A ‘Lost Giant’: William Melvin Kelley Jr. & His Zany Realist Style

Annika Schadewaldt is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature with a focus on post-45 novels at Leipzig University, Germany. She is a 2023 Rose Library Short-Term Research Fellow. 

Annika Schadewaldt

I came to the Rose library to be able to look at the papers of William Melvin Kelley, Jr., a Black postwar author who has only recently found a new audience, when riverrun and Anchor Books republished his novels over the last five years. Publishing his first novel, A Different Drummer, with Doubleday in 1962 at the young age of 24, William Melvin Kelley was a promising emerging talent whose subsequent three novels as well as a short story collection were issued in quick succession. Yet beginning in the 1970s, Kelley began struggling to find a publisher for his next manuscript, instead mainly publishing shorter pieces and working on other projects, eventually starting to teach creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. While Kelley, having died in 2017, unfortunately never experienced his revival, author and journalist Kathryn Schulz brought Kelley back into the limelight, crowning him ‘the lost giant of American literature’ in an essay for The New Yorker in 2018. Although Eli Rosenblatt already reminded the public of the author a year earlier, when writing an extended obituary for his former teacher for Public Books.

While Kelley’s novels are now half a century old, his approach to questions of race and racism in the US could not be timelier. In fact, we have to thank Kelley for being the first person to put the term ‘woke’ into print in a 1962 essay he wrote for the New York Times. But Kelley is also special in how he decided to approach the question of race in his writing, namely by focusing on how whiteness functions and on how white people see, think, and speak about Black people. His debut novel, A Different Drummer, for instance tells the story about how all Black inhabitants of a fictitious southern state, seemingly overnight, decide to leave. Instead of telling the story from the perspective of those who left, the novel tells the story vis-a-vis a variety of white characters who all try to make sense of what had happened. Similarly, his third novel dem, published in 1967, is a send-up of anxieties surrounding ‘miscegenation.’ dem tells the story of a white woman giving birth to two twins—one white, fathered by her husband Mitchell, and one Black, fathered by her lover Calvin Coolidge.

Perhaps one reason why Kelley fell into obscurity although celebrated and by, among others, Langston Hughes is that Kelley’s style does not fit neatly into our conventional historiography of 20th century African American literature. A student of Archibald Macleash and John Hawkes during his time at Harvard, Kelley’s writing consists of a mix of voices and perspectives often taking on a surreal or absurdist quality. Naming Faulkner and Joyce as influences on his writing, Kelley’s oeuvre is much more experimental in style, much more interested in world building, much more concerned with the white psyche as a topic, and much more ambiguous in its negotiation of Black identity than what was typical for the writing of his time. In this, Kelley is only one of several Black postwar writers that currently see a renewed interest in their experimental and often humorous texts, such as Fran Ross whose novel Oreo was republished in 2000.

My interest in Kelley concerns his experiments with the question of voice in relation to his increasingly surreal style. My dissertation project is generally interested in how midcentury American novelists reworked realism by turning to the world of theater and performance, creating a zany style of novel writing. Although Kelley’s most overtly experimental approach to voice and language comes in his last published novel dunford travels everywhere, his previous 1960s novels already prefigure these later experiments. My chapter on Kelley focuses on his novel dem but also tries to trace longer lines in terms of his interest in experimenting with voice, style, and realism. Because of this focus, I was most excited to dig into the Michel Fabre papers, which contain a full typescript of dem including annotations, which Kelley sent Fabre as a gift. Being able to look at this version was crucial to my research given that available print editions of the novel have ignored some of the specifics of Kelley’s typography which relate to his interest in voice. Similarly, I was excited to dig into Kelley’s correspondence with Fabre and other contemporaries, which allowed for an intimate look into a writing career that was far from easy and straightforward. Finally, a highlight of my findings during my time at the Rose library was a full transcription of a roundtable in which Kelley participated in Paris in 1969. The hour-long conversation sheds light on Kelley’s own thinking about American literature and Black writing and allows for a rare look into his thoughts during the time when writing his later novels.

My stay at the Rose library was also invaluable because large parts of Kelley’s writing have never appeared in print. Most importantly, this holds true for his fifth novel which he continually rewrote for years, and which is fully available in all its many versions at the Rose library. This last unpublished novel is especially interesting to my own research because it shares many concerns with dem: they are both centrally about whiteness and its relation to literary voice(s). Without staying at the Rose library, I would not have been able to trace Kelley’s further development regarding these issues in his later writing.

In one of his journals toward the end of his life, Kelley remarks in a small comment that although his life did not pan out the way he had hoped for when he was young in terms of his career, his life in general was much more interesting and fulfilling this way. The question who gets to be part of our canon, whose work we read, teach, and research has always and will always be a political one. Kelley may be one of the lucky few who not only saw some success during his lifetime but also may perhaps currently be in the process of being rediscovered. I am forever grateful to the Rose library not only for the opportunity to do research there but also that they keep these records allowing for continual rediscovery of these ‘lost giants’ of American literature.