Hercules, Frank 1911–1996
Frank Hercules 1911–1996
A fixture of intellectual life for several decades in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, Frank Hercules was uniquely situated to understand the American racial dilemma. Born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, he arrived in New York as a young man after a turbulent life that had already been touched by the racism of British colonialism. In novels and nonfiction writings that included several widely circulated magazine articles, Hercules scrutinized both Trinidadian and American societies. Hercules was a writer of varied talents, capable of both sharp satire and serious examinations of the lives of those on the wrong side of Western society’s racial divide.
Hercules was born in the Trinidadian capital of Port-of-Spain, into a well-to-do household, on February 12, 1911. His father Felix Hercules was a Venezuelan-born teacher and government employee who supported British rule over the island (Trinidad became independent from Britain in the 1960s). Despite his loyalty to the Crown, Felix Hercules was thrown out of Trinidad by the British after he lectured in support of black workers in England during World War I; when labor unrest flared in nearby Jamaica, he was accused of inciting disorder. “I did not understand what had happened to my father, why he was no longer at home, and why my mother walked up and down the house sobbing in the dead of night,” Hercules told the Guardian of London. The young Hercules drew a connection “between British colonialism and the blighted lives of distraught women; between British colonialism and the broken lives of banished men.”
Even though his father was living in exile in the United States, Hercules had an outwardly comfortable childhood in Trinidad. He enjoyed the best education the British colonial system had to offer, and when he was 17 he set sail for London with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Studying law at an institution called the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple of the Inns of the Court, Hercules enjoyed the flourishing intellectual life of London in the mid-1930s. A voracious reader since childhood, he soaked up the visionary writings of novelists such as Aldous Huxley and read a wide range of English classics. He later cited the Bible as a stylistic inspiration, both for the concise power in its use of language and for its resonant prophetic tone.
Hercules was less satisfied, however, with his career plans. He began to feel that by becoming a lawyer under the British system he would be helping to keep a structure of oppression in place in his homeland. On a visit back home, he realized that if he continued along the path he was following, he “would either become a colossal colonial snob or a revolutionary of the most incendiary sort,” as he told the New York Times. So Hercules chose a third way. In the early 1940s, although he was married to a Trinidadian musician and music scholar named Olive Walke and she was pregnant with his son at the time, Hercules left his marriage to move to the United States.
But his decision wasn’t entirely clear-cut. At one point, in 1950, Hercules returned to London to resume his
At a Glance…
Born on February 12, 1911, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; died on May 6, 1996, in New York; married Olive Walke (divorced); married Dellora Howard, 1946; children: one son from first marriage. Education: Attended Honourable Society of the Middle Temple of the Inns of the Court, London, England, 1935-39, 1950-51.
Career: Started clothing manufacturing business, New York, early 1940s; insurance office worker, New York, late 1940s-1950s; writer, late 1950s-96.
Awards: Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship, Middlebury, VT, 1961; Rockefeller Fellowship, 1977; Writer-in-residence, Xavier University, New Orleans.
abandoned law studies, but soon returned to New York. He finally settled in Harlem with his second wife, Dellora Howard, a half-Trinidadian schoolteacher whom he married in 1946. (She later became one of New York City’s first black school administrators.) For the better part of two decades, Hercules pursued a business career. He started a line of clothing and, after that enterprise failed, worked in an insurance office.
What Hercules called “the monolithic institution of white supremacy” in America proved even worse than what he had experienced in Trinidad, according to the Guardian. On arriving in the United States he found that hotels, even one in Harlem, refused him admission. “Here I knew for the first time what it meant to be a black man,” Hercules told the New York Times. Finding himself seated in hidden corners of restaurants even when he went out with white friends, Hercules related to the Times that he was “rather amused because I’ve always felt superior to most white people. Then, I kept away from such places as much as I could, because I did not want to be insulted by people I didn’t regard as my equals.”
Hercules flirted for a time with the black nationalist movements that had taken root in Harlem a generation earlier under the leadership of the charismatic (and Caribbean-born) orator Marcus Garvey. He began spending his free time at the National African Memorial Bookstore, located at Seventh Avenue and 125th Street (popularly called the “Crossroads of Black America”) and operated by the Afrocentrist writer, commentator, and proto-rapper Oscar Micheaux. Hercules, who had always had a secret ambition to become a writer but had ignored it as he pursued other professional goals, now felt inspired. Having already written at least one short article on black history, he set out to distill his Trinidadian experiences into a novel. He was in his early 40s—late in life to be undertaking a writing career.
At first, publishers did not know what to make of Hercules, who had taken American citizenship in 1959 but was neither exactly Trinidadian nor African American. One editor told him that he did not speak like a black American. Hercules recalled his response in an interview with the New York Times: “How is a Negro supposed to speak—except with a lot of pain, and sometimes with humor?” Hercules finally landed a contract with the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing house, and his novel Where the Hummingbird Flies appeared in 1961.
Set in Trinidad, the novel brutally satirized the island’s racial caste system and the entire social hierarchy the British had put in place. A Guardian review noted that Hercules “animates an absurd milieu where skin color, hair texture, ethnic features, business acumen, respectability, and sometimes intelligence have to be carefully weighed before an individual can be given a social acceptability rating.” Where the Hummingbird Flies was named one of the five best first novels of the year by Newsweek magazine, was translated into German, and won Hercules a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.
Hercules turned to his adopted home for inspiration for his second book. I Want a Black Doll, published in 1967, had a bleaker tone although it retained some comic elements. The novel traced the troubled path and the eventual dissolution into violence of an interracial marriage. This novel again found success in Europe, appearing in translation in Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, and the Netherlands. Hercules also wrote nonfiction pieces; the first of two long magazine articles he wrote about Harlem, “The Decline and Fall of Sugar Hill,” appeared in 1965 in the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine. The second, “To Live in Harlem,” was published by National Geographic in 1977 and was later read into the U.S. Congressional Record by New York Senator Jacob Javits.
Hercules wrote one book-length nonfiction study, American Society and Black Revolution, which was published in 1972. The book argued that racism lay at the center of American ideology, pointing to the systematic exclusion of blacks from the corridors of power and the benefits of American industrial might. Hercules also took issue with U.S. black leadership and its generally accommodating approaches. Probably his most militant work, American Society and Black Revolution nevertheless looked to a future of cooperation between blacks and whites rather than to black nationalist solutions. At one point in the book, Hercules forecast the election four years later of Georgia governor Jimmy Carter to the U.S. presidency—a striking prediction given that Carter at the time was almost completely unknown. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) placed copies of American Society and the Black Revolution in classrooms of historically black institutions across the United States
In his final book, On Leaving Paradise, Hercules returned to a Trinidadian setting and a more comic tone, although one that was no less critical toward the West. The novel humorously describes the adventures of a young Trinidadian man who goes to live in England, and it is seasoned with Trinidadian folk humor. “Ribald, and often hilarious,” according to the Guardian, the novel “asserted the gross facts of human biology and psychology, repressed by a colonial upbringing and conditioning.”
Several honors came to Hercules later in his life; including a Rockefeller fellowship at the Institute for Humanistic Studies in 1967. He also served on the final award review panel of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hercules died in New York on May 6, 1996, leaving two unpublished manuscripts; Sunrise at Midnight, a novel exploring the relationship between Germans and Jews, was substantially complete, while The Portuguese Earrings, a tale of the slave trade, was incomplete. Unlike most expatriates, Hercules had always reserved his greatest affection for his adopted Harlem home—and at his death, although he was mourned by the literary community in the United States, his books were almost unknown in Trinidad.
Where the Hummingbird Flies (novel), Harcourt, 1961.
I Want a Black Doll (novel), Simon & Schuster, 1967. American Society and Black Revolution (nonfiction), Harcourt, 1972.
On Leaving Paradise (novel), Harcourt, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, vol. 33, Gale, 1984.
Guardian (London, England), May 28, 1996, p. 11.
New York Times, July 14, 1975, p. C25; May 13, 1996, p. B10.
“Frank E.M. Hercules,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC(February 16, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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