William Demby Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Demby spent his formative years in the small coal-mining town of Clarksburg, West Virginia, where his father William worked for the Standard Oil Company. Clarksburg served as a model for Beetlecreek, the fictional town of Demby’s first novel. It would, however, take a liberation from both his hometown and his country to establish Demby as a writer. It was while Demby attended West Virginia State College that the interruption of World War II and service in the United States Army provided that liberation. The Army stationed him in Italy, a country which was to become a major influence on his life and art: Living in Italy allowed him the distance from which to examine his American and African American heritage, it provided subject matter for his writing, and it gave him the opportunity to work in the film industry. While in the Army, Demby wrote for Stars and Stripes; he continued his writing at Fisk University in Tennessee after the war, also exercising his latent talent as an artist by designing the college magazine for which he wrote.

Leaving Fisk, Demby returned to Italy, where he made his living by writing for the Italian film and television industries. He married an Italian woman, Lucia Drudi, and they had a son, James. His first novel, Beetlecreek (also published under the title Act of Outrage), was published while he lived in Rome. Like most first works by expatriates, it examines an American setting: three characters—an adolescent, an adult, and an old man—try but fail to escape their alienation and loneliness. The stagnant small town they inhabit (a town in which both the black and white communities are small-minded) proves too deep a quagmire to escape. This existential...

(The entire section is 708 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Looks at Beetlecreek as an experiment moving away from naturalistic, racial themes to more mythic, symbolic motifs and briefly examines The Catacombs as a blend of fantasy and romance.

Berry, Jay R. “The Achievement of William Demby.” College Language Association Journal 26 (June, 1983). Provides a critical overview and evaluation.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. A critical-historical survey of African American literature that discusses William Demby’s work.

Jaskoski, Helen. “The Catacombs and the Debate Between the Flesh and the Spirit.” Critique 35 (Spring, 1994): 181-192. Discusses the book’s theme, experimental style, and autobiographical and allegorical elements.

Margolies, Edward. Native Sons. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968. A critical-historical survey of African American literature that discusses William Demby’s work.

O’Brien, John. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. Contains an interview with Demby that offers some insight into the author’s personality.

Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature: A Critical History. Rev. ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. A critical-historical survey of African American literature that discusses William Demby’s work.