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Attaway, William

Attaway, William

November 19, 1911
June 17, 1986

Novelist William Alexander Attaway was born in Greenville, Mississippi, to William Attaway, a physician, and Florence Parry Attaway, a schoolteacher, and was raised in Chicago. He attended local public schools and the University of Illinois, where he pursued literary interests. His father died during his second year in college and Attaway left school to hobo his way west, working along the way as a cabin boy, stevedore, and migrant laborer. He returned to Chicago and the university in 1933; there he published his first literary efforts. During this period Attaway became involved with the Illinois branch of the Federal Writers' Project and first met Richard Wright.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1936, Attaway moved to New York City, determined to earn his living as a writer. With the assistance of his younger sister, Ruth, an actress, he won a role in the road company of You Can't Take It with You. He was on tour with the play when he learned that his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), a naturalistic novel about the experiences of two white migrant farmworkers, had been accepted for publication.

Blood on the Forge (1941), Attaway's second and most significant novel, encapsulates the mass migration of southern blacks to northern cities as it traces the experiences of three half-brothers in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Although Blood on the Forge received favorable reviews, the novel was not a success in the literary marketplaceovershadowed, perhaps, by the triumph of Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son had become a best seller the previous year. Blood on the Forge was the high point of Attaway's literary career. In his later years, he wrote for radio, film, and television; developed a deep interest in Caribbean and U.S. folk music; and published two works, The Calypso Song Book (1957) and Hear America Singing (1967). He spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles and died in relative obscurity.

See also Federal Writers' Project; Literature of the United States


Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Yarborough, Richard. "Afterword." In Blood on the Forge, by William Attaway. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987.

james a. miller (1996)

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