Let Me Breathe Thunder, 1939
Blood on the Forge, 1941
Carnival, pr. 1935
One Hundred Years of Laughter, 1967
Calypso Song Book, 1957
Hear America Singing, 1967
William Alexander Attaway is best remembered for his novel Blood on the Forge. He was born in Mississippi, and his family moved to Chicago around 1920. His father, William S. Attaway, was a doctor, and his mother, Florence Parry Attaway, was a teacher. He attended a public elementary school before shifting to a vocational high school. He was influenced by his family, however, to appreciate literature. The poetry of Langston Hughes and the dramatic interests of his sister Ruth, who became a Broadway actress, encouraged Attaway to attempt a career as a writer. He enrolled at the University of Illinois in Urbana, but after his father’s death he left school and for several years worked at a series of jobs. He then returned to the university, and his play Carnival was produced there in 1935. He also met Richard Wright, soon to be a famous writer, while involved with the Federal Writers’ Project.
After graduating in 1936, Attaway moved to New York City and began writing a novel. He also followed his sister into acting and performed in You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936, pb. 1937), the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. When Let Me Breathe Thunder was published in 1939, he left the touring company and, with the help of a Rosenwald Fellowship, started on his second novel.
Let Me Breathe Thunder, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), deals with two white homeless men in the Depression era. Attaway, an African American, had briefly been a vagabond when he temporarily dropped out of college. In his novel, the two young homeless men are joined by a Mexican boy in their travels. The hard life on the road has a negative effect on the boy. He is corrupted by his association with the lowest level of society–a victim of his environment in the naturalistic mode of earlier writers, such as Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. The novel received mixed reviews, but the consensus was that it was the work of a promising writer. The potential was at least partially fulfilled with the publication of Attaway’s second–and last–novel.
Blood on the Forge is about the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North after World War I. Three brothers, sharecroppers from Kentucky, flee to Pennsylvania when one of them is provoked into assaulting a white man. In the steel mills of the Monongahela Valley, the brothers and other black laborers compete against their white counterparts and the machines that represent the industrialized threat to the psychological and economic welfare of the laborers. The injuries suffered by the protagonists are mirrored by their psychological destruction in an alien environment. Although the book did not attain the status of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the most acclaimed proletarian novel in American literature, Attaway received much praise for Blood on the Forge. It did not sell well, however, and Attaway never published another novel.
Instead, Attaway returned to show business through an association with Harry Belafonte, the popular singer. He arranged and composed several songs for Belafonte, and in 1957 published Calypso Song Book. It consists of an introduction to Calypso music and a collection of songs written or adapted by the author. The latter category includes “Banana Boat Loader’s Song,” “Mary Ann,” and “Matilda,” which Belafonte made famous through his recordings. Attaway married Frances Settele on December 28, 1962, at Belafonte’s residence. Attaway also became involved in the Civil Rights movement and participated in the famous 1965 demonstration in Selma, Alabama.
Moving with his family, including a son and a daughter, to Barbados in the West Indies, Attaway worked on several writing projects. In 1966 he completed a television script. It was aired by the American Broadcasting Company in 1967 as One Hundred Years of Laughter, a survey of African American comedy. In 1967 he also published his second book of music, Hear America Singing, a children’s history of popular music. Another of Attaway’s productions was a film script for The Man, a popular novel by Irving Wallace. Although Wallace was impressed with the script, the film company hired Rod Serling to produce the final version.
Returning to the United States after more than a decade in Barbados, Attaway lived in Berkeley, California, and, finally, Los Angeles. Highlights of his later years include being commemorated at an arts festival in his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, in 1982. He was writing a script, The Atlanta Child Murders, in 1985 when he suffered a heart attack. He died in Los Angeles in 1986.
Besides his two novels, Attaway’s only published fiction consists of short stories in periodicals: “Tale of the Blackamoor” in Challenge (June, 1936), and “Death of a Rag Doll” in Tiger’s Eye (October, 1947). His novels were overshadowed by those of Steinbeck and Richard Wright, who, with The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son (1940), respectively, produced classics of American literature that were also very popular. Unfortunately, Attaway did not continue in the field of fiction, as his contemporaries did, and Blood on the Forge remains a somewhat obscure work that a few critics feel should be rated a minor classic.