It sometimes takes awhile for things to connect. My son sent me a photocopy of an image of me from his mother's SUNY Geneseo college yearbook, taken when I'd been a student there, and, though uncertain about its context, I wrote an essay about it. The photo was from 1965, the photocopy from 2015, the essay published in 2020.
I may have only learned of William Melvin Kelley's death in February 2017 a year later, through an article by Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker. I'd occasionally thought about writing an essay about the creative writing class I'd taken from him in Spring 1965 and how much I'd admired his short-story collection and four novels. I'd read his first novel, A Different Drummer, when my college made it required reading for freshmen, and I'd reviewed his second novel, A Drop of Patience, in our college newspaper. Copies of his five books were likely somewhere in our garage, probably near issues of The Lamron I'd published in.
A year ago, posting entries about short stories written for our college magazine, one about "The Stone" from Spring 1965 made me remember Kelley's comment on it. He thought it had too positive a conclusion and that my sympathy for my characters made me avoid a more realistic outcome. He was likely right. Together with his reaction to my Lamron article about him, I had two anecdotes to share if I wrote an entry about Kelley on my blog. By now Geneseo's English department had been archiving its history online, including material focused on Walter Harding, a Thoreau scholar who had been instrumental in bringing Kelley to campus. I found a wealth of material on the exhibit website, including one mention of me.
"An Open Letter About William Melvin Kelley" by Art Brooks, published in Books, began with the statement, "William Melvin Kelley is a disappointment to students at the State University College at Geneseo, N.Y.—and they love him because of it," and then elaborated: "As Robert Root wrote in the college newspaper, it was logical to assume that Kelley would be 'a beatnik, an egoist, a rebel, controversial, flamboyant.' Instead, students have found, since he arrived at Geneseo in February to take up his appointment as writer-in-residence, that Kelley is 'very human, very real, an average guy outwardly.'" My article incited Kelley to sneak up behind me in the college snack bar and hiss "Assassino!" in my ear, startling me and walking away laughing. I ran after him to talk more about the article, which—thankfully—he liked.
That yearbook included a two-page dedication to Kelley's time as writer-in-residence, with close-up photos of Kelley and some of his students. "Ten people sat around an elliptic shaped table," the comment opens, adding nine student names and Kelley's and explaining they "came together weekly to examine their writing. There between puffs on his cigar, William Kelley would emphasize a point by tapping his finger or folding his fist. His manner was one of casualness and quiet alertness. He would listen as the students criticized each other's writing and then insist they drop their politeness to dig deeper into each other's errors. After all comments ceased the author in residence spoke."
A list of quotations from Kelley's classes follows, ending with: "You have to be presumptuous to be a writer. You have to believe you must write because there's a gap that must be filled. You wouldn't write if you thought you'd just say something that someone's said before. Instead, you try to break the mold."
I appear in two of the photos, one with my friend Doug Brode and one that is that yearbook picture my son sent me seven years ago. Now I know where I was in the photo, in a classroom being taught how to write fiction by a novelist with a uniquely individual perspective on race and relationships. His advice stayed with me for a long time whenever I tried to write fiction.
Kathryn Schultz's New Yorker article was inspired by finding a copy of a Langston Hughes' novel with its frontispiece autographed, "Inscribed especially for William Kelley ~ on your first visit to my house ~ welcome!" She gives us a thorough overview of Kelley's published books and the later decades when he published none of the other novels he continued to write. She calls him a "lost giant of American literature," and that may be apt— for almost fifty years I heard nothing about him until his death—but I've learned that all his novels have been translated into several other languages and are all available in more recent editions once more. There's still an opportunity for readers to appreciate the kind of writer he was. I'll always remember the kind of person he was.
Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer (1962), Dancers on the Shore (1964), A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and dunsfords travels everywheres (1970). All five books have recently been published again.
Schulz, Kathryn. "The Lost Giant of American Literature." The New Yorker January 29, 2018
"The Spring of '65: Walter Harding and William Kelley," The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.