William Attaway Essay - Critical Essays

Attaway, William


William Attaway 1911–1986

(Full name William Alexander Attaway) American novelist, dramatist, and songwriter.

The following entry provides an overview of Attaway's career.

Attaway is known primarily for his two novels, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939) and Blood on the Forge (1941). Most commentators consider the latter, which chronicles the experiences of three brothers at a steel mill in Pennsylvania, a classic portrayal of the so-called Great Migration, the movement of blacks from the agrarian southern United States to the industrialized North in the period following World War I.

Biographical Information

Attaway was born in Greenville, Mississippi. His father was a physician, his mother a schoolteacher, and, seeking to avoid what Attaway later called the "Southern caste system," they moved the family to Chicago early in his life. There Attaway attended a vocational school, initially planning to become an auto mechanic. After being introduced to the poetry of Langston Hughes by one of his teachers, however, he decided to become a writer. After his father's death, Attaway dropped out of the University of Illinois—which he had entered mainly to please his parents—and lived an itinerant life, working as a seaman, salesman, and labor organizer, in deliberate preparation for his writing career. In 1935 Attaway helped write the Federal Writers' Project guide to Illinois and befriended another Mississippi-born black author, Richard Wright. Returning that year to study at the University of Illinois, Attaway produced his first major work, the play Carnival. In 1936 he published his first short story, "Tale of the Blackamoor," and received his B.A. degree. Later in the year he moved to New York City where he held a variety of jobs, including a stint as an actor, which was his sister Ruth's profession. Attaway was performing with a traveling production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You (1936) when he learned that his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder, had been accepted for publication. Aided by a two-year grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Attaway immediately began work on Blood on the Forge. After the publication of this work, he wrote songs, books about music, and scripts for radio, television, and movies. Included in his musical compositions were songs for his friend Harry Belafonte, at whose home he was married in 1962. Attaway lived with his wife and their two children in Barbados for eleven years, fulfilling, in Samuel B. Garren's words, "a lifelong desire of his to live in a country with a black government, black law enforcement, and black professional people." Attaway's last years were spent in California writing screenplays. He died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1986.

Major Works

Let Me Breathe Thunder, which takes place at the end of the Great Depression, is the story of two white hoboes, Ed and Step, and their relationship with a nine-year-old Mexican boy, Hi-Boy. Although the men have much affection for Hi-Boy, their way of life leads to the corruption and tragic death of the innocent youth. In this work Attaway addresses such themes as separation, corruption, and dislocation. Blood on the Forge, is about three brothers—Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody Moss—who leave their jobs as southern sharecroppers to work in a northern steel mill. Although the North holds the promise of greater racial equality and better job opportunities, the Moss brothers encounter only pain and tragedy. In addition to addressing the social and economic barriers faced by blacks in American society, Blood on the Forge also focuses on the problems associated with an increasingly rootless, industrialized world. Attaway's nonfiction works include Calypso Song Book (1957), a collection of songs, and Hear America Singing (1967), a history of popular music in America for children.

Critical Reception

Let Me Breathe Thunder was favorably received by critics. While some early reviews found it significant that the main characters in the work are white, not black, other commentators suggested that Ed and Step are basically outcasts, possessing a social status somewhat analogous to that of blacks. Also, several critics have noted the novel's similarities to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). Although most of the early reviews of Blood on the Forge were laudatory, the book was not a commercial success; some critics have speculated that Richard Wright's popular and highly controversial novel Native Son (1940) may have drawn attention away from Attaway's work. In an introduction to a 1970 edition of Blood on the Forge, Edward Margolies wrote that "Attaway's book may have looked tame to an America preparing for another war and whose reading public had already found its Negro 'spokesman' in the virile Wright." More recently, scholars have reclaimed an important position for Attaway among black American writers. Blood on the Forge is studied today as a consummate proletarian novel, as a leading fictional account of the Great Migration, and for its elements of black history and folklore. It remains Attaway's best-known work and, some critics believe, the greatest interwar depiction of the plight of black American workers.

Principal Works

Carnival (drama) 1935
Let Me Breathe Thunder (novel) 1939
Blood on the Forge (novel) 1941
Calypso Song Book (songs) 1957
Hear America Singing (nonfiction) 1967


Stanley Young (review date 25 June 1939)

SOURCE: "Tough and Tender," in The New York Times Book Review, June 25, 1939, p. 7.

[Young was an American editor, educator, poet, playwright, and critic. In the following review, he favorably appraises characterization and language in Let Me Breathe Thunder.]

This first novel [Let Me Breathe Thunder] by a 25-year-old Negro quite definitely proves two things: That it is possible for a Negro to write about whites, and that William Attaway has a legitimate reason to face a typewriter in the years to come. His tough and tender story of two young box-car wanderers and their love for a little Mexican waif who rides the reefers with them has some of the emotional quality and force of the familiar relationship of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men. We see two rootless men faced by hard reality yet still susceptible to dreams and affection.

Ed and Step, the major characters, represent in these times the vast army of drifting young Americans who grab their scenery from the top of a freight [train] and take their emotions from an empty stomach. They are apparently living from day to day and waiting for nothing. They are not professional hoboes given to talk about the "romance of the road." Their single thought is to keep alive, to push on over the next mountain, to pick hops in California, berries in Washington, back-doors in Ohio, until by some miracle they land and take root.

In New Mexico Ed and Step meet Hi-Boy, an inarticulate Mexican kid with...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

N. L. R. (review date 1 July 1939)

SOURCE: A review of Let Me Breathe Thunder, in The Saturday Review of Literature, July 1, 1939, p. 20.

[In the following mixed review of Let Me Breathe Thunder, the critic praises the plot and pace of the work but faults its dramatic elements, stating that Attaway "will write a better novel when he puts the stage entirely behind him."]

William Attaway writes easily, the way a man walks or tells a tale, with natural vigor and his objective clear every foot of the way. His first novel [Let Me Breathe Thunder] is one that shows off this kind of writing most effectively: a hard-bitten story of two roaming hoboes, working stiffs, and a Mexican boy they...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Drake de Kay (review date 24 August 1941)

SOURCE: "The Color Line," in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 1941, pp. 18, 20.

[In the following review of Blood on the Forge, de Kay praises Attaway for his skillful and unsentimental portrayal of the Great Migration.]

During and for several months after the close of the first World War a shortage of man power existed in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia steel industry. Attracted by wages of $4 a day, Southern farm Negroes moved North to enter the steel mills. From the point of view of tenant farmers living in a state of virtual peonage the low wages of the mill workers seemed riches, while there was an additional inducement to desert the land in...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Edward Margolies (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Migration: William Attaway and Blood on the Forge," in Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1968, pp. 47-64.

[Margolies is an American educator and critic who specializes in African-American literature. In the excerpt below, he provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Blood on the Forge.]

There persists to this day a widely held belief that the deep South, with its brutal casts system and its savage history of racial atrocities, represents for Negroes an image of steaming hell. Such a view is constantly reinforced by spokesmen for civil rights organizations and activists of various...

(The entire section is 5900 words.)

Phyllis R. Klotman (essay date June 1972)

SOURCE: "An Examination of Whiteness in Blood on the Forge," in CLA Journal, Vol. XV, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 459-64.

[Klotman is an American educator and critic who specializes in African-American literature and film. In the following essay, she assesses Attaway's nonstereotypical depiction of whites in Blood on the Forge.]

William Attaway's Blood on the Forge was reissued in 1969, the same year that saw the renascence of Jean Toomer's Cane, as well as the publication of several significant novels by contemporary Afro-American writers, such as Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Robert Felgar (essay date Spring 1973)

SOURCE: "William Attaway's Unaccommodated Protagonists," in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 1-3.

[In the following essay, Felgar discusses the main themes of and characterization in Attaway's novels.]

So much emphasis has been placed recently on nominating the important new Black novelists that attending to the older ones has been neglected. Large critical claims have been made lately for Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and John A. Williams, while the work of William Attaway and Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, remains buried under the weight of years of critical indifference. I want to make a plea for William Attaway as a novelist,...

(The entire section is 2486 words.)

James O. Young (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Black Reality and Beyond," in Black Writers of the Thirties, Louisiana State University Press, 1973, pp. 203-35.

[Young is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines Blood on the Forge as an example of proletarian fiction.]

In his eloquent novel, Blood on the Forge (1941), William Attaway delved into the history of the black man in America. But, like Richard Wright in his folk history of the migration, instead of dramatizing the exploits of a historic race hero, Attaway looked with the scrutiny of a sociologist at the brutal experience of the mass of blacks who migrated from the agrarian South into the industrial North...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)

L. Moody Simms, Jr. (essay date Spring 1975)

SOURCE: "In the Shadow of Richard Wright: William Attaway," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 13-18.

[In the following excerpt, Simms favorably appraises Attaway's portrayal of the disenfranchised in his two novels.]

Undoubtedly, Mississippi's best known native-born black writer is Richard Wright. Wright's reputation, which has grown steadily since the publication of his Native Son in 1940, is justly deserved. Yet over the years, Wright's achievement has tended to overshadow and obscure the work of other Mississippi-born black writers. One of them whose work deserves to be better known is William Attaway. His Blood on the...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Phillip H. Vaughan (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "From Pastoralism to Industrial Antipathy in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge," in Phylon: The Atlantic University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 1975, pp. 422-25.

[In the following essay, Vaughan states that in Blood on the Forge "Attaway rejects the traditional forms of agrarianism which call for a return to nature, and sounds the theme of alienation that marks the modern existential novel."]

When Blood on the Forge by black novelist William Attaway was published in 1941, it received little notice. The book, nevertheless, represented a literary achievement in its own right, and at the same time it realistically...

(The entire section is 2058 words.)

Bonnie J. Barthold (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "William Attaway, Blood on the Forge," in Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 164-68.

[In the following excerpt, Barthold discusses Attaway's "jazzlike use of images of fragmentation" in Blood on the Forge.]

Blood on the Forge begins on a Kentucky farm with only "one good strip of land" remaining, farmed by the Moss brothers—Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown—and Big Mat's barren wife, Hattie. The barrenness of the land and of the woman signal the death of an agrarian and communal way of life. Big Mat's quarrel with a white man only hastens the Moss brothers' departure for the...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)

Samuel B. Garren (essay date September 1988)

SOURCE: "Playing the Wishing Game: Folkloric Elements in William Attaway's Blood on the Forge," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 10-22.

[In the following essay, Garren examines "the wishing game," a verbal game associated with black culture, as it is depicted in Blood on the Forge.]

One element of black folk culture that plays an important part in William Attaway's novel Blood on the Forge (1941) is the wishing game. Early in Part I, Melody, one of three Moss brothers subsisting on a poor Kentucky farm in 1919, begins the game. His motive is distraction from hunger while awaiting Big Mat, the brother who sharecrops the farm and who may...

(The entire section is 4174 words.)

Further Reading


Campbell, Jane. "Visions of Transcendence in W. E. B. DuBois's The Quest for the Silver Fleece and William Attaway's Blood on the Forge." In her Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History, pp. 64-86. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Argues that "both books present the plights of sharecropper and millworker. Both reveal the disenchantment attendant upon urban migration. Both employ the supernatural in their romances. And in both, Marxism enters into the conception of history."

Ellison, Ralph. "Transition." Negro Quarterly 1, No. 1 (Spring 1942): 87-92.


(The entire section is 197 words.)