Authors: Cyrus Colter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Rivers of Eros, 1972

The Hippodrome, 1973

Night Studies, 1979

A Chocolate Soldier, 1988

City of Light, 1993

Short Fiction:

The Beach Umbrella, 1970

The Amoralists, and Other Tales: Collected Stories, 1988


Cyrus Colter was a successful attorney who took up writing at the age of fifty and became a major African American author of the second half of the twentieth century. His parents were James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Basset Colter. James Colter held several different jobs while Cyrus was growing up. These jobs included insurance salesman, actor, musician, and regional director of the central Indiana division of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Colters moved to Greensboro, Indiana, and finally to Youngstown, Ohio, where the young Colter graduated from Rayen Academy. Colter first attended Youngstown University and finished his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University. He earned his law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1940 and worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a deputy collector before entering the U.S. Army in 1942. He attained the rank of captain of field artillery and saw combat in Italy during World War II. Colter married Imogene Mackay on January 1, 1943, and they remained married until her death in 1984.{$I[A]Colter, Cyrus}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Colter, Cyrus}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Colter, Cyrus}{$I[tim]1910;Colter, Cyrus}

After the war, Colter practiced law in Chicago. Beginning in 1950, he served as a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission for twenty-three years, the longest tenure in the agency’s history. Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois, first appointed him, and both Democrat and Republican governors reappointed him. Colter was also active in Chicago civic groups, including the Board of Governors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Colter began writing fiction as a weekend hobby. His first short story, “A Chance Meeting,” was published in 1960 in Threshold, a magazine published in Belfast, Ireland. In 1970 The Beach Umbrella, a collection of short stories set in Chicago about African Americans who belong to different economic and social classes, won the University of Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction.

Colter’s stories also appeared in magazines such as Epoch, University of Kansas Review, New Letters, Chicago Review, Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and in various anthologies, including The Best Short Stories of Negro Writers (1967), edited by Langston Hughes, and Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940-1962 (1963), edited by Herbert Hill.

At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Colter started a third career when he joined the Northwestern University faculty in 1973 as a professor of creative writing in the African American studies department. He became chair of African American studies in 1975, the first Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities in 1976, and finally professor emeritus in 1979. He did not retire from writing, however. His last novel was published when he was eighty-three years old.

Colter received an honorary degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Public Humanitarian Award for the Humanities in 1989. In 1990 his name was engraved on the frieze of the new Illinois State Public Library, along with names of other Illinois writers including Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, and Studs Terkel.

Colter did not write in the tradition of most African American writers. Although all his characters are African American, they do not feel the effects of racism and poverty except as part of the human condition, and some of them do not feel those effects at all. Colter was more interested in the universal problems of being human, which put him in the tradition of the Greek tragedians and nineteenth century Russian literature, especially that of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Anton Chekhov. His personal philosophy combined the views of Thomas Hobbes, B. F. Skinner, and Albert Camus, especially as expressed in the latter’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Colter believed that environment determines a person’s character and that human existence is ultimately absurd.

BibliographyFabre, Michael. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Chapter 18 discusses Colter’s visits to Paris and his use of the city in Night Studies.Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writers Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Chapter 4 discusses Colter’s work in relation to his African American contemporaries.O’Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. The interview with Colter provides insight into his beliefs, and, in his introduction, O’Brien discusses the African American literary tradition and why Colter did not fit into it.
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