Bradley, David Henry Jr. 1950–
David Henry Bradley Jr. 1950–
Educator, essayist, novelist
Throughout a career that has encompassed teaching, writing, and many varied community and professional services, David Henry Bradley Jr. has sought to illuminate the issues that are important to him and to the black community. He has used his many talents and his desire for the truth to push for progress in the thorny and often controversial world of race relations in the United States. Throughout his professional life, Bradley has proven himself unwilling to simply accept racial discrimination. Instead, he has worked tirelessly to help to create change in a flawed system that has too often resulted in racial inequality.
Bradley was born on September 7, 1950, in Bedford, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of David Henry Bradley, a minister and historian, who was 45 years old when his son was born. Bradley’s mother, Harriette Marie Jackson Bradley, was a local amateur historian. Bradley was descended from a long line of preachers—including not only his father, but also his grandfather and his great-grandfather.
The town in which Bradley was born would turn out to have an important influence on his career. Bedford was located along the Underground Railroad that many blacks had used during the Civil War to escape slavery. Bradley grew up hearing stories about these slave escapes, but as a child, racism had a more immediate impact than the stories from Bedford’s past. Bedford was just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and racism was a part of town life. There were only 50 black residents in Bedford during Bradley’s childhood, and he was always aware of being different and of the unease with which blacks and whites lived together in Bedford. The community of Bedford did not welcome its black residents, and Bradley would later tell an interviewer from Callaloo that while he was growing up, “Bedford was just hell.”
Bradley attended local public schools, graduating from Bedford Area High School in 1968. As an academically gifted student, Bradley earned several scholarships for college, including a Benjamin Franklin Scholarship, a National Achievement Scholarship, a Senatorial Scholarship, and a Presidential Scholarship. With such prestigious scholarships, it was easy for Bradley to be admitted into an Ivy League school like the University of Pennsylvania, but it was not as easy for him to feel at home there.
The predominately white farming community of Bedford was very different from the urban setting in which Bradley attended college. His rural background also set him apart from the other students at his college, and so it was in a bar on South Street, in a predominately black neighborhood, where Bradley felt most connected with other people. Besides companionship, these visits to his favorite South Street bar provided Bradley with something even more important—the inspiration for a first novel. South Street was also the inspiration for many of the short stories that he wrote for his creative writing classes. Bradley continued to carefully balance class work with his life on South Street, and in 1972, he received a Bachelor of Arts
At a Glance…
Career: Author, 1975–; J.B. Lippincott, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1974-76; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, professor of English, 1976-97; College of William & Mary, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Visiting Professor American Studies, 1997; City College at the City University of New York, visiting professor, 1998; Austin Pealy State University, Clarksville, TN, Roy Acuff Chair of Excellence in the Creative Arts, 2001; Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas, Austin, TX, visiting professor, 2002; University of Oregon, visiting professor in creative writing, 2000, 2002-03, director of the creative writing program, 2003-.
Selected awards: PEN/Faulkner Award, Hazelitt Award for Excellence in the Arts, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, nominee for the American Book Award, all for The Chaneysville Incident, 1982; John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, 1989; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for non fiction, 1991.
Addresses: Home —La Jolla, CA. Work— Creative Writing Program, 144 Columbia Hall, The University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, 97403-5225.
degree from the University of Pennsylvania, graduating summa cum laude with a major in creative writing and English.
At his college graduation, Bradley received a Thouron British-American Exchange Scholarship, which he used to attend the University of London. He completed a masters degree in United States studies at King’s College in London and graduated in January of 1974. While working on his graduate degree, Bradley used the time to enhance his writing skills. He also began to study the history of nineteenth century America, to study the background material that he needed for a novel that would tell the story of 13 slaves who chose death rather than capture. The two years in London gave Bradley the time to work out the details of plot and the historical background of what would later become his second novel.
Bradley had begun to write his first novel while still an undergraduate in college, although South Street would not be published until 1975. The first third of the book was written in a college writing workshop. In a 1984 interview for the journal, Callaloo, Bradley explained how he began to write his first book. He told interviewers Susan L. Blake and James A. Miller that there were only three other students in the workshop, and so “every four weeks, you had to come up with stuff. And so the first three chapters of South Street were done almost like Charles Dickens would have done it.” Like Dickens’ serialized novels, Bradley knew that he had to come up with another 40 pages of work each week, not only to meet his class deadlines, but also to keep up his scholarship. The final two thirds of the novel were very different in tone and perspective, according to Bradley, and when he sold the book to the publisher, he did so with a plan for revision to unify the work.
Bradley’s first novel focused on the stories of the people who had visited his favorite bar on South Street. Rather than rely on stereotypes, Bradley captured the genuine vitality and truth of the people he had met while in college. He also captured the humor of everyday life. Bradley told Blake and Miller that South Street was “Shakespearean comedy. Low comedy, low characters, lots of bawdy jokes, Falstaffian people, whores, the whole business.” The formula, patrons in a bar telling their stories, offered Bradley the opportunity to tell many stories, and to get the book published, he created a narrator to hold the disparate stories together, but it was the narrator that was the subject of criticism. One of the problems critics observed was the author’s inability to weave the stories together effectively and smoothly. For example, the common element for all the stories was a central character, who The New York Times Book Review critic, Jerome Charyn called, “predictable in his language and his suffering,” and whose presence failed to unify the book. But in spite of this small flaw, Bradley’s first novel was well received as a “deeply felt book,” and was considered a successful first novel.
The same year that South Street was published, in 1975, Bradley began his teaching career. His first position was a temporary teaching job, as a visiting lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania’s English department. During this same period of time, he was commuting to a job as an assistant editor at J.B. Lippincott in New York City. Then in 1976, Bradley became a visiting instructor at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he taught in the English department. Finally, in 1977, two years after the publication of his first book, Bradley was offered a position as an assistant professor of English at Temple University. The position was both an acknowledgement of his success as a novelist and an acknowledgement of all the possibilities that his future writing promised. Thus while he was teaching creative writing to students, Bradley also continued to work on a second novel.
Bradley began work on The Chaneysville Incident, his second novel, while in college, even before he began working on South Street, but it would take more than ten years before the book would be published. The impetus for the book was a story that Bradley’s mother had told him when he was 19 years old. She had heard a story while researching the history of black life for the Bedford County bicentennial celebration and she thought the story important enough to share with others. The story was about 13 escaped slaves who, when on the point of recapture, chose death rather than return to slavery. According to Bradley’s mother, the 13 were buried in unmarked graves on a nearby farm. This was the story that would later become the subject of his second novel, a historically-based, fictional account of these real people and real events.
In his 1984 interview with Callaloo, Bradley explained some of the “history” that he used in The Chaneysville Incident. He related that he “found the beginnings of lines of history,” anonymous documents in which Bradley “sort of filled in the dots” to create an authentic tone to his novel. The use of this history was ironic, since Bradley related in the Callaloo interview that he hated history, “on account of my father because my father refused to have any fun with the stuff.” While Bradley’s father was a trained historian, his style was very dry, a recitation of “name history” with no inclusion of events or personality. As Bradley demonstrated in The Chaneysville Incident, his use of history was vastly different from that of his father’s approach. Bradley made history anecdotal, a narrative of people who came to life, rather than simply names on a page.
With his second novel, Bradley’s technique showed the benefits of experience in his craft, as well as the extra time spent in research and writing. The work was judged smoother and the blending of different stories worked much better than in his first novel. Bradley was not at all sure that he would ever be able to actually complete the book or turn it into the novel he had envisioned for so many years. He was several months late submitting the book to his publisher, but eventually, the book came together, even though many of the novel’s final characters were not created until almost nine years into the writing of it. The Chaneysville Incident won a 1982 PEN/Faulkner Award, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters grant for literature, and was listed by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 1981. The Chaneysville Incident was also a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection in 1981 and a nominee and finalist for the National Book Award in 1983.
Bradley would continue to teach at Temple University for 20 years, but even while teaching at Temple, he would take on many additional duties, such as his work as a columnist for such diverse publications as Sportstyle Magazine, Goodlife Magazine, and The Pennsylvania Gazette. Bradley also wrote essays for a varied number of publications, including essays for Esquire, New York Times Magazine, and Parenting Magazine. Additionally, Bradley also wrote chapters for many books by other authors and wrote the introductions for the reissue editions of several of Richard Wright’s novels.
In 1989 Bradley was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction. This award was soon followed by a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for creative non-fiction in 1991. Both fellowships acknowledged Bradley’s talent and encouraged him to keep writing. Even while accomplishing so much as a teacher and writer, Bradley still found the time to serve as a judge or a panelist for several writing competitions, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, The New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Program.
Though he left Temple due to a contract dispute, Bradley continued to balance teaching and writing. In 1998 Bradley co-edited The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America. This non-fiction work was a comprehensive reference source on human rights and civil liberties that examined these topics from the perspective of race, gender, age, and religion, as well as several other points of reference. That same year, Bradley was a visiting professor of English at City College of the City University of New York. Then in 2000, Bradley spent the spring semester as a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he spoke to Jack Clifford of the Oregon Daily Emerald about racial discrimination and the need for diversity in college classrooms. One of Bradley’s focuses has always been on race and the “unfulfilled promises” that were designed to end racial inequity and discrimination, a subject that he has been working on for a forthcoming book. In this same interview, Bradley also mentioned the need for more black professors on college campuses. According to Bradley, the number of black staff and administrators is unimportant on a college campus. He told Clifford that “the main interaction at a university is teacher-to-student, so I don’t care if the administration is completely white. If you have enough strange looking people on your faculty, then the educational message is going to get through.” Bradley’s willingness to teach at so many different colleges has been one way to make diversity in campus faculty more visible.
By the fall of 2000, Bradley had become the distinguished visiting professor at the Michener Center for Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin. The following year found Bradley teaching at Austin Pealy State College in Clarksville, Tennessee, while in 2002, he was back at the Michener Center and at the University of Oregon again. While he has taught at these different universities, Bradley has also continued working on another book, a non-fiction work called, The Bondage Hypothesis: Meditations on Race, History and America. In this newest book, a series of essays on race, Bradley will examine the persistent problem of race in America, which Bradley hopes will address the problems of racism in such a way that they can be understood clearly. In a 2003 interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Bradley mentioned that he was still working on The Bondage Hypothesis, doing revisions. At the same time, he was also working on a third novel, The Book of Wisdom, and a collection of stories, Raytown. Bradley, a perfectionist, has been known to take ten years or more to write and revise any one of his works, but in the end, his books have offered a rare insight into important social issues. If his past work has been any indicator, it seems certain that his soon-to-be published books will once again shed light on an area in need of careful examination. Bradley told CBB that he has accepted a permanent position as the director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon, effective with the fall 2003 semester. Clearly, this man has proved that if the desire to express one’s convictions exists, so too, does the time.
Co-editor with Shelley Fisher-Fishkin, The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America, M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Introduction to Native Son, reissue Book-of-the Month club edition, 1987.
Introduction to Eight Men, reissue Thunder’s Mouth Press edition, 1987.
Introduction to Twelve Million Black Voices, reissue Thunder’s Mouth Press edition, 1988.
“My Hero Malcolm X,” Esquire, December, 1983.
“Portrait of a Small Black Church,” New York Times Magazine, June, 1985.
“Desegregation Thirty Years Later: Little Rock, Arkansas,” Parenting Magazine, September, 1987.
South Street, Viking, 1975, reprinted, Scribner’s, 1986.
The Chaneysville Incident, Harper, 1981.
Callaloo, Vol. 7, No 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 19-39.
New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1975, pp. 30, 32.
Oregon Daily Emerald, February 17, 2000.
W & M News, October 16, 1997.
“David (Henry) (Jr.) Bradley,” Discovering Authors, Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Student Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC/ (May 22, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from two email interviews with Contemporary Black Biography on March 14, 2003, and on March 21, 2003, as well as from a curriculum vitae on March 14, 2003.
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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