John A(lfred) Williams Biography
John A. Williams comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 1925. Education: Central High School, Syracuse, New York; Syracuse University, A.B. 1950. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1943-46. Career: Member of the public relations department, Doug Johnson Associates, Syracuse, 1952-54, and Arthur P. Jacobs Company; staff member, CBS, Hollywood and New York, 1954-55; publicity director, Comet Press Books, New York, 1955-56; publisher and editor, Negro Market Newsletter, New York, 1956-57; assistant to the editor, Abelard-Schuman, publishers, New York, 1957-58; director of information, American Committee on Africa, New York, 1958; European correspondent, Ebony and Jet magazines, 1958-59; announcer, WOV Radio, New York, 1959; Africa correspondent, Newsweek, New York, 1964-65. Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972; Distinguished Professor of English, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, 1973-78; visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Summer 1974, Boston University, 1978-79, and New York University, 1986-87. Professor of English, 1979-90, Paul Robeson Professor of English, 1990-94, and since 1994 professor emeritus, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey. Bard Center Fellow, Bard College, 1994-95. Member of the Editorial Board, Audience, Boston, 1970-72; contributing editor, American Journal, New York, 1972. Awards: American Academy grant, 1962; Syracuse University Outstanding Achievement award, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977; Rutgers University Lindback award, 1982; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1983; American Book award, 1998. Litt.D.: Southeastern Massachusetts University, North Dartmouth, 1978; Syracuse University, 1995. Agent: Barbara Hogenson Agency, 19 W. 44th St., New York, New York 10036.
The Angry Ones. New York, Ace, 1960; as One for New York, Chatham, New Jersey, Chatham Bookseller, 1975.
Night Song. New York, Farrar Straus, 1961; London, Collins, 1962.
Sissie. New York, Farrar Straus, 1963; as Journey Out of Anger, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968.
The Man Who Cried I Am. Boston, Little Brown, 1967; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968.
Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. Boston, Little Brown, 1969; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970.
Captain Blackman. New York, Doubleday, 1975.
Mothersill and the Foxes. New York, Doubleday, 1975.
The Junior Bachelor Society. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
!Click Song. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
The Berhama Account. Far Hills, New Jersey, New Horizon Press, 1985.
Jacob's Ladder. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1987.
Clifford's Blues. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1998.
Africa: Her History, Lands, and People. New York, Cooper Square, 1962.
The Protectors (on narcotics agents; as J. Dennis Gregory), with Harry J. Anslinger. New York, Farrar Straus, 1964.
This Is My Country, Too. New York, New American Library, 1965; London, New English Library, 1966.
The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. New York, Doubleday, 1970.
The King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, Coward McCann, 1970; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971.
Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing. New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Minorities in the City. New York, Harper, 1975.
If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, with Dennis A. Williams. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
Flashbacks 2: A Diary of Article Writing. Westport, Connecticut, Orange Ball Press, 1991.
Editor, The Angry Black. New York, Lancer, 1962.
Editor, Beyond the Angry Black. New York, Cooper Square, 1967.
Editor with Charles F. Harries, Amistad I and II. New York, Knopf, 2 vols., 1970-71.
Editor, with Gilbert H. Muller, The McGraw Hill Introduction to Literature. New York, McGraw Hill, 1985.
Editor, with Gilbert H. Muller, Bridges: Literature Across Cultures. New York, McGraw Hill, 1994.
Editor, Ways In: Approaches to Reading and Writing about Literature. New York, McGraw Hill, 1994.
Editor, Introduction to Literature 2/e. New York, McGraw Hill, 1995.
Syracuse University, New York; Rochester University, New York.
America as Seen by a Black Man by Robert T. Haley, unpublished thesis, San Jose State College, California, 1971; "The Art of John A. Williams" by John O'Brien, in American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1973; The Evolution of a Black Writer: John A. Williams by Earl Cash, New York, Third Press, 1974; American Fictions 1940-1980 by Frederick R. Karl, New York, Harper, 1983; John A. Williams by Gilbert H. Muller, Boston, Twayne, 1984; article by James L. de Jongh, in Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955 edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, Detroit, Gale, 1984.
I think art has always been political and has served political ends more graciously than those of the muses. I consider myself to be a political novelist and writer to the extent that I am always aware of the social insufficiencies which are a result of political manipulation. The greatest art has always been social-political, and in that sense I could be considered striving along traditional paths.
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An essayist, novelist, anthologist, poet, and biographer, John Alfred Williams is the author of nearly twenty books including a dozen novels that span four decades. With so diverse an oeuvre, it is helpful to group Williams's novels into particular phases, representative of the author's maturing vision of his principle theme—the tension between black experience and American ideology, portrayed against the backdrop of history.
The first phase comprises, The Angry Ones (One for New York), Night Song, and Sissie, and marks a semi-autobiographical focus. Tracing its protagonist's employment as a publicity director for a vanity press, The Angry Ones explores the hypocrisy of corporate America, the vanishing of the American dream, the psychological complexities surrounding interracial sex, and the black writer's challenge to maintain cultural integrity in an exploitative society. The main character, Steve Hill, leads a life that resembles Williams's. After leaving the navy, Williams worked in New York's burgeoning publishing industry. In Night Song Williams expands the narrow, first person focus of the first novel by relaying point of view through three distinct, though equally tragic protagonists: Richie "Eagle" Stokes, a decaying, self-destructive jazz musician; David Hillary, a self-pitying, ex college professor; and Keel Robinson, a former preacher. A study in nocturnal landscapes and the symbolic portrayal of mental desuetude, the novel draws from the mythic life of Charlie "Bird" Parker and pioneers what would later become the subgenre of "jazz fiction." The novel also concerns the decay of social optimism, miscegenation, and the gaps between white and black America. These early novels also lay the important sociopolitical groundwork that undergirds all of Williams's work. This is perhaps especially true of Sissie with its relentless framing of individual characters against a politically charged history. A grand biography of the Joplin family's struggle over several generations, Sissie testifies to Williams's growing skill with a complex form of narrative time mechanics that has been likened to Faulkner, and which would later be put to effective use in The Man Who Cried I Am. In this first phase, Williams dramatizes black social struggle, but suggests the possibility of success in characters who do not resort to violence or reactionary politics, as they strive to reconcile their idealisms with the brutal facts of an oppressive racial system.
It is in the second phase that Williams reverses this political orientation. Now characters do realize the necessity of acquiring a heightened political and historical consciousness in order to not only succeed, but to survive in America. Written after being ruthlessly passed over for a promised Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highly political novels of the second phase articulate most clearly the rage of the "angry black" and show the author's movement away from the image of the black protagonist struggling for confirmation of his self-worth. In The Man Who Cried I Am, a novel that has been called his masterpiece, Williams creates Max Reddick, a black writer who becomes a "success" in the white world, but who eventually asks himself "was it worth what it cost?" Reddick's final confirmation of "self" comes not from the white world, but from a metaphysical, interior space where the fact of existence outweighs the superficiality of race: "All you ever want to do is remind me that I am black. But, goddamn it, I also am," exclaims Reddick famously. Few writers match Williams in destroying the illusions of the black man as a victim subjugated by the pressures of racial injustice in the Western world. Slowly dying from rectal cancer, Reddick eventually learns of a secret plan kept by the American government. In times of emergency, the King Alfred plan calls for a mass detention and imprisoning of African Americans. Finally, after tragically realizing the impossibility of national identity, Reddick dies having stumbled across this information. The Man Who Cried I Am delivers perhaps the bleakest commentary on the incommensurability of national inclusiveness and national racist agendas, while plotting the convergence of tumultuous historical and cultural forces on the figure of the African American. In Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light Eugene Browning mulls over the advantages of knowing his past. But it is with reason and without anger, that Browning, after coming to the conclusion that civil rights and freedom marches would not bring justice to blacks, employs Mafia tactics in the assassination of a policeman guilty of killing a sixteen-year-old black boy. Novels of the rage period advertise the heightened sense of group conscious, self-resolve, and resourcefulness needed by blacks to eliminate racial injustices. Captain Blackman confronts American history from a military perspective. A Vietnam officer and also a teacher of military history, Abraham Blackman drifts back in time to recount black experiences in early American wars. In Blackman, the novel presents an allegorical figure of the black soldier, a paradoxical icon of heroism and national belonging, but also an object of hateful scorn to generals and politicians. At times the novel merges into historical nonfiction, as Williams inserts little-known but heavily documented letters which reveal the racism of such leaders as Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln with starling clarity. All of the novels of the second phase register the need to both come to terms with history and to struggle against it.
With the publication of Mothersill and the Foxes and The Junior Bachelor Society, Williams enters a brief third phase noted for sexual parody, a modified politics, and technical complexity. Breaking away from traditional narrative modes, Williams experiments with postmodernism to relate the sexual odyssey of Odell Mothersill and the "foxes" whom he courts. The novel broaches bizarre sexual scenarios—incest, voyeurism, masturbation—in an uneven variety of techniques, ranging from surrealistic parody to pastoral fairy tale. Ludicrous, naturalistic, and absurdist, the novel's scenes of sexuality often devolve to horrific grotesques, which like the many allusions to grotesque art, comment on the macabre lack of emotion regarding sexuality and corporeality in Mothersill's picaresque world. The Junior Bachelor Society returns to the multi-character plot structure of Williams's earlier novels, as it cross cuts among the lives of its nine aging protagonists, who attend a hometown reunion in celebration of a former high school coach. Reminiscent of Sissie in its poignant portrayal of individuals striving against a repressive social order and in its concern for interpersonal relationships, the novel focuses on varieties of middle class and blue collar, late middle-aged, African-American masculinity. While investigating the vexed role that sports play in American culture and in the black imagination, the novel also stresses the relationship between physical contests and success in life.
In his fourth phase, Williams seems to reinvest in the political and social themes of his first two stages, but now through sharply drawn characters whose interior conflicts mirror the external political forces shaping history. !Click Song, The Berhama Account, Jacobs Ladder, and Clifford's Blues return to techniques that investigate the dynamics of storytelling while conveying a deeply political, increasingly global consciousness.
!Click Song reprises a character central to Williams's fiction, the black novelist. An obvious literary descendent of Max Reddick, Cato Douglass must bear the humiliating racism that drives the publishing industry as he develops relationships with his three sons, each from different wives: one white, one black, and one in Spain. Behind his scathing bitterness, Douglass shields an essentially artistic, deeply philosophic mind, which cleaves to its productions, both artistic and filial, in order to shore up some defense against the abuses of the literary establishment. The Berhama Account is a tale of international political intrigue and the panacea of romantic love. Another multi-plot story of personal optimism, the novel concerns a fake assassination, the political struggle of a Caribbean nation, and a re-ignited love affair that heals a journalist recovering from cancer. Although The Berhama Account evidences a global awareness of racist power dynamics, it finally expresses a degree of hope and possibility through love that is unparalleled in Williams's other novels. Jacob's Ladder turns to Africa and the specific problems in nation building that Fasseke, the newly installed president of Pandemi, faces. When African-American war hero Henry Jacob arrives to help Fasseke, much of the resulting dialogue between them explores the diasporic tensions separating Africans from African Americans. The novel critiques colonial history, slavery, and inter-African prejudice, while responding to American culture from a post-colonial vantage point. No less historically sophisticated is Clifford's Blues, which recounts in journal format the experiences of Clifford Pepperidge, an itinerant, homosexual, black American jazz musician who finds himself interred by the Nazis in Dachau. To stay alive, Clifford assembles a jazz band with other prisoners to entertain the Nazi officers. Like Captain Blackman, Clifford's Blues is an informative novel built upon exacting historical research of blacks in concentration camps, but its vivid, somber prose prevents it from waxing didactic. As with Sissie, Night Song, and The Junior Bachelor Society, Clifford's Blues eloquently dramatizes the individual's triumph of will in the face of great adversity, and thus transcends the thematics of American racial injustices to evoke a wider sense of historical barbarity and heroism.
—Michael A. Chaney
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