A Different Drummer, 1962
A Drop of Patience, 1965
Dunfords Travels Everywheres, 1970
Dancers on the Shore, 1964
After beginning what promised to be a brilliant literary career, William Melvin Kelley began living under a self-imposed silence after the publication of his novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres in 1970. His literary reputation rests upon the several novels and one short-story collection written between 1962 and 1970. Kelley was born to William and Narcissa Kelley in 1937. He was educated at the Fieldston School in New York and later attended Harvard University, where he intended to study law. He found writing more to his liking, however, and began studying with the writers John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish.
William Melvin Kelley
Kelley’s experiences as a youth and young adult shaped his early literary temperament. He had grown up in an integrated neighborhood, though his family was black, and at Fieldston School, an exclusive, largely white school, he had been a popular student and athlete who held several leadership positions. With this background, Kelley embarked upon his writing career with a strong belief in the possibility of the peaceful coexistence of the races in the United States. Yet during the next eight years he became increasingly frustrated and agitated.
Kelley’s first novel, A Different Drummer, published when he was twenty-four, signaled the beginning of what most critics believed would be a brilliant career as a writer. Not only was this first novel exceptionally well written but its controlled tone was a departure from the angry posture that many had come to expect from black writers. Yet A Different Drummer explored many of the same themes that became central to the Black Arts cultural movement of the 1960’s, themes that were to be made even more popular in subsequent decades in the work of authors such as Alex Haley and Toni Morrison. In his novel, Kelley explores African heritage through his principal character, Tucker Caliban, a descendant of an African chieftain who would rather have seen his offspring killed than enslaved. Without completely glorifying black Americans’ African heritage, Kelley shows its importance in defining and accepting personal identity. In fact, “the different drummer” refuses to be defined or confined by others–black or white–and this idea becomes a favorite theme for Kelley.
The defining of individuality is also the underlying theme of Kelley’s singular collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore, published in 1964. Although this second work was not as well received as A Different Drummer, Kelley proved himself adept at short fiction as well. One of the most highly regarded stories in the collection is “Cry for Me,” a continuation of a portion of a narrative begun in A Different Drummer; this story serves to underscore the journey and quest motifs that are so much a part of self-discovery. These motifs are extended and examined even more closely in Kelley’s second novel, A Drop of Patience. Through the character of Ludlow Washington, a blind jazz musician, Kelley shows that self-discovery, while it often involves searching elsewhere, sometimes involves the more difficult and more important task of returning to one’s roots not only to discover their worth as a haven, or sanctuary, but to rediscover creative powers as well. Kelley’s concern with physical and spiritual blindness is reminiscent of the work of James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, and his focus on jazz music places him firmly within the milieu of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
With the publication of dem in 1967, a marked change in Kelley’s temperament was evident. Where earlier trademarks were objectivity and idealism, his tone becomes bitter and satiric in dem. Whereas earlier Kelley had seemed intent on embracing traditional American values, in dem he lampoons and ridicules the ways and values of white America. Even the subject matter is a departure for Kelley: At the center of dem is the culturally provocative sexual encounter between a black male and a white female. A similar encounter occurred in A Drop of Patience, but the difference in Kelley’s treatment of the same scenario indicated his growing disillusionment with the situation of blacks in America.
Dunfords Travels Everywheres, published five years later, is best described as experimental. It is said to have been inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), and portions are often presumed to be autobiographical. One aspect in particular lends credibility to this observation: In that the two main characters, Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow, represent opposite extremes of the black experience, they also represent the opposite poles of Kelley’s own psyche. Through analyzing both character types, Kelley once again attempts a definition of individuality. By far the most striking feature of Dunfords Travels Everywheres is Kelley’s use of a conglomeration of African tongues, pidgin English, Harlemese, and other black idioms. This departure from traditional Western language, a typical feature of many 1960’s writers, brings Kelley to a point diametrically opposed to that of his origin in A Different Drummer, when he was content to write in standard English.
Kelley holds an important place in twentieth century literature, not only because he wrote first-rate fiction but also, more important, because his career is a classic example of the plight of African American writers of the 1960’s. Many of them started their careers with verve, talent, and consciousness but then became frustrated for a variety of reasons and stopped publishing.