In addition to his novels, for which he is primarily known, William Melvin Kelley is the author of a collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore (1964). Some of these stories were written before his first novel, and almost all introduce characters, themes, and ideas that appear in later works. A 1997 New Yorker story, “Carlyle Tries Polygamy: How Many Are Too Many?” reveals that, despite almost thirty years of nearly complete fiction-publication silence, Kelley maintained interest in creatively pursuing some of the personages and ideas that appeared earlier in his short and long fiction. Selections of his fiction mostly appeared in late 1960’s and 1970’s anthologies of African American writers. He has been a nonfiction and fiction contributor to periodicals such as Accent, Canto, Esquire, Jazz and Pop, Mademoiselle, Negro Digest, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Partisan Review, Playboy, Quilt, River Styx, Urbanite, and Works in Progress.
William Melvin Kelley received several awards in the years in which he was actively publishing: the Dana Reed Prize from Harvard University, a Bread Loaf Scholar residency, the John Hay Whitney Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, the Transatlantic Review Award, and a fiction award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. These awards confirmed early recognition of Kelley’s talent but have little to do with his enduring prominence as the creator of A Different Drummer, his first and most accomplished work, which brought him the accolades of such writers as Archibald MacLeish, Thomas Merton, and Frank Tuohy.
As important in its own way as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and William Demby’s Beetlecreek (1950), A Different Drummer broke new ground within the confines of the subject of race in America. Visionary, grounded in myth and American history, it still confounds readers as they try to categorize and label this enduring novel of the civil rights era. Indeed, all Kelley’s novels invite readers to consider the simple difference that race makes in America, as well as the complexity of the individual’s dilemma and response in respect to this and other aspects of the human condition.
Babb, Valerie M. “William Melvin Kelley.” In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis. Vol. 33 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. In the absence of book-length secondary sources, this is a good start to learning about Kelley. The bibliography includes critical essays and an interview.
Bradley, David. Foreword to A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. New York: Doubleday, 1989. A carefully researched essay that considers Kelley’s first novel in the context of its time and in relation to American William Faulkner’s novels, particularly The Reivers (1962).
Early, Gerald. Introduction to A Drop of Patience, by William Melvin Kelley. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1996. With a short overview of the black writers of the 1950’s and a brief introduction to the Black Arts movement, Early positions Kelley’s “jazz novel” on the cusp, between the two eras and of neither.
Karrer, Wolfgang. “Romance as Epistemological Design: William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer.” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: Gainer, 1982. Karrer considers Kelley’s novel of exodus as romantic rather than realistic and positions it among other romances by African American writers.
Ro, Sigmund. Rage and Celebration: Essays on Contemporary Afro-American Writing. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1984. Discusses African American literature, focusing on Kelley, John Alfred Williams, and James Baldwin.
Thomas, H. Nigel. “The Bad Nigger Figure in Selected Works of Richard Wright, William Melvin Kelley, and Ernest Gaines.” CLA Journal 39, no. 2 (December, 1995). A critical article that is especially useful in understanding Kelley’s works.
Weyant, Jill. “The Kelley Saga: Violence in America.” College Language Association Journal 19, no. 2 (December, 1975): 210-220. Weyant proposes that Kelley’s fiction may be the first saga written by a black American; she examines his work in the light of what she sees as his attempt to redefine the “Complete Man.”