William Melvin Kelley, who brought a fresh, experimental voice to black fiction in novels and stories that used recurring characters to explore race relations and racial identity in the United States, died on Feb. 1 in Manhattan. He was 79.
The cause was complications of kidney failure, his daughter Jessica Kelley said.
Mr. Kelley blended fantasy and fact to construct an alternative world whose sweep and complexity drew comparisons to James Joyce and William Faulkner. Minor characters in one story or novel might appear later as larger figures, their stories elaborated in greater detail — and, in his later fiction, in language that recalled the linguistic experimentation of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”
Mr. Kelley’s fabulist bent was apparent in his first novel, “A Different Drummer,” published in 1962. Set in a mythical Southern state, it traced the fortunes of a black farmer, Tucker Caliban, who salts his land, shoots his horse and cow, burns down his house and heads north with his pregnant wife and their infant child, prompting an exodus of every black resident in the state.
The author’s hope for a peaceful resolution of America’s racial problems, reflected in his early writing, waned over time. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he took a more radical stance and a more experimental approach to fiction that culminated in his last novel, the dystopian fantasy “Dunfords Travels Everywheres” (1970).
In that book, a Harvard-educated black man, Chig Dunford, tours a mythical country where the apartheid system is based on clothing color. Along the way, he encounters an alter ego, the Harlem hustler Carlyle Bedlow, another of Mr. Kelley’s recurring characters, for whom Mr. Kelley invented a language blending Bantu, pidgin English and Harlem slang.
“Perhaps I’m trying to follow the Faulknerian pattern, although I guess it’s really Balzacian when you connect everything,” Mr. Kelley was quoted as saying in “Conversations” (1967), a collection of author interviews conducted by Roy Newquist. “I’d like to be 80 years old and look up at the shelf and see that all of my books are really one big book.”
William Melvin Kelley Jr. was born on Nov. 1, 1937, on Staten Island. His father, who had been the editor of The Amsterdam News in the 1920s and early ’30s, worked as a civil servant for New York City after a series of unsuccessful attempts to start his own newspaper. His mother, the former Narcissa Garcia, was a homemaker.
He grew up in a working-class area of the North Bronx, surrounded by Italian-Americans. After graduating from the private Fieldston School in Riverdale, he entered Harvard in 1956 with the idea of becoming a civil rights lawyer. Instead, he switched to English, taking seminars in fiction with John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish.
In his senior year, his short story “The Poker Game,” published in The Harvard Advocate, won the Dana Reed Prize, awarded for the best work of fiction in an undergraduate publication. He left school before graduating to concentrate on writing and in 1962 published “A Different Drummer.” It was followed two years later by a short-story collection, “Dancers on the Shore,” which stamped his growing reputation as an original new voice in American fiction.
In 1962, Mr. Kelley married Karen Gibson, an art student at Sarah Lawrence College who later took the first name Aiki. She and his daughter Jessica survive him, as do another daughter, Cira Kelley; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Although racial politics suffused his fiction, Mr. Kelley resisted being categorized as a social commentator. “At this time, let me say for the record that I am not a sociologist or a politician or a spokesman,” he wrote in the introduction to “Dancers on the Shore.” “Such people try to give answers. A writer, I think, should ask questions. He should depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.”
In “A Drop of Patience” (1965), Mr. Kelley told the story of a blind jazz musician, abandoned by his white mistress, who finds solace and meaning in music — his own country, separate and independent. The parable-like “Dem” (1967) — which begins “Lemme tellya how dem folks live” — took an absurdist premise for its journey into race relations.
In that book, a white woman gives birth to twins, one white and one black, after pursuing an affair with a black man out of boredom. Her husband, determined to find the second father, ventures into Harlem and discovers an unimagined new world.
After The Saturday Evening Post assigned him to cover the trial of the men accused of assassinating Malcolm X — the article was never published — Mr. Kelley became disillusioned with the American justice system and took his family to Paris. He later moved to Jamaica, before returning to the United States in 1977 and settling in Harlem. In 1989, he began teaching creative writing at Sarah Lawrence.
Mr. Kelley wrote, produced and starred in “Excavating Harlem in 2290,” an experimental film made with the video artist Steve Bull and released in 1988. His video diaries of Harlem were edited by Benjamin Oren Abrams into a short film, “The Beauty That I Saw,” which was shown at the Harlem International Film Festival in 2015.
William Melvin Kelley is a renowned African American author known for his experimental style and exploration of African American cultural identity. Born on November 1, 1937 in the Bronx, New York, to Narcissa Agatha Kelley and William Kelley, an editor, he attended the elite Fieldston School and was accepted to Harvard University in 1957. It was at Harvard, studying under novelist John Hawkes and poet Archibald MacLeish, that Kelley published his first short story. Kelley’s professional career blossomed in the 1960s and his writing appeared in a host of periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Negro Digest, and Esquire. The author’s principal works were also published during this prolific decade, including a collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore (1964), and the novels A Different Drummer (1962), A Drop of Patience (1965), d?m (1967), and Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970). Critics have noted the influence of James Joyce and William Faulkner on Kelley’s style. Distinctive elements of Faulkner, for example, can be seen in the interrelated cast of characters which appear in Kelley’s novels, as well as his use of a fictional Southern state for the setting of his texts. The author’s application of language on the other hand has drawn comparisons to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Kelley’s prose frequently employs postmodern literary tropes in its scrutinizing examination of American society and his exploration of African American cultural identity. Humor is nonetheless prominent as Kelley highlights the glaring irrationalities of American racial attitudes. The progression of his work deliberately parallels transitions in the civil rights movement and Kelley’s own political evolution. Whereas A Different Drummer evokes themes of nonviolent integration, his later work expresses the more militant ideological tenor of separatism and Black Nationalism. This has led many critics to contend that Kelley’s writing mirrors the African American experience of the sixties. Kelley received numerous awards during the course of his career, including Harvard’s Dana Reed Literary Prize (1960). In addition, Kelley was granted the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the John Hay Whitney Foundation Award (1963) for A Different Drummer. His short story collection, Dancers on the Shore, won the Transatlantic Review Award (1964) and his last novel received honors from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. As a culmination he was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Kelley experienced corresponding academic success and was presented fellowships to the New York Writer’s Conference and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. In 1965, he began teaching at the New School for Social Research at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Two years later he traveled to France as a lecturer in American literature at the Nanterre University in Paris. He eventually settled in New York where he still teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
For many years, Kelley was, in his own words, an "assimilated student." He was educated at Fieldston, a private school in New York City, and, later, he attended Harvard University. In 1963, he published the well-known Esquire article "The Ivy League Negro." Of this type of black student, he said that the Ivy League Negro and, in general, most educated or upper-class Negroes, have an ambiguous attitude toward the uneducated, lower-class Negro; these Ivy League types are torn by a disdain and a deep love for the "diddy-bop" and the "jungle bunny" — that is, the lower-class black man and woman. "With one breath," Kelley said, "the Ivy League Negro will ridicule him [the lower-class black] for his lack of taste, the flashing and revealing clothes, and his 'dese, deys, dems, and doses,' and with his next breath, he will envy him for his apparent love of life, his woman's Africanesque or exotic beauty, and, believe it or not, his rough-and-ready sexuality." In short, Kelley was saying that in an unconscious effort to become completely integrated into American life, the Ivy League Negro adopts and accepts the stereotypes and prejudices of mainstream America — including color prejudice.
However, later, Kelley changed. His tone became more fierce, and, as a result, he was regarded as one of the so-called militant black writers. He has remarked, "I think of myself, at least formerly, as one of the most integrated people that society produced. And because I was one of the most integrated, I was one of the most messed up, mentally, and one of the most brainwashed." He became very much concerned with the development of a separate literature for black people, a literature based on African traditions, including black music and folk culture.Kelley received numerous awards during the course of his career, including Harvard’s Dana Reed Literary Prize (1960). In addition, Kelley was granted the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the John Hay Whitney Foundation Award (1963) for A Different Drummer. His short story collection, Dancers on the Shore, won the Transatlantic Review Award (1964) and his last novel received honors from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. As a culmination he was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Kelley experienced corresponding academic success and was presented fellowships to the New York Writer’s Conference and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. In 1965, he began teaching at the New School for Social Research at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Two years later he traveled to France as a lecturer in American literature at the Nanterre University in Paris. He eventually settled in New York where, from 1989 until his death, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College.