Leon Forrest Biography


The African American writer Leon Forrest is noted for carefully crafted novels that are complex both in language and in structure. He grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and after graduating from high school he attended Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago. After two years as a public information specialist in the U.S. Army, Forrest returned to the University of Chicago for two final years. During the next eight years he edited community newspapers in Chicago and served as associate editor and, later, managing editor of a Black Muslim newspaper.

When Forrest’s first novel, There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, was published in 1973, with a foreword by Ralph Ellison, it was widely reviewed and generally praised. Although many readers found the stream-of-consciousness style confusing and the Faulknerian prose unnecessarily verbose, they admired Forrest’s brilliant fusion of such diverse traditions as black fundamentalism, Catholicism, jazz, and gospel. It was generally agreed that the novel was aesthetically and intellectually rewarding. The same year that his first novel appeared, Forrest joined the Department of African American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Four years later The Bloodworth Orphans appeared, which is similar in theme and style to There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden. Critics were dazzled by its scope, by the dozens of characters, and by the lavish use of myths, ranging from biblical stories to the Greek legends of Oedipus and Orpheus, but many judged that Forrest substituted verbal showiness for the real emotion of the earlier book.

After the publication of The Bloodworth Orphans, Forrest wrote two librettos for musical productions and several short stories. His third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face, appeared in 1984. Critics lauded the characterization in the work, particularly that of the wise and effective...

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Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Forrest is among the many writers discussed.

Cawelti, John G., ed. Leon Forrest: Introductions and Interpretations. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1997. A collection of critical essays. Includes an extensive bibliography of secondary works.

Jablon, Madelyn. Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. Jablon links literature and hoodoo—black folk magic—in this study of the magical power of oral and written literature to set free the power of the Word. Her analysis of Forrest’s Divine Days is especially perceptive.

Williams, Dana. “Preachin’ and Singin’ Just to Make It Over: The Gospel Impulse as Survival Strategy in Leon Forrest’s Bloodworth Trilogy.” African American Review 36, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 475-485. Analyzes the musical metaphors of Forrest’s writing.