Remarks on the Passing of Cyrus Colter

Context N°11

by Reginald Gibbons

Cyrus Colter was a board member for Dalkey Archive Press for several years, and more importantly he wrote one of the most important collections of stories of the last 50 years, The Beach Umbrella (available from TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press). Despite his remarkable accomplishments as a fiction writer, he was generally ignored by critics, with a few notable exceptions, chief of whom is Reginald Gibbons, who made the following remarks at a memorial service for Cyrus Colter on May 23, 2002.

Cyrus was born on January 8, 1910; he died April 15 of this year. (On that same birthday, by the way, but 27 years later, Leon Forrest was born.)

Cyrus had three careers—many years in the law, a half-dozen years in higher education at Northwestern (1973-79), and the last several decades of his life, as an active writer. This was an extraordinarily full life. Cyrus was a man of both seriousness and occasional uproariousness, even to excess—who yet carried with him a certain dignity that had accrued from his long and varied experience—of people, of institutions, of art, of the lived American history that was his own life. In the years when I knew him, from late 1983 on, he was a man who until he became ill was composed of passions and enthusiasms and great artistic stamina, but who yet honestly doubted himself, as most writers do, in moments of artistic crisis.

Cyrus began writing at the age of 50, published short stories in literary journals, and at the age of 60 published his first book, the memorable collection The Beach Umbrella, which was selected by Kurt Vonnegut as the winner of a contest sponsored by the University of Iowa Press. Cyrus published five more books, all novels, and in them we see a very gifted and artistically restless writer reinventing himself several times. The Rivers of Eros (1972), a naturalistic work like The Beach Umbrella, portrays working-class black Chicagoans confronting daily life as the scene of ultimate questions. Cyrus’s next novel, published only a year later in 1973, was The Hippodrome, a complete departure from his first two books. As Cyrus’s friend Fred Shafer pointed out to me years ago, Cyrus belonged to the generation of Richard Wright (who was born two years earlier), but Cyrus did not publish his first book until the year Richard Wright died. The two writers were formed in the same period of American life, with its ubiquitous rituals of race relations. In Cyrus’s brief but unforgettable Hippodrome, one encounters a tremendously intense presentation of existential dilemmas of freedom and servitude against a backdrop of race, sex and human violence, and all this does remind us of Richard Wright’s fiction, his preoccupations and his intensity, even though Cyrus’s manner as a writer is very different from Wright’s. Then after several years of research and writing came Cyrus’s vast nineteenth-century novel, Night Studies (1979), in which he creates an imaginary black American political figure and his movement in the midst of civil rights struggles. (This book includes a powerful and contradictory historical novella of the middle passage and also a long story of slaves attempting to escape plantation owners—as if Cyrus wanted to prove that every aspect of the whole history of slavery and race in America was within his range.) Nearly ten years later, after Cyrus’s wife Imogene had died and he had endured a period of extreme grief, Cyrus published his masterpiece, A Chocolate Soldier (1988). This remarkable book portrays a quixotic young black revolutionary, again in the midst of the American civil rights movement—but Cyrus was not content to simply tell the story. Always interested in the contradictions inherent in any position, he created a highly unreliable narrator, who as a former friend of the revolutionary, looks back on his friend from a position of his own acquiescence and bad faith. This is a morally and psychologically complicated, extraordinarily deft novel that ranges from the horrifying to the horrifyingly funny, and gives readers a large cast of memorable characters, black and white, caught in the American paradoxes and struggles of race. Cyrus’s final work, City of Light (1993), is a novel of ideas, not of characters, almost a kind of dialogue of philosophical positions—which in terms of the art of the novel, was yet another departure, although again it was focused on the workings of race in American society. Cyrus looked repeatedly at the textures of black middle-class life, especially in Chicago, but also brought all sorts of characters into his work, and never failed to inquire deeply and imaginatively into how America racializes social relations and economic power—not in simple but in highly complex, contradictory ways. Cyrus was also a passionately partisan reader of Melville and Faulkner, and like them, he aspired to produce a style, a sound, in English, that was capable of tragic depths, sweeping views, and sheer exuberance of language. This was all akin somehow to his love of the infinitely detailed vastness of the symphonies of Bruckner.

Like many another American writer whose purposes, goals and ambitions are artistically serious and full of emotional and intellectual risk, Cyrus was mostly overlooked by the critical establishment of America, and was also caught in the conflicts of politicized culture, even within the black community. Yet these obstacles, and this loneliness of the long-distance writer, seemed only to strengthen his will to write utterly and completely as himself—the particular person who had come from Noblesville, Indiana to the hidden heart of Chicago’s political life, who had come from reading novels obsessively throughout his life to writing them as a mature man, who had lived being black in white America. “You have to write out of your own chemistry as a human being!” he used to say with great conviction, when the subject of writing came up in conversation. “You have to be yourself!” he said, having heard people around him, from all sides, advising or implying that he ought to be more malleable or more mainstream or less obstreperous or more radical or more activist. What he was, though, was independent and original. He wrote books no one else could have written. And he felt within himself, I am sure, the justice of his accomplishment—a kind of justice apart from what is available to us, or not, as citizens.

Cyrus’s character John Calvin Knight, in Night Studies, says near the end of his life: “I only ask for time to finish my work—my studies. I live now for what, hopefully, they will reveal—the answer to that vast question, that vast mystery: the mystery of Blackness. There is a greatness there, a majesty, if it can only be found [ . . . ]. So wish me well.”

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