Motley, Willard 1912–1965
Motley was a black American novelist who has been both praised and criticized for his lack of black consciousness. His first novel, Knock on Any Door, is a realistic investigation of the corrosive effects of the Chicago slums on a young Italian American.
Motley's Knock on Any Door is similar in many ways to Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This is especially true of the materials selected and the style in which the two books are written. Both novels deal with sensitive boys who desired to be different, but the warping influence of environment changed the course of their development. Instead of becoming upright, honest, and useful citizens, they became criminals. Society in both cases imposes on them the extreme penalty for its own preservation of law and order. The moral pointed in both instances is a paradox. Society must assume the responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by each boy; yet the same society must take the lives of the boys in order to protect itself.
Both writers use the technique of accumulation of details, and they insist on interpolations. At times the writing fascinates the reader by its clarity. Motley has some economy in his novel. Neither Willard Motley nor Theodore Dreiser is subtle, but Dreiser has more subtlety than Motley. Both authors impress the reader with their humaneness and the sense of compassion. Both men seem to admire the central character and display unquestioned honesty and integrity in reporting their cruel yet realistic fables. Both are naturalists and obey their compulsion to render the situation as truthfully and faithfully as their observational powers will permit. Dreiser's naturalism has more of the seemingly cosmic sweep than Motley's, but the latter has massiveness. Like James Farrell, Motley employs the shock technique, and in the deftness with which he handles his theme he recalls both Theodore Dreiser and James Farrell…. Simply stated, Motley advances the thesis that society, by providing unwholesome environment, corrupts the youth and is, therefore, responsible for the crimes they commit.
In its own terms, Knock on Any Door posits the sociological case study of Nick Romano. (pp. 178-79)
The picture in...
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Motley's thesis [in Knock on Any Door] is that a perfectly good boy, with Christian parents and a good social background, can be molded into a shameless criminal within a brief period by unfavorable environmental forces….
One of the chief characteristics of Motley's style is the poetic quality of his language. His vivid imagery and satisfying rhythms make him a master of prose.
Another characteristic of Motley's style is the effective use of contrast [such as] the contrast between the goodness of Nick as an altar boy and his badness afterwards…. (p. 32)
[The] design by which Motley supports his thesis is superior to that of Richard Wright [in Native Son].
For instance, Nick Romano, Motley's protagonist, is a good boy at the beginning of the story. He is kind, sympathetic, lovable, obedient to his parents, ambitious, and deeply religious. The reader is permitted to watch the transformation of this boy's character…. [In Native Son, on the other hand,] Bigger's anti-social acts can offer but limited support to the theory of environmental responsibility. Wright tells us that Bigger would have been less cruel and less barbarous under more fortunate environmental conditions, but he presents no evidence or experience from Bigger's past life to substantiate his claim. (p. 33)
There is [an appropriate symbolic] incident in Knock on Any Door...
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Chicago's Skid Row, a crazy, numbing, neon-lighted world bounded on the north by Nelson Algren, on the west by Saul Bellow and on the south by James T. Farrell, is the setting for Willard Motley's … "Let No Man Write My Epitaph."
In the past several years neither Algren nor Bellow nor Motley has used Chicago as a focus for his work. Thus, in a sense, Mr. Motley hoists his trolley after the line has been abandoned. Nothing remains, in this immensely long, crowded and confusing novel about the downtown slum and the society from which it draws its victims, but to turn the screws tighter….
Despite the accuracy of Mr. Motley's reporting, one closes this novel with the certainty that Skid Row was never like this. If we may coin a phrase, the author is twisting the golden arm.
David Dempsey, "Skid Row Revisited," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 10, 1958, p. 18.
Motley's fiction … studiously avoids Negro life as a matter of principle…. Motley peoples his novels with second-generation Italians, Jews, and Poles. Second-generation assimilationism is his theme, and there is no reason to doubt that it is a projection of his own inner conflict….
The presentation [of Knock on Any Door] is naturalistic, panoramic, often redundant. For ninety-two chapters Motley piles episode on whirling episode, overwhelming the reader with evidence of society's guilt in producing the likes of Nick. The style is journalistic, and occasionally brilliant. It is corrupted, however, by that dead-pan, pulled-punch, pseudo-Hemingway technique which plays all human emotion in a single key. This monotone, one suspects, is a product of the fact that Motley is more interested in the emotions of his readers than of his characters. What there is of psychological insight depends on a school of analysis best described as Hollywood Freud.
On the strength of sheer narrative power, the novel might have transcended these limitations, except for its lack of originality. The truth is that in its main outlines it leans so heavily on Native Son as to border on plagiarism…. The difference is that where Wright's treatment is condensed and selective, Motley's is detailed and exhaustive. In effect, Motley has borrowed terse symbolic episodes from Native Son and inflated them to naturalistic proportions. (pp. 178-79)
A competent naturalistic novel, when Knock on Any Door appeared it was greeted with extravagant critical acclaim. Comparisons to the work of Dreiser and Farrell were not uncommon. Such illusions will be quickly dispelled by a second reading: deprived of the element of suspense, the novel reveals its essential formlessness. If this should not suffice, Motley's second novel, We Fished All Night (1951), will amply demonstrate the limitations of his talent. It is a rambling tract which deals with such matters as GI disillusionment with the war, political corruption in Chicago, and the struggle between the People and the Interests. (pp. 179-80)
Robert Bone, "Raceless Novels," in his The Negro Novel in America (copyright © 1965 by Yale University), revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 178-84.∗
In spite of a fascinating setting, characters, and plot [in Let Noon Be Fair], the conclusion rambles a bit, is a few times repetitious, and leaves the novel somewhat formless. Motley apparently writes himself into the novel as Tom Van Pelt, who is, like himself, "an American writer in Mexico" (although white and ten years younger than Motley really was). The self-identity with this character may be the reason he is the weakest in the book, although not without interest because of the autobiographical implications….
In this story of a village changing from ancient to "modern" ways, Motley depicts a system of living totally different in pace and spirit from any United States or European society. He weaves a tapestry of dreams and disappointments, recording deeds of hate and of love, of revenge and of guilt, and portraying the inheritance of these deeds by one generation from another. (p. 307)
James W. Byrd, "Story of Man's Innate Selfishness and Greed," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1966, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Third Quarter (Fall, 1966), pp. 306-08.
Willard Motley is rooted in the protest tradition and is essentially a hangover from a previous decade. He is an unabashed naturalist and in his final novel, Let Noon Be Fair, published as late as 1963, he offered a defence of naturalistic protest fiction which would not have been out of place thirty years before. "The writer," he insists, "is involved in life…." Motley's novels, which Robert Bone characterizes as raceless, are so only in the most superficial sense. His protagonists are almost invariably hyphenated Americans whose experiences make them close kin to the Negro. In Knock On Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph the plight of the Italian-American protagonist scarcely differs from...
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