WILLIAM ALEXANDER ATTAWAY was bom on November 19, 1911, in Greenville, Mississippi, to William A. and Florence Parry Attaway. Attaway's father was a physician who in 1921 helped to found the National Negro Insurance Association; he also moved his family to Chicago to escape the pervasive racism of the South, part of the "Great Migration" about which his son would later write.
Attaway rebelled against the bourgeois lifestyle of his educated and financially secure parents, opting to attend a vocational rather than an academic high school. He finally bowed to his parents' wishes and entered the University of Illinois, but after his father's death he dropped out for two years and lived as a vagabond, working as a seaman, dockworker, and salesman before finally returning to the University of Illinois and earning a B.A. in 1936. He had decided to become a writer after reading the work of Langston Hughes in high school. In 1935 Attaway was briefly associated with the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration, where he met Richard Wright; in that year he produced a play, Carnival, for his sister's amateur dramatic group.
After graduation Attaway moved to New York, where he wrote his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder ( 1939), whose rugged naturalism was probably inspired by John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Although the two main characters are white, Attaway drew upon his own hobo experiences in this novel of vagabonds befriending a young Mexican boy as they travel across the country.
In 1939 Attaway received a two-year grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, allowing him to produce his second novel, Blood on the Forge ( 1941). This work has been praised by critics as an important study of the Great Migration, chronicling the hardships of three black brothers who travel from rural Kentucky to a steel mill in the Allegheny Valley of Pennsylvania. Here Attaway combines racial and proletarian themes in an indictment of industrialism.