Modern Black American Fiction Writers

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Willard Motley
1909-1965

WILLARD FRANCIS MOTLEY was bom on July 14, 1909 (although 1912 is frequently given erroneously as his year of birth), in Englewood, an ethnically mixed suburb of Chicago. Motley began writing at a very early age: he had a short story published in the Chicago Defender in 1922, and he wrote a weekly children's column in that magazine from 1922 to 1924. After graduating from Englewood High School in 1929 Motley began traveling around the United States writing short stories and working at a variety of jobs: migrant laborer, ranch hand, cook, shipping clerk, photographer, radio scriptwriter, and newspaper editor. He submitted his stories to a number of magazines and newspapers between 1930 and 1935; all were rejected. Subsequent travels in the West provided more experience and material, including a monthlong jail sentence in Wyoming for vagrancy.

Motley returned to Chicago in 1939 and took a slum apartment at Fourteenth and Union. Using material from his travels, he wrote nonfiction articles for a variety of magazines. In 1940 he worked for the Federal Writers' Project, meeting Richard Wright, Ama Bontemps, and other black writers who encouraged him. He visited prisons and juvenile reformatories and spent time in Chicago's Italian district, Little Sicily.All this activity supplied the background for his first novel, Knock on Any Door.This work, based upon a two-part article he had published in the Ohio Motorist for August 1938 and May 1939 concerning a Mexican-American boy who was imprisoned for stealing a bicycle, was begun in 1940 and completed in 1942; after being rejected by several publishers, it was finally published in 1947. This highly naturalistic novel deals with a boy from a poor Italian family living in the slums of Chicago who is brutalized in reform school and is finally executed for killing a police officer; it was a tremendous critical and popular success and was eventually made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart.

Motley's second novel, We Fished All Night ( 1951), about postwar political and social life in Chicago, was less well received. A year after its appearance

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