Bradley, David (Henry, Jr.)
BRADLEY, David (Henry, Jr.)
Nationality: American. Born: Bedford, Pennsylvania, 7 September 1950. Education: Bedford Area High School, graduated 1968; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Franklin scholar, Presidential scholar), 1968-72, B.A. (summa cum laude) in creative writing 1972; King's College, University of London (Thouron scholar), 1972-74, M.A. in area studies 1974. Career: Reader and assistant editor, J.B. Lippincott, publishers, Philadelphia, 1974-76; visiting lecturer in English, University of Pennsylvania, 1975. Visiting instructor, 1976-77, assistant professor, 1977-82, associate professor of English, 1982-89, professor, 1989-96, Temple University, Philadelphia. Editorial consultant, Lippincott, 1977-78, and Ace Science Fiction, New York, 1979; visiting lecturer, San Diego State University, 1980-81. Member of the Executive Board, PEN American Center, 1982-84. Awards: American Academy award, 1982; PEN-Faulkner award, 1982. Agent: Wendy Weil, Julian Bach Literary Agency, 747 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10017. Address: P.O. Box 12681, La Jolla, California 92039-2681, U.S.A.
South Street. New York, Grossman, 1975.
The Chaneysville Incident. New York, Harper, 1981; London, Serpent's Tail, 1986.
The Lodestar Project. New York, Pocket Books, 1986.
Uncollected Short Story
From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre: Preparing the Play for the Stage. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991
Editor, with Shelley Fisher Fishkin, The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America. Armonk, New York, Sharpe Reference, 1998.*
David Bradley comments:
(1996) I believe a work of fiction ought to more or less speak for itself—certainly the author ought to keep his mouth shut about it; he's had his chance. On the other hand, I have noticed a few things about my own attitudes that might bear mentioning. Nothing so deliberate as a "what I am trying to do with my writing" statement (which I find pretentious and usually wrong), but just observations about what I tend to think is good. I am, first of all, an Aristotelian writer. Meaning that I believe in the Gospel as laid down in The Poetics. Plot is paramount, and I do not like any thing that does not have one. Second, I do not believe in a sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Most of my writing is grounded in real places and people. I always find myself "adapting" reality to the writing, as one might "adapt" a novel for a film. Third, I do not believe in art for art's sake. Art has no sake; people do. A work of art that cannot be understood is a voice crying in the wilderness. Fourth, I demand a lot from readers. I do not write "easy" things; they require effort and emotional commitment from me—and they require the same from readers. I hope only that readers feel their time and sweat are well spent.* * *
For David Bradley, place matters, and history haunts. If the Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tries desperately to fly over the nets of family, church, and state, Bradley speaks lyrically of those cords that bind him to his birthplace (the rural community of Bedford, Pennsylvania), to the black church in which he grew up, and to the family that nurtured his early interest in history, and in writing about that history. As put in "A Personal View from the Third Generation" (New York Times Sunday Magazine ):
For he [Bradley] realizes this is his church. Three generations of his family have occupied Mt. Pisgah's pulpit and worshipped in its pews. A plaque on the wall dedicates the 1960s redecoration to his grandmother. The Bible on the lectern was an offering by his father when his mother survived a dangerous illness. In the truest sense, he, not the denomination, owns Mt. Pisgah. And owes it.
For, in a day when and a place where opportunities were restricted, Mt. Pisgah gave him the chance to speak, to lead, to learn the history of his people. When opportunities became available, it was the experience gained at Mt. Pisgah that equipped him to take advantage of them. But, after taking advantage of them, he abandoned the church that had nurtured him. He walked from Mt. Pisgah down into the Promised Land and never really looked back. Perhaps the time has come to turn around.
These are eloquent, confessional words. For Bradley has moved with astonishing speed from the raw, lusty talent that described the "street people" who hold forth on Philadelphia's South Street (published in 1975, when Bradley was only 24) to the sweep and ambition of The Chaneysville Incident, the novel that brought Bradley national recognition.
South Street is a novel anchored in the naturalism of "elephantine cockroaches and rats the size of cannon shells," but it is also a novel that reaches well beyond the geography of urban despair. Bradley's South Street poises itself at the border of Philadelphia's black ghetto, where it ties "the city's rivers like an iron bracelet or a wedding band, uniting the waters, sewer to sewer, before they meet at the city's edge." Place matters deeply, of course—in this case, the locus seems to be Lightnin' Ed's Bar—but it is the people, and Bradley's ear for their colorful language, that matters even more:
Leo, the two-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pound owner-bartender-cashier-bouncer of Lightnin' Ed's Bar and Grill, looked up from the glass he was polishing to see a one-hundred-and-fifty-eight-pound white man walk into his bar. Leo's mouth fell open and he almost dropped the glass. One by one the faces along the bar turned to stare at the single pale face, shining in the dimness. "Yes, sir, cap'n," Leo said uneasily, "what can we be doin' for you?"
George looked around nervously. "I, ah, had a little accident. I, ah, ran over a cat in the street, and I, uh, don't know what to do about it."
"Whad he say?" a wino at the far end of the bar, who claimed to be hard of hearing, whispered loudly.
The jukebox ran out and fell silent just as somebody yelled to him, "Paddy says he run over some cat out in the street." The sound echoed throughout the bar. Conversation died.
"Goddamn!" said the wino.
Leo leaned over the bar, letting his gigantic belly rest on the polished wood. "Yeah?" he said to George. "Didja kill him?"
"Oh yes," George assured him. "I made certain of that."
Bradley is at his best when he moves inside the set pieces, the extended anecdotes, that give South Street its resonance. What might well have become yet another unrelenting grim account of sordid conditions and despairing lives transmogrifies itself into a high, more humane key. It was, in short, a novel that prompted reviewers to say "Keep your eye on Mr. Bradley." In this case, they were righter than they knew.
The Chaneysville Incident both widened and deepened the scope of Bradley's obvious talents. His postgraduate research in American history at the University of London sent him back, ironically enough, to a story he had heard in Bedford about 13 escaped slaves who asked to be killed rather than recaptured and about the 13 unmarked graves his mother once discovered.
The Chaneysville Incident tells this story from the perspective of John Washington, a black man who has bootstrapped himself from humble, rural origins to become a history professor at a Philadelphia university and who lives with Judith, a white psychologist. The question the book raises is simply, and perplexingly, how should a black man live in a world white men have made. The result is a thickly textured, multi-layered book, one that inextricably combines theory, historical research, and domestic tension. As Washington, the historian, puts it: "The key to the understanding of any society lies in the observation and analysis of the insignificant and the mundane …. If you doubt it [i.e. that America is a classed society], consider the sanitary facilities employed in America's three modes of public long-distance transportation: airplanes, trains, and buses."
Washington, however, not only discovers the historical truth of the "Chaneysville incident," but also that the truth is more complex, more riddling than he had imagined. If part of his character serves as Bradley's mouthpiece, part of him must, finally, be rejected by Bradley, the novelist. Luckily, it is the latter part that matters most, when one has recovered from the racial anger that gives this important novel much of its initial energy.
September 7, 1950
Novelist David Henry Bradley Jr. was born and raised in rural Bedford, Pennsylvania, the son of David Henry and Harriette (Jackson) Bradley. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied English and received his B.A. (summa cum laude) in 1972. Afterward he moved on to King's College in London, where he earned his M.A. in United States studies in 1974. After working for two years in publishing, Bradley became a member of the English department at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Bradley wrote his first novel, South Street (1975), while still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. Alienated from his peers, whose urban lifestyle and politicized outlook he found artificial, Bradley spent most of his free time with the locals at a bar on Philadelphia's South Street. The novel offers original perspectives on the links within the black community and its relationship to history and memory and powerfully evokes life in the ghetto, with its numbers games, Saturday-night drinking parties, and storefront churches.
Bradley's second novel, The Chaneysville Incident (1981), won several awards in 1982: the PEN/Faulkner Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award for literature, and a New York Times Book Review "Editor's Choice" citation. The core of this more ambitious novel is an incident from Bedford's history. In doing research for the area's bicentennial in 1969, Bradley's mother discovered thirteen unmarked graves on the property of a Bedford County landowner. In doing so, she confirmed a local myth concerning thirteen fugitives on the Underground Railroad who, on the point of recapture, had preferred death to slavery and asked to be killed.
Bradley's narrative concerns a young black historian, John Washington, who has returned to his hometown in western Pennsylvania for the last few days of his surrogate father's life. His return inspires him to investigate his past; by digging up information from family papers, he manages to tie his natural father's suicide to the death of the thirteen fugitives. In relating his discovery to his girlfriend, a white psychiatrist, the protagonist discovers that history must be rooted in communal memory to be authentic, and that, in order for an individual to create, his emotions must be fed and sustained by the oral traditions of the group. This itinerary informs the narrative, which is gradually transformed from a factual account into a reflection on the meaning of the past.
In addition to two novels, Bradley has written articles and essays for many publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, Redbook, and the Southern Review. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1991.
In 1998 Bradley coedited The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America. In recent years he has been a visiting professor at various colleges, including City College of New York, the University of Texas, and the University of Oregon. In 2003 he was at work on a nonfiction study, tentatively titled The Bondage Hypothesis: Meditations on Race, History, and America.
See also Literature of the United States
"David Henry Bradley, Jr." In Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 39. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2003.
Smith, Valerie. "David Bradley." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1984.
michel fabre (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005