Forrest, Leon Richard 1937–1997
Leon Richard Forrest 1937–1997
One of the most important black American writers of the late twentieth century, Leon Forrest is known for his difficult style. But readers who adapt to the jazz-like rhythms of his prose are rewarded with intricate detail, deft switches of context, and wide-ranging subjects. Forrest’s work can also be very funny. He is often compared with William Faulkner and James Joyce, both of whom brought ribald and irreverent humor to otherwise bleak and ordinary characters and events. Above all, Forrest was a writer who ignored the demands of the market in favor of what needed to be done to achieve a particular effect. While he failed in his lifetime to reach a popular audience, his works are notable for their experimentation with plot, characters, and dramatic structures. His model of the artist is one who takes “bits and pieces that others might disregard” and makes something from them.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 8, 1937, Forrest grew up in a creative household. His father Leon was a bartender on the Santa Fe railroad, who also wrote song lyrics, while his mother Adelaide wrote short stories and was a fan of jazz. He attended Wendell Phillips Elementary School, which was segregated. A family friend allowed the Forrests to use his address to get their son into the integrated Hyde Park High School, but Forrest’s academic fortunes declined despite the school’s good reputation. He did do well in creative writing, however, and he went on to Wilson Junior College to study journalism. He attended Roosevelt University from 1957 to 1958, then the University of Chicago, where he took a course in playwriting. Dropping out of college in 1960, Forrest was drafted to the United States Army and served in Germany in the Public Information Division. He returned to the University of Chicago for two years in 1962, after his military service.
Forrest loved what he described as the “rowdiness” of Chicago and during this period in his life he reveled in the chaos of life, something he believed was important in the development of any artist. In 1963 he attended the civil rights movement’s March on Washington and began to associate with other writers, artists, and musicians. In 1965 he began a period working as editor of various newspapers and journals in Chicago, including the Woodlawn Observer from 1967 to 1969. In 1967 he had his first play, Theatre of the Soul, performed at the Parkway Community House in Chicago. Despite being a non-Muslim, he landed a job in 1969 at the black Muslim paper Muhammed Speaks, where he became managing editor in 1972. In 1973 he took a job as associate professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University, and in 1985 he became chair of the department.
Forrest’s first three novels were edited by future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who was working for Random House at the time. Morrison needed persuading that his first novel There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden was worthy of publication, but Forrest was supported by such luminaries as Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison, who wrote a foreword for the first edition. There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden established Forrest as a chronicler of black myths, folklore, religion, and culture. Written in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness
Born on January 8, 1937, in Chicago, IL; died on November 6, 1997, in Evanston, IL; son of Leon, Sr., and Adeline Green Forrest; married Marianne, 1971. Education: Attended Wilson Junior College, 1955-56; attended Roosevelt University, 1957-58; attended University of Chicago, 1958-60, 1962-64. Military Service: United States Army, 1960-62.
Career: Various community newspapers, Chicago, editor, 1965-69; Muhammad Speaks (Black Muslim newspaper), Chicago, associate editor, 1969-72, managing editor, 1972-73; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, associate professor, 1973-84, professor, 1985-97, Department of African-American Studies chair, 1985-94.
Memberships: Society of Midland Authors, president, 1981-82.
Awards: Northwestern University, grant, 1975; Chicago Public Library, Sandburg Medallion, 1978; University of Chicago, Inaugural Alison Davis Lecture, 1981; Friends of the Chicago Public Library Carl Sandburg Award, 1985; Society of Midland Authors Award, 1985, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington proclaimed Leon Forrest Day, April 14, 1985, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Book of the Year Award, 1992; New York Times, Notable Book of the Year, 1993.
style, the novel is the story of the illegitimate heirs to a former slave-owning family and was compared at the time with Ellison’s groundbreaking 1952 novel Invisible Man. But the critics were not all enthusiastic. L. J. Davis in the New York Times Book Review was particularly scathing, describing the book as having “a pervading sense of what might very well be doom” with a “somewhat involved symbolism.”
Forrest’s second, and best-known novel, 1977’s The Bloodworth Orphans, was better received, being praised for its characterizations, but criticized for the over-complexity of its plotting and structure. Telling the story of the many mixed-race orphans of an old-time Southern slave-owning family, The Bloodworth Orphans reached a bigger audience than Forrest’s first book, but readers again found its experimental approach disconcerting. The same was true of 1983’s Two Wings to Veil My Face, which revived the character of Nathaniel Witherspoon from There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden.
Divine Days is regarded by critics as Forrest’s masterpiece, though it too failed to make an impact on the literary scene. Coming in at well over 1000 pages the novel is on the scale of Joyce’s Ulysses. Taking place over seven days it tells the story of Joubert Jones, a rejected playwright with the capacity to hear voices and channel the souls of the speakers into his narrative. Forrest captures the rhythms of jazz, and the chaotic disjointedness of black life in Joubert’s tale. Sven Birkerts suggests in a review in The New Republic that the reason for Forrest’s neglect is the way he captures the “music” of black experience. “The largely white critical establishment seems to be missing the man’s music,” according to The New Republic.
Divine Days may be “a full-out serious work of art,” according to The New Republic, but in 2004 Forrest remains the “invisible man” of American literature. Yet Forrest achieved a great deal in his 30-year writing career; his novels, including the posthumously published Meteor in the Madhouse are highly complex and accomplished studies in characterization and black American life. He listed influences as diverse as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, and produced novels, plays, essays, reviews, and opera libretti, including a verse play, Re-Creations, set to music in 1978. In April 1994 Forrest gave the eulogy at the funeral of his friend and mentor, Ralph Ellison, the year that he also retired from Northwestern University after 24 years as a popular teacher. Forrest died from prostate cancer on November 6, 1997.
Re-Creation, music by T.J. Anderson (produced Chicago, 1978).
Soldier Boy, Soldier, music by T.J. Anderson (produced Bloomington, IN, 1982).
There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Random House, 1973.
The Bloodworth Orphans, Random House, 1977.
Two Wings to Veil My Face, Random House, 1984.
Divine Days, Another Chicago Press, 1992.
Meteor in the Madhouse, John G. Cawelti and Merle Drowne, eds., Triquarterly, 2001.
Uncollected Short Stories
“Packwood’s Sermon by Firelight,” in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Winter 1977.
“Oh Jeremiah of the Dreams,” in Callaloo (Lexington, KY), May 1979.
“Oh Say Can You See,” in Story Quarterly (Northbrook, IL), 1982.
“Inside the Body of a Green Apple Tree,” in Iowa Review (Iowa City), 1984.
“Sub-Rosa,” in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, IL), Summer 1984.
The Furious Voice for Freedom (essays), Bell, 1992.
Cawelti, John, ed., Leon Forrest: Introductions and Interpretations, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.
African American Review, Fall, 1999.
Chicago Review, Spring-Summer, 1995, p. 43-49.
New Republic, May 31, 1993, p. 42-46.
New York Times, October 21, 1973; May 29, 1994, p. BR14; November 10, 1997.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2002, p. 160.
Time, November 24, 1997.
“Leon Forrest,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (9 March 2004).
“Leon Forrest Papers—Archive Contents,” Northwestern University Archives, www.library.northwestern.edu/archives/findingaids/leon_forrest2.pdf (March 9, 2004).
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