Kenneth Fearing Biography


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Kenneth Flexner Fearing was born on July 28, 1902, in Oak Park, Illinois, the same relatively genteel suburb where Ernest Hemingway spent his childhood. He attended public school there while his father worked as an attorney in Chicago. Fearing attended the University of Wisconsin, where he was graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1924. After working briefly in Chicago as an apprentice journalist, he moved to New York City, where he settled in the artists’ enclave of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. He held several jobs as a salesperson and clerk during the next few years before beginning a career as a publicity writer, a freelance journalist, and an editorial writer for several newspapers in 1927. At the same time, Fearing was contributing stories to pulp magazines and writing poetry regularly. He has been described by Kenneth Rexroth as one of the first “poets of the contemporary American city,” and his first book of poems, Angel Arms, was published in 1929. Fearing completed two other books of poetry during the 1930’s and was awarded a fellowship in creative writing by the Guggenheim Foundation.

In 1939, drawing on the experiences of his first wife, who was a nurse, Fearing wrote The Hospital, a novel whose multinarrative scheme became his trademark as a writer of fiction. The relative success of this novel enabled Fearing to turn his attention to fiction, and he produced novels steadily through the 1940’s, achieving his greatest success with the publication of The Big Clock in 1946. The story was made into a film in 1948.

Fearing continued to write poetry and fiction throughout the 1950’s, but aside from Loneliest Girl in the World (1951)—a book that presented trenchant observations about society while describing a giant “talking” computer, the crucial element in the mystery—he was not particularly successful either critically or commercially. He died of cancer on June 26, 1961, a year after the publication of his last novel, an exposé of big business called The Crozart Story.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Kenneth Fearing was an approximate contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, born in 1902 in the modestly prosperous suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, where Hemingway spent his childhood, and dying just days before Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. Unlike Hemingway, however, Fearing was almost exclusively a man of the city. His public schooling and matriculation at the University of Wisconsin were designed to prepare him for a professional life similar to that of his father, who was a successful attorney in Chicago. Even at the University of Wisconsin, however, Fearing displayed aspects of the artistic temperament that mingled with his ability to handle the routines of an advertising copywriter and editor for various newspapers and magazines. His friend the poet Carl Rakosi remembers him there with a “great shock of uncut, unkempt hair . . . a low gravelly voice like Humphrey Bogart . . . always a heavy drinker who did his writing at night [and] slept all morning, skipping classes.” A man on the fringe of his time, he was the focus of “admirers basking in his bohemian boldness.” After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1924, he worked briefly as an apprentice journalist in Chicago before moving to New York, where he settled in the celebrated artistic quarter of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan.

Fearing spent most of the 1920’s continuing his campus unconventionality, holding dead-end jobs as a salesperson and clerk while gradually connecting with...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kenneth Fearing is both the quintessential proletarian poet of the 1930’s and the author of suspense novels in the hard-boiled tradition. His novel The Big Clock enjoys the status of a genre classic. In both his poetry and fiction Fearing combines sardonic humor with his overpowering sense of the emptiness of twentieth century life. His appropriation of mass-cultural vocabulary foreshadows postmodern literary values.

Fearing was born in 1902 to middle-class parents. His father was a successful attorney in Chicago; his mother seems to have been a grim, humorless woman. Fearing became editor of the local high school newspaper—a position Ernest Hemingway had occupied in the same school. Fearing attended the University of Illinois for two years and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where soon after he won an award for an essay in literary criticism and where he briefly became editor-in-chief of the University’s Wisconsin Literary Magazine.

His poetry of the period, while ironic and sexually frank, shows a willingness to work within traditional forms. During this time he published a sonnet and a villanelle. Other poems echo the cadences and rhymes of Edward Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost.

In 1929 Fearing’s first collection of poems appeared. Unlike the earlier formal work, the poems in Angel Arms are the first expression of Fearing’s own poetic voice. “St. Agnes’ Eve” uses the language of a Hollywood-like film script to narrate the holdup of a cigar store by a small-time hood. (This poem first appeared in 1926, well before the gangster film had solidified into a genre, but Fearing placed “St. Agnes’ Eve” as the first poem in his subsequent collections as well, to emphasize the poem’s growing relevance as the century embraced film.) In “Green Light” Fearing uses the essential vocabulary of advertising to define the hunger of consumerism. In “Cultural Notes” the language of high-society dilettantes clangs against...

(The entire section is 828 words.)