Authors: Al Young

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and poet

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Snakes, 1970

Who Is Angelina?, 1975

Sitting Pretty, 1976

Ask Me Now, 1980

Seduction by Light, 1988

Poetry:

Dancing, 1969

The Song Turning Back into Itself, 1971

Geography of the Near Past, 1976

The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems, 1982

Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956-1990, 1992

Conjugal Visits, and Other Poems in Verse and Prose, 1996

The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems, 1990-2000, 2001

Nonfiction:

Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs, 1981

Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs, 1984

Things Ain’t What They Used to Be: Musical Memoirs, 1987

Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs, 1989 (with Janet Coleman)

Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs, 1995

Edited Texts:

Changing All Those Changes, 1976 (of James P. Girard)

Zeppelin Coming Down, 1976 (of William Lawson)

Yardbird Lives!, 1978 (with Ishmael Reed)

Calafia: An Anthology of California Poets, 1979 (with Reed and Shawn Hsu Wong)

Quilt, 1981-1986 (with Reed; 5 volumes)

African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, 1996

Biography

Albert James Young was born in Mississippi in 1939 to Albert James, an auto worker and a musician, and his wife. The family lived in rural Mississippi until 1946, when they moved to Detroit, but even after that Young often spent summers in the South. That area consequently exerted a strong influence on his development. After attending the University of Michigan from 1957 to 1961 he moved to the San Francisco area. Later he attended Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, and he received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Berkeley in 1969. He married in 1963 and had one son.{$I[AN]9810001525}{$I[A]Young, Al}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Young, Al}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Young, Al}{$I[tim]1939;Young, Al}

Among the many jobs Al Young assumed during his early life was that of professional musician; in fact, he considers himself as much a musician as a writer, and his participation in and enjoyment of that other means of artistic expression informs and is often the subject of his written work. As he explains in his three volumes of “musical memories” (Bodies and Soul, Kinds of Blue, and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be), music became a means of understanding life even before he began to play music. Young’s first book, Dancing, is a volume of poems that seem to demand oral expression. The work’s title is a further clue to Young’s view that music helps people to understand and express themselves. Those who hear the music can no longer remain the same, so they dance, helping to complete the statement made by the music as they “analyze” it with their physical responses.

Young’s first novel, Snakes, is an “education” novel about MC, a young black adolescent from Detroit who resembles Young himself and who, with his band, writes and performs a song, “Snakes,” that is a local hit. The band dissolves and the euphoria dissipates, but the young hero wants to continue his musical career and sets out on a bus for New York, leaving behind the grandmother who had raised him lovingly after the deaths of his parents. This novel includes that important theme in Young’s oeuvre, close family ties and both the warmth and the restrictions that develop from them, as well as the technique of using a first-person narrator who speaks with the vocabulary and rhythms, the music, of the streets.

Young’s interest in the lives of adolescents did not end with Snakes. From 1961 to 1965 he was an instructor and linguistic consultant with the Neighborhood Youth Corps Writing Workshops in San Francisco, and from 1968 to 1969 he was a writing instructor at the Teenage Workshop of the San Francisco Museum of Art. He also served as a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, 1969 to 1976.

Other honors Young has received for his writing include a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford (1966–1967), National Arts Council Awards for Poetry and Editing (1968 and 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1979). Young used his Guggenheim Fellowship year to finish his second novel, Who Is Angelina? which, as the title indicates, retains the same subject as Snakes, a young person’s search for identity. Angelina Green is also from Detroit, but better off than MC. Her discoveries about herself and her family reveal Young’s increasing interest in spirituality, a concern that reaches full flowering in Seduction by Light.

In 1972 Al Young wrote a screenplay adaptation of Dick Gregory’s 1964 autobiography, Nigger, but no film ever resulted from this project. Young has written a number of other screenplays that have not been filmed and a novel, Sitting Pretty, which was planned as a later film vehicle for Bill Cosby but also was never produced. Some of Young’s work has been used by film producers, but he has not been credited. He has been more successful in his efforts with small literary magazines. He founded and edited Loveletter (1966–1968), and with fellow novelist and poet Ishmael Reed he founded and edited Yardbird Reader (1972) and a number of anthologies from that journal; he is also a contributing editor of Changes, Umoja, and Calafia, all “little magazines.” He continued to live in the Bay Area and pursue his writing projects, some of which, like his memoir of the bassist Charles Mingus, Mingus/Mingus, also involve his interest in jazz. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the PEN/Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction in 1991 and the PEN/USA Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 1996 for Drowning in the Sea of Love. In 2002 he received the American Book Award for The Sound of Dreams Remembered.

The free-form quality of the jazz that Al Young loves to play and hear is an effective model for his poetry and musical memoirs, but it has been considered a detriment in the novels, in which the plot tends to be a weak element. In traditional terms, the novels start nowhere and go nowhere. Some critics have pointed out that Young is writing a different kind of novel. In his works, changes that happen to the characters are not as important as changes that happen to the reader who lives with the characters for a time and delights in the sounds of their voices and the movement of their dances.

BibliographyBell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bell compares Young’s Snakes to 1960’s novels by Gordon Parks, Kristin Hunter, Rosa Gunn, Barry Beckham, and Louise Meriwether.Broughton, Irv. The Writer’s Mind: Interviews with American Authors. Vol. 3. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Contains a rare and enlightening interview with Young in which he explains his poetic philosophy. This source is widely available and is useful to undergraduate as well as graduate students. A good overview.Coleman, Janet, and Al Young. Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1989. Not much has been written about Young, therefore, Young’s own memoir becomes essential for understanding his life and work.Davis, Thadious M., and Trudier Harris, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 33. In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. This reference provides a cursory glance at Young’s career as a postmodernist writer on the American scene. The citation itself is brief yet helpful to place the author in the mainstream of contemporary writers of various ethnic backgrounds.Draper, James P. Black Literature Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Most Significant Works of Black Authors over the Past Two Hundred Years. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Contains a fifteen-page chapter on Young that includes criticism, interviews from 1976 to 1989, a short biography, and a bibliography.Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writers Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Contains a thorough discussion of the common background of black American writers plus lengthy discussions of female and male viewpoint-writing, with philosophical references and a preface which establishes the text’s postmodernist critical approach.Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Contemporary Novelists. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. This compilation features a condensed biography of Young plus an extensive listing of the author’s works through 1982. A useful guide to Young as an emerging American artist, this reference profiles him among novelists of various ethnic backgrounds.Lee, Don. “About Al Young.” Ploughshares 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 219. A short profile of Young’s life as poet and screenwriter.Nixon, Will. “Better Times for Black Writers?” Publishers Weekly 235 (February 17, 1989): 35-40. Young and several other African American writers and editors speak out regarding their reception in the publishing world.Matney, William C., ed. Who’s Who Among Black Americans. 5th ed. Lake Forest, Ill.: Educational Communications, 1988. A collection of interviews and personal profiles, this presentation of the author considers his manifold interests as a young African American writer. Those who know Young as poet, musician, screenwriter, editor, or teacher will find useful material regarding the manifold interests of the novelist.Ostendorf, Berndt. Black Literature in White America. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982. Considers black writers’ roots and the influence of music on their lives and art as both expression and performance. While the references to Young are brief and pertain to his poetry, the musical context of this presentation will be useful for those researching Young’s concern for music in American culture and literature.Ross, Michael E. “Hollywood’s Civil Servants.” The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1989, 12. Ross profiles Young and some other African American writers working in Hollywood, a town that is traditionally tough on its artists. A lively and interesting article for all students.Schultz, Elizabeth. “Search for ‘Soul Space’: A Study of Al Young’s Who Is Angelina? and the Dimensions of Freedom.” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: Gruner, 1982. Young’s novel was written in 1975, a time when few fiction works by African Americans were being published. Schultz analyzes his work in terms of the quest for expression, especially when the speaker is out of the mainstream.Shockley, Ann Allen, and Sue P. Chandler. Living Black American Authors: A Bibliographical Directory. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1973. Recognition of black writers was new during the early 1970’s, especially in the overall context of American letters. This article contains extensive interpretive detail regarding Young’s early works, his achievements other than writing fiction, and his personal values and insights.
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