William Attaway, born in 1911, was of Richard Wright’s generation, and, like Wright, he came to Chicago from Mississippi and found his voice in the Marxist literary climate of the 1930s. Attaway was middle-class, some distance from the poverty of Wright’s youth, yet even though his father was a doctor and his mother a schoolteacher he would have been as vulnerable as Wright’s people to the violence of the racism in Mississippi. Attaway’s family moved to Chicago when he was five years old, early on in what became known as the Great Migration, the mass movement of black laborers from the exhausted South to the industrial cities of the North, where World War I had interrupted the supply of European immigrant workers. Most black people were getting away from the predictability of lynch mobs as much as they were escaping the hopelessness of debt peonage, and prosperous blacks were also the targets of resentful whites in the South.
As a youth Attaway seems to have repudiated the aspirations of the black professional class, intending to enter vocational training to become an auto mechanic. However, one day in his high school English class he heard a poem by Langston Hughes, and the discovery that Hughes was black changed his life, he later said. He went on to the University of Illinois, but his father’s death as the Depression began forced him to drop out. For two years he was a hobo and itinerant worker, experiences he would draw on in his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939). In 1935, Attaway joined the Federal Writers’ Proj- ect in Illinois, where he met Wright. He returned to the university to complete his degree, and published his first short story in 1936.
The odd jobs on which Attaway survived included acting and he was on the road with the touring company of Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You when he received word that his first novel had been accepted for publication. Let Me Breathe Thunder is a tender story about the hard adventures of two young white hoboes in the American Northwest of the Depression. Not since Paul Laurence Dunbar’s commercial romances of the late nineteenth century had a black writer published a novel in which the main characters were white. Yet Let Me Breathe Thunder is not “raceless” fiction; blacks appear as secondary characters. Attaway’s style in Let Me Breathe Thunder and Blood on the Forge (1941) was much influenced by the naturalism that had brought ethnic groups and the working class into American literature.
Both books were well received, but in spite of the critical attention, they did not sell, and Attaway never published another novel. He served in North Africa during World War II as captain of a black regiment, wrote for radio in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the 1960s was one of the few blacks writing for television. He also had a career as a songwriter, producing in 1957 the Calypso Song…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.