Major, Clarence (Vol. 19)
Major, Clarence 1936–
Major is a black American novelist, poet, critic, editor, and essayist who is considered somewhat out of the mainstream of contemporary black literature for his nonmilitant views. He believes that "people who want to write sociology should not write a novel." But Major does not neglect blacks in his fiction. The hero of his latest novel, No, has been compared to Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas for his conviction that acts of violence liberate one from oppression. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
["All-Night Visitors"] is about a young black named Eli Bolton who is picking through the fragments of his recollected experiences in Vietnam, Chicago and New York's East Village, in search of love and manhood. Mr. Major … is unquestionably a sincere and passionate writer; there is little doubt that his elaborate sexual passages are meant to be integral to his hero's search for autonomy. The trouble with his novel is that the arrangement of the material doesn't build or sustain anything but boredom. And phrases like "my heart insinuating something extremely new coming to the copious surface of my up-until-now usually sweltering mind" strike me as plain bad prose, and the novel is filled with them.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of 'The Times': On Erotica," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 7, 1969, p. 41.∗
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A sure thing about Clarence Major's first novel, All-Night Visitors …, is that a lot of us, particularly the soul sisters, do or will not like it, and will not think too highly of Clarence Major for writing it. This will be because Eli Bolton, the central character in All-Night Visitors, is an aimless cock-hound whose scores are mostly with white chicks and he describes all of his sex-based relationships with vivid detail in the first 60 pages. Understandably, the novel might not be finished by some who pick it up. Still, I believe there are reasons why Major … has offered us what appears to be a stud novel; I believe his reasons are literary and social. (p. 85)
All-Night Visitors, as a novel of a young Black man's psychic travels, contains some very believable people besides the narrator himself. Whether the characters are objects of Eli's passion and/or are structural props, they hold our interest because Eli's keen eye brings out their personalities with candor. Even when, in the novel's structure, they appear to come and go as phantoms, they are adequately developed. As a stylist Major has been influenced by Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin; his delivery is poetic and the finished product has his own earthy touch. In the fashion of Ishmael Reed, Major exploits the possibilities of surreal comedy and the ludicrous for momentary effect. In descriptive content, the sex scenes are reminiscent of the writings of John...
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FRANK Mac SHANE
What Major wants [in Swallow the Lake] is to be able to write poems that relate his talents as a writer to his condition as a black citizen of the United States. So much of his experience seems irrelevant, and the rest is hard to express…. Major's poems often betray the struggle he is going through and document his attempt to make a resonant statement. He does not want to be just another Black protest poet, a rôle unworthy of his talent. And so he experiments; and as often as not he fails. The lines of his verse are disjointed; he plays with shapes and punctuation: at this point his work is tentative. But it should be understood that this struggle is being carried on at an advanced level, and that it is brought on by a dissatisfaction with simple formulae. That is what makes Swallow the Lake an interesting book. (p. 298)
Frank Mac Shane, "A Range of Six" (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of The Editor of Poetry and Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in Poetry, Vol. CXVIII, No. 5, August, 1971, pp. 295-301.∗
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On the very first page of … No the reader is introduced to the theme of America-as-a-prison or huge-penal-system in which unsuspecting people are born, grow up and attempt to crash out of…. [Major] distinguishes himself through his particular treatment of this standard theme by the forcefulness and power of his prose as well as by his inclusion of the related themes of self-awareness, personal liberation, and violence. (p. 44)
[The] novel centers on the growth, development and awareness, personal, political, social and moral, of the main character, Moses Westby.
The question of point-of-view is closely tied in with the physical appearance/structure of the pages of the novel. That is, throughout the novel, brief sections in italics, from one to about ten sentences in length, alternate with sections in regular print. On first glance, this shifting back and forth between italics and regular print suggests a dichotomy between fantasy and reality, between dreaming and not dreaming, the italics being the fantasy of the narrator or one of the characters, the print being the reality; and much of the time the italics are used in this most immediately obvious of ways. Yet, Major uses italics in other ways too. Sometimes the italics represent a slight shift in point-of-view; sometimes, they are merely used to emphasize a point, or line or image; and, unfortunately, sometimes the italics seem to be there for no...
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Major's collection of essays ["The Dark and Feeling"] is devoted to detailing the failures of the critics who have been unable to muddle through all the ideological warfare involved [in understanding black literature]. (You know, the old question of whether a white critic can really understand what he reads and whether black writers have some moral imperative to use their work as a forum of one kind or another.) Because black literature has unfortunately been welded to social and political issues, especially during the 1960s when we witnessed a proliferation of published black writers, many serious critics have been reluctant to write about it or, even worse, have been duped into considering only the socio-political implications of such work.
In the absence of useful criticism, writers like Major have been driven to do what the professional critics have failed to do. They have had to begin establishing the criteria on which their work should be judged. And this is what Major attempts to do. He offers some very worthwhile biographical sketches and critical perspectives on such diverse writers as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, John A. Williams and the Chicago writers Willard Motley and Frank London Brown.
Other essays in the volume are less satisfying. Major includes a few short book reviews which, because of their brevity, are rather superficial. Another essay on "The Explosion of Black Poetry" affords some...
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Eugene B. Redmond
[Clarence Major] has been in the forefront of experimental poetry and prose. In prose he fits "loosely" into a category with William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. But his influences and antecedents in poetry are not so easy to identify. He is usually very competent as a writer, and he has written better poetry than The Cotton Club (see Swallow the Lake and Symptoms and Madness), which is economic almost to the point of emaciation. His subject matter is "vital," as Gwendolyn Brooks might put it…. [Major] is aware of the need to preserve and present a Black past…. [In The Cotton Club] Major conducts narrative tours of Harlem and urban Black America, primarily during the first two or three decades of the Twentieth Century…. [There] is a tapestry-of-a-poem (one of the best in the book: "Madman of the Uncharmed Debris of the South Side") in which Major employs obscure references, a suggestion of the supernatural, tidbits of history, and other erudite meanderings. The poem contains a Gwendolyn Brooks-like economy which is where any resemblance between these two poets stops. (pp. 162-63)
Many of the themes that recur in the literature and conversation about these times (the mulatto, violence against Blacks, the creation and development of jazz and blues, etc.) occupy space here…. The language in these poems is direct, sometimes almost unpoetic—reminiscent of the "listings" of Michael S. Harper—and...
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Reading Clarence Major's ebullient "Reflex and Bone Structure" is like the free fall before the parachute opens: an exhilarating trip, with a new view at every turn, yet with an uneasy feeling that the direction is not altogether clear and the way of getting there rather chancy. Perhaps that is Mr. Major's intent. After all he is a poet with a metaphorical shorthand of his own. What you read is what he means.
"Reflex and Bone Structure" is about Cora, an actress in the making, and her assorted men…. The men remain rather shadowy, but Cora could not be more vivid. She fills the stage by herself, a position she never quite achieves as an actress in the book. Mr. Major's writing is impressionistic: a series of interlocking episodes all brief and mostly in dialogue. But analysis is not fair to Cora. She's there to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
Thomas Lask, "'Reflex and Bone Structure'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 30, 1975, p. 61.
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Eli Bolton, the hero of [All-Night Visitors, makes an] … imaginative leap from death, and then turns back to life all the better for the trip. He has faced experience—in Chicago slums and in Vietnam—and found it too horrible to accept…. Instead of a social examination, Eli undertakes an imaginative study of his origin and existence—not as a rejected orphan and hassled young man, but instead the mystery of the vagina and the spirit of his erect penis…. The imaginative is total freedom, where Eli is "like a nightmare patriarch responsible to no one but myself."… By pushing things to their imaginative limits, Eli has cut through the world's dreck to truth itself, which allows him to be, or even create himself as, a better human being. From his imaginary voyage Eli is returned to life, where he meets a deserted Puerto Rican mother…. Simple reality would rationalize a way out, but imaginative truth helps keep Eli real.
For his second novel Clarence Major chooses a modular approach. In No … two voices pass the action back and forth, and the entire narrative is structured by a new metaphor for the black experience…. [Major uses] the metaphor of prison; penal psychology and the image of life imprisonment hold the work together—that and a carefully controlled manner of running parts of the action backward. A scene begins with a penultimate moment, a jump back to the moment just before, then to a...
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Clarence Major's fiction stands in high relief because he has pitted it against two traditions: that of conventional realistic fiction, and that of the commercially received black fiction which has been restricted to the form of social realism…. Although he [has] abandoned the traditional forms of black American writing, Major feels that [the black writers'] revolution is part of the change in black consciousness, for "in order to create art, whether representational or not, one must give one's self to the process of being an entity and not an identity."
By focusing on language, Major has found a way to treat a recognizable subject matter without having it turn into a stereotyped notion of the documentary world. He creates the flavor and tone of everyday black speech not by mimicking dialect, but by using his syntax to suggest the rhythm of the spoken word. He is less interested in external characters than in the imaginations he creates for them, which we are never allowed to forget are projections of the author's own mind. In his novels, the fictional experience is often suspended on images rather than dependent upon narrative drive. First published as a poet, Major has worked to eliminate the distinction between poetry and fiction, taking poetry's lyrical freedom—and especially its freedom from having to offer an organized, linear representation of experience—as an index of what fiction could do with the same basic materials:...
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[The following is excerpted from a letter written by the critic to Clarence Major regarding his novel-in-progress Emergency Exit.]
[The] passages of pure writing—sentences, paragraphs, occasionally vignettes—… stand apart from the narrative sections played out by Al and Julie and the Ingrams. I call them pure writing because they stand apart from any conventional narrative function; they are words and sentences and even scenes free from the burden to tell some kind of story…. As one reads them, then goes on to a snatch of narrative, and then back to more pure writing, one notices that certain images and occasions from the narrative sections have roots in the passages of pure writing. It's a great strategy, and a brilliant way to organize a novel: The stuff of the narrative sections, which because of its socially recognizable nature would tend to refer out toward the documentary world, is instead made to refer in toward the novel itself—toward these passages of pure writing that are sustained throughout the book. This is a technical innovation I don't think anyone else has tried, and I consider it an important step in the evolution of the novel that you've pulled it off. And it is certainly an innovation useable by other writers. I'm sure they will use it in the future, since it solves the biggest problem for fiction: the fact that its constituents, words, fight an otherwise losing battle with the...
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Although to date the greatest strength of Clarence Major's achievement seems to lie in the novel—especially in Reflex and Bone Structure—, his short fiction is valuable in its own right and deserves wide reading and critical discussion. The stories complement the longer fictions in their range and interests, their explorations of new subject matter, forms, and implications, and their suggestion of a writer deeply involved both with his craft and the age. As with the novels so with the stories: There is an unevenness which lets the critic say that some of the pieces are stronger than others. Such a judgment is no doubt inevitable for any writer, but in Major's case it reflects more than anything else his commitment to innovation and experimentation in each of the short fictions. With such writers as Raymond Federman, Steve Katz, James Purdy, Ronald Sukenick, and others, Major stands clearly on the fictive frontier. And with all of these he pays a price for his engagement of the new and untried. No more than readers and literary critics can he tell us where he is going and what new discoveries he will make—that is the health and beauty of the kind of journey he is on. My guess is that, interesting and significant as the completed writings are, his best work lies ahead. In the meantime his fiction challenges us to articulate a criticism adequate to its special force and sense of presence rather than attempt to retreat behind traditional...
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An intricate dance step, which becomes true style, is achieved in [The Syncopated Cakewalk]…. Not only the style but also the content of these recent poems is different from those before. The timing is slower, history closer; the poems sound wonderful aloud…. A tone of sadness and a renunciation of a harsher view pervade this collection….
Major's early work, by a leap of the imagination, can be seen geometrically as a star, or asterisk. The center is hot, the edges are myriad and take off into many directions. In the more recent work, the geometrical vision is that of a cross—vertical and horizontal and austere. He views other people as a series of details (horizontal); their history, or the cakewalk, is horizontal too. But all these figures must pass through a central point, himself, the poet; and so a moral viewpoint which is vertical emerges. The presence of the writer is here, as witness. Morality is one symptom of sanity. The narrator, as witness, serves justice by seeing all sides of a matter….
[Major] has created a kind of code [by the way in which he uses language]. What is not stated is what the poem is about. But that's a secret. It is said that a poem should not seem, but be. The modern poem does not so much "be" as imply, by the use of sound and tone. Major's poetry has tone….
In the main, Major's poetry is never free of the tone of pain. Never sentimental, nor empty of...
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