Colter, Cyrus J. 1910–2002
Cyrus J. Colter 1910–2002
Writer, lawyer, administrator
After having worked as a lawyer for most of his life, Cyrus J. Colter later became known as a writer who created realistic black characters from every walk of life. Colter began his writing career at the age of 50, after years as both an attorney and administrative official in Chicago. He was impressed with 19th century Russian writers who created characters from a broad range of social classes. Colter noticed that this feature was missing from black literature, which tended to focus primarily on poor black characters. Colter began writing in an effort to introduce middle and upper-class black characters into literature. He published two collections of short stories and five novels in his 40-year career as a writer. In all of his works, Colter presented a deterministic view of life, showing characters who were trapped in their environments and their pasts.
Cyrus J. Colter was born on January 8, 1910, in Noblesville, Indiana. The families of both of his parents had moved to rural Indiana from North Carolina in the 1830s in search of a safe home for free blacks. Colter was the eldest child of James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Bassett Colter. His father was an insurance salesman, actor, musician, and regional director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Following the death of his mother when he was six years old, Colter and his younger sister were raised primarily by their maternal grandparents. Due to his father’s various jobs, the Colters moved from Noblesville to Greensboro, Indiana, and later to Youngstown, Ohio.
Colter went to high school at the Rayen Academy, a private school in Youngstown. He started his college career at Youngstown University and later transferred to Ohio State University. In 1936 he moved to Chicago to attend Kent College of Law. He received his law degree in 1940, passed the Illinois bar in the same year, and set up a private practice on the South Side of Chicago. He also worked as a U.S. Deputy Internal Revenue Service collector from 1940 to 1942. By the mid-1930s the South Side of Chicago was experiencing an artistic and intellectual renaissance comparable to New York City’s Harlem. Elite black intellectuals worked and lived together in a neighborhood called “Black Belt”—later renamed to “Bronzeville.” Many of these famous intellectuals socialized at the Parkway Community Center, where Colter served as a board member. As he explained to
Born January 8, 1910, in Noblesville, IN died April 15, 2002, in Evanston, IL; son of: James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Bassett Colter; married Imogene Mackay (died 1984) on January 1, 1943. Education: Attended Youngstown University and Ohio State University; Kent College of Law, Chicago, IL, LL.B., 1940. Military: U.S. Army, 1942-46, captain.
Career: Lawyer, 1940-42, 1946-51; U.S. Deputy Internal Revenue Service collector, 1940-42; U.S. Army, 1942-46; Commerce Commissioner for the State of IL, 1951-73; Writer, 1960-02.
Memberships: National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Chicago Urban League; Chicago Bar Association; board, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; board, Chicago Historical Society; board, WTTW-TV, Chicago; board, Messenger Foundation.
Awards: Fiction prize, University of Iowa School of Letters, 1971; Fiction award, Chicago Friends of Literature, 1971; Fiction award, Society of Midland Authors, 1971; Honorary doctorate, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1977; Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award, Friends of the Chicago Public Library, 1980; TriQuarterly Award, 1991; Inductee, Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, 1998; Public Humanitarian Award, Illinois Humanities Council.
Minette McGhee of the Chicago Sun-Times, “It was an interesting place because all the great black writers and academics came through there.”
In 1942 Colter joined the army and was sent to Europe to fight in World War II. He fought for the liberation of Italy as part of the Fifth Army Field Artillery unit under General Mark Clark. In 1943 he married Imogene Mackay, a teacher who had graduated from Northwestern University and a teacher. Irnogene was his lifelong partner and literary critic until her death in 1984.
Colter served in the army until 1946, rising to the rank of captain. When he finished his military service, he returned to Chicago and continued practicing law until 1951. In 1951 Colter was appointed as the commerce commissioner for the state of Illinois by Governor Adlai Stevenson. He was the second black person to hold this position, and served in the role until 1973. Colter was also involved in numerous civic groups in Chicago. For example, he served on the boards of directors for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago television station WTTW-TV, and the Chicago Historical Society.
Colter did not begin his writing career until he was 50 years old. As a college student at Ohio State University he enjoyed an English course that introduced him to the great Russian writers Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy. He was especially impressed by Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Despite being surrounded by writers, artists, and intellectuals as a young man, Colter never found time to pursue his literary interests. However, in 1960 he decided to take an accelerated reading program focusing on Russian literature.
Colter appreciated 19th century Russian literature because the writers were able to capture the experiences of characters from a range of social classes—from peasants to nobility. Colter noticed that black literature tended to focus mainly on the poor and it neglected the experiences of blacks from other social backgrounds. As Colter told Susan Skramstad in a 1980 interview for Story Quarterly, he wanted to be “someone who would write—not only about the ghetto dweller—but about the black middle class and the black intelligentsia.” He began to write short vignettes to develop a variety of characters. He then turned these into short stories.
Colter wrote his first short story in 1960 and sent it to various magazines for publication. It was rejected by most of the well-known magazines. His story, “A Chance Meeting,” was eventually published in an Irish magazine called Threshold. A year later he published another short story, “The Lookout,” in the University of Kansas City Review —later renamed New Letters. Between 1960 and 1976 Colter published 24 short stories in various magazines and literary journals.
Colter’s first book, a collection of short stories titled The Beach Umbrella was published in 1970. It contained 14 stories set in Chicago and dealing with a variety of black characters. The title story was about a man who tried to use material possessions, namely a beach umbrella, to gain access to a social circle of beach dwellers. The man ultimately failed and was destined to be alone in life. The Beach Umbrella won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, chosen by notable authors Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Colter also received fiction awards from the Chicago Friends of Literature and the Society of Midland Authors for the collection.
In this compilation of short stories, Colter presented a rather deterministic view of life, which would characterize his later works as well. “Though the situations he describes occur in the humanly constructed world of social and personal relationships, Colter’s determinism allows no modification through social change or human will …” Contemporary Novelists wrote of Colter in 1996. Colter’s characters suffered from alienation, guilt, emptiness, and loneliness. They were trapped in their own existence, unable to transcend their environment. “They inevitably end in ruin and disillusionment,” wrote John O’Brien in Interviews with Black Writers, “not because they are black or poor, but because they are condemned to being human. Poverty and racism are merely two forms of determinism that can infect their lives.”
Another important theme in Colter’s works was his exploration of what it meant to be black. Rather than make a political statement representing all African Americans, Colter let each of his characters define the issue according to their own personality. As Colter told Skramstad, “What makes writing so intriguing for me is that it is a mission of self-discovery.” Colter advocated neither separatism nor assimilation, but rather exposed the range of views on the matter and the complexity of the question. Colter told O’Brien, “… when blacks solve their immediate problem, which is ridding the country of the denial of opportunity based on race … then they will find themselves on the threshold of other monumental problems of the human condition.”
In 1972 Colter published his first novel called The Rivers of Eros. In the novel he explored the struggle of Clotilda Pilgrim, a black woman who tries to protect her granddaughter from a bad relationship while she wrestles with the guilt from a similar mistake she made in her past. The name of the book reflects its style, which is much like a Greek tragedy. A year later Colter wrote The Hippodrome, another story in which the main character struggles with his past failures and guilt. In the book a religious man named Jackson Yaeger murders his wife and her lover. He hides from the police in a brothel and is forced to engage in sexual activities that he considers immoral. This was Colter’s most controversial novel because of the sexual content, but Colter defended its exploration of morality.
During the next six years Colter worked on his third novel, Night Studies. Published in 1979 this was Colter’s longest and most ambitious work, spanning several continents and several centuries. The focal character, John Calvin Knight, is the leader of the Black People’s Congress who is searching for the meaning of blackness. The personal stories of several other characters are interwoven with Knight’s in order to influence his understanding of the black experience. Night Studies was the first work in which Colter wrote about both black and white characters. “There is nothing simplistic about the interaction between the races,” Colter told Skramstad, “and one makes a great mistake in oversimplifying these relationships.” This novel was generally well received and won the Carl Sandberg Literary Arts Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.
In 1988 Colter published another collection containing new stories, as well as pieces previously published in The Beach Umbrella and in various magazines. The book, The Amoralists and Other Tales, continued Colter’s quest into the emotional complexity of life. Bert Atkinson of the New York Times wrote a review of the book. He stated, “Mr. Colter’s themes are universal and familiar, but he gives them refreshing twists.” That year Colter published another novel titled The Chocolate Soldier, about the complicated and disturbing relationship between a black pastor and a black soldier. Colter experimented with a different narrative technique by letting the narrator—the pastor—become a character of questionable morality while telling the tale of the soldier’s misdeeds. Colter’s last novel, City of Light, was published in 1993. It told the story of a well-educated, African-American man who moves to Paris in order to establish an organization to help blacks who wants to settle in Africa.
Colter’s short stories were generally well-liked by critics. He was perceived as an artist who crafted compelling characters. “Mr. Colter not only engages his readers, he invites us to participate in his story world beyond the point at which he leaves us,” wrote Bert Atkinson in the New York Times. “He shows an acute insight into human behavior and uses all of his senses to the fullest: he gives us memorable characters with authentic voices.”
Some critics called Colter’s work old-fashioned because his storytelling style reflected classical literature, such as the 19th century Russian novelists or the Greek tragedians; however, Colter believed that certain guidelines had to be followed in every work of fiction. Others embraced Colter’s style. “To the naive, the stories will seem ‘old-fashioned,’ but fashion has nothing … to do with art, and it is the art of these stories that makes them so penetrating and disturbing,” wrote John O’Brien in a review of The Beach Umbrella for Review of Contemporary Fiction.
Compared to his short stories, Colter’s novels received mixed reviews. For example, in reviewing City of Light, Chicago Sun-Times critic Martin Brady wrote, “Previous Colter novels such as The Hippodrome and A Chocolate Soldier have received high critical praise. This time around, perhaps the best final remark would be that City of Light, its banners of sincerity flying high, goes out with both a bang and a whimper.” Nonetheless, Colter’s work established him as a key black literary figure in the 20th century. As a result of his impact on the literary world, Colter was offered a position at Northwestern University. He served as the Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities and the Chair of the Department of African American Studies until 1978. In 1977 Colter was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois.
In 1991 Colter received the first TriQuarterly Award in recognition of his entire body of work. In the award announcement, TriQuarterly magazine stated, “His fiction is distinguished by its great range across subject and psyche, its moral courage and its stylistic virtues.” In 1998 Colter was inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. He also received a Public Humanitarian Award from the Illinois Humanities Council. His works have been translated into German, Italian, Hungarian, Danish, and Japanese. Cyrus Colter died on April 15, 2002 in Evanston, Illinois. He was 92 years old.
The Beach Umbrella, University of Iowa Press, 1970.
The Rivers of Eros, Swallow Press, 1972.
The Hippodrome, Swallow Press, 1973.
Night Studies, Swallow Press, 1979.
The Amoralists and Other Tales: Collected Stories, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.
A Chocolate Soldier, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.
City of Light, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1993.
The Beach Umbrella and Other Stories, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 1996.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press, 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, The Gale Group, 1984.
Nelson, Emmanuel S. (editor), Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1999.
O’Brien, John (editor), Interviews with Black Writers, Liveright, 1973.
American Visions, August, 1991, pp. 34-36.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 21, 1993, p. 31; September 12, 1993, p. 12.
New York Times, February 12, 1989; April 19, 2002, p. A25.
Publisher’s Weekly, August 16, 1993, p. 99.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1994, p. 206; Spring, 1997, p. 178.
Story Quarterly, 1980, pp. 64-72.
TriQuarterly, Fall 1991, pp. 7-14.
—Janet P. Stamatel
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