Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Oscar Micheaux

OSCAR MICHEAUX was born on January 2, 1884, on a farm near Metropolis, Illinois, the fifth of thirteen children of Calvin and Belle Willingham Michaux (the original spelling of the name). Although educated in schools in Metropolis, Micheaux was not satisfied with the insular life there and left at the age of seventeen. After holding a series of menial jobs, including porter on a Pullman car, he headed west, occupying a small homestead in Gregory County, South Dakota. It was this experience that led him to write his first work, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), published anonymously as "By the Pioneer." This work is frequently assumed to be a novel, but—in spite of the fact that the protagonist's name is altered to Oscar Devereaux and other names are changed—it is in fact Micheaux's autobiography. The work is dedicated to Booker T. Washington, whose belief in the uplifting of the black race through hard work and self-discipline Micheaux had adopted.

Micheaux became his own salesman for The Conquest, traveling throughout South Dakota and then the South to sell copies of it. This enterprise proved so successful that Micheaux founded his own publishing company, the Western Book Supply, then based in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in 1915 issued his first true novel, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races. This work is also very autobiographical: it features a protagonist who is a homesteader in South Dakota and the author of a book of his experiences, and who then undertakes to sell copies of his book through the South. This framework allows Micheaux to focus on the problems of blacks in the South, problems Micheaux evidently believed to be largely self-caused because of a lack of moral strength on the part of blacks and the lack of a cohesive social structure that would allow blacks to assist each other.

Micheaux's next novel, The Homesteader (1917), also published by the Western Book Supply (now in Sioux City, Iowa), is a romance involving a love triangle between a black man, a white woman, and a black woman. The book, although melodramatic and with a contrived happy ending,


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