Death dogged Owen Dodson’s footsteps. Born in 1914 as the youngest of Nathaniel and Sarah Goode Dodson’s nine children, Owen experienced the deaths of his brother Harold in 1919 and his sister Evelyn in 1925. Twin siblings had died a decade before Owen’s birth.
In 1926, when he was eleven, Owen’s mother died. The next year Nathaniel Dodson, Sr., died, leaving his children in the care of his daughter Lillian (born in 1899), a teacher who sacrificed her personal life to look after her young siblings. Owen was particularly close to his sister Edith, born in 1909, and to his brother Kenneth, one year his senior. Kenneth succumbed to lumbar pneumonia in 1940 at the age of twenty- seven.
The adolescent Owen remembered a warm and interesting household. The apartment at 309 Berriman Street, which the family occupied for twenty-seven years, was in a neighborhood of many ethnic colorations. Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, Germans, Dutch, and blacks settled there, living together in relative harmony. Owen, as he grew up, encountered little racial discrimination. He had more Caucasian than black friends, although his contact with blacks was substantial.
Owen’s father, Nathaniel Barnett Dodson, was born in Virginia to parents recently freed from slavery. By age sixteen, Nathaniel was a teacher, but he soon left Virginia for New York City, where he worked in various capacities at the Pierrepont House while continuing his education. In 1897, he joined the American Press Association, a white newspaper syndicate. Through this association, the elder Dodson met many of the significant black leaders of his day. Owen grew up with a sense of black pride, because through his father he knew the contributions blacks were making to society.
Nathaniel Dodson earned little money, yet the family felt secure. It was middle-class, upwardly mobile. If there were times that the Dodsons lived on yams, beans, and collards, they at least had a place to call home and food on the table. Owen grew up among siblings who succeeded at school. His sister Lillian received a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1921. Evelyn was an impressive orator and served as an inspiration to both Kenneth and Owen, each of whom won recognition in oratory.
The two inseparable brothers received sound educations at Thomas Jefferson High School, whose principal, Elias Lieberman, himself a poet, recognized and encouraged Owen’s expressive ability. By the time Owen entered high school, both his parents were dead, but Lillian was a virtual mother to the younger children and supported the family on her teacher’s salary.
It was clear that Owen would attend college. He had his sights set on the tuition-free City College of New York, but immediately before the beginning of the school year, quite unexpectedly, he received a scholarship that permitted him to consider other schools. He selected Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he was one of two black students admitted in the fall of 1932.
After his graduation from Bates with a bachelor’s degree in English, Dodson received a fellowship to Yale University’s School of Drama, which he attended from 1936 until 1939. Although there had been a Bates College production of one of Dodson’s earliest plays, Deep in Your Heart (wr. 1935; pr. 1935) and a Brooklyn College production—directed by Kenneth—of his Including Laughter (wr. 1936; pr. 1936), it was at Yale that his first major play, The Divine Comedy (wr. 1937; pr. 1938), received a highly professional production. This play, based upon Father Divine’s exploitation of his followers, continued to be among Dodson’s most frequently produced dramas, often being presented in altered forms as a result of Dodson’s frequent refocusing and rewriting.
Dodson experienced some racial prejudice at Bates, but was little daunted by it. At Bates he began to recognize that his homosexuality was more than a passing phase of his development. At that time and in that place, however, this was not a subject one could discuss openly. Dodson employed smoke screens to mask his real orientation, dating young women and maintaining a demeanor aimed at diverting suspicion.
Hatch provides excellent detail about these formative years in Dodson’s life, bringing to life the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he lived and the dormitory life that he experienced at Bates. Hatch’s writing is polished and professional. In describing the first streamlined train to come to Lewiston, for example, he writes that it “purred into Lewiston, a steel stallion, progressive as a world’s fair poster, pretty as an airmail stamp.” This sort of visual imagery pervades the book, making it more than merely a competent biography.
Dodson, needing to support himself during...
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