Clarence Major is an innovative African American postmodern artist whose work elicits favorable comparisons with Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson. Notable for its fascination with language and the limits of fictional representation, his writing flouts the conventions of traditional narrative. Although he is known primarily as an experimental novelist, Major’s indefatigable production as a poet, essayist, editor, lexicographer, and painter testifies to his versatility as an artist. In 1970 he received a National Council on the Arts Award, in 1976 a Pushcart Prize, in 1981-1982 a Fulbright Award, and in 1986 the Western States Book Award. Painted Turtle was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book for 1988, and Fun and Games was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Critics award in 1990.
Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Clarence and Inez (Huff) Major. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he moved with his mother to Chicago, Illinois. Major enjoyed a good relationship with both parents, and he often spent summer vacations with his father’s family in the South. When he was in the fifth grade, he read Raymond Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh (1923) and became enamored of the writing life. Thereafter he devoured books by Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, among others. Major experienced a second artistic awakening in his early teens, when he discovered artistic Impressionism and the works of Vincent van Gogh. In 1954, at the age of seventeen, a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago forced him to reevaluate his own artistic career. He was attracted to painting but was not sure that he possessed the requisite skills to succeed as a painter. In 1954 he published his first collection of poems, The Fires That Burn in Heaven, which he later described as “very, very bad poetry.” Major continued writing poetry and fiction after he enlisted in the Air Force as a record specialist later the same year.
Upon his military discharge in 1957 Major returned to Chicago to devote himself to a literary career. Between 1958 and 1961 he edited and published Coercion Review, which he saw as an artistic arena in which he could polish his skills. In 1966 he moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, where he immersed himself in the literary culture and, in 1967, began teaching at the New Lincoln School. Major subsequently taught at Macomb’s Junior High School, Brooklyn College, Sarah Lawrence College, Howard University, University of Washington, University of Colorado, and University of California at Davis.
In 1969 Olympia Press published Major’s first novel, All-Night Visitors. Although his editor, Maurice Girodias, excised extensive portions of the manuscript devoted to character development, leaving mostly sexual scenes, All-Night Visitors received positive reviews. Major resigned from his position as associate editor of the Journal of Black Poetry in the same year. Swallow the Lake, his first substantial collection of poetry, appeared in 1970. Two years later Major gave a series of poetry readings in Connecticut that sparked a negative public reaction and accusations of obscenity. He responded in an open letter, published in the American Poetry Review, which led to his contributing to a regular column from 1973 to 1976.
In 1975, together with Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and other white experimental writers, he became a charter member of Fiction Collective, a publishing cooperative. One of Fiction Collective’s first titles was Major’s Reflex and Bone...
(The entire section is 872 words.)