Major, Clarence 1936–
Clarence Major 1936–
Writer, painter, lexicographer
In his introduction to the 1994 Clarence Major special issue of African American Review, Bernard Bell described Major as a “poet, novelist, essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and painter.” Bell continued by calling Major “one of our most compelling, challenging, multitalented, and prolific contemporary American artists of African descent.” With almost 30 authored and/or edited books to his credit, Major is identified with what Jerome Klinkowitz, in the same issue of African American Review, calls a “disruptively experimental style” of fiction “distinguished by it polemical opposition to the established principles of literary form.”
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936, Major moved to Chicago with his mother and sister after his parents divorced. In his autobiographical sketch titled “Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer,” Major wrote of his early awareness of his two “inseparable” artistic impulses: writing and painting. In about the fifth grade, he explained, a classmate gave him a copy of Kay Boyle’s translation of Raymond Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh. Major begin to read it because as “adult fiction” it was supposed to have some “good parts,” but he described how he quickly discovered that the “good part was the writing itself.” More importantly, he discovered that because “writing had a life of its own!” he had fallen in love with the life of writing.
After this discovery, Major began a process of self-education that included reading authors as diverse as Arthur Rimbaud, J. D. Salinger, Richard Wright, e. e. cummings, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joseph Conrad. Of his early reading experiences, Major said that he “had to go through hundreds [of books] before hitting on the special ones, the ones with the power to shape or reshape perception, to deepen vision, to give me the means to understand myself and other things to drive away fears and doubts.” He also explained how he drew from the “texture” and “patterns” of myths and dreams as “model[s] for the imaginative leaps” he desired for his poetry and fiction.
Major’s literary creations, however, were as much influenced by the visual arts as they were by literature. In “Necessary Distance,” he explained his “first passion was for painted pictures,” not books. Major said, “Before my first clear memories, I was drawing and painting, while the writing started at a time within memory.” When he was 12 years old, Major began taking art lessons from Gus Nall in Chicago. After winning some prizes for his art, he said that his confidence in self-expression grew from his visual expression
Born Clarence Major, December 31, 1936, in Atlanta, GA; son of Clarence (a restaurant manager) and Inez Huff (a store clerk) Major; married Joyce Sparrow, 1958, divorced 1964; remarried. Education: James Nelson Raymond Fellowship, Art Institute of Chicago, 1953; SUNY at Albany, BS; Union Graduate School, Ohio, PhD, 1978.
Writer; U.S. Air Force, 1955-57; steelworker, Omaha, NE, 1957-58; Coercion Review, editor and publisher, 1958-61; New Lincoln School, New York City, faculty, 1967-68; Macomb Junior High School, New York City, faculty, 1968; Brooklyn College, lecturer, 1969-early 1970s; Sarah Lawrence College, lecturer, 1972-75; Howard University, assistant professor, 1975-76; University of Washington, assistant professor, 1976-77; University of Colorado, associate professor of English, 1977-81, professor, 1981-89; University of California at Davis, 1989 —.
Awards: National Council on the Arts Award, Association of University Presses, 1970; Pushcart Prize for ″Funeral,″ a poem, 1976; Fulbright-Hays Inter-University Exchange Award, Franco-American Commission for Educational Exchange, University of Nice, 1981-83; Western States Book Award for My Amputations, a novel, 1986.
Addresses: Office —University of California at Davis, Department of English, Davis, CA 95616.
and then “carried over into the writing.”
Also in the early 1950s, Major began to attend art exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago and was particularly inspired and “profoundly moved” by the works of Vincent van Gogh. In van Gogh, Major found “an important model” for his “rebellion”: van Gogh was “one who broke the rules and transcended.” Other artistic “catalysts” for Major were Paul Cézanne, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Edward Hopper, although Major pointed out that he was “troubled from the beginning [of his self-education] by the absence of Afro-American painters, novelists, poets.” He was around 17, he says, when he discovered “the reason they were absent: The system had hidden them. …[Black artists were] made officially nonexistent.”
In 1954 Major published his first work, a 12-page pamphlet of poetry called The Fires That Burn in Heaven. Major later described this pamphlet as containing “very, very bad poetry.” During his two years in the U.S. Air Force, 1955 to 1957, Major became more confident as a writer as he continued to write poetry and short fiction. When he was discharged from the Air Force, Major returned to Chicago after a brief stay in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1958 he edited and published the Coercion Review and began to be in contact with such noted poets as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. In 1964 he divorced his first wife and returned to Omaha. The following year Coercion Press published several hundred mimeographed editions of Love Poems of a Black Man and in 1966, Human Juices.
Also in 1966 Major moved to the Lower East Side of New York City and began his teaching career as a writing instructor at the New Lincoln School, Macomb Junior High School, and Brooklyn College. At Lincoln and Macomb he collected and edited student writings into the anthologies Writers Workshop Anthology and Man Is a Child. Major described teaching as his way “of being involved in a useful way in the world” and during his career he has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Howard University, the University of Washington, the University of Colorado, and the University of California at Davis.
But the late 1960s also launched his writing career with three major works: the poetry collection Swallow the Lake, Major’s first novel, All-Night Visitors, and the black poetry anthology New Black Poetry. All-Night Visitors was published in 1969, by Maurice Giordias’s Olympia Press, the same press that had daringly published the controversial Henry Miller, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, and Chester Himes. Although Olympia Press altered Major’s original manuscript to emphasize the sexual dimension of the novel, reviews of the novel were mainly favorable and most readers found the novel “compelling,” although many were disturbed by the sexual emphasis of Vietnam vet Eli Bolton’s journey toward maturity and self-understanding.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing for the New York Times, found the “elaborate sexual passages” to be “integral to his hero’s search for autonomy.” Welburn warned that the sex scenes, which resemble those of John Cleland and Marquis DeSade, may offend readers, including many “soul sisters.” But Welburn concluded that Major captured a reality at the heart of the black community—“Soul Brother Eli Bolton represents the living problem of apathy.”
Despite the fact that “sex is his only meaningful outlet,” Welburn saw Bolton’s “libidinous urge” moving him in a “worthwhile direction” toward “social [community] responsibility.” Major continued to probe some of the themes of All-Night Visitor in later novels, particularly the psycho-sexual dimension of the search for identity in a random, prejudiced, and frenzied universe.
In addition to the publication of his first novel, 1969 found Major’s energies focused on poetry. First, Major was responsible for editing the Summer-Fall 1969 issue of the Journal of Black Poetry, a periodical for which he had been associate editor since 1967. 1969 also marked the publication of Major’s anthology The New Black Poetry, a collection of poems by 76 African American poets, including Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Bob Kaufman, and Al Young.
Swallow the Lake, published in 1970 by Wesleyan University Press, contains many of the poems from Major’s two earlier collections of poetry. It was widely reviewed and critics noted its stylistic experiments and broad range of themes: male-female relationships, the Vietnam War, race, music, alienation, and philosophy. Although Frank MacShane, writing for Poetry magazine, criticized Swallow the Lake as “fail[ed]” experimentation, he also called it an “interesting” book that doesn’t succumb to “simple formulae.”
During the early 1970s Major published four more collections of poetry: Private Line and Symptoms and Madness in 1971, The Cotton Club in 1972, and The Syncopated Cakewalk in 1974. While Major’s poetry dealt with various contemporary issues, including the nature and purpose of art and aesthetics, the recurring themes of these collections are gender relationships and the oppressive nature of United States society. Many scholars cited similarities in poetic style among Major and other contemporary black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Harper. In reviewing The Cotton Club, for example, Eugene Redmond described Major as being in the “forefront of experimental poetry and prose.”
Redmond found Swallow the Lake and Symptoms and Madness much better writing than The Cotton Club, whose poems he called “narrative tours of Harlem and urban black America, primarily during the first two or three decades of the Twentieth Century.” But in the poems contained in The Cotton Club, Redmond discovered a “Gwendolyn Brooks-like economy” and a language that is “reminiscent of the ‘listings’ of Michael S. Harper.” Although Redmond praised The Cotton Club for its effort to “preserve and present a black past” using traditional themes of “the mulatto, violence against blacks, the creation and development of jazz and blues,” he concluded his review by saying, “Major has written well in the past and, being young, will write well again… he has not yet worked out the most effective way to present his ideas.”
The Syncopated Cakewalk, published in 1974, received more positive reviews. Fanny Howe, for example, praised Major’s “facility with language” and applauded his poetry in general for using “class, race, and economics” as “tools” in the “construction of good art.” She described The Syncopated Cakewalk in particular as an “intricate dance step”: “The timing is slower [than previous collections], history closer; the poems sound wonderful aloud.… A tone of sadness and a renunciation of a harsher view pervade this collection.” Two poems from this collection were particularly noteworthy: “Funeral” received a Pushcart Prize in 1976, and “American Setup” was one of the poems that Major read at a poetry reading in Connecticut in 1972 that sparked a controversy in local papers over the presumed pornographic contents of Major’s poetry.
Major’s assessment of the Connecticut pornography controversy appeared as an essay titled “On Censorship: An Open Letter to June Jordan,” which appeared in the July-August 1973 issue of American Poetry Review. The essay was so positively received that the Review asked Major to write a regular column for the periodical. Major’s “open letters” ran in the Review from 1973 until 1976 and included critical pieces on contemporary authors such as Ralph Ellison. A collection of his essays was published by Third World Press in 1974 titled The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. A few of his American Poetry Review columns were reprinted in this text along with essays on aesthetics, interviews with Major, and sketches and reviews of contemporary black writers.
While Major has been recognized as a major poet and essayist, he is most acclaimed for the seven novels he published between 1969 and 1988. During the 1970s, No., Reflex and Bone Structure, and Emergency Exit received mixed reviews. Jerome Klinkowitz defined these novels’ innovative narrative styles as “experimental techniques to push fiction beyond a mechanical self-reflexiveness into true literary self-apparency.”
In No. Major again employed the narrative as journey structure that characterized All-Night Visitors. This time he used the experiences of a young boy growing up in a racially hostile South, illustrating, as Jim Walker explained in an essay in Black Creation, the way violence “shapes” the “lives and attitudes” of southern black people. Yet, as Walker went on to explain, “The most striking aspect of No. is Major’s prose,” particularly the use of italics to mark the narrative shifts between fantasy and reality, between Moses Westby as narrator and as protagonist.
In 1975, Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure was published by the newly formed Fiction Collection that Major himself helped to found in an attempt to provide authors with a publishing alternative free from interference from censoring editors. In his The Life of Fiction, Jerome Klinkowitz placed Major’s fiction squarely in Ronald Sukenick’s summary of the Collective’s manifesto: “It [the writing of the Collective’s authors] communicates the sense of an exploration to discover new forms that better suit the individual artist.”
Although Reflex drew on narrative conventions from the detective genre, as Jerome Klinkowitz stated in Studies in Black American Literature, this is “more than a conventional detective novel, for every element of its composition—character, theme, action, and event—expresses the self-apparent nature of its making.… The final truth is less important than the process of getting to it in its full implications.”
Emergency Exit was the second of Major’s novels to be published by the Fiction Collective in 1979. The self-reflexiveness of Reflex continued in Emergency Exit. As Klinkowitz reported in Studies in Black American Literature, “The plot itself is emphasized as artifice at every turn.” The plot is woven around events in a fictional town that has imposed a “threshold law” prohibiting women from freely crossing thresholds; instead, because thresholds are biologically and metaphorically the doorways of life, women must be carried across the doorways in life.
But throughout the narrative, Major’s overriding concern was to remind the readers of the non-referential quality of words. Major said in an interview with John O’Brien, “You begin with words and you end with words. The content exists in our minds.” With this novel, Major also experienced a breakthrough in his visual art, and 26 black and white reproductions of his paintings are included in the novel. Lisa Roney, in the 1994 special issue of African American Review described these as “extensions of the narrative action, additions to the text,” not as “illustrations.”
In addition to his maturation into an American writer to be taken seriously, the late 1970s brought about other achievements for Major. After a ten-year series of often low-paying and junior-level teaching positions in the New York City and Washington, DC areas, in 1977, Major accepted a faculty position as an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado and began earnestly pursuing a Ph.D. from Union Graduate School in Ohio. In 1981 he was promoted to full professor of English, and in 1989, he became a professor of English at the University of California at Davis. In 1994, Major told People magazine, “I had no intention of becoming an academic, but I was good at it and so I stayed with it.”
From 1980 to 1985, Major and his third wife, Pamela Ritter, traveled throughout the United States and Europe, a tour that included Major’s Fulbright award at the University of Nice. During these five years, Major wrote and painted extensively. Lisa Roney pointed out, “If Emergency Exit is where Clarence Major declares himself a painter in the most visual way, My Amputations [published in 1986] is where he develops into an obsession the reflections of it in the text.”
Using his own travels as the biographical background for Mason Ellis’s lecture tour through Europe, Major expanded his earlier concern with “questions of identity,” focusing particularly on the question of what constitutes meaning for the black visual artist. Roney concluded, however, Major offers no easy answers. Mason’s “‘homecoming” has not been what he hoped for in the back of his mind; it does not offer a full-blown, fully his artistic tradition to take the place of the European one, and the character, like the author, must continue to juggle the disparate elements of the Western and the African.”
Major’s other novels of the 1980s, Such Was the Season and Painted Turtle, continued to referentially reflect on both narrative and visual painting conventions. Major used a female narrator for the first time in Such Was the Season to study, according to Jerome Klinkowitz in the 1994 special issue of African American Review, “language rather than social action.” He saw the novel’s emphasis not on “event” but on the way events can be woven into a narrative with which the narrator “feels comfortable.”
The same focus on language, Klinkowitz found, was also present in Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar, a novel that deals with Native American culture. Painted Turtle’s poetry is interwoven through the plot to continually foreground the way that words “do not so much reflect a world as build one.” As Major told John O’Brien, the novel is a “linguistic invention” that “takes on its own reality and is really independent of anything outside itself.… The content exists in our minds. I don’t think that it has to be a reflection of anything. It is a reality that has been created inside of a book. It’s put together and exists finally in your mind.”
In his The Life of Fiction, Jerome Klinkowitz defined Clarence Major as a writer who has “defied the white-imposed ‘traditions’ of black literature to develop a brilliant lyricism in new forms of fiction; but his art inevitably turns back to the basic social and personal concerns which must remain at the heart of any literary experience. “Recognized as one of the most prolific black writers of contemporary life, Clarence Major was the subject of a 1979 special issue of Black American Literature Forum and a 1994 special issue of African American Review. In a telephone interview with Lisa Roney, Major said, “For the last ten years, I have been feeling extremely good about the work I’m doing, both as a painter and a writer.”
The Fires That Burn in Heaven, Chicago, 1954.
Love Poems of a Black Man, Coercion P, 1965.
Human Juices, Coercion P, 1966.
Swallow the Lake, Wesleyan UP, 1970.
Private Line, Paul Breman, 1971.
Symptoms and Madness, Corinth, 1971.
The Cotton Club: New Poems, Broadside, 1972.
The Syncopated Cakewalk, Balenmir House, 1974.
The Other Side of the Wall, 1982.
Inside Diameter: The France Poems, Permanent, 1985.
Surfaces and Masks: A Poem, Coffee House, 1988.
Some Observations Of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century, Sun and Moon, 1989.
parking Lots: A Poem, Perishable, 1992.
All Night Visitors, Olympia, 1969.
No., Emerson Hall, 1973.
Reflex and Bone Structure, Fiction Collective, 1975.
Emergency Exit, Fiction Collective, 1979.
My Amputations: A Novel, Fiction Collective, 1986.
Such Was the Season: A Novel, Mercury House, 1987.
Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar, Sun and Moon, 1988.
Fun and Games: Short Fictions, Holy Cow!, 1990.
(Editor) Writers Workshop Anthology, Harlem Education Project/New Lincoln School, 1967.
(Editor) Man Is Like a Child: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Students, Macomb Junior High School, 1968.
(Editor) The New Black Poetry, International, 1969.
Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, International, 1970; reissued as Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk, Routledge, 1971.
The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work, Third World, 1974.
“Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer,” Black American Literature Forum 23.2 (Summer 1989): 197-212; reprinted in African American Review 28.1 (Spring 1994): 37-47.
(Editor) Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, HarperCollins, 1993.
Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, Viking Penguin, 1994.
Major wrote a regular column for American Poetry Review from 1973-76; he was a contributor and guest editor for Journal of Black Poetry in the late 1960s and a guest editor for American Book Review in the late 1970s; Major has written essays for Essence magazine and Walt Shepperd’s Nickel Review.
Bell, Bernard, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, volume 6, Gale, 1988.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, volume 25, Gale, 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, volume 48, Gale, 1988.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Life of Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
O’Brien, John, Interviews With Black Writers, Liveright, 1973.
Weixlmann, Joe, “Clarence Major,” volume 33, “Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, 1984.
Weixlmann, Joe, and Chester J. Fontenot, editors, Studies in Black American Literature: Black American Prose Theory, Penkevill Publishing Company, 1984.
African American Review, Spring 1994, Clarence Major Issue.
Black American Literature Forum, 12 (1978), pp. 32-7; Summer 1979, Clarence Major Issue; Fall 1983, pp. 120-23; Summer 1989, pp. 197-212.
Booklist, December 1, 1992, p. 649; February 15, 1993, p. 1053; March 1, 1994, p. 1291.
Library Journal, January 1989, p. 89; January 1990, p. 149; December 1992, p. 190; January 1994, p. 108.
MELUS, Winter 1989, pp. 133-35; Winter 1991, pp. 57-79.
New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, p. 30; December 13, 1987, p. 19; July 31, 1988, p. 9; October 30, 1988, p. 37; May 21, 1989, p. 18; May 20, 1990, p. 30.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 3:2 (1975), pp. 153-72.
People, February 7, 1994, pp. 93-4.
Publishers Weekly, July 4, 1986, p. 55; July 31, 1987, pp. 67-8; July 8, 1988, p. 41; November 24, 1989, p. 60; March 9, 1990, p. 60; December 28, 1992, p. 63; November 1, 1993, p. 50.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
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Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Nationality: American. Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 31 December 1936. Education: The Art Institute, Chicago (James Nelson Raymond scholar), 1952-54; Armed Forces Institute, 1955-56; New School for Social Research, New York, 1972; Norwalk College, Connecticut; State University of New York, Albany, B.S. 1976; Union Graduate School, Yellow Springs and Cincinnati, Ohio, Ph.D. 1978. Military Service: Served in the United States Air Force, 1955-57. Family: Married 1) Joyce Sparrow in 1958 (divorced 1964); 2) Pamela Ritter in 1980. Career: Research analyst, Simulmatics, New York, 1966-67; director of creative writing program, Harlem Education Program, New Lincoln School, New York, 1967-68; writer-in-residence, Center for Urban Education, 1967-68, and Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Columbia University Teachers College, 1967-71, both New York; lecturer, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, 1968-69, Spring 1973, 1974-75, Cazenovia College, New York, Summer 1969, Wisconsin State University, Eau Claire, Fall 1969, Queens College, City University of New York, springs 1972, 1973, and 1975, and Fall 1973, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1972-75, and School for Continuing Education, New York University, Spring 1975; writer-in-residence, Aurora College, Illinois, Spring 1974; assistant professor, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1974-76, and University of Washington, Seattle, 1976-77; visiting assistant professor, University of Maryland, College Park, Spring 1976, and State University of New York, Buffalo, Summer 1976; associate professor, 1977-81, and professor, 1981-89, University of Colorado, Boulder. Director of Creative Writing, 1991-93, and since 1989 professor, University of California, Davis. Visiting professor, University of Nice, France, 1981-82, Fall 1983, University of California, San Diego, Spring 1984, and State University of New York, Binghamton, Spring 1988; writer-in-residence, Albany State College, Georgia, 1984, and Clayton College, Denver, Colorado, 1986, 1987; distinguished visiting writer, Temple University, Philadelphia, Fall 1988; guest writer, Warren Wilson College, 1988. Editor, Coercion Review, Chicago, 1958-66; staff writer, Proof and Anagogic and Paideumic Review, Chicago, 1960-61; associate editor, Caw, New York, 1967-70, and Journal of Black Poetry, San Francisco, 1967-70; reviewer, Essence magazine, 1970-73; columnist 1973-76, and contributing editor, 1976-86, American Poetry Review, Philadelphia; editor, 1977-78, and since 1978 associate editor, American Book Review, New York; associate editor, Bopp, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977-78, Gumbo, 1978, Departures, 1979, and par rapport, 1979-82; member of the editorial board, Umojo, Boulder, Colorado, 1979-80; editorial consultant, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1984, and University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1987; since 1986 fiction editor, High Plains Literary Review, Denver. Also artist: individual shows—Sarah Lawrence College, 1974; First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Colorado, 1986. Awards: National Council on the Arts award, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1970, 1975, 1979; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1971; Fulbright-Hays Exchange award, 1981; Western States Book award, for fiction, 1986; Pushcart prize, for short story, 1989. Agent: Susan Bergholtz, 340 West 72nd Street, New York, New York 10023. Address: Department of English, 281 Voorhies Hall, University of California, Davis, California 95616, U.S.A.
All-Night Visitors. New York, Olympia Press, 1969.
NO. New York, Emerson Hall, 1973.
Reflex and Bone Structure. New York, Fiction Collective, 1975.
Emergency Exit. New York, Fiction Collective, 1979.
My Amputations. New York, Fiction Collective, 1986.
Such Was the Season. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1987.
Dirty Bird Blues. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1996.
Fun & Games. Duluth, Minnesota, Holy Cow! Press, 1990.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Church Girl," in Human Voices 3 (Homestead, Florida), Summer-Fall 1967.
"An Area in the Cerebral Hemisphere," in Statements, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. New York, Braziller, 1975.
"Dossy O," in Writing under Fire, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer. New York, Dell, 1978.
"Tattoo," in American Made, edited by Mark Leyner, Curtis White, and Thomas Glynn. New York, Fiction Collective, 1987.
The Fires That Burn in Heaven. Privately printed, 1954.
Human Juices. Omaha, Nebraska, Coercion Press, 1965.
Swallow and Lake. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.
Symptoms and Madness. New York, Corinth, 1971.
Private Line. London, Paul Breman, 1971. The Cotton Club: New Poems. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1972.
The Syncopated Cakewalk. New York, Barlenmir House, 1974.
Inside Diameter: The France Poems. Sag Harbor, New York, and London, Permanent Press, 1985.
Surfaces and Masks. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1988.
Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1989.
Parking Lots. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1992.
Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1998.
Dictionary of Afro-American Slang. New York, International, 1970; as Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk, London, Routledge, 1971.
The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. New York, Third Press, 1974.
Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang. New York, Viking, 1994.
Editor, Writers Workshop Anthology. New York, Harlem Education Project, 1967.
Editor, Man Is Like a Child: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Students. New York, Macomb's Junior High School, 1968.
Editor, The New Black Poetry. New York, International, 1969.
Editor, Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories. New York, Harper Collins, 1993.
Editor, The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry. New York, Harper Collins, 1995.*
"Clarence Major: A Checklist of Criticism" by Joe Weixlmann, in Obsidian (Fredonia, New York), vol. 4, no. 2, 1978; "Toward a Primary Bibliography of Clarence Major" by Joe Weixlmann and Clarence Major, in Black American Lierature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Summer 1979.
In Interviews with Black Writers edited by John O'Brien, New York, Liveright, 1973; "La Problematique de la communication" by Muriel Lacotte, unpublished dissertation, University of Nice, 1984; Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist, edited by Bernard W. Bell, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.* * *
"In a novel, the only thing you have is words," Clarence Major told the interviewer John O'Brien. "You begin with words and you end with words. The content exists in our minds. I don't think it has to be a reflection of anything. It is a reality that has been created inside of a book." Major's fiction exists as a rebellion against the stereotype of mimetic fiction—that telling a story, one of the things fiction can do, is the only thing fiction can do.
His first novel, All-Night Visitors, is an exercise in the imaginative powers of male sexuality. Major takes the most physical theme—the pleasure of the orgasm—and lyricizes it, working his imagination upon the bedrock and world of sense not customarily indulged by poetry. The pre-eminence of the imagination is shown by blending Chicago street scenes with fighting in Vietnam—in terms of the writing itself, Major claims that there is no difference. His second novel, NO, alternates narrative scenes of rural Georgia life with a more disembodied voice of fiction, and the action advances as it is passed back and forth, almost conversationally, between these two fictive voices. In both books, language itself is the true locus of action, as even the most random and routine development is seized as the occasion for raptures of prose (a fellatio scene, for example, soon outstrips itself as pornography and turns into an excuse for twelve pages of exuberant prose).
Major's best work is represented in his third and fourth novels, Reflex and Bone Structure and Emergency Exit. In the former, he describes an action which takes place legitimately within the characters' minds, as formed by images from television and film. "We're in bed watching the late movie. It's 1938. A Slight Case of Murder. Edward G. Robinson and Jane Bryan. I go into the bathroom to pee. Finished, I look at my aging face. Little Caesar. I wink at him in the mirror. He winks back./I'm back in bed. The late show comes on. It's 1923. The Bright Shawl. Dorothy Gish. Mary Astor. I'm taking Mary Astor home in a yellow taxi. Dorothy Gish is jealous." Throughout this novel, which treats stimuli from social life and the output of a television set as equally informative, Major insists that the realm of all these happenings is in language itself. "I am standing behind Cora," he writes. "She is wearing a thin black nightgown. The backs of her legs are lovely. I love her. The word standing allows me to watch like this. The word nightgown is what she is wearing. The nightgown itself is in her drawer with her panties. The word Cora is wearing the word nightgown. I watch the sentence: the backs of her legs are lovely."
As a result, the action of this novel takes place not simply in the characters' behavior but in the arrangements of words on the page. Here Major makes a significant advance over the techniques of his innovative fiction contemporaries. Many of them, including Ronald Sukenick (in Up ) and John Barth (in the stories of Lost in the Funhouse ), took a metafictive approach, establishing fiction's self-apparency and anti-illusionism by self-consciously portraying the writer writing his story. In Reflex and Bone Structure, however, Major accomplishes the task of making the words function not as references to things in the outside world but as entities themselves; the action is syntactic rather than dramatic, although once that syntactic function is served the action, as in the paragraph cited, can return for full human relevance. Indeed, because the activity is first located within the act of composition itself, the reader can empathize even more with the intensity of feeling behind it.
Emergency Exit is Major's most emphatic gesture toward pure writing, accomplished by making the words of his story refer inward to his own creative act, rather than outward toward the panoramic landscape of the socially real. The novel's structure makes this strategy possible. Emergency Exit consists of elementary units of discourse; words, sentences, paragraphs, vignettes, and serial narratives. The novel is composed of equal blocks of each, spread out and mixed with the others. At first, simple sentences are presented to the reader. Then elements from these same sentences (which have stood in reference-free isolation) recur in paragraphs, but still free of narrative meaning. The plan is to fix a word, as word, in the reader's mind, apart from any personal conceptual reference—just as an abstract expressionist painter will present a line, or a swirl of color, without any reference to figure. Then come a number of narratives, coalescing into a story of lovers and family. When enough sections of the serial narrative have accumulated to form a recognizable story, we find that the independent and fragmentary scenes of the sentences and paragraphs have been animated by characters with whom we can now empathize. Forestalling any attempt to rush off the page into incidental gossip is the memory and further repetition of these words—whether they be of black mythology, snatches of popular song, or simply brilliant writing—all within Major's arresting sentences and paragraphs. A word, an image, or scene which occurs within the narrative leads the reader directly back to the substance of Major's writing. All attention is confined within the pages of the book.
Silent as a writer for the better part of a decade, though actively engaged in teaching, speaking, and world travel, Major takes the occasion of his fifth novel, My Amputations, to comment on his own identity as a writer and person. His protagonist, named Mason Ellis, has a biography which matches Major's own, and his responsiveness to black music and folklore recalls the techniques of Emergency Exit. Mason's writing is like a closet he steps into in a recurring dream: a "door to darkness, closed-off mystery" through which his muse leads him in search of his personal and literary identities, both of which have been assumed by an "Impostor" nearly a decade ago (when Major's last novel was written). Mason's personal struggle has been with "the unmistakable separation of Church and State," which for him produces an unbearable polarity between spirit and body, mentality and sexuality, and eventually a contradiction between "clean" and "dirty" which he refuses to accept. His muse must guide him away from this middle ground of separation where he languishes; imprisoned in various forms of life (which correspond to Major's background growing up in Chicago and serving in the Air Force), he must literally "write his way out" by constructing a different paradigm for God's interests and Caesar's. Falsely jailed while "the Impostor" continues his career, Mason joins a group of urban terrorists who rob a bank to finance their dreams—in his case, the recovery of his role as novelist. To do this, Mason adopts the pose of the black American writer abroad, living in Nice and speaking at various universities across Europe. But at every stage the concerns of State intervene, as each country's particular style of political insurgency disrupts his visit. Even his idealistic goal of Africa is torn by conflicts of body and spirit, and he finds himself either caught in the crossfire of terrorists or imprisoned as a political suspect. These circumstances, while being complications in the narrative, prompt some of the novel's finest writing, as Major couches Mason's behavior in a linguistic responsiveness to the terroristic nature of our times. The achievement of My Amputations is its conception of Mason Ellis as a creature of the world's signs and symbols. He moves in a world of poetic constructions, where even crossing the street is an artistic adventure: "Mason Ellis sang 'Diddie Wa Diddie' like Blind Blake, crossed the street at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second like the Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road and reaching the curb leaped into the air and coming down did a couple of steps of the Flat Foot Floogie." Not surprisingly, Major points his character toward a tribal sense of unity in Africa, pre-colonial and hence pre-political, where the separations of "Church" and "State" do not exist.
With his novels Such Was the Season and Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar Major makes his closest approach to narrative realism, yet in each case the mimesis is simply a technical device that serves an equally abstract purpose. Such Was the Season is ostensibly a gesture toward that most commercially conventional of formats, the family saga, as a nephew from Chicago returns to the Atlanta home of an old aunt who helped raise him. His visit, however, entails not just the usual thematics of family history and a touch of matriarchy but rather a spectrum study of African-American culture in its many forms, from bourgeois society to political power-playing. Because the narrator is Aunt Eliza herself, the novel becomes much more a study in language than social action, however, for the emphasis remains not on the events themselves but upon her blending them into an interpretive narrative. That Major is ultimately interested in these aesthetic dimensions rather than in the simply social is evident from Painted Turtle, in which the story of a native American folksinger's career is told only superficially by the episodic adventures surrounding her work; at the heart of her story is the nature of her poetic expression, passages of which are reproduced as transcriptions of her songs—which are unlike any folksongs the reader may have heard, but much like the linguistic constructions Aunt Eliza fashions in the previous novel as a way of making the emerging reality of her family meaningful to her.
The 1990s saw Clarence Major's position in the American literary canon strengthened, as he edited a major text anthology for HarperCollins, expanded his original lexicological work into Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang for Penguin Books, and had his own fiction included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Solidifying his own canon were three key volumes: his stories, Fun & Games ; his novel, Dirty Bird Blues ; and the unexpurgated version of his first novel, All-Night Visitors, published in a university press edition introduced by the distinguished scholar Bernard W. Bell. The short story collection displays the full range of Major's talents, from the language-based lyricism of his early work to the autobiographical reminiscences that also motivate Such Was the Season. As in All-Night Visitors, a sexual energy runs through the collection. But as the restored text of the first novel shows, Clarence Major was as far as possible from being a pornographer; indeed, Bell's edition is probably the first in literary history that had to restore nonsexual material that the original publisher had cut in order to make the book appear salacious (which it isn't). Instead, the restored novel and stories such as "Fun and Games" and "My Mother and Mitch" reveal sexuality as innocent as a child's quest for self-discovery (where the passion is his mother's) and as complex as a Vietnam veteran's attempt to reintegrate himself into a society more violent than the world in which he waged war. In each case, sex may be the stimulus to thought, but language is its resolution, as in the novel's scene where the protagonist is assaulted by a rival in love: "He dashes over—picks me up as though I'm a feather. One becomes the word, the name very quickly. Like a cunt or a flirt."
Dirty Bird Blues becomes Major's most accessible work by virtue of locating this same dynamic in the world not of words but of music. As tools of literary realism, words inevitably point to their references, things in the outside world. Notes of music and even blues lyrics themselves are more easily considered in their artistic dimension, and in letting the life of musician Manfred Banks parallel his own writer's experience, Clarence Major constructs a narrative that needs no metafictive devices to remind readers that the essence of his story is imaginative. As Banks's music struggles against the hard reality of blue-collar employment, the author's narrative wends its way through the complexities and challenges of being a man to one's self but also a husband to one's wife and a father to one's daughter. Accomplishing the task lets readers appreciate how doing so is a masterpiece for both character and writer.
"Major, Clarence." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/major-clarence
"Major, Clarence." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/major-clarence