William Melvin Kelley Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207092-Kelley.jpg William Melvin Kelley Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Melvin Kelley is the only child of William Melvin Kelley, Sr., and Narcissa Agatha (Garcia) Kelley. His father was a journalist and an editor, for a time, at the Amsterdam News. When Kelley was young, the family lived in an Italian American neighborhood in the North Bronx, but later his parents sent him to the Fieldston School, a small, predominantly white, preparatory school in New York, where he became captain of the track team and president of the student council. In 1957, the year of his mother’s death, Kelley entered Harvard, intending to study law. By the following year, however, the year of his father’s death, he was studying fiction writing with authors John Hawkes and, later, MacLeish. For the rest of his career (which he left unfinished) at Harvard, no other academic subject was relevant to him. Consumed by writing, he said, “I hope only to write fiction until I die, exploring until there is no longer anything to explore[about] the plight of Negroes as individual human beings in America.”

In 1962, after the publication of his first novel, Kelley married Karen Isabelle Gibson, a designer, and worked as a writer, photographer, and teacher in New York, France, and the West Indies. He is the father of two children, Jessica and Ciratikaiji. Though he continued to work on a book titled Days of Our Lives and occasionally appear in print and in public life, Kelley, in large part, maintained a quiet life.