Authors: Clarence Major

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and poet

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

All-Night Visitors, 1969

NO, 1973

Reflex and Bone Structure, 1975

Emergency Exit, 1979

My Amputations, 1986

Such Was the Season, 1987

Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar, 1988

Dirty Bird Blues, 1996

Short Fiction:

Fun and Games, 1990


The Fires That Burn in Heaven, 1954

Love Poems of a Black Man, 1965

Human Juices, 1966

Swallow the Lake, 1970

Symptoms and Madness, 1971

Private Line, 1971

The Cotton Club, 1972

The Syncopated Cakewalk, 1974

Inside Diameter: The France Poems, 1985

Surfaces and Masks: A Poem, 1988

Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century, 1989

Parking Lots: A Poem, 1992

Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998, 1998

Waiting for Sweet Betty, 2002


Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, 1970 (also known as Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, 1994)

The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work, 1974

Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism, 2001

Come by Here: My Mother’s Life, 2002

Conversations with Clarence Major, 2002 (Nancy Bunge, editor)

Edited Texts:

Writers Workshop Anthology, 1967

Man Is Like a Child, 1968

The New Black Poetry, 1969

Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, 1993

The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry, 1996


Clarence Major is an innovative African American postmodern artist whose work elicits favorable comparisons with Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson. Notable for its fascination with language and the limits of fictional representation, his writing flouts the conventions of traditional narrative. Although he is known primarily as an experimental novelist, Major’s indefatigable production as a poet, essayist, editor, lexicographer, and painter testifies to his versatility as an artist. In 1970 he received a National Council on the Arts Award, in 1976 a Pushcart Prize, in 1981-1982 a Fulbright Award, and in 1986 the Western States Book Award. Painted Turtle was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book for 1988, and Fun and Games was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Critics award in 1990.{$I[AN]9810001767}{$I[A]Major, Clarence}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Major, Clarence}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Major, Clarence}{$I[tim]1936;Major, Clarence}

Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Clarence and Inez (Huff) Major. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he moved with his mother to Chicago, Illinois. Major enjoyed a good relationship with both parents, and he often spent summer vacations with his father’s family in the South. When he was in the fifth grade, he read Raymond Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh (1923) and became enamored of the writing life. Thereafter he devoured books by Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, among others. Major experienced a second artistic awakening in his early teens, when he discovered artistic Impressionism and the works of Vincent van Gogh. In 1954, at the age of seventeen, a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago forced him to reevaluate his own artistic career. He was attracted to painting but was not sure that he possessed the requisite skills to succeed as a painter. In 1954 he published his first collection of poems, The Fires That Burn in Heaven, which he later described as “very, very bad poetry.” Major continued writing poetry and fiction after he enlisted in the Air Force as a record specialist later the same year.

Upon his military discharge in 1957 Major returned to Chicago to devote himself to a literary career. Between 1958 and 1961 he edited and published Coercion Review, which he saw as an artistic arena in which he could polish his skills. In 1966 he moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, where he immersed himself in the literary culture and, in 1967, began teaching at the New Lincoln School. Major subsequently taught at Macomb’s Junior High School, Brooklyn College, Sarah Lawrence College, Howard University, University of Washington, University of Colorado, and University of California at Davis.

In 1969 Olympia Press published Major’s first novel, All-Night Visitors. Although his editor, Maurice Girodias, excised extensive portions of the manuscript devoted to character development, leaving mostly sexual scenes, All-Night Visitors received positive reviews. Major resigned from his position as associate editor of the Journal of Black Poetry in the same year. Swallow the Lake, his first substantial collection of poetry, appeared in 1970. Two years later Major gave a series of poetry readings in Connecticut that sparked a negative public reaction and accusations of obscenity. He responded in an open letter, published in the American Poetry Review, which led to his contributing to a regular column from 1973 to 1976.

In 1975, together with Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and other white experimental writers, he became a charter member of Fiction Collective, a publishing cooperative. One of Fiction Collective’s first titles was Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure, which many regard as one of his best novels. The work, a metafictional detective novel, frustrates readers’ expectations by refusing to pursue the obligatory search for the murderer. The story of the characters Cora, Dale, and Canada is subsumed by the narrator’s account of the construction of the book and a meditation on the nature of reality and fiction. Major believes a novel exists as a linguistic structure that creates its own reality. At the end of Reflex and Bone Structure it is revealed that the narrator, a metafictional manipulator controlling the novel’s action, is responsible for the murder of Cora and Dale.

Major’s next two novels, Emergency Exit, a text that takes the form of a digressive, fragmented collage, a meditation upon metaphors of thresholds and passages, and My Amputations, a story in which a paroled convict usurps an author’s identity, secured Major’s place as a significant figure in contemporary American literature. Major became recognized as a pioneer of the postmodern novel, a reputation that is enhanced by his contributions to other literary genres.

BibliographyBell, Bernard W., ed. Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Critical essays on Major’s work are interspersed with essays, poems, and paintings by Major himself.Bell, Bernard W. “Introduction: Clarence Major’s Double Consciousness as a Black Postmodernist Artist.” African American Review 28 (Spring, 1994): 5-10. Bell introduces this special issue of the journal, which includes eight “Writings by Clarence Major,” a section of his artwork, as well as critical analyses of his poetry and fiction.Bolling, Doug. “A Reading of Clarence Major’s Short Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979): 51-56. This early study of Major’s short stories recognizes that the artist “works with ‘process,’ with open forms, with the inconclusive, and with the interplay of formal and informal tensions.” One of the best analyses of Major’s short fiction, the essay includes discussions of “Ten Pecan Pies,” “Fun and Games,” and “An Area in the Cerebral Hemisphere.”Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Clarence Major’s Innovative Fiction.” African American Review 28 (Spring 1994): 57-63. While dealing primarily with Major’s novels, Klinkowitz recognizes the “anti-realistic (and even anti-mimetic)” strain to much of Major’s fiction.Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Life of Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Chapter 8 of Klinkowitz’s early study of a dozen postmodernist American writers focuses on Major and recognizes both the lyricism and the anticonventional strains of Major’s fiction.O’Brien, John. “Clarence Major.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. This fourteen-page interview with Major sheds light on the writer’s life and work.Selzer, Linda Furgerson. “Reading the Painterly Text: Clarence Major’s ‘The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage.’” African American Review 33 (Summer, 1999): 209-229. Analyzes Major’s poem, emphasizing the historical contexts of artistic production.Weixlmann, Joe. “Clarence Major: A Checklist of Criticism.” Obsidian 4, no. 2 (1978): 101-113. This checklist brings together some of the most important works of literary criticism written about Major’s fiction.
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