French, Albert 1943–
Albert French 1943–
Albert French’s writing talent appeared unexpectedly. As he fought depression following the horror of his Vietnam combat experiences and the failure of his magazine, the former photojournalist wrote a highly-acclaimed memoir and a noteworthy fictional novel. Among the themes of his books are innocence destroyed by war, racial injustice in the South, and the terror of dying young.
French’s lean, moderated Vietnam memoir Patches of Fire was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1997. It also inspired a classical music composer to write a symphony which was performed in Memphis, Tennessee that same year. His first book, Billy, told the story of a Southern black child sent to the electric chair. Billy immediately earned French literary acclaim for the genuine quality of the narrative voice and the use of powerful details of locale and character. In England, Billy reached the London Times bestseller list and formed the basis of a radio sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Albert French was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 5, 1943. He attended three different high schools, but graduated from Penn Hills in 1962. Although his first cousin, John Edgar Wideman, became a popular prize-winning author, French did not do any writing during his adolescence. “I was on the lucky list to graduate from high school,” French told Mike Sula in In Pittsburgh “I passed anything I studied for. It was just getting me to study.”
Following his graduation from high school, French joined the Marines. He served as a corporal and infantryman in Vietnam, but was shipped back to the United States in 1965 after being wounded in action. Upon his discharge from the Marines in 1967, French worked for a short time at a blast furnace in a Pittsburgh mill, then trained himself to take pictures. … “I started taking photographs and when King was assassinated I went down to Atlanta for the funeral with this thing that wasn’t any more than an instamatic,” he said to Mike Sula in In Pittsburgh. He obtained a job as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and worked there as a photojournalist for 13 years. French eventually left the Gazette to publish his own woman’s magazine, Pittsburgh Preview. Despite his efforts, the magazine failed.
Severely depressed by the collapse of the Pittsburgh
At a Glance…
Born Albert French, July 5, 1943, in Pittsburgh, PA; stepson of Harry King (a retired government employee) and son of Martha King (a housewife), Education: Penn Hilts High School, graduated 1962,
Career: Served with US. Marines, 1963-37 fought in Vietnam as a corporal and infantryman; worked for 13 years as a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette; co-founded a woman’s magazine, Pittsburgh Preview; embarked on a career as an author; his first book of fiction, Billy, was published in 1993; his second work of fiction, Holly, was published in 1995; his initial ν book of non-fiction, Patches of Fire, was published in 1997; his book, I Can’t Wait on God, was published in 1998.
Awards: Patches of fire was named a New York Times notable book in 1997.
Addresses: Home— 72-19 Thomas Blvd., Pittsburgh, PA 15208.
Preview, French remained isolated in his apartment for three years. “I woke up 46 years old and jobless,” he admitted to Mike Sula in the Chicago Reader. “My life was completely destroyed. I slept a lot. Jumped every time the phone rang.” In a desperate attempt to free himself from depression, French began writing about his combat experiences in Vietnam. Within two months, he finished a book entitled Patches of Fire. “I wanted to write not from the perspective of Rambo,” he commented to Mel Gussow in The New York Times, “but just about things we knew, things we were afraid of, shadows, what it looked like at night on the battlefield.” In Patches of Fire, French told of returning to an America polarized by racial unrest after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also wrote of his attempt to come to terms with his wartime memories. Despite encouragement from John Edgar Wideman’s agent, French was unable to find a publisher for his memoir, so he shelved it and began writing fiction.
After viewing a television talk show about children on death row, French wrote his first novel. The novel, entitled Billy, is the story of ten-year-old Billy Lee Turner who strays into the white area of his little Southern town with another boy in the 1930’s. They are immediately set upon by two white teenagers who become enraged at the sight of black kids swimming in a backyard pond. Attempting to protect himself, Billy stabs one of the teenagers. When the teenager dies, the entire white community thirsts for vengeance. Billy’s mother tries to spirit him to safety, but he is captured and sentenced to death in the electric chair.
French wrote Billy during a frenetic six-week period. The novel, published in 1993, received such favorable reviews that French became a literary celebrity and was interviewed extensively on radio and television. Billy was also translated and published in England, France, Germany, Holland, and Italy. Film rights to the novel were sold to Phillip Hoss, the director of the documentary, Money Man, and the feature movie, Music of Chance.
Billy was hailed by critics for its power, convincing rural voice, and tragic proportions. Publishers Weekly called the novel “harrowing” and “forcefully told.” Booklist stated, “This stunning first novel… seems to have sprung full blown from the red dirt of the land it portrays…. This is an American tragedy, stark and resonant, told in a voice as unwavering as the August sun and timeless as sorrow.” In her review of Billy for New York magazine Rhoda Koenig observed, “Albert French’s novel… is told in the voice of an anonymous, omniscient narrator whose tough, earthy dialect vividly paints this ugly little place….” In The New York Times Book Review Michael Dorris wrote “Billy is tragedy in the classical mode, mythic in the sense that instead of the surprise, the twists of plot we might discover in a more typical contemporary novel, here we are confirmed in our worst dreads as destiny immutably and shockingly unfolds.”
Following the success of Billy, French penned his second novel, Holly, which was published in 1995. The novel tells of an illicit love affair between Holly, a 19-year-old white girl and Elias, a young black artist and combat veteran. Holly unfolds in a small North Carolina town affected by the tragedies of the Second World War. Holly’s brother returns from the Pacific after being shot in the head, while her fiance is killed in action. Eventually, the nature of Elias and Holly’s relationship is revealed, turning the normally placid town into a place of terror and hate.
Critical reviews of Holly were mixed. In The Quarterly Black Review Scott Martelle commented, “All good writing is rooted in observation, and French has a sharp eye. He writes in a terse, revealing style, like Pete Dexter working in dialect, wasting few words or scenes.” But Martelle added, “We don’t understand Holly’s motives or emotions, particularly about blacks, until late in the book. And even then, while in the arms of her black lover, it’s ambiguous…. French doesn’t quite get at the underlying tension and pain of her acting against lifelong training.” In the Chicago Tribune Phillip Graham described the book as having “an overall rushed, unfinished quality” but noted “the distinctive poetry of much of its prose.”
French’s Vietnam memoir, Patches of Fire, was published in 1997. Publishers Weekly labeled the book a “fine memoir” and further commented, “The book follows the pattern established after WWI by Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves in seeking to tell ’a story of war’ as a literary construction. Like his predecessors, French employs a spare, almost understated style—a welcome relief from Vietnam narratives that all too often seek to make their points by piling on the adjectives.” Library Journal described Patches of Fire as “a stunning account of [French’s] own American experience.” The reviewer added, “Told with unflinching honesty, his work [also] is the story of his return to a country torn by civil unrest and of his painstaking efforts to defeat his inner demons and make a place for himself as a black man in white America.”
In 1997, French began writing a novel about the people who live in his economically depressed neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Entitled I Can’t Waiton God, the novel is set in the 1950s and centers on the lives of Jeremiah Henderson and his girlfriend Willet Mercer, who dream of escaping the slums of Pittsburgh for New York City.
Whether he is describing racial prejudice and injustice, combat, or premature death, none of French’s works are completely fictional. “These people exist,” he told Mel Gussow in The New York Times. “I become a coupling device between their world and this world.” In describing his formula for creating a novel, French remarked in Patches of Fire, “I don’t really plan things when I write, I just do it. I just try and see the people I’m writing about. They didn’t plan too much, they just lived, and I just wrote about their lives, their time.” In In Pittsburgh, French encouraged aspiring writers, “Keep your eye on the target. Just keep doing it and eventually something will happen.”
Billy, Viking, 1993.
Holly, Viking, 1995.
Patches of Fire, Anchor Books, 1997.
I Can’t Wait on God, Anchor Books, 1998.
Patches of Fire, Anchor Books, 1997, pp. 11, 22, 46, 152, 156-159, 185, 187, 192, 194, 199, 203-204, 207, 225, 233.
Booklist, October 1, 1993, p. 254; April 15, 1995.
Chicago Reader, June 23, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1993; July 18, 1995.
Commercial Appeal, June 4, 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 86, 1994 Year-book, pp. 61-67.
In Pittsburgh, December 29, 1993-January 5, 1994, pp. 27, 29.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1995.
Library Journal, January 1997, p. 108.
New York, December 13, 1993, p. 90.
New York Daily News, November 14, 1993.
New York Times, June 4, 1997, p. C1, C15.
New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1993, p. 7; June 4, 1994.
Observer, February 6, 1994, p. 18.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 28, 1993.
Publishers Weekly, August 30, 1993, p. 73; November 25, 1996, p. 64; February 27, 1995.
Quarterly Black Review, 1995.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from Anchor Books, Viking, an interview with Albert French.
Website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/amex/vietnam/reflect/french.html on the World Wide Web.
—Alison Carb Sussman
"French, Albert 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/french-albert-1943
"French, Albert 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/french-albert-1943