William Alexander Attaway is best remembered for his novel Blood on the Forge. He was born in Mississippi, and his family moved to Chicago around 1920. His father, William S. Attaway, was a doctor, and his mother, Florence Parry Attaway, was a teacher. He attended a public elementary school before shifting to a vocational high school. He was influenced by his family, however, to appreciate literature. The poetry of Langston Hughes and the dramatic interests of his sister Ruth, who became a Broadway actress, encouraged Attaway to attempt a career as a writer. He enrolled at the University of Illinois in Urbana, but after his father’s death he left school and for several years worked at a series of jobs. He then returned to the university, and his play Carnival was produced there in 1935. He also met Richard Wright, soon to be a famous writer, while involved with the Federal Writers’ Project.
After graduating in 1936, Attaway moved to New York City and began writing a novel. He also followed his sister into acting and performed in You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936, pb. 1937), the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. When Let Me Breathe Thunder was published in 1939, he left the touring company and, with the help of a Rosenwald Fellowship, started on his second novel.
Let Me Breathe Thunder, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), deals with two white homeless men in the Depression era. Attaway, an African American, had briefly been a vagabond when he temporarily dropped out of college. In his novel, the two young homeless men are joined by a Mexican boy in their travels. The hard life on the road has a negative effect on the boy. He is corrupted by his association with the lowest level of society—a victim of his environment in the naturalistic mode of earlier writers, such as Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. The novel received mixed reviews, but the consensus was that it was the work of a promising writer. The potential was at least partially fulfilled with the publication of...
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