An African American author who wrote predominantly about white characters, Willard Motley (1909-1965) gained recognition with the 1947 release of his critically acclaimed first novel Knock Down Any Door. His realistic, detailed depictions of life in slums, prisons, and reform schools earned him comparisons to other naturalist authors such as The odore Dreiser. Despite the fact that two of his novels were made into films, Motley never surpassed the success of his first novel.
Born into a middle-class, Roman Catholic, African American family in 1909 (some sources cite the year of his birth as 1912), Motley enjoyed some early advantages. His family lived in Englewood, a white neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Living as the only black family in an all white neighborhood meant Motley's family was not considered a threat, and unlike most blacks of that time Motley had few hostile interactions with whites. He grew up believing his grandparents were his parents and his mother, Florence (Flossie), was his sister. Florence moved to New York and left Motley to be raised by his grandparents. Despite this, Motley had a steady family life, full of strong role models. His grandfather, Archibald Motley, Sr., worked as a Pullman porter on a train running between New York City and Chicago and his grandmother, Mary (Mae), was a housewife who imbued him with a strong social consciousness. His uncle, Archibald J. Motley, Jr, whom he thought of as a brother, was a famous painter. Seeing the success of his uncle in the arts led the way for Motley to pursue a career in writing.
At age 13, Motley's writing career took off when the Chicago Defender published a short story he had submitted. As a result, Motley began writing a weekly column in the children's section of the newspaper called "Bud Says." He took the pen name of "Bud Billiken" and had his own byline and photograph. For the next two years, he wrote on topics ranging from pure entertainment to social issues such as poverty. In high school, Motley wrote for the school newspaper and worked on the yearbook as well as participating in several sports. When he graduated in 1929, he knew he wanted to attend University of Wisconsin and become a writer, but the coming of the Great Depression put an end to that dream.
With few options available, Motley continued living with his parents and volunteered as an assistant football coach for his high school. Unable to get work, he decided it was time he began to travel and gather material for his writing. In July of 1930, Motley bicycled from Chicago to New York, living the life of a hobo. The next nine years were to become a tangle of travel and writing, winning Motley little monetary reward or recognition. He took several automobile trips to California and the West, living a simple life as he worked as a migrant laborer, cook, photographer, radio scriptwriter, and newspaper editor, among other jobs. It was also during this time that he served a month-long jail sentence in Wyoming for vagrancy. In the midst of his travels, he focused on writing short stories and submitted them to many popular magazines and newspapers. All were rejected. Though he had some success getting travel articles published in the late 1930s, he began losing the support of his family, who felt he was too much of a dreamer. His grandmother Mae remained supportive, but Motley realized he needed to stay in Chicago and move out from his grandparents' home.
Began Living in Reality of Future Novel Subjects
His new home was a far cry from the middle-class surroundings he had grown up in. He took a slum apartment in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. It was ethnically diverse and downtrodden, full of the type of characters that would inhabit his future novels. Motley began spending time at Hull House, the famous settlement house founded by Jane Addams in 1889 which had become an intellectual center for young artists. In 1939, he helped William P. Schenk and Alexander Saxton establish Hull-House Magazine, a journal affiliated with the organization. Under Schenk and Saxton's tutelage, Motley became schooled in the literature that he had missed at college. As Motley's works of short fiction were published in the magazine his writing style seemed to take shape. His writing was ultra-realistic and centered on tough social issues surrounding poverty. In 1940, he contributed to the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project along with authors such as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, and Arna Bontemps.
During this time, Motley began writing his first novel, Knock On Any Door. The story dealt with Nick Romano, an altar-boy turned murderer. The son of Italian immigrants, Nick is shaped by a life of poverty. His family had been forced to move into a poor Denver neighborhood when Nick's father lost his store during the Depression. There, he commits his first petty crime at age 14. Seven short years later Nick is executed in the electric chair for the murder of a policeman. Motley blames Nick's destruction on his environment. He tells wrenching details of life in the slum and the brutalization Nick experienced within the penal system. Motley makes it clear that each place led Nick one step closer to his ultimate fate. Although Nick's family moves to Chicago after Nick is released from reform school, he has forever been changed by his experience in the school. He begins committing robberies as part of a youth gang and ends up killing a policeman. Motley finished writing the book and submitted it to Harper's in 1943, only to have it rejected. The following year, Macmillan gave Motley a contract and asked for extensive revisions. Motley won a Newberry Library and a Rosenwald Foundation grant in 1946, which allowed him to re-write and finish the novel. With the release of the novel in 1947, Motley enjoyed immediate popular success. The novel sold 47,000 copies during its first three weeks in print, becoming popularized in a King Features comic-strip and in a 1949 movie version starring Humphrey Bogart.
Critics hailed Motley's first novel as a superior "naturalist" novel and compared it favorably to Richard Wright's Native Son. Black critics recognized its success as a "raceless novel" and applauded it for showcasing the talents of an African American novelist at telling a nonracial story. This praise came despite Motley's outward refusal to identify with the struggles unique to African Americans. He was fond of saying, "My race is the human race."
Although Motley had little interest in racial issues, he remained true to his interest in social issues in his second novel, We Fished All Night. Critics found little to like in the novel, calling it a great disappointment and describing it as weak, unfocused, and confused. The novel follows three men who return to Chicago after World War II and are forever changed as a result of the war. The novel addresses political corruption, labor issues, and the myth that America is a "melting pot." Motley traveled to Mexico soon after the release of his second novel. In 1952 he bought a house outside of Mexico City and made a new home with his adopted sons, Sergio and Raul, as he began writing his next novel.
Motley's third novel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, was a return to the characters of Knock On Any Door and was his third and final novel set in Chicago. N. Jill Weyant wrote in the Summer 1977 Black American Literature Forum that "the decision to write a sequel to Knock was dictated in large part by Motley's desperate financial situation in 1952 … Frankly, Epitaph was written to make money, and Motley's poverty may help account for Epitaph's tone, which is noticeably more bitter than in the other novels … " Whatever the reason for writing Epitaph reviews were generally weak and criticized the novel for lacking authenticity or focus. While Motley's first novel won him praise and his second criticism, his third re-kindled interest in Motley to some extent. Columbia Pictures simplified the story and made it into a movie. The novel follows the life of Nick Romano, Jr., a son born to Nellie Watkins, a waitress who we find out is pregnant by Nick, Sr. at the end of Knock On Any Door. Although Nick, Jr. is raised in a tough neighborhood, his mother takes care to see him succeed. In addition to his mother, a whole assortment of oddball characters offer him support. Still, over time Nick's mother becomes a drug addict and Nick must learn to survive without her. Motley included several black characters in his novel and showed more racial awareness than in his previous novels.
On March 4, 1965, Motley died in Mexico City from intestinal gangrene. He was buried in nearby Cuernavaca. He had finished the first draft of his final novel just two weeks before his death. Let Noon Be Fair was published one year later, in 1966. With Let Noon Be Fair Motley delved into the issue of exploitation of Mexicans by the United States. The novel followed the decline of a small fishing village from its first inhabitants through its invasion by American tourists. "At the urging of his new publisher, Putnam," Robert E. Fleming wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Motley emphasized the sexual exploitation of the Mexican people in an attempt to commercialize the book … " Since Motley had only just finished the first draft of the novel before his death, he did not participate in the final editing of the book. Fleming described the reviews of Let Noon Be Fair as "uniformly negative." The Diaries of Willard Motley published in 1979, was another posthumous publication. It included Motley's diary entries from age 16 to 34 and was considered a valuable tool for understanding how Motley incorporated real-life experiences into his writing.
As Clarence Major stated in The Dark and Feeling, Motley was "A kind of ghost among Negro writers … " Fleming summarized his career in this way: "His literary reputation, which had been so high after the publication of his first novel, suffered from two factors—the decline of interest in naturalistic fiction and the rise of African-American authors who addressed black life more directly than he did." Still, Fleming writes: "Motley is likely to retain his place in literary history as one of the best practitioners of the 'raceless novel' movement of the 1940s and 1950s… ."
Notable Black American Men, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale Research, 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 143: American Novelists Since World War II. Third Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, The Gale Group, 1994.
Twentieth-Century American Literature, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
"Willard (Francis) Motley," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Literary Databases (January 9, 2002).
Mark A. Williams, "The Willard Motley Collection," http://libws66.lib.niu.edu/rbsc/2wm2.html (January 17, 2002).