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The Art and Life of Clarence Major

Keith E. Byerman

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction. Performing Transgression, Seeking Community

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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...

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ONE: Breaking Boundaries: A Family History

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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...

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TWO: Becoming an Artist

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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 ...

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THREE: Making It in New York

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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. Th is was the area associated with the Beats and with the avant-garde in the arts. Given his correspondence with Sheri Martinelli and his ...

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FOUR: Beginning a Professional Career, 1975–1980

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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. Th is 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...

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FIVE: The Machinery of Postmodernism

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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 ...

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SIX: The Art of Postmodernism

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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 ...

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SEVEN: Finding a New Life

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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 ...

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EIGHT: Back to America, Back to Europe

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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 aft er he returned to Colorado, he ...

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NINE: Consolidating a Career

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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. Th e opportunity developed in 1987 when he served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts with Will ...

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Conclusion. Returning to the Beginning

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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...


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pp. 251-256


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pp. 257-266


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pp. 267-272

E-ISBN-13: 9780820343662
E-ISBN-10: 0820330558
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330556
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330558

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 21 b&w images; 17 color plates
Publication Year: 2012