Kelley, William Melvin
William Melvin Kelley 1937–
Black American novelist and short story writer.
A fabulist in some respects, Kelley grounds his fanciful images in a coolly realistic appraisal of the current American scene. Formally, his writing has grown more experimental. His novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, examines the question of black identity, in language combining black English, Swahili, and standard English.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Louis Rubin, Jr.
[The short stories in "Dancers on the Shore"] bear all the earmarks of having been written while the author was still searching for his true subject. That is to say, most of them are sketchy, underwritten, and of uneven quality….
Mr. Kelley is a very interesting young writer. This is another way of saying that he writes about very interesting people. To judge from what he has published thus far, his chief concern seems to be the young Negro of developing taste and sensitivity engaged in discovering his identity within a culture in which the role he would play is strange and uncharted.
He seems to have two groups of characters. One is the Dunford family, members of the Negro middle-class in New York City…. The other group is the Bedford family, less elevated in their economic and social situation and closer to their rural Southern origins….
Mr. Kelley begins his book noting, "An American writer who happens to have brown skin faces this unique problem: Solutions and answers to The Negro Problem are very often read into his work." He disclaims any intention of offering solutions to the problem. "I am an American Negro," he says. "I hope I am a writer, but perhaps the latter statement is not mine to judge."
Well, Mr. Kelley is a writer, all right; he is a writer, if I may say so, who is just beginning to discover his real subject. The major part of the stories in "Dancers on the...
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["The Only Man On Liberty Street"] is not an especially original story either in subject or in technique, but it is a fine story, nevertheless, and its excellences are typical of those found in most of the sixteen stories in [Dancers on the Shore], a fineness that comes from the tone of the telling—very spare, very quiet, very honest. A story of injustice, it is neither shrill nor sentimental because Kelley, in command of his material, can forsake the easy approach in favor of a treatment that will yield the maximum artistic effect.
In only one story does Kelley allow anger to master him, and ["The Servant Problem"] is his single complete failure. (pp. 458-59)
[Six of the other stories] deal with the Dunford family and five with the Bedlows….
The Bedlow material is worked out well enough in three slight and predictable tales, but only the two longer stories stand out: "The Most Beautiful Legs in the World" … and "Cry For Me."…
For all the random virtues of the Bedlow cycle, the heart of Dancers on the Shore is in the linked stories about the Dunford family…. The milieu alone is arresting: they are well-to-do Negroes whose children attend private schools and Ivy League colleges, and the ambiguities of race touch them only obliquely. Their public existence as Negroes is only occasionally in evidence.
It is, rather, with their private...
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"A Drop of Patience" is a moving, painful and stinging experience. Kelley's prose is tight and spare, the novel's anger and bitterness straining against the stripped-down language. But, in the end, he is guilty of the generic weakness of his colleagues: Ludlow Washington is too simple a figure, a slice of folklore rather than a convincing human being. A novel (the truism cannot be repeated too often) is not a civil rights rally. Even the Negro novel, for all its decided moral advantages, must grow up to complexity. (p. 41)
David Boroff, "Ludlow Made His Own Music," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1965, pp. 40-1.
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[The voices in "A Drop of Patience"] are wholly authoritative. Kelley is a Negro and he has chosen an astonishingly difficult subject—a blind Negro jazz musician whose career loosely resembles that of the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Blindness, race, and jazz are the sort of materials that turn well-meaning novelists into polemicists, but Kelley goes about his work calmly. He imagines himself inside his hero's blindness and he refreshingly treats his hero's music not as a sentimental banner but simply as a craft that occupies only a part of his life. (p. 177)
Kelley's characters, though, tend to spring from his ideas, rather than the other way around. If he were to press deeper into the ordinary hearts he writes of, instead of forcing them to grow on intellectual trellises, he would help us know our own hearts. (p. 178)
Whitney Balliett, "People Who Shoot Doves Out of Season," in The New Yorker (© 1965 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 14, May 22, 1965, pp. 174-78.∗
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Devotees of the short fiction of Nathanael West will be captivated by the recent manner of William Melvin Kelley…. [In "Dem"] they may savor something of the gift for satire, the corrosive style and the surreal grotesqueries that we associate with the author of "Miss Lonelyhearts."
These resemblances are hardly accidental; they flow from the common vantage point of Ivy marginality. West, the New York Jew who went to Brown, and Kelley, the New York Negro who attended Harvard, were thoroughly exposed to Ivy culture, but in the end remained outsiders. Victims of polite prejudice and delicate rebuff, they have sought equally sophisticated measures of retaliation. The result, in literary terms, is an imagery of revulsion and an abrasive irony….
As a writer, Kelley is a long-distance runner. He intends to earn a living from his books, and at 30 has already published four. Moreover, the books are unified in over-all design. Each volume is part of a larger saga, so that what lies in store for his readers is a sort of Yoknapatawpha legend in reverse: an epic treatment of American history from a Negro point of view.
Kelley's novels are marked by a progressive mood of disaffiliation from the dominant values of his culture….
[In] "Dem" ("lemme tellya how dem folks live"), Kelley turns to an overt satire of the ways of white people. His present mood is bitter, disillusioned, alienated to...
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Henry S. Resnik
In his preface to Dancers on the Shore, a collection of short stories, William Melvin Kelley said "for the record" that while he was "an American writer who happens to have brown skin" he was not a sociologist or a politician or a spokesman…. His first novel, A Different Drummer, described the flight of the entire Negro population from a fictionalized Southern state; the Problem was the axis of the novel, but Kelley succeeded in writing about people, often with considerable grace and skill. Many of the stories in Dancers on the Shore were mere sketches, vignettes, but they were certainly not tracts on the Negro problem.
Then came A Drop of Patience. Kelley's sense of structure and point of view, admirable in A Different Drummer, failed him here. His honest attempt not to be a mere spokesman was clear in all three books, however; he wrote about whites and Negroes, but he touched truth about human beings.
Kelley's third novel, dem, is a jarring surprise…. All the whites in the book are either brutes or racists.
The setting, which seems contrived and archly "significant," is a large city sharply divided into white and black; the country is involved in an apparently endless war in "Asia," which Kelley represents as a subconscious assertion of lost masculinity…. The book is an angry, if not always original, portrait of American society.
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For a time when Mitchell Pierce wanders through Harlem in search of the black man who has fathered one of his wife's twins, William Melvin Kelley's dem seems almost real. The texture of the language, the settings, and the dialogue, give the reader a sense of life, of the alienation of a confused white man who suspects he is on the periphery of a life-rhythm more natural and substantial than his own. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel is slick and stagey by comparison.
Ordinarily it is the unwary critic who fails to distinguish the shaped, artificial life of the novel from the real world in which the author operates, perhaps because it is the novelist's task to make that artificial world seem as vivid as the actual one. But in this case, the novelist encourages such confusion. By his title and the dedication, "to The Black people in (not of) America," he signals the reader to read this book as a realistic report of the relationships between the races in contemporary America. One of Kelley's underlying themes is that the breakdown in the society reflects the breakdown of the white-man's psyche. He is not at peace with himself, his family, or his compatriots. The split man creates the split world, symbolized by the twins born to the Pierces….
This theme is certainly a reasonable one, but Kelley seems more interested in making a pronouncement that will not be misconstrued than in creating the resonant,...
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Willie E. Abraham
William Melvin Kelley's novel, dem, almost falls within the tradition of the black "raceless" novel of America, in which explicit judgment is avoided on issues concerning race…. It can hardly have come without strain to Kelley to stifle the voice of protest in himself and unite in a neutral and suave spirit, without accent of race. As can be expected, dem does not altogether succeed in maintaining the required degree of composure, even though Kelley believes that it is a chief part of the calling of a literary writer to avoid any appearance of taking sides, passing judgment, or pronouncing sentence. (p. vii)
dem is not a novel about "the black problem," but about the white man's way of life as it seems to the black man.
Like Kelley's other writings, dem is really a masterly work of art. Kelley tells the story of white families who are tragically affected by their contact with non-white people; of the violence that is latent in the white man's nature and its compulsive manifestations. Against this somber violence Kelley highlights the fraternity and joie de vivre of the black man. (pp. vii-viii)
Kelley brings to this work a great amount of sensitive interpretation and artistic skill. He draws considerable narrative ability, expressed through a limpid, economical, and unpretentious style. This directness of approach, however, prevents him from working out in full...
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William Melvin Kelley's fourth novel, "Dunfords Travels Everywheres," represents a departure in style from his previous works. Coupled with its moments of quiet naturalism are heavy doses of experimental prose. And at times it is difficult to decide if the traditional segments should be taken literally and the experimental segments taken symbolically or vice versa. This is because the connection between the segments is finally not clear. Instead of complementing each other thematically, they dangle in parallel lines.
Still Kelley, when he's not toying with experimentation and a "new" language, is a beautiful stylist. Many of the traditional passages offer ample evidence of the superior craftsmanship displayed in his first novel, "A Different Drummer." It is also true that wistful moments endure and that some of the minor characters are drawn with muted fidelity to nuance and human vulnerability. But these are isolated parts, never fused into a completed design.
Structurally, the book is divided into three sections. There is the story of Chig Dunford, a black American filtering through a fictitious country in Europe with a group of white Americans who are vaguely reminiscent of Hemingway's little band in "The Sun Also Rises." Then there's Carlyle Bedlow, the Harlem con-man…. Finally there are the long passages of experimental prose during which Kelley talks about everything and nothing in relation to everything and...
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Dunfords Travels Everywheres picks up the motto of Finnegans Wake in its title, points to Joyce in an epigraph, and even bravely attempts the late idiom, making a rumbling, punning amalgam of minstrel paper, journalese, advertising copy, and radio serial into a new language, an escape from "languish," from the "Langleash language," a descent into a racial collectivity of blacks, the tongue of New Afriquerque cropping up suddenly in the ordinary prose of the novel.
What is needed, Kelley suggests, is an "Unmisereaducation," which I translate as a re-education away from miserly misreadings. The twin heroes of the book, Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow, Harvard black and Harlem black, traveling writer and likable layabout, aspects, ultimately, of a single self, meet on the common ground of their color and their alienation. Both of them, in the book's view, are playing the white man's game in their different ways, and only at these muttered, barely intelligible levels, where they and the rest of their race are one, do they know how fully this is so.
In the half-gibberish of their dreams, represented in the novel by Joycean metalanguage ("You canntbreak yEggs like Dhat, man. You dumpty ySelf when you nthumptyng yon energingerbread Lady"), they know the truth which escapes them in waking life—shown here by Kelly, in more conventional prose, as a place of assassinations and deceit, where slaves are suddenly...
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Several American writers like William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, even Jack Kerouac, have attempted to write The American Saga using mythical characters and some imaginary locales with real-life analogues, developing them gradually through several novels and stories. But what kind of story would unfold if the writer of such a saga were a black American? For the first time, we may have an answer in the novels of William Melvin Kelley….
The purpose of writing a serious saga (as opposed to the Galsworthy type) is to depict impressionistically a large, crowded portrait, each individual novel presenting enlarged details of the whole, each complete in itself, yet evoking a more universal picture than is possible in a single volume. The Kelley saga is an attempt to redefine the Complete Man and to overturn inaccurate racial stereotypes that, in Kelley's opinion, have too long held sway. (p. 210)
A reconstruction of Kelley's line of reasoning might read thus: because the white race has chosen to choke off positive expressions of its emotions, by necessity it has developed as the most violent of races. The white man's violence and its compulsive manifestations have tragically affected the Negroes who have been forced to come into contact with it. The white world is counterpointed by the gentleness, the joie de vivre, the fraternity of the black world, a throbbing, vital, underground placed in opposition to the harsh,...
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The characters in Kelley's novels and short stories suffer none of the violent terrors and persecutions that once seemed the inevitable heritage of the black protagonist. Despite their modest beginnings, they often manage to carve a reasonably secure niche for themselves within the American system; the trials to which they are submitted have as much to do with being human as they do, specifically, with being black, though it might be argued that Kelley's own sense of racial consciousness has become more troubled and more radicalized during the course of his career. Nonetheless, we can recognize in his writings the voice of a relatively comfortable, secure, well-educated black community which will no doubt make itself even more frequently heard in the decades to come. (p. 129)
Kelley's early, dramatic success clearly set him apart from former generations of black American writers, but it also played a role in establishing one of the central concerns of his fiction. The dilemma he frequently underscores is that the black's destiny is in many ways indistinguishable from the destiny of the entire post-modern American society, but that participation in such a destiny must not be allowed to submerge entirely the ethnic, cultural, and personal identity of the black. (p. 130)
Kelley's brief but significant career clearly establishes his credentials as a writer; his work reveals him not merely as an accomplished technician,...
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