There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, 1973
The Bloodworth Orphans, 1977
Two Wings to Veil My Face, 1984
Divine Days, 1992
Meteor in the Madhouse, 2001 (5 novellas; John G. Cawelti and Merle Drown, editors)
Re-creation, pr. 1978
Soldier Boy, Soldier, pr. 1982
Relocations of the Spirit, 1994 (also known as The Furious Voice for Freedom: Essays)
The African American writer Leon Forrest is noted for carefully crafted novels that are complex both in language and in structure. He grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and after graduating from high school he attended Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago. After two years as a public information specialist in the U.S. Army, Forrest returned to the University of Chicago for two final years. During the next eight years he edited community newspapers in Chicago and served as associate editor and, later, managing editor of a Black Muslim newspaper.
When Forrest’s first novel, There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, was published in 1973, with a foreword by Ralph Ellison, it was widely reviewed and generally praised. Although many readers found the stream-of-consciousness style confusing and the Faulknerian prose unnecessarily verbose, they admired Forrest’s brilliant fusion of such diverse traditions as black fundamentalism, Catholicism, jazz, and gospel. It was generally agreed that the novel was aesthetically and intellectually rewarding. The same year that his first novel appeared, Forrest joined the Department of African American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Four years later The Bloodworth Orphans appeared, which is similar in theme and style to There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden. Critics were dazzled by its scope, by the dozens of characters, and by the lavish use of myths, ranging from biblical stories to the Greek legends of Oedipus and Orpheus, but many judged that Forrest substituted verbal showiness for the real emotion of the earlier book.
After the publication of The Bloodworth Orphans, Forrest wrote two librettos for musical productions and several short stories. His third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face, appeared in 1984. Critics lauded the characterization in the work, particularly that of the wise and effective narrator, ninety-one-year-old Sweetie Reed. Forrest’s novels share a preoccupation with the central issue of black identity. In There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden the narrator, Nathaniel Witherspoon, is preoccupied with the humiliation suffered by his grandfather Jericho. A slave but the son of a white man, Jericho was branded by his own father for trying to escape. Such betrayal of blood is akin to the betrayal that Nathaniel’s friend Jamestown Fishbond suffers, when Nathaniel’s color-proud mulatto kin slam the door in his face. Significantly, when M. C. Browne, a young black boy, is at the point of death after a beating by his father, he forgives his father; that Christlike action is recalled in the section called “The Vision,” when the crowd discovers that Christ is black and the cross turns into the lynching tree of the book title. The suggestion is that suffering can sometimes turn into triumph. The Bloodworth Orphans, too, stresses the issue of identity. The story is about the black and white children of the Bloodworth family. Because the children are scattered and because their real identity is not officially acknowledged, they come together in sexual or in violent confrontations, and, like Oedipus, they come to know their real kinship only when it is too late.
In Two Wings to Veil My Face the elderly Sweetie Reed tells the story of her family, which has been destroyed by slavery: Her mother has been killed and her father hates his own child, whom he blames for the death of the mother. The husband to whom her father had sold her was a self-important hypocrite, incapable of real love. Out of her lifelong suffering, however, Sweetie Reed has learned a great lesson, which she must impart before she dies: It is important to avoid the two roads that lead to destruction: the road of self-pity, which tempts the person called to suffering, and the road of self-glorification, which tempts the person called to action. As Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow have noted, this character has avoided the first road, whereas her husband is an example of someone who has taken the second.
Both Divine Days and Forrest’s posthumously published suite of five novellas, Meteor in the Madhouse, revolve around the character of Joubert Antoine Jones, an aspiring playwright, and are set in the fictional Forest County, a thinly disguised South Side Chicago. Divine Days was compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses as an epic, multivocal meander through a mythic urban landscape.
Despite the difficulty of his novels, Leon Forrest produced works that are beautifully wrought at the same time that they compel readers to think through two of the great issues in black literature: the means of discovering a personal and a racial identity, and the need for finding a meaning, a redemptive power, in past and present suffering. In 1985 Harold Washington, then the mayor of Chicago, proclaimed April 14 to be “Leon Forrest Day” in honor of the writer’s elucidation of African American struggles.