William Attaway 1911–1986
(Full name William Alexander Attaway) American novelist, dramatist, and songwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Attaway's career.
Attaway is known primarily for his two novels, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939) and Blood on the Forge (1941). Most commentators consider the latter, which chronicles the experiences of three brothers at a steel mill in Pennsylvania, a classic portrayal of the so-called Great Migration, the movement of blacks from the agrarian southern United States to the industrialized North in the period following World War I.
Attaway was born in Greenville, Mississippi. His father was a physician, his mother a schoolteacher, and, seeking to avoid what Attaway later called the "Southern caste system," they moved the family to Chicago early in his life. There Attaway attended a vocational school, initially planning to become an auto mechanic. After being introduced to the poetry of Langston Hughes by one of his teachers, however, he decided to become a writer. After his father's death, Attaway dropped out of the University of Illinois—which he had entered mainly to please his parents—and lived an itinerant life, working as a seaman, salesman, and labor organizer, in deliberate preparation for his writing career. In 1935 Attaway helped write the Federal Writers' Project guide to Illinois and befriended another Mississippi-born black author, Richard Wright. Returning that year to study at the University of Illinois, Attaway produced his first major work, the play Carnival. In 1936 he published his first short story, "Tale of the Blackamoor," and received his B.A. degree. Later in the year he moved to New York City where he held a variety of jobs, including a stint as an actor, which was his sister Ruth's profession. Attaway was performing with a traveling production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You (1936) when he learned that his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder, had been accepted for publication. Aided by a two-year grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Attaway immediately began work on Blood on the Forge. After the publication of this work, he wrote songs, books about music, and scripts for radio, television, and movies. Included in his musical compositions were songs for his friend Harry Belafonte, at whose home he was married in 1962. Attaway lived with his wife and their two children in Barbados for eleven years, fulfilling, in Samuel B. Garren's words, "a lifelong desire of his to live in a country with a black government, black law enforcement, and black professional people." Attaway's last years were spent in California writing screenplays. He died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1986.
Let Me Breathe Thunder, which takes place at the end of the Great Depression, is the story of two white hoboes, Ed and Step, and their relationship with a nine-year-old Mexican boy, Hi-Boy. Although the men have much affection for Hi-Boy, their way of life leads to the corruption and tragic death of the innocent youth. In this work Attaway addresses such themes as separation, corruption, and dislocation. Blood on the Forge, is about three brothers—Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody Moss—who leave their jobs as southern sharecroppers to work in a northern steel mill. Although the North holds the promise of greater racial equality and better job opportunities, the Moss brothers encounter only pain and tragedy. In addition to addressing the social and economic barriers faced by blacks in American society, Blood on the Forge also focuses on the problems associated with an increasingly rootless, industrialized world. Attaway's nonfiction works include Calypso Song Book (1957), a collection of songs, and Hear America Singing (1967), a history of popular music in America for children.
Let Me Breathe Thunder was favorably received by critics. While some early reviews found it significant that the main characters in the work are white, not black, other commentators suggested that Ed and Step are basically outcasts, possessing a social status somewhat analogous to that of blacks. Also, several critics have noted the novel's similarities to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). Although most of the early reviews of Blood on the Forge were laudatory, the book was not a commercial success; some critics have speculated that Richard Wright's popular and highly controversial novel Native Son (1940) may have drawn attention away from Attaway's work. In an introduction to a 1970 edition of Blood on the Forge, Edward Margolies wrote that "Attaway's book may have looked tame to an America preparing for another war and whose reading public had already found its Negro 'spokesman' in the virile Wright." More recently, scholars have reclaimed an important position for Attaway among black American writers. Blood on the Forge is studied today as a consummate proletarian novel, as a leading fictional account of the Great Migration, and for its elements of black history and folklore. It remains Attaway's best-known work and, some critics believe, the greatest interwar depiction of the plight of black American workers.