy since retiring. His Italian wife died in 1995. In April of 2004, Demby married Barbara Morris, a lawyer and civil rights activist who had, among other things, played a key role in the Medgar Evers case. Demby and Morris had been friends at Fisk University back in the 1940s, but had fallen out of touch when Demby moved to Italy. They reestablished contact only recently. The couple spends most of their time in Florence, Italy, where their activities include running a music festival. Demby told CBB that he is working on a novel called King Comus, which he expects to finish in 2006 or so, though he has not set a rigid deadline for himself. As with his other novels, it will be done when he decides it is done. Even if he never decides that his next novel is finished, William Demby's position as a key figure in the history of African-American literature is secure.
Beetlecreek, Rinehart, 1950.
The Catacombs, Pantheon, 1965.
Love Story Black, Reed, Cannon & Johnson, 1978
"The Geisha Girls of Ponto-cho," Harpers, December 1954, pp. 41-47.
"They Surely Can't Stop Us Now," Reporter, April 5, 1956, pp. 18-21.
"A Walk in Tuscany," Holiday, December 1957, pp. 141-145.
"Blueblood Cats of Rome," Holiday, April 1960, pp. 203-206.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.
Margolies, Edward, Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors, Lippincott, 1968, pp. 173-188.
Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 208-209.
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1994, p. 181.
Triquarterly, Spring 1969, pp. 127-141.
"William Demby," Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library (West Virginia Wesleyan College), www.wvwc.edu/lib/wv-authors/a_demby.htm (March 1, 2005).
"William Demby," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 1, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with William Demby on March 8, 2005.