Clarence Major

b. 1936
Clarence Major

American writer Clarence Major "has been in the forefront of experimental poetry and prose," Eugene B. Redmond writes in Parnassus. "In prose he fits 'loosely' into a category with William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. But his influences and antecedents are not so easy to identify." Perhaps best known for his novels, Major draws on his experience as a Southern African-American to "[defy] the white-imposed 'traditions' of black literature [and] to develop a brilliant lyricism in new forms of fiction," states Jerome Klinkowitz in The Life of Fiction. But Major's art, continues Klinkowitz, "inevitably turns back to the basic social and personal concerns which must remain at the heart of any literary experience." Noting the high incidence of violent scenes in Major's work, Black Creation critic Jim Walker comments, "Major has filled [his work] with the violence we expect of Southern life; violence of whites against Blacks, and more unfortunately, violence of Blacks against Blacks. . . . But the point Major is obviously trying to make with these kinds of scenes is that violence is an integral part of life for Southern Blacks and moreover, that it helps shape their lives and attitudes."

Critics praise Major's unique use of language in My Amputations, for which he received the Western States Book Award in 1986. My Amputations follows well-read parolee Mason Ellis as he impersonates an African-American novelist named Clarence McKay, whom he has taken hostage. McKay's literary agent plays along, and almost no one who meets the imposter on his worldwide lecture tour can tell the difference between Mason and the author whose identity he has usurped. "Major has fashioned a parable of the black writer as the most invisible and misrepresented of us all," notes Greg Tate in a Washington Post Book World review. New York Times Book Review contributor Richard Perry finds My Amputations "a book in which the question of identity throbs like an infected tooth, . . . a picaresque novel that comes wailing out of the blues tradition: it is ironic, irreverent, sexy, on a first-name basis with the human condition, and defined in part by exaggeration and laughter." In a Nation review, Stuart Klawans writes: "Mere description cannot convey the wild humor and audacity to be found here, nor the anxiety and cunning. . . . When a writer loads a book with so many references, the reader is entitled to ask whether he knows what he's doing. Believe me, Clarence Major knows. He has fashioned a novel that is simultaneously a deception and one great, roaring self-revelation." Tate comments, "Major feels particular ardor for mixing the rhythms of American slang with those of historical, scientific, mythological and occult texts. . . . The integration of such alchemical language into the mundane human affairs of its subjects is part of what makes My Amputations such a provocative advance in contemporary American writing."

Such Was the Season is "more structured and accessible" than Major's earlier novels, writes David Nicholson in the Washington Post Book World. To Nicholson, it "seems rooted in Major's experience, and much of the book's success has to do with the warmth of the central character. . . . Annie Eliza . . . speaks to us for more than 200 pages of things past and present in a voice that is always uniquely hers." In this matriarch of a black middle-class Atlanta family who speaks authentic vernacular, "Major has created a delightfully lifelike, storytelling woman whose candor is matched only by her devotion to truth and her down-to-earth yea-saying to life," Al Young writes in the New York Times Book Review. "It is as if Clarence Major, the avid avant-gardiste, has himself come home to touch base with the blues and spirituals that continue to nourish and express the lives of those people he writes about so knowingly, and with contagious affection." Such Was the Season, Young summarizes, is a "straight-ahead narrative crammed with action, a dramatic storyline and meaty characterization." In the one week described by Annie Eliza, several scandals touching family members erupt in the wake of her daughter-in-law's candidacy for the state senate. Even so, "the book's pleasures have less to do with what happens and more with Annie Eliza and her tale," Nicholson maintains. "Though at first glance Major seems to have abandoned his postmodern explorations, Such Was the Season actually has much in common with those earlier works."

In Fun & Games, Major's 1990 collection of short "fictions," the author continues to bend and twist social realism around experimental narratives and prose. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Karen Brailsford takes note of Major's "eloquent" prose, but finds that his "plots are frequently pointless, and ultimately disappointing." But while commenting that some of the stories in Fun & Games lack "the thematic and technical complexities that are Major's trademark," Maurice Bennett asserts in the Washington Post Book World that Major "is still here doing what he has done for the past 25 years: producing some of the very best experimental fiction." He adds, "Major remains at heart the poet he was at the beginning of his career, importing into his fictions a poetic fascination with the 'word' and its power to create realities, whether they be realities of identity, relationship, or phenomena." Merle Rubin, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, suggests that Major uses the "realist mode" to comment on the way we construct reality. "In Major's hands, straightforward realism has a way of wandering off into the labyrinths of literary self-awareness. . . . Major's 'short fictions' remind us that reality is not simply something out there: Ours, as he puts it, is a 'man-made world,' influenced by our ability to reflect, re-imagine, re-interpret and reform it." Major's nonfiction has also garnered acclaim.

Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, edited and with an introduction by Major, is an anthology of short fiction by African-American writers which "charts both the evolution of the short-story form and the evolution of African American consciousness," comments Howard Junker in the San Francisco Review of Books. Calling the Wind includes short fiction from writers such as Charles Chesnutt, Ralph Ellison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Terry McMillan. Junker argues that Calling the Wind "should be required reading."

Major also edited and authored the introduction to Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, an updated and expanded version of Dictionary of Afro-American Slang published originally in 1970. Juba to Jive, in the words of Ipeling Kgositsile in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, is a "no-nonsense guide to African American verbal expression." Kira Hall in the Washington Post Book World finds Juba to Jive an "exciting [introduction] to African-American languaculture, drawing the reader into an active world of words and phrases which might never appear in the American Heritage Dictionary," despite being spoken daily by many Americans. Applauding Major's ample etymological information on each term, Kgositsile calls Juba to Jive a "must buy; read it and learn the roots of a mother tongue." Major's work has "provided a series of systematic searches into different sources of identity—sexual, literary, cultural, visual, socio-economic, familial, regional, national, and personal, as well as ethnic," argues Lisa C. Roney in the African American Review. "When he is at his best," Doug Bolling remarks in the Black American Literature Forum, "Major helps us to see that fiction created within an aesthetic of fluidity and denial of 'closure' and verbal freedom can generate an excitement and awareness of great value; that the rigidities of plot, characterization, and illusioned depth can be softened and, finally, dropped in favor of new and valid rhythms." Major's achievement, according to Klinkowitz in an African American Review overview of Major's career and works, "has been to show just how concretely we live within the imagination—how our lives are shaped by language and how by a simple act of self-awareness we can seize control of the world and reshape it to our liking and benefit."

Career

Writer. Brooklyn College, City University of New York, SEEK program lecturer, 1968-69, lecturer, 1973-75; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, lecturer, 1972-75; Queens College, City University of New York, lecturer, 1972-73, 1975, adjunct lecturer for New York Board of Higher Education, ACE program, 1973; Howard University, Washington, DC, assistant professor, 1974-76; University of Washington, Seattle, assistant professor, 1976-77; University of Colorado, Boulder, associate professor, 1977-81, professor of English, 1981-89; University of California at Davis, professor of English, 1989—, director of creative writing, 1991-93. Visiting professor, University of Nice, France, 1981- 82 and 1983; visiting assistant professor, University of Maryland at College Park and State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987. Writer-in-residence at colleges and universities. Research analyst for Simulmatics Corp., New York City, 1967; newspaper reporter, 1968. Lecturer and guest lecturer at colleges, universities, libraries, and other institutions in the United States, Europe, and Africa. Judge for various literary competitions. Artist; has exhibited and published his photographs and paintings. Member of advisory board, Reading Program, New York Public School District 5, 1970. U.S. Air Force, 1955-57; served as record specialist.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • The Fires That Burn in Heaven, [Chicago], 1954.
  • Love Poems of a Black Man, Coercion (Omaha, NE), 1965.
  • Human Juices, Coercion, 1966.
  • Swallow the Lake, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1970.
  • Symptoms and Madness, Corinth Books (New York City), 1971.
  • Private Line, Paul Breman (London), 1971.
  • The Cotton Club, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1972.
  • The Syncopated Cakewalk, Barlenmir (New York City), 1974.
  • Inside Diameter: The France Poems, Permanent Press (London and New York City), 1985.
  • Surfaces and Masks, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1987.
  • Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century, Sun & Moon (Los Angeles, CA), 1988.
  • Parking Lots, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1992.
  • Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1998.

Contributor of poetry to anthologies and to numerous periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Folger Poetry Broadside, Poetry Miscellany, Unmuzzled Ox, Yardbird Reader, and Black Orpheus (Nigeria). NOVELS

  • All-Night Visitors, Olympia (New York City), 1969.
  • No, Emerson Hall (New York City), 1973.
  • Reflex and Bone Structure, Fiction Collective (New York City), 1975.
  • Emergency Exit, Fiction Collective, 1979.
  • My Amputations, Fiction Collective, 1986.
  • Such Was the Season (Literary Guild alternate selection), Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1987.
  • Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar, Sun & Moon, 1988.
  • Dirty Bird Blues: A Novel, Mercury House (San Francisco), 1996.

NONFICTION

  • The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work (essays), Third Press (New York City), 1974.

Contributor of articles, essays, reviews, and other nonfiction prose to books, anthologies, and numerous periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Los Angeles Times Book Review, American Poetry Review, Epoch, American Book Review, John O'Hara Journal, Essence, Negro Digest, Black Scholar, Journal of Black Studies and Research, and Black Orpheus (Nigeria).

EDITOR

  • Writers Workshop Anthology, Harlem Education Program, 1967.
  • Man Is like a Child: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Students, Macomb Junior High School, 1968.
  • (And author of introduction) The New Black Poetry, International Publications, 1969.
  • Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, International Publications (New York City), 1970, published in England as Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London), 1971 , new edition with introduction by Major published as Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, Viking (New York City), 1994.
  • Jerry Bumpus, Things in Place (short stories), Fiction Collective, 1975.
  • (And author of introduction) Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, HarperCollins/Burlingame (New York City), 1993.
  • The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry, HarperCollins (New York City), 1995.

SHORT STORIES

  • Fun & Games, Holy Cow! Press (Duluth, MN), 1990.

Contributor of short fiction to anthologies and to numerous periodicals, including Massachusetts Review, Essence, Zyzzyya, Witness, Boulevard, Fiction, Chelsea, Baltimore Sun, Black Scholar, Black American Literature Forum, Agni Review, Seattle Review, Hambone, and Callaloo. Also author of television script, Africa Speaks to New York, 1970. Distinguished contributing editor to The Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart Press (Wainscott, NY), 1977—. Columnist, American Poetry Review, 1973-76. Editor, Coercion Review, 1958-66; staff writer, Proof, 1960- 61; associate editor, Caw, 1967-70, and Journal of Black Poetry, 1967- 70; member of board of directors, What's Happening magazine, Columbia University, 1969; contributing editor, American Poetry Review, 1976—, and Dark Waters, 1977; American Book Review, editor, 1977- 78, associate editor, 1978—; associate editor, Bopp, 1977-78, Gumbo, 1978, Departures, 1979, and par rapport, 1979—; member of editorial board, Umojo: A Scholarly Journal of Black Studies, 1979; committee member, Signes, 1983—; fiction editor, High Plains Literary Review, 1986—. All-Night Visitors has been translated into Italian and German; Reflex and Bone Structure has been translated into French; Such Was the Season has been translated into German.

Further Reading

PERIODICALS

  • African American Review, spring, 1994.
  • American Anthropologist, June, 1975.
  • American Book Review, September/October, 1982; September, 1986.
  • American Heritage, September, 1994, p. 103.
  • Best Sellers, June 1, 1973.
  • Black American Literature Forum, number 12, 1978; Volume 12, number 2, 1979; fall, 1983.
  • Black Creation, summer, 1973.
  • Black Scholar, January, 1971.
  • Chicago Sun-Times, April 28, 1974.
  • Essence, November, 1970.
  • Greenfield Review, winter, 1971.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 18, 1990; April 29, 1990, p. 14.
  • Ms., July, 1977.
  • Nation, January 24, 1987.
  • Negro Digest, December, 1969.
  • Newsday, November 1, 1987.
  • New York Times, April 7, 1969.
  • New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1972; July 1, 1973; November 30, 1975; September 28, 1986; December 13, 1987; May 20, 1990.
  • Observer (London), May 1, 1994, p. 26.
  • Obsidian, Volume 4, number 2, 1978.
  • Parnassus, spring/ summer, 1975.
  • par rapport, Volume 2, number 1, 1979.
  • Penthouse, February, 1971.
  • Phylon, winter, 1972.
  • Plain Dealer (Cleveland), December 3, 1987.
  • Poetry, August, 1971.
  • Publishers Weekly, March 24, 1969; March 19, 1973; May 9, 1986; July 4, 1986; July 31, 1987; January 22, 1996, p. 70; May 27, 1996, p. 67.
  • Quarterly Journal of Speech, April, 1977.
  • San Francisco Review of Books, Volume 1, number 12, 1976; Volume 7, number 3, 1982; March/ April, 1993, p. 14.
  • Saturday Review, December 5, 1970; April 3, 1971.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago), October 6, 1986; April 3, 1994, p. 8.
  • Village Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1987; July 26, 1994, p. 81.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1971.
  • Washington Post Book World, September, 13, 1986; January 10, 1988; February 18, 1990; January 10, 1993, p. 12; July 24, 1994, p. 8.

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

LIFE SPAN 1936–

Clarence Major

Biography

American writer Clarence Major "has been in the forefront of experimental poetry and prose," Eugene B. Redmond writes in Parnassus. "In prose he fits 'loosely' into a category with William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. But his influences and antecedents are not so easy to identify." Perhaps best known for his novels, Major draws on his experience as a Southern African-American to "[defy] the white-imposed 'traditions' of black . . .

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