William Melvin Kelley Kelley, William Melvin - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Melvin Kelley 1937–

Black American novelist and short story writer.

A fabulist in some respects, Kelley grounds his fanciful images in a coolly realistic appraisal of the current American scene. Formally, his writing has grown more experimental. His novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, examines the question of black identity, in language combining black English, Swahili, and standard English.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Louis Rubin, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The short stories in "Dancers on the Shore"] bear all the earmarks of having been written while the author was still searching for his true subject. That is to say, most of them are sketchy, underwritten, and of uneven quality….

Mr. Kelley is a very interesting young writer. This is another way of saying that he writes about very interesting people. To judge from what he has published thus far, his chief concern seems to be the young Negro of developing taste and sensitivity engaged in discovering his identity within a culture in which the role he would play is strange and uncharted.

He seems to have two groups of characters. One is the Dunford family, members of the Negro middle-class in New York City…. The other group is the Bedford family, less elevated in their economic and social situation and closer to their rural Southern origins….

Mr. Kelley begins his book noting, "An American writer who happens to have brown skin faces this unique problem: Solutions and answers to The Negro Problem are very often read into his work." He disclaims any intention of offering solutions to the problem. "I am an American Negro," he says. "I hope I am a writer, but perhaps the latter statement is not mine to judge."

Well, Mr. Kelley is a writer, all right; he is a writer, if I may say so, who is just beginning to discover his real subject. The major part of the stories in "Dancers on the...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Michele Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Only Man On Liberty Street"] is not an especially original story either in subject or in technique, but it is a fine story, nevertheless, and its excellences are typical of those found in most of the sixteen stories in [Dancers on the Shore], a fineness that comes from the tone of the telling—very spare, very quiet, very honest. A story of injustice, it is neither shrill nor sentimental because Kelley, in command of his material, can forsake the easy approach in favor of a treatment that will yield the maximum artistic effect.

In only one story does Kelley allow anger to master him, and ["The Servant Problem"] is his single complete failure. (pp. 458-59)

[Six of the other stories] deal with the Dunford family and five with the Bedlows….

The Bedlow material is worked out well enough in three slight and predictable tales, but only the two longer stories stand out: "The Most Beautiful Legs in the World" … and "Cry For Me."…

For all the random virtues of the Bedlow cycle, the heart of Dancers on the Shore is in the linked stories about the Dunford family…. The milieu alone is arresting: they are well-to-do Negroes whose children attend private schools and Ivy League colleges, and the ambiguities of race touch them only obliquely. Their public existence as Negroes is only occasionally in evidence.

It is, rather, with their private relations that Kelley is concerned….

Not one of these stories is unsatisfying; indeed, such is the consistent interest of the Dunfords that one reader, at least, looks forward to a fuller representation in a novel. (p. 459)

Michele Murray, "Spare and Honest," in Commonweal (copyright © 1964 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXX, No. 5, July 3, 1964, pp. 458-59.

David Boroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"A Drop of Patience" is a moving, painful and stinging experience. Kelley's prose is tight and spare, the novel's anger and bitterness straining against the stripped-down language. But, in the end, he is guilty of the generic weakness of his colleagues: Ludlow Washington is too simple a figure, a slice of folklore rather than a convincing human being. A novel (the truism cannot be repeated too often) is not a civil rights rally. Even the Negro novel, for all its decided moral advantages, must grow up to complexity. (p. 41)

David Boroff, "Ludlow Made His Own Music," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1965, pp. 40-1.

Whitney Balliett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The voices in "A Drop of Patience"] are wholly authoritative. Kelley is a Negro and he has chosen an astonishingly difficult subject—a blind Negro jazz musician whose career loosely resembles that of the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Blindness, race, and jazz are the sort of materials that turn well-meaning novelists into polemicists, but Kelley goes about his work calmly. He imagines himself inside his hero's blindness and he refreshingly treats his hero's music not as a sentimental banner but simply as a craft that occupies only a part of his life. (p. 177)

Kelley's characters, though, tend to spring from his ideas, rather than the other way around. If he were to press deeper into the ordinary hearts he writes of, instead of forcing them to grow on intellectual trellises, he would help us know our own hearts. (p. 178)

Whitney Balliett, "People Who Shoot Doves Out of Season," in The New Yorker (© 1965 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 14, May 22, 1965, pp. 174-78.∗

Robert Bone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Devotees of the short fiction of Nathanael West will be captivated by the recent manner of William Melvin Kelley…. [In "Dem"] they may savor something of the gift for satire, the corrosive style and the surreal grotesqueries that we associate with the author of "Miss Lonelyhearts."

These resemblances are hardly accidental; they flow from the common vantage point of Ivy marginality. West, the New York Jew who went to Brown, and Kelley, the New York Negro who attended Harvard, were thoroughly exposed to Ivy culture, but in the end remained outsiders. Victims of polite prejudice and delicate rebuff, they have sought equally sophisticated measures of retaliation. The result, in literary terms, is an imagery of revulsion and an abrasive irony….

As a writer, Kelley is a long-distance runner. He intends to earn a living from his books, and at 30 has already published four. Moreover, the books are unified in over-all design. Each volume is part of a larger saga, so that what lies in store for his readers is a sort of Yoknapatawpha legend in reverse: an epic treatment of American history from a Negro point of view.

Kelley's novels are marked by a progressive mood of disaffiliation from the dominant values of his culture….

[In] "Dem" ("lemme tellya how dem folks live"), Kelley turns to an overt satire of the ways of white people. His present mood is bitter, disillusioned, alienated to the point of secession from American society. The expatriate impulse, however, has found in satire a controlling form. Kelley's images are able to encompass his negative emotions. The result is a sharp increase in perception for the victims of his satire.

Kelley's fable turns on the scientific concept of superfecundation: "the fertilization of two ova within a short...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Henry S. Resnik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his preface to Dancers on the Shore, a collection of short stories, William Melvin Kelley said "for the record" that while he was "an American writer who happens to have brown skin" he was not a sociologist or a politician or a spokesman…. His first novel, A Different Drummer, described the flight of the entire Negro population from a fictionalized Southern state; the Problem was the axis of the novel, but Kelley succeeded in writing about people, often with considerable grace and skill. Many of the stories in Dancers on the Shore were mere sketches, vignettes, but they were certainly not tracts on the Negro problem.

Then came A Drop of Patience. Kelley's sense of structure and point of view, admirable in A Different Drummer, failed him here. His honest attempt not to be a mere spokesman was clear in all three books, however; he wrote about whites and Negroes, but he touched truth about human beings.

Kelley's third novel, dem, is a jarring surprise…. All the whites in the book are either brutes or racists.

The setting, which seems contrived and archly "significant," is a large city sharply divided into white and black; the country is involved in an apparently endless war in "Asia," which Kelley represents as a subconscious assertion of lost masculinity…. The book is an angry, if not always original, portrait of American society.

Kelley is not only angry at savagery, racism, emasculation, and matriarchy; he takes a good hard crack at our slim hold on reality….

A formless novel, dem does not fulfill the promise of surrealistic humor and horror offered by the unrelated incidents in the first half, while the second half is pure plot-oriented narrative focusing on the pursuit of the Negro father, the premise of which is ludicrous in the conventional framework. Kelley doesn't muster enough sympathy for Mitchell to make the reader really care what happens to him. Moreover, the clarity of the writing in A Different Drummer has here dwindled into mere terseness.

Kelley has done exactly what he said he didn't want to do: he has written a tract, not just on the Negro problem but on the problem of the age. His vision of the nightmare lacks subtlety and understanding.

Henry S. Resnik, "Nightmare of Today," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 43, October 28, 1967, p. 40.

Dan Jaffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For a time when Mitchell Pierce wanders through Harlem in search of the black man who has fathered one of his wife's twins, William Melvin Kelley's dem seems almost real. The texture of the language, the settings, and the dialogue, give the reader a sense of life, of the alienation of a confused white man who suspects he is on the periphery of a life-rhythm more natural and substantial than his own. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel is slick and stagey by comparison.

Ordinarily it is the unwary critic who fails to distinguish the shaped, artificial life of the novel from the real world in which the author operates, perhaps because it is the novelist's task to make that artificial world seem...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Willie E. Abraham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Melvin Kelley's novel, dem, almost falls within the tradition of the black "raceless" novel of America, in which explicit judgment is avoided on issues concerning race…. It can hardly have come without strain to Kelley to stifle the voice of protest in himself and unite in a neutral and suave spirit, without accent of race. As can be expected, dem does not altogether succeed in maintaining the required degree of composure, even though Kelley believes that it is a chief part of the calling of a literary writer to avoid any appearance of taking sides, passing judgment, or pronouncing sentence. (p. vii)

dem is not a novel about "the black problem," but about the white...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Clifford Mason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Melvin Kelley's fourth novel, "Dunfords Travels Everywheres," represents a departure in style from his previous works. Coupled with its moments of quiet naturalism are heavy doses of experimental prose. And at times it is difficult to decide if the traditional segments should be taken literally and the experimental segments taken symbolically or vice versa. This is because the connection between the segments is finally not clear. Instead of complementing each other thematically, they dangle in parallel lines.

Still Kelley, when he's not toying with experimentation and a "new" language, is a beautiful stylist. Many of the traditional passages offer ample evidence of the superior craftsmanship...

(The entire section is 397 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dunfords Travels Everywheres picks up the motto of Finnegans Wake in its title, points to Joyce in an epigraph, and even bravely attempts the late idiom, making a rumbling, punning amalgam of minstrel paper, journalese, advertising copy, and radio serial into a new language, an escape from "languish," from the "Langleash language," a descent into a racial collectivity of blacks, the tongue of New Afriquerque cropping up suddenly in the ordinary prose of the novel.

What is needed, Kelley suggests, is an "Unmisereaducation," which I translate as a re-education away from miserly misreadings. The twin heroes of the book, Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow, Harvard black and Harlem black,...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Jill Weyant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Several American writers like William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, even Jack Kerouac, have attempted to write The American Saga using mythical characters and some imaginary locales with real-life analogues, developing them gradually through several novels and stories. But what kind of story would unfold if the writer of such a saga were a black American? For the first time, we may have an answer in the novels of William Melvin Kelley….

The purpose of writing a serious saga (as opposed to the Galsworthy type) is to depict impressionistically a large, crowded portrait, each individual novel presenting enlarged details of the whole, each complete in itself, yet evoking a more universal picture than is...

(The entire section is 1524 words.)

David Galloway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The characters in Kelley's novels and short stories suffer none of the violent terrors and persecutions that once seemed the inevitable heritage of the black protagonist. Despite their modest beginnings, they often manage to carve a reasonably secure niche for themselves within the American system; the trials to which they are submitted have as much to do with being human as they do, specifically, with being black, though it might be argued that Kelley's own sense of racial consciousness has become more troubled and more radicalized during the course of his career. Nonetheless, we can recognize in his writings the voice of a relatively comfortable, secure, well-educated black community which will no doubt make itself...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)