Bell, Madison Smartt 1957-
Bell, Madison Smartt 1957-
Born August 1, 1957, in Nashville, TN; son of Henry Denmark (an attorney) and Allen (a farmer) Bell; married Elizabeth Spires (a poet), June 15, 1985; children: Celia. Education: Princeton University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1979; Hollins College, M.A., 1981.
Writer and educator. Security guard at Unique Clothing Warehouse (boutique), 1979; production assistant for Gomes-Lowe Associates (commercial production house), 1979; sound man for Radiotelevisione Italiana (Italian national network), 1979; Franklin Library (publishing firm), New York, NY, picture research assistant, 1980, writer of reader's guides, 1980-83; Berkley Publishing Corp., New York, NY, manuscript reader and copywriter, 1981-83; Goucher College, Towson, MD, assistant professor of English, 1984-86, writer-in-residence, 1988—, also director of the college's Kratz Center for Creative Writing. Visiting writer, Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, New York, NY, 1984-86, Iowa Writers Workshop, 1987-88, and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, 1989-93. Also director of 185 Corporation (media arts organization), 1979-84.
PEN American Center, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Poets and Writers, Phi Beta Kappa, Fellowship of Southern Writers, Society of American Historians (fellow).
Ward Mathis Prize, 1977, for short story "Triptych," Class of 1870 Junior Prize, 1978, Francis LeMoyne Page Award, 1978, for fiction writing, and Class of 1859 Prize, 1979, all from Princeton University; Lillian Smith Award, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1991; Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, 1991-92; George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Award, 1991-92; National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, 1992; Goucher Chair of Distinguished Achievement, Goucher College, 1995—; National Book Award finalist, 1995, PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, 1996, Maryland Author Award, Maryland Library Association, 1996, and Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1996, all for All Souls' Rising; selected as one of the "Best American Novelists under Forty," Granta, 1996; John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, 2001; Andrew James Purdy Fiction Award, Hollins College.
The Washington Square Ensemble, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.
Waiting for the End of the World (also see below), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1985.
Straight Cut (also see below), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1986.
The Year of Silence, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
Soldier's Joy, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1989.
Doctor Sleep, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.
Save Me, Joe Louis, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1993.
All Souls' Rising, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
Ten Indians, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1996.
Master of the Crossroads, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
Anything Goes, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2002.
The Stone That the Builder Refused, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2004.
History of the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN), 1985.
Zero db (short fiction), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
(With others) George Garrett: An Interview, Northouse & Northouse (Dallas, TX), 1988.
Waiting for the End of the World (screenplay), Cine Paris, 1988.
The Safety Net (screenplay), New Horizons, 1990.
Barking Man and Other Stories (contains "Holding Together," "Black and Tan," "Customs of the Country," "Finding Natasha," "Dragon's Seed," "Barking Man," "Petit Cachou," "Witness," "Move on Up," and "Mr. Potatohead in Love,") Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1990.
Choc en Retour (screen adaptation of Straight Cut), Thomas Kuchenreuther (Munich, Germany), 1993.
New Millennium Writings, Spring & Summer 1996, New Messenger Books (Nashville, TN), 1996.
Narrative Design: A Writer's Guide to Structure, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of introduction) George Garrett, The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1998.
(Author of the libretto, with Elizabeth Spires and Elena Ruehr) Toussaint before the Spirits: A Chamber Opera in One Act, music by Elena Ruehr, dramatization and choreography by Nicola Hawkins, Ione Press (Boston, MA), 2005.
Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
Charm City: A Walk through Baltimore, Crown Journeys (New York, NY), 2007.
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Author of readers' guides, Franklin Library, 1979-83. Author of the preface to books, including A Wake for the Living, by Andrew Lytle, J.S. Sanders, 1992; and The King of Babylon Shall Not Come against You, by George Garrett, Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1997. Contributor to books, including Critical Essays on Peter Taylor, G.K. Hall, 1993; and Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past, edited by Mark Carnes, Simon & Schuster, 2001. Contributor of short fiction to numerous anthologies. Contributor of short fiction, essays, articles, and book reviews to periodicals, including Atlantic, Harper's, Antaeus, Boulevard, Cosmopolitan, Literary Review (London), Ploughshares, Columbia, Crescent Review, Northwest Review, Lowlands Review, Poughkeepsie Review, Stories, Tennessee Illustrated, Switch, Southern Review, Witness, Hudson Review, North American Review, Chronicles, World and I, New York Times Magazine, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, London Standard, Boston Globe, Southern Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Village Voice, and Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Several of Bell's works have been translated into other languages, including German, Danish, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, French, and Dutch.
"Madison Smartt Bell has been called a postmodernist, a minimalist, a prose poet of aloneness, and the best writer of his generation," wrote Donna Seaman in Booklist. "His distinctively riling fiction sizzles with tension and menace." Bell, who had published six novels and two short-story collections by the time he was thirty-five years old, usually writes about society's misfits. Most of his main characters are petty criminals, drifters, and lost souls whose lives Seaman describes as "fateful and apocalyptic."
Save Me, Joe Louis exemplifies the themes and situations found in much of Bell's fiction. In this novel, Macrae, an AWOL southerner, and Charlie, an unstable excon, forge a dangerous partnership soon after meeting in New York City. Together they embark on a smalltime crime spree that eventually leads them to flee for Macrae's backcountry homeland. There, the relationship sours and violence erupts. Macrae and Charlie are typical of Bell's protagonists in that there is little to like about them; many commentators have found that one of the great strengths of Bell's writing is his ability to generate characters for such people. Andy Solomon wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Bell "moves among modern thieves and lepers with charity. His is a Robert Browning empathy that creates no character so defiled that Bell cannot ask, ‘What is at the heart of this man that is in me as well?’ In Macrae, Bell once again takes a character you'd be disturbed to find living anywhere near your neighborhood, then moves relentlessly against the grain of popular thought to find the embers of Macrae's humanity beneath the ashes of his pain." Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Seaman called Save Me, Joe Louis "a work of ferocious intensity and poetic nihilism" in which Bell examines the "soul's disturbing capacity for both good and evil and the pointlessness of unexamined lives lived wholly by instinct and rage."
Rage is at the center of All Souls' Rising, an epic history of Haiti's war for independence, which broke out shortly after the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The strange alliances, hatred, and tensions among Haiti's rich white ruling class, the poor whites, the free mulattoes, and the island's mistreated slave population culminated in a fifteen-year bloodbath. In just the first few months of the revolution, 12,000 people perished and nearly 200 plantations were burned. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Vernon described Bell's historical novel as a "carefully drawn roadmap through hell." "All Souls' Rising," he continued, "is historical fiction in the monumental manner, heavily prefaced, prologued, glossaried and chronologized. It admirably diagrams the complex muddle of eighteenth-century Haiti, a slave society constructed along clearly racist lines but with surprising alliances. Haitian whites, split into royalists and revolutionaries, alternately compete for and spurn the loyalties of free mulattoes, for whom gradations of color are of central importance." Vernon added: "This bizarre and rich stew is the perfect stuff of fiction, whose subject is never reality but competing realities."
Countless atrocities were committed on all sides in the Haitian revolution, and Bell's book details many examples. For some reviewers, the gore was too much. Brian Morton expressed little enthusiasm for the novel, stating in the New Statesman that All Souls' Rising "is an ugly book about ugly times." Vernon also found the scenes of mutilation, rape, and violence relentless and warned that such repeated gore may numb the novel "into a handbook of splatter-punk. To his credit," Vernon continued, "Bell knows that violence may be the writer's hedge against mawkishness, but it also threatens to become mere slush, the sentimentality of gore." Still, Vernon found much to praise, especially Bell's ability to humanize all types of characters, and noted that while there are flaws in the novel, they are overshadowed by its power and intelligence: "All Souls' Rising, refreshingly ambitious and maximalist in its approach, takes enormous chances, and consequently will haunt readers long after plenty of flawless books have found their little slots on their narrow shelves."
A Publishers Weekly contributor expressed unreserved enthusiasm for All Souls' Rising, deeming it an "astonishing novel of epic scope." The reviewer argued that "Bell avoids the sense of victory that mars so many novels about revolution." After the many scenes of massacre, rape, and violence, the critic continued, "there can be no question of a winner of the battle for Haitian liberation. Surviving it was feat enough. In Bell's hands, the chaos … that surrounds these characters somehow elucidates the nobility of even the most craven among them."
Discussing All Souls' Rising with Ken Ringle, writing for the Washington Post, Bell compared Haiti's race conflict with conditions in the contemporary United States. "Haiti's was a full-blown race war," he explained, "over issues we've never really come to terms with in this country. Now we're having our own race war. But it's a slow-motion race war, disguised as crime in the streets. And nobody, black or white, wants to admit what's happening."
Bell's next novel, Ten Indians, centers on a white, middle-aged therapist for children named Mike Devlin who creates in the black ghetto of Baltimore a school for Tae Kwon Do, which ends up drawing people from two rivaling drug gangs. One member becomes involved with Devlin's seventeen-year-old daughter, Michelle. A contributor to Publishers Weekly wrote that in the novel, which switches between first-and third-person narratives, "Devlin's motivations … remain personally unclear, if admirable in the abstract," but the reviewer called Bell "a natural storyteller." John Skow, in a review for Time, noted that "the working out, told partly from Devlin's viewpoint and partly, in convincing street language, from that of the drug dealers and their women, is spare and cinematic." Skow summed up: "Good ending, good novel." In a review of Ten Indians, Booklist reviewer Michael Cart mentioned that the novel "would be a wonderful book for mature young adult readers" because it "captures the mix of literary quality and right-on relevance that, if put into the right readers' hands, can change lives—one individual at a time. It can, in fact, translate good intentions into redeeming reality."
Anything Goes, which centers on a bass player in a bar band, reflects a world Bell has some personal experience with. With poet Wyn Cooper, who came to fame as the author of the lyrics of the Sheryl Crow song All I Wanna Do, Bell collaborated on a CD, Anything Goes, which contains the songs mentioned in Bell's book. The CD garnered the duo a recording contract and a second album, titled Forty Words for Fear.
Bell's novel The Stone That the Builder Refused is the third in his trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, which began with All Souls' Rising and was followed by Master of the Crossroads. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, called The Stone That the Builder Refused "prodigious, breathtaking." Seaman went on to write that the author's "commitment to telling the whole true story of the world's only successful slave revolution is an act of sustained scholarship."
In addition to his novels about the Haitian Revolution, Bell has also written his first biography. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography delves into the life of the man who led the Haitian slave revolt that led to an nation independent of France. In a review in the Library Journal, Boyd Childress commented that the author "brings his considerable skills to nonfiction, producing a solid biography." Bell is also author of the nonfiction book Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the book about the discoverer of oxygen and one of the leading scientific minds during the Enlightenment "will appeal most to readers interested in the vibrant life and tragic death of a key figure in the history of science."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Save Me, Joe Louis, pp. 1468-1469; September 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of All Souls' Rising, p. 4; January 1, 1997, Michael Cart, "Good Intentions," review of Ten Indians, p. 834; September 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Stone That the Builder Refused, p. 179; February 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, p. 21.
Chemistry and Industry, April 23, 2007, "Victim of the Reign of Terror," p. 29.
Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1993, Andy Solomon, review of Save Me, Joe Louis, section 14, p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2004, review of The Stone That the Builder Refused, p. 927; October 15, 2006, review of Toussaint Louverture, p. 1052.
Library Journal, October 15, 2004, Robert E. Brown, review of The Stone That the Builder Refused, p. 52; March 1, 2007, Boyd Childress, review of Toussaint Louverture, p. 91.
New Statesman, February 9, 1996, Brian Morton, review of All Souls' Rising, pp. 37-38.
New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1995, John Vernon, review of All Souls' Rising, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, review of All Souls' Rising, p. 102; November 6, 1995, review of All Souls' Rising, p. 58; August 26, 1996, review of Ten Indians, p. 75; September 20, 2004, review of The Stone That the Builder Refused, p. 43; May 9, 2005, review of Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution, p. 60; November 6, 2006, review of Toussaint Louverture, p. 50.
Time, October 28, 1996, John Skow, review of Ten Indians, p. 110.
Washington Post, November 28, 1995, Ken Ringle, "Ripples from an Island; In Haiti's Blood-Red Past, a Lesson in Black & White," interview with author, pp. C1-C2.
Weekly Standard, March 19, 2007, "Black Napoleon; the Rise and Fall of Haiti's Liberating Tyrant."
American Scientist Online,http://www.americanscientist.org/ (August 1, 2007), "The Bookshelf Talks with Madison Smartt Bell."
Madison Smartt Bell Home Page,http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell (September 11, 2007).