William Melvin Kelley Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Bronx, New York, 1937. Education: Fieldston School, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Read prize, 1960), 1957-61. Career: Writer-in-residence, State University College, Geneseo, New York, Spring 1965; teacher, New School for Social Research, New York, 1965-67, and University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 1969-70. Awards: Dana Reed Literary prize, Harvard University, 1960; Bread Loaf Writers Conference grant, 1962; Whitney Foundation award, 1963; Rosenthal Foundation award, 1963; Transatlantic Review award, 1964; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1970.
A Different Drummer. New York, Doubleday, 1962; London, Hutchinson, 1963.
A Drop of Patience. New York, Doubleday, 1965; London, Hutchinson, 1966.
Dem. New York, Doubleday, 1967.
Dunfords Travels Everywheres. New York, Doubleday, 1970.
Dancers on the Shore. New York, Doubleday, 1964; London, Hutchinson, 1965.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Jest, Like Sam," in Negro Digest (Chicago), October 1969.
"The Dentist's Wife," in Women and Men, Men and Women, edited by William Smart. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1975.
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William Melvin Kelley's novels to date have dealt with inter-racial conflict, but the emphasis has been on the examination of characters, black and white, and the myths with which they delude themselves. His novels pose no "solutions" to the conflict but the solution of self-understanding, and his depiction of the relationships—loving and competitive—between men and women and blacks and whites combines compassion, objectivity, and humor.
His first novel, A Different Drummer, set realistically rendered characters in a fantasy plot. From multiple points of view he displayed the reactions of the whites of a fictional Southern state to the spontaneous grass-roots emigration of the state's blacks. A minor incident in A Different Drummer concerns Wallace Bedlow, who is waiting for a bus to take him to New York City, where he plans to live with his brother, Carlyle. Bedlow appears only that one time, but he surfaces again in "Cry for Me," probably the best short story in Dancers on the Shore, in which he becomes a famous folk singer. In that story the themes of one's public image versus the true self and commercialism versus art are explored.
These themes are developed further in Kelley's second novel, A Drop of Patience. The protagonist is a blind, black jazz musician, whose intuitive experimentation is contrasted to the intellectualization of critics, and whose love of music comes into conflict with the commercialization of music. More important than these themes, however, is the development of the character himself, who passes through various rites of passage as he learns to deal with sex, love, racism, and fame.
Carlyle Bedlow, who appeared in several of the stories in Dancers on the Shore, reappears in Dem, Kelley's third novel. "Lemme tellya how dem folks live," the novel begins. It goes on to show dem white folks living out their myths of white superiority, masculine prerogative, and soap-opera escapism. They are such victims of the pernicious myths of their culture that they are no longer even a threat to black people.
Racial conflict nearly disappears amidst the experimentation and fantasy of Dunfords Travels Everywheres, Kelley's own clever and original permutation of Finnegans Wake. A triptych in plot, style, and character, Dunfords Travels Everywheres is an ambitious short novel; it succeeds in being clever, but as an exploration into character it's less satisfying than his earlier novels.
Kelley has shown himself a skillful craftsman in a variety of styles and approaches. In his stories and in his first three novels his exploration of character develops as the character seeks—or refuses to seek—a unity between the person he feels he is and the personality he or society thinks he should be. This is true also in one of the three interwoven stories of Dunfords Travels Everywheres. In the other two stories a playful fantasy dominates. If Kelley's fiction has a direction, it's one that moves from seriousness and psychological probing to fantasy, playfulness, and comedy.