After beginning what promised to be a brilliant literary career, William Melvin Kelley began living under a self-imposed silence after the publication of his novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres in 1970. His literary reputation rests upon the several novels and one short-story collection written between 1962 and 1970. Kelley was born to William and Narcissa Kelley in 1937. He was educated at the Fieldston School in New York and later attended Harvard University, where he intended to study law. He found writing more to his liking, however, and began studying with the writers John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish.
Kelley’s experiences as a youth and young adult shaped his early literary temperament. He had grown up in an integrated neighborhood, though his family was black, and at Fieldston School, an exclusive, largely white school, he had been a popular student and athlete who held several leadership positions. With this background, Kelley embarked upon his writing career with a strong belief in the possibility of the peaceful coexistence of the races in the United States. Yet during the next eight years he became increasingly frustrated and agitated.
Kelley’s first novel, A Different Drummer, published when he was twenty-four, signaled the beginning of what most critics believed would be a brilliant career as a writer. Not only was this first novel exceptionally well written but its controlled tone was a departure from the angry posture that many had come to expect from black writers. Yet A Different Drummer explored many of the same themes that became central to the Black Arts cultural movement of the 1960’s, themes that were to be made even more popular in subsequent decades in the work of authors such as Alex Haley and Toni Morrison. In his novel, Kelley explores African heritage through his principal character, Tucker Caliban, a descendant of an African chieftain who would rather have seen his offspring killed than enslaved. Without completely glorifying black Americans’ African heritage, Kelley shows its importance in defining and accepting personal identity. In fact, “the...
(The entire section is 874 words.)