Heard, Nathan C. 1936–2004
Nathan C. Heard 1936–2004
Somewhere between the sensationalist tragedies of Donald Goines and the complex psychological depictions of African-American experience in the writings of James Baldwin lie the novels of Nathan C. Heard. Best known for Howard Street, his groundbreaking 1968 portrayal of urban street life, Heard drew on his own experiences to a greater or lesser degree in four other novels. Howard Street, a bestseller when it first appeared, garnered tremendous publicity because Heard wrote it while incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison. His later works didn’t bring him nearly as much renown, but he continued to write and to work out the ideas that had begun to germinate in a prison cell.
Born on November 7, 1936, in Newark, New Jersey, Heard grew up within a block of the Howard Street he depicted in his debut novel. He was raised by his mother, a blues singer, and by his maternal grandmother. Heard left school at 15 and never finished high school. Later in life, when he had to fill out a form that required a summary of his education, he often wrote “New Jersey State Prison.” “He wore his prison time as a badge because…that’s where he became a man,” his daughter Natalie Heard was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.
Heard hoped to become a baseball player, and the only two books he read before going to prison were The Babe Ruth Stori; and The Lou Gehrig Story. He served for two years in the United States Air Force in 1952 and 1953. Before long, however, Heard drifted into a life of crime. He spent time in reform school in the late 1950s, and around 1959 he was given a nine-to-thirteen-year sentence on an armed robbery charge. At first, he told African American Review interviewer Eric Beaumont, he was like any other inmate: “… my thing was sports and standin’ around in the yard singin’ do-wop songs, you know, waiting for the moment when I’d get out.”
Reading at first was just a way to pass the time, and Heard would later come to believe that if prisons had had distractions like television and radio in the 1950s and 1960s he might never have become a writer. Heard turned to the science-fiction tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and also to pornographic novels he bought or traded with other inmates. His first attempts at writing were in the soft-core porn mode—“just copycat stuff, stuff that used to belong only on 42nd Street, but now it’s all over,” he told Beaumont. What motivated him was hearing about a California writer named Sanford Aday who had received a $2,000 advance for a novel. Heard thought that he could do as well or better.
Heard soon began talking with other inmates who read more widely. One, Harold Carrington (later the dedicatee of Howard Street), introduced Heard to African-American literature such as the poems of Langston Hughes, the fiction of James Baldwin, and the plays and essays of Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones and later in life a good friend of Heard’s. Heard also enjoyed the works of the flamboyant white novelist Norman Mailer and the minimalist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.
At a Glance…
Born on November 7, 1936, in Newark, NJ; died on March 16, 2004, in Livingston, NJ; son of Nathan E. Heard and Gladys Pruitt Heard (a blues singer); children: Melvin, Cliff, Natalie. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1952-53.
Career: Writer, 1968-2004; Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno), guest lecturer, 1969-70; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, assistant professor of English, 1970-72; musician, Newark, NJ, 1970s; speechwriter and editor, Newark, 1970s.
Selected memberships: National Society of Literature and the Arts.
Selected awards: New Jersey Association of Teachers of English, author’s award, 1969; Fresno State College, outstanding teaching award, 1970; Newark College of Engineering, author’s award, 1973.
After he started talking with other inmates who were members of the Nation of Islam, Heard learned about Malcolm X and read some of the historical and anthropological works that formed the intellectual underpinnings of black nationalism, among them Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, and the black popular historian J.A. Rogers. Heard wrote two full-length books of his own. One of them would eventually evolve into his second published book, To Reach a Dream. At the time, however, Heard didn’t feel his writing was ready for publication. He bought books on writing and tried again, revising his work after seeing two years tacked on to his sentence for leading a prison sit-down strike.
A draft of Howard Street was finished by 1963, well before the wave of realistic 1960s black fiction had begun to crest. But Heard stashed it away. He was released from prison in 1966 but was arrested once again for a parole violation 11 months later. Heard’s mother showed the manuscript of the novel to the lawyer she had hired, Joel Steinberg, and Steinberg, amazed, sent the book to literary agent Joel Reynolds. Reynolds forwarded it on to the Dial publishing house and, in November of 1968, a month before Heard got out of prison for good, Howard Street was published.
Heavily laden with sex and violence, and written straight from Heard’s own experiences, Howard Street featured a large cast of convincingly drawn characters who survive as best they can in the chaos of ghetto life. At its center are two brothers, Lonnie (“Hip”) and Franchot Richwood, one crooked and one straight. The book sold over one million copies and earned Heard a living for many years. Critics’ responses to the book were mixed, but it gained wide attention and was hailed as a masterpiece by poet Nikki Giovanni.
With endorsements like that, Heard found himself in demand as colleges and universities scrambled to redress past discrimination and hire black faculty. He taught creative writing for a year at Fresno State College in California, winning a distinguished teaching award there, and then taught writing and literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey for two years. Heard also hosted a television program called New Jersey Speaks while reworking ToReach a Dream.
By the time To Reach a Dream was published in 1972, however, Heard’s moment had passed. Although some reviewers praised the story of a streetwise man who sets out to fleece a wealthy widow and becomes involved in a murder plot, the book failed to live up to sales expectations. Teaching jobs dried up for Heard, who turned to a variety of moneymaking activities. Living in Newark and raising three children, he sang and played drums in jazz bands. In 1973 he appeared in the black-oriented action film Gordon’s War. In the late 1970s he wrote speeches for Newark mayor Kenneth Gibson and edited a city newsletter. He also contributed freelance columns to the New York Times.
Despite the downward trend in his fame, Heard kept on writing fiction. He produced several unusual novels that disappeared quickly from bookshelves but may merit renewed examination from readers and historians. A Cold Fire Burning (1974) dealt with the theme of interracial relationships, while When Shadows Fall (1977) featured a white rock guitarist as its central character and had a wide-ranging view of the drug scene as its theme. The most ambitious of the trio, House of Stammers (1983), depicted the prison setting that Heard had known firsthand; Heard considered it his best novel.
One noteworthy trait of Heard’s writing in general was his ability, somewhat akin to that of Ralph Ellison, to capture the varying dialects and lingoes that exist within the black community. “[Dialogue can change according to the person…,” Heard explained to Beaumont. “I write about people who say things differently. They have been living in the same neighborhood for years, but they come up with different words. And so, to me, that makes the dialogue live, because it’s always of the people.”
Heard lived to see the reissue of Howard Street, House of Slammers, and A Cold Fire Burning by the Los Angeles publisher Amok Press in the early 1990s. Howard Street was published in England as well. He struggled with Parkinson’s Disease and died of its effects on March 16, 2004. At his death, Heard left at least one substantially complete but unpublished manuscript, Summer’s Fool.
Howard Street, Dial, 1968.
To Reach a Dream, Dial, 1972.
A Cold Fire Burning, Simon & Schuster, 1974.
When Shadows Fall, Playboy Paperbacks, 1977.
The House of Slammers, Macmillan, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Gale, 1984.
African American Review, Fall 1994, p. 395.
Chicago Tribune, March 23, 2004, p. 9.
New York Times, December 11, 1983, sec. 7, p. 16; March 23, 2004, p. C17.
“Nathan C(liff) Heard,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 7, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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