David Bradley is most noted for his novel The Chaneysville Incident, published when he was only thirty-one and hailed by some as the best novel written by an African American in the 1980’s.
Bradley grew up in Pennsylvania and was educated at the University of Pennsylvania (B.A., summa cum laude, 1972) and the University of London (M.A., 1974). After receiving his graduate degree Bradley accepted a position as an assistant editor for J. B. Lippincott Company. Meanwhile, he submitted to Viking Publishers a novel he wrote while in college, and in 1975 South Street was published. This work was inspired by Bradley’s acquaintanceship with black working-class folks who frequented a neighborhood bar he liked on Philadelphia’s South Street. The novel follows the fortunes of a newcomer to South Street, in the process chronicling the interwoven lives that make up its ghetto community. Bradley intended it, in part, as a response to what he saw as unfounded optimism among his college-age peers about the increase of power for African Americans. South Street was a critical success despite its short span in print. After its publication he was offered a faculty position at Temple University in Philadelphia, a position he held for the following two decades.
Bradley’s second novel, The Chaneysville Incident, led critics to laud him one as of the finest African American novelists of his generation. This story of a black man’s quest to uncover the meaning of his father’s life and the mystery of his death has been compared favorably to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977).
Bradley’s African American protagonist is John Washington, a black history professor whose resentments about racism in the United States, his near hatred of his parents, and his severance from the rural black culture he grew up in have turned him into a cold, detached adult. The story line follows his obsessive quest to understand his dead father, a venture that uncovers the remarkable history of his great-grandfather. John’s attempts to answer questions about his father’s and great-grandfather’s lives parallel the attempts of his lover Judith, a white psychiatrist, to understand the sources of John’s inability to express love. As the story lines merge, it becomes clear that John’s healing hinges on his ability to let his findings bring him self-knowledge and closure.
The Chaneysville Incident has been praised for its use of historical materials, including those relating to the history of slavery in America, Philadelphia’s antebellum free black community, the early history of western Pennsylvania, the Underground Railroad, responses of the Methodist Church to the slavery question, and the growth of racism and the Ku Klux Klan in the twentieth century. Bradley’s focus is on the continuing psychological toll of racism, the relationship of the past to the present, and the role of love and visionary imagination in the cause of healing.
Bradley won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award for literature for this highly acclaimed work, but after The Chaneysville Incident, Bradley turned to nonfiction. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of venues, including The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Southern Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and The New York Times Magazine. He was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts in literature fellowship for his nonfiction work. He was also (with Shelley Fisher Fishkin) coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America (1998). After leaving Temple University, Bradley remained active as both a writer and teacher, giving readings in the United States and abroad and accepting several posts as a visiting professor.
Brigham, Cathy. “Identity, Masculinity, and Desire in David Bradley’s Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 289-317. A study of how South Street and The Chaneysville Incident illuminate the cultural construction of masculinity and how that construction is complicated by both class and race.
Egan, Philip J. “Unraveling Misogyny and Forging the New Self: Mother, Lover, and Storyteller in The Chaneysville Incident.” Papers on Language and Literature 33, no. 3 (Summer, 1997): 265-287. Egan illustrates that John Washington’s quest to discover the mystery of his father’s life becomes, with Judith’s help, a journey to confront and overcome his own misogyny.
Rushdy, Ashraf. “The Stillness That Comes to All.” In Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Chapter 3 of Rushdy’s book focuses on the ways in which death and representations of burial become primary subjects of The Chaneysville Incident. Rushdy demonstrates the importance of Bradley’s contrast of Western and African notions of death in his exploration of how the past affects the present.
Smith, Valerie. “David Bradley.” In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Vol. 3 of Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. This article is one of the most accessible and complete overviews of Bradley’s career as an author of fiction. It includes much biographical information as well as introductory descriptions of his novels.