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The Art and Life of Clarence Major

The Art and Life of Clarence Major

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Art and Life of Clarence Major
    Book Description:

    Clarence Major is an award-winning painter, fiction writer, and poet-as well as an essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and memoirist. He has been part of twenty-eight group exhibitions, has had fifteen one-man shows, and has published fourteen collections of poetry and nine works of fiction. The Art and Life of Clarence Major is the first critical biography of this innovative African American writer and visual artist. Given the full cooperation of his subject, Keith E. Byerman traces Major's life and career from his complex family history in Georgia through his encounters with important literary and artistic figures in Chicago and New York to his present status as a respected writer, artist, teacher, and scholar living in California. In his introduction, Byerman asks, "How does a black man who does not take race as his principal identity, an artist who deliberately defies mainstream rules, a social and cultural critic who wants to be admired by the world he attacks, and a creator who refuses to commit to one expressive form make his way in the world?" Tasking himself with opening up the multiple layers of problems and solutions in both the work and the life to consider the successes and the failures, Byerman reveals Major as one who has devoted himself to a life of experimental art that has challenged both literary and painterly practice and the conventional understanding of the nature of African American art. Major's refusal to follow the rules has challenged readers and critics, but through it all, he has continued to produce quality work as a painter, poet, and novelist. His is the life of someone totally devoted to his creative work, one who has put his artistic vision ahead of fame, wealth, and sometimes even family. A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4366-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION. Performing Transgression, Seeking Community
    (pp. 1-5)

    Clarence Major is an artistic renaissance man; he is a painter, fiction writer, poet, essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and memoirist. For the first three of these, he must be considered a professional. He has pursued them since childhood and has won awards in all three. He has been part of twenty-eight group exhibitions, has had fifteen one-man shows, and has published fourteen collections of poetry and nine works of fiction. Although he has never achieved the fame of other writers of his generation, such as Toni Morrison or Ernest Gaines, he has a substantial reputation among those interested in experimentation...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Breaking Boundaries: A Family History
    (pp. 6-20)

    The history of Clarence Major’s family on both sides is a variation of the American racial family romance. It is a story of blacks and whites, men and women, who jointly create a network of relationships that has to be reconstructed through personal testimony as much as official documentation. It is also a story with gaps because African Americans, for a number of reasons, are less likely to appear in public records, newspaper reports, or historical or genealogical accounts. Tracing the connections often requires following genetic lines rather than legal ones and family stories rather than birth and death certificates...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Becoming an Artist
    (pp. 21-39)

    Upon completing his military service in 1957, Major returned to Chicago, where he lived for a time in his mother’s home and worked at a factory that made loud speakers while continuing to paint and to write poetry. His first show was at Gayle’s Gallery in 1957, where his work was exhibited alongside that of Archibald Motley, who had achieved a reputation during the 1920s and 1930s for his depictions of the nightlife of Chicago. By the fifties, Motley was emerging from an extended period of depression and his reputation was in decline, though he remained the best known of...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Making It in New York
    (pp. 40-63)

    Major had visited New York briefly after his release from the air force in 1957. Like other African American artists of his generation, including LeRoi Jones and Ishmael Reed, he believed the place to be was Greenwich Village, not Harlem. This was the area associated with the Beats and with the avant-garde in the arts. Given his correspondence with Sheri Martinelli and his publication of work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Henry Miller in the Coercion Review, it is not surprising that he would take up residence in a bohemian rather than ethnic area of the city. He moved into the...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Beginning a Professional Career, 1975–1980
    (pp. 64-88)

    The mid-1970s marked the period when Major, in his late thirties, emerged from his itinerant, bohemian life into what can be considered a career as artist and teacher. This did not mean that his life became entirely settled or stable, only that it became more so. He had now established himself as a poet and was gaining a reputation as a novelist among the avant-garde with whom he identified. It also meant that he was less engaged in the ideological struggles that had shaped the late sixties and early seventies.

    During this time, Major took up painting again as a...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Machinery of Postmodernism
    (pp. 89-102)

    Having established his credentials as a “certified” academic and as an internationally recognized poet, Major set about the work of entering fully what might be called the Avant-Garde Establishment. He brought together his nonfiction into The Dark and Feeling. He took up his position at Colorado, primarily in the creative writing program and became part of the staff there of American Book Review, a journal established by Ronald Sukenick to discuss literary works outside the commercial mainstream. He had two novels published by the Fiction Collective and became an active member of that group. He also spent more time with...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Art of Postmodernism
    (pp. 103-139)

    Over the next eleven years (1975–86), Major responded to this new community by publishing three highly experimental novels with them and by actively involving himself in the other editorial work and business of the collective. He reacted positively to recommendations for revisions, and he assisted in involving others, such as novelist Charles Johnson, in the operations of the group. He also helped to secure funding for the costs of books by himself and Sukenick. But his most significant contribution was, of course, the fiction itself.

    The first documented link between Major and the Fiction Collective appears in a letter...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Finding a New Life
    (pp. 140-165)

    Major and Pamela Ritter met in the fall of 1979 at a party in Boulder given by Diane Johnson, Major’s girlfriend at the time. Pam was with her husband, Robert Steiner, who had just been hired by the English Department at the University of Colorado. Born in Iowa, she had attended the University of Iowa and Bowling Green University before entering the doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Steiner also studied. The relationship with Major developed very quickly; they started living together on 22 December 1979. They were married on 8 May 1980, with Clarence’s mother and...

  13. PLATES
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Back to America, Back to Europe
    (pp. 166-185)

    Major notes that their return to the United States in the spring of 1983 was especially difficult for Pam, but he clearly had some ambivalence about returning to Boulder (“Licking Stamps,” 197). This is evident in their almost perpetual movement over the next two years. Soon after he returned to Colorado, he began making arrangements to take a visiting position at the University of California at San Diego for the following spring. That appointment was arranged by Sherley Anne Williams and Jerry Rothenberg. At the end of the 1982–83 academic year, he had received a sabbatical leave from Colorado...

  15. CHAPTER NINE Consolidating a Career
    (pp. 186-240)

    The often-difficult but also productive sojourn in Colorado ended in 1989, when Major accepted a position at the University of California Davis as a professor of English and creative writing. The opportunity developed in 1987 when he served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts with Will Baker, a fictionist and essayist who had joined the faculty at Davis in 1969. The two remained in contact and discussed the move in late 1988. An interview was arranged for February 1989, which meant that Major returned from his visiting positions at Binghamton and Temple and almost immediately went...

  16. CONCLUSION. Returning to the Beginning
    (pp. 241-250)

    In 2002, Major published Come by Here: My Mother’s Life. In the book, he intersperses narrative in her voice with his commentaries about how things have changed over several decades. He also incorporates genealogical information, such as birth and death dates and family histories that are not typically found in memoirs. Much of this information, verified through other sources, has been used in the present work. While the reviews of this work have focused on the story of Inez, as Major intended, the more important concern for this analysis is her son as author and covert subject. He notes in...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 251-256)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-266)
  19. Index
    (pp. 267-272)