Posts tagged willard motley
I asked Dmitry Samarov — author of Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab — to post about Chicago writers. This is his first post. He even made a portrait of the author!
No one reads Willard Motley (1909–1965) but they certainly used to. He grew up in a middle-class African-American household in the then primarily-white neighborhood of Englewood in Chicago. The prominent painter Archibald Motley was his uncle, cousin, or brother (according to various sources).
He first gained notice when he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender at the age of 13. This led to his being hired to write a children’s column under the pen-name “Bud Billiken” from 1922 to 1924. (“Bud Billiken” was later used for a South Side Chicago parade which continues to this day.)
Motley was a co-founder of Hull-House Magazine, which published some of his first adult writings.
I. THE STREET
This is the corner. Here is where the women stand at night. This is where the evangelists preach God on Sundays. Here is where knife-play has written a moment’s strange drama; where sweethearts have met; where drunks have tilted bottles; where shoppers have bargained; where men have come looking — for something… This is the humpty-dumpty neighborhood. Maxwell and Newberry…
Here is where the daytime pavement never gets a rest from the shuffle of feet. Where the night-time street lamps lean drunkenly and are an easy target for the youngsters’ rocks. Where garbage cans are pressed full and running over. Where the weary buildings kneel to the street and the cats fight their fights under the tall, knock-kneed legs of the pushcarts. This is the down-to-earth world, the bread and beans world, the tenement-bleak world of poverty and hunger. The world of skipped meals; of skimp pocketbooks; of nonexistent security — shadowed by the miserable little houses that Jane Addams knew. Maxwell and Newberry…
This is the street of noises, of odors, of colors. This is a small hub around which a little world revolves. The spokes shoot off into all countries. This is Jerusalem. The journey to Africa is only one block; from Africa to Mexico one block; from Mexico to Italy two blocks; from Italy to Greece three blocks…
This is the pavement. These are the streets. Here are the people…
Motley’s most popular novel, Knock on any Door, sold 47,000 copies in its first three weeks of release. Its hero Nick Romano famously said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” The book was adapted into a 1949 film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart.
Responding to criticism that he did not directly address race in his work, he said, “My race is the human race.”
Motley died of intestinal gangrene in Mexico City in 1965, poor and forgotten. His papers are held at the Chicago Public Library and Northern Illinois University.
Motley was suggested to me as a subject by Bill Savage, who owns a copy of Nelson Algren's Neon Wilderness inscribed by the author as “the poor man’s Willard Motley.”
[Writers No One Reads Facebook page]