Clarence Major

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Self-portrait by Clarence Major

Clarence Major (born 1936) is an American poet, painter, and novelist.


Clarence Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936 and grew up in Chicago. As a teenager he started drawing and painting, writing poetry and fiction.

In his early twenties he started publishing his own literary magazine, Coercion Review, which featured poets and writers such as Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As a teenager he was influenced by the monumental Van Gogh Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, February 1 – April 16, 1950.

After a stint in the Air Force, two marriages, children, and two divorces, he left the Midwest and moved to New York in December 1966. His first novel, All Night Visitors, was published in 1969 and his first collection of poems, Swallow the Lake the following year. Major briefly worked as a research analyst for Simulmatics, under the direction of sociologist Dr. Sol Chaneles. Major analyzed news coverage of the 1960s riots. He also did field work on the riots, in Detroit and Milwaukee, before turning, in 1967, to teaching.

First, he taught in Harlem at the New Lincoln School, in a summer program. He later taught modern American literature courses and creative writing workshops in universities. His first solo exhibition of paintings was at Sarah Lawrence College in the library in the early 1970s.

During this time he was also giving public readings of his poetry. He served on the editorial staff of several literary periodicals (such as Caw! and The Journal of Black Poetry) and wrote a regular column for American Poetry Review. He was the first editor of American Book Review. He read his poetry at the Guggenheim Museum, the Folger Theatre and in universities, theaters and cultural centers.

He joined the Fiction Collective in 1974. Major edited High Plains Literary Review for several years. On a State Department-sponsored trip in 1975 he was a participant at the International Poetry Festival in Struga, Yugoslavia, where he read his work with Leopold Sedar Senghor and other poets from around the world. In 1977, with John Ashbery and other poets from various countries, Major read at the Poetry International in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Although he had been painting all along, after moving to California in 1989 he showed his paintings more frequently in galleries.

In 1991 Major served as fiction judge for the National Book Awards. In 1987 he served twice on the National Endowment for the Arts Awards panels; and in 1997–98 he served as judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has judged state-sponsored literary contests in Ohio, New York, Washington, Colorado and California.

Major is professor emeritus of 20th-Century American Literature at the University of California at Davis. His literary archives are in the Givens Collection of African American Literature, Anderson Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. For what Professor Linda Furgerson Selzer calls a "groundbreaking study" of Clarence Major's art and literary work, see Keith E. Byerman's book, The Art and Life of Clarence Major (ISBN 978-0-8203-3055-6), Athens: University of Georgia Press (June 2012).


Major has taught literature and/or creative writing at Brooklyn College, Queens College, Sarah Lawrence College, University of Washington, Howard University, University of Maryland, University of Colorado, Temple University, the State University of New York at Binghamton, the University of California at Davis and on a Fulbright-Hays Exchange award he taught American culture at the University of Nice, in France, 1981–1983. He left the University of Colorado in 1989 and he taught at the University of California Davis for eighteen years before his retirement in 2007.


Major won a NationaL Council on the Arts Award for his poetry collection Swallow the Lake in 1970, and the following year was awarded a New York Cultural Foundation grant for poetry. Reflexe et Ossature (1982), the French translation of Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), was nominated for the Prix Maurice Coindreau (1982). Such Was The Season (1987) was a Literary Guild book club selection in 1988. The same year The New York Times Book Review recommended it on its annual "Summer Reading" list. Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988) was cited by The New York Times Book Review as a "Notable Book of The Year" 1988. Major won a Bronze Medal as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999 for Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958–1998 (Copper Canyon Press). He won the Pushcart Prize for the short story "My Mother and Mitch", in 1989. In 2002 he won the Stephen Henderson Poetry Award for Outstanding Achievement. His novel My Amputations (1986) won the Western States Book Award and was republished in 2008 with an introduction by Lawrence Hogue. Dirty Bird Blues won the Sister Circle Book Award in 1999. Major was awarded the International Literary Hall of Fame award (Chicago State University) in 2001.

  • Grant, Struga Yugoslavia International Poetry Festival-U.S. State Department Educational & Cultural Exchange Program, 1975.
  • Grant, Fulbright-Hays Inter-University Exchange Award: Franco-American Commission for Educational Exchange—Nice, France, 1981–1983
  • Grant, United Kingdom Educational Commission, London, England, 1981.
  • Grant, International Communication Agency, American Embassy, London, England, 1982.
  • Grant, Commission for Education and Cultural Exchange Between Italy and the U.S. of America, Rome, Italy, 1982.
  • Grant, Africa Regional Services, United States International Communication Agency, Paris, France, 1982.
  • Grant, IREX (Poland cultural trip) 1984.
  • Grant, U.S. Information Service, American Embassy, Paris, France, 1985.


Major has edited several anthologies, most recently Calling the Wind: 20th Century African-American Short Stories (1993) and The Garden Thrives: 20th Century African-American Poetry (1996).

His own work has appeared in the following anthologies: The Norton Anthology of American Literature, The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, Postmodern Poetry in America 1950 to the Present, Men of Our Time: Male Poetry in Contemporary America, Dynamics of Violence, Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970, The World's Best Poetry: Supplement IV, Words On The Page, The World In Your Hands, Mirrors: An Introduction to Literature, The Urban Adventures, American Negro Poetry, Where Is Vietnam: American Poets Respond, In A Time of Revolution: Poems From Our Third World, Poems of War Resistance, A Punishment For Peace, Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry, Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Black Americans, Inside Outer Space: New Poems From The Space Age, Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry, The Movement Toward a New America, Dices or Black Bones: Black Voices of The Seventies, Black American Literature 1780–Present, Fine Frenzy: Enduring Themes in Poetry, The Modern Age: Literature, The Real Imagination, You Better Believe It: Black Voices in English, Black Spirits: A Festival of New Black Poets in America, New Black Voices, Starting With Poetry, From The Belly of The Shark, The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century, Open Poetry: Four Anthologies of Expanded Poems, The Liberal Art of Interpretation, A New Rhetoric, The Pushcart Prize: The Best of The Small Presses, Contemporary Writing from The Continents, The Point: Where Teaching and Writing Intersect, The Jazz Poetry Anthology; Giavani Poeti Americani (Italy), Heartshape in the Dust: An Anthology of Black American Poetry (Yugoslavia), American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century, Gondola a Signore Signore Gondola: Venice in 20th Century American Poetry (Italy), Govereci Boben (Poland?), The Writing on The Wall, Merry Christmas Baby and others. Fiction: Children of The Night, American Made, Calling the Wind, The Avant Garde Today: An International Anthology, Statements, Statements 2, The Sound of Writing, Pushcart XV, Breaking Ice, 19 Necromancers From Now, Ten Times Black: Stories From The Black Experience, Not Normal Illinois, American Made, Love Stories and Writing Under Fire: Stories Of The Vietnam War and others.


His fiction, poetry, nonfiction and book reviews have appeared in periodicals including The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The American Poetry Review, The Black Scholar, The Baltimore Sun Magazine Supplement, Upstate [Rochester] Sunday Magazine, The Denver Post, Hampton Road Guide and Journal, The Rocky Mountain News, The San Jose Mercury News, Essence, The Massachusetts Review, Chelsea, Ploughshares, Witness, Boulevard, Michigan Quarterly Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Trace, Negro Digest, The Nickel Review, [Chicago] Sun-Times Showcase, John O'Hare Journal, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, New Myths/MSS, American Review, The Magazine of New Writing, Contact, Folger Poetry Broadside, The Literary Review, Mundus Artium: A Journal of International Literature and the Arts, National Guardian, New York Poetry, The Outsider, Poetry Miscellany, Unmuzzled OX, Yardbird Reader, Works, Callaloo, African American Review, New American Review, Brilliant Corners, A Gathering of The Trides, Baa Sima (Accra), Black Orpheus (Nigeria), El carno emplumado (Mexico), East and West (India), Fiddlehead (Canada), Gedicht (Antwerp), Interspace (France), In Their Own Words (Italy), New Departures (England), Poetry (England), Pravda (Moscow), Quadrant (Australia), Tautara (Turkey), Vinduet (Norway), and Literatura na Świecie (Poland).

Visual arts[edit]

Major studied drawing and painting under the direction of painter Gus Nall (1919–1995) from 1952 to 1954. He also attended sketch and lecture classes during the same period in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among his teachers there was Addis Osborne (1914–2011).

Major's apprentice art work was first shown to the public in a group show in the mid-1950s at Gales Gallery on Sixty-Third Street, Chicago. The gallery owner, Mrs. Edna Powell Gale, featured the works of local artists.

Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge, University Art Gallery Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Sarah Lawrence College, Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan, Hamilton Club Gallery, Paterson, New Jersey, Phoenix Gallery, Sacramento CA, Exploding Head Gallery, Sacramento CA, Blue Hills Gallery, Winters, CA, Main Street Gallery, Winters CA, and many other venues.

His art work is in many private collections as well as in several public one: Indiana State University, Terre Haute; Passaic County Community College Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art; the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida; and The Linda Matthews MARBL Collection at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

His paintings have appeared in many group shows at such galleries as John Natsoulas Gallery (Davis, CA), University of Rochester Art Gallery (Rochester, New York), Denenberg Fine Arts Gallery, Los Angeles, Anita Shapolsky Gallery (New York, New York), 40 Acres Gallery (Sacramento, CA), Main Street Gallery (Winters, CA), Nelson Gallery, University of California at Davis.

Many of his paintings have appeared on covers of his own books, among them Myself Painting, Waiting for Sweet Betty, and "Down and Up," three poetry collections. His novel Emergency Exit contains reproductions of his paintings and his essay collection, Necessary Distance, is illustrated with his drawings. A book on his art and literature, Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist by Bernard Bell, appeared in 1998. Conversations with Clarence Major by Nancy Bunge was published in 2002. While focused largely on literature, both books contain Major's views on painting.

Exhibition catalogs: Black: A Celebration of African American Art in Sacramento-Area Collections, 2008; Configurations paintings by Clarence Major, Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge MA 2010; Myself Painting, paintings by Clarence Major, University Gallery, The Center for Performing Arts, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana, 2011; The Writers' Brush: An Exhibition of Art Work by Writers by Donald Friedman and John Wronoski, Introduction by Joseph McElroy, New York: Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation, 2014 (ISBN: 978-1-4675-7558-4).

Major curated the exhibition of paintings "Spirit Made Visible", containing the works of Robert Colescott, John Abduljaami, Mike Henderson, Oliver Jackson, Mary Lovelace O'Neal, Joe Overstreet, Raymond Saunders, Clarence Major and others, at the John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, California, May 9 – 31, 1992.


  • Sarah Lawrence College Library, Spring 1974
  • First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Jan. 3–17, 1986
  • Kresge Art Museum East Lansing Michigan, Sep 4 – October 28, 2001
  • Schacknow Museum of Fine Art Plantation Florida, April–May 2003
  • Exploding Head Gallery Sacramento CA, April 2003, August 2004, July 2006
  • Hamilton Club Gallery Paterson New Jersey, Nov 4 – February 28, 2007
  • John Natsoulas Gallery, May 9 – 31, 1992, June 2002, July 1993
  • Porter-Troupe Gallery San Diego CA, April 2001
  • Blue Hills Gallery Winters CA, April–June 2005
  • The Phoenix Gallery Sacramento, March 2006, July 2006
  • California Historical Society Museum San Francisco, December 11, 2004 – April 16, 2005
  • Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge MA, August 6 – September 3, 2010
  • University Gallery Indiana State University Terre Haute, February 2011


Major has attended or received degrees from the following institutions.[1]

  • The Art Institute of Chicago (James Nelson Raymond scholar), 1952–54
  • Gus Nall Studio, Private Art Lessons, 1952–1954
  • The New School for Social Research (French course only), 1971.
  • Norwalk Community College, Norwalk Connecticut, 1972.
  • Howard University, Washington D.C., 1974–1975
  • State University of New York, Albany, B.S. 1976.
  • Union Institute and University, Yellow Springs and Cincinnati, Ohio, Ph.D. 1978.


  • All-Night Visitors (1969, 1998)
  • No (1973)
  • Reflex and Bone Structure (1975, 1996)
  • Emergency Exit (1979)
  • My Amputations (1986, 2008)
  • Such Was The Season (1987, 2003)
  • Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988, 2015) ISBN 978-0-8263-5600-0
  • Dirty Bird Blues (1996, 1997)
  • One Flesh (2003)
Short Stories
  • Fun & Games (1990)
  • Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970)
  • The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work (1974)
  • Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994)
  • Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism (2000)
  • Come by Here: My Mother's Life (2002)
  • Configurations Paintings by Clarence Major (2010)
  • Myself Painting Paintings by Clarence Major (2011)
  • Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist, ed. Bernard W. Bell, ISBN 0-8078-2586-7 University of North Carolina Press, 2001
  • The New Black Poetry (1969)
  • Calling The Wind: 20th Century African-American Short Stories (1993)
  • The Garden Thrives: 20th Century African-American Poetry (1996)


Biographical and professional information on Clarence Major can be found in the following sources:

  • The Art and Life of Clarence Major by Keith E. Byerman, ISBN 978-0-8203-3055-6, University of Georgia Press, 2012
  • Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist, ed. Bernard W. Bell, 2001
  • Conversations with Clarence Major, ed. Nancy Bunge, University Press of Mississippi, 2002
  • The Columbia Guide To Contemporary African American Fiction by Darryl Dickson-Carr (2005)
  • Contemporary Authors Volume 337, 2013; ISBN 978-1-4144-8925-4; revised and extended autobiographical essay pages 270–312
  • Contemporary Authors Volume 21-24R
  • Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series volume 6
  • Contemporary Authors New Revision Series volumes 13,25, 53, 82
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, volumes 3, 19, 48
  • Contemporary Novelists (St. James Press/ Gale) 4, 5,6, 7
  • Contemporary Poets (St. James Press/ Gale) edition 5
  • Mystery and Suspense Writers (Charles Scribner's Sons/ Gale)
  • Black Writers 2, 3
  • Black Literature Criticism, edition 1:2
  • Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature first edition, (Harper Collins 1991)
  • Being and Race by Charles Johnson (Indiana University Press)
  • Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban by James W. Coleman (U of Kentucky Press)
  • Black American Writers Past and Present (1975)
  • Broadside Authors and Artists (1974)
  • Contemporary African-American Novelists (Greenwood, 1999)
  • Contemporary Black Biography (Gale, 1995)
  • Contemporary Black Men's Fiction and Drama by Keith Clark (Indiana)
  • Cyclopedia of World Authors. Third edition, Volume 5 (Salem Press, 1997)
  • Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing by Nathan Mackey (Cambridge)
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 33 (Gale, 1984)
  • African American National Biography (2012)
  • Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Second Edition
  • A Directory of American Poets (ongoing)
  • A Street Guide to African-Americans in Paris by Michel Fabre and John A. Williams (Afram, 1996)
  • Directory of American Scholars (1982, 1999, 2002
  • Encyclopedia of American Literature (1999)
  • Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century (Third edition St. James Press, 1999)
  • Face to Face by Rose L. H. Finkenstaedt (Morrow)
  • From Harlem to Paris by M. Fabre (U of Ill Press)
  • Fingering the Jagged Grain by Keith Byerman (Univ Ga Press)
  • In Black and White: A Guide to Magazine Articles, Newspaper Articles, and books etc. (Third edition 1980)
  • The International Who's Who (ongoing)
  • Who's Who in the World 29th Edition 2012
  • Who's Who in America (ongoing)
  • Who's Who Among African Americans (ongoing)
  • Who's Who Among Black Americans (ongoing)
  • Who's Who in U. S. (1988)
  • Who's who in the Media and Communications (1997)
  • Who's Who in the West (Marquis/ ongoing)
  • Who's Who in Writers, Editors and Poets (1992)
  • Who's Who in Entertainment
  • International Who's Who in Poetry (ongoing)
  • La Rive Noire by M. Fabre (Lieu Commun)
  • Larousse Dictionary of Writers
  • The Lincoln Library of Language Arts (Frontier Press 1978)
  • Major Characters in American Fiction by Jack Salzman (A Henry Holt Reference Book 1994) ISBN 08050-3060-3
  • Masterpieces of African-American Literature by Frank N. MaGill (Harper Collins)
  • Modern American Literature (Fifth edition 1999)
  • Our Living Manhood by Rolland Murry (Penn)
  • The Negro Almanac (ongoing)
  • The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition by Bernard Bell (U Mass)
  • The Contemporary African American Novel by Bernard Bell (U Mass)
  • New Essays on The African American Novel, eds. L. King and L. F. Selzer (2008)
  • Narrative Innovation and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War Era and After by Marcel Cornis-Pope
  • The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (Oxford University Press 1997)
  • The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature
  • The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English (Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • The Essential Black Literature Guide, R. M. Valade (Visible Ink)
  • The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature (Gale 1996)
  • Selected Black American, African, and Caribbean Authors (1985)
  • Selected Black American Authors (1977)
  • Seems Like Murder by Adam Gussow (University of Chicago Press)
  • Southern Black Creative Writers 1829–1953 (Greenwood Press, 1988)
  • Some Other Frequency by Larry McCaffery (University of Pennsylvania Press)
  • The Writers Directory (ongoing)
  • The Poet's Encyclopedia
  • Collier's Encyclopedia
  • Spiritual, Blues, and Jazz People in African-American Fiction by Yemisi Jimoh (U of Tenn Press)
  • The Practice of Fiction in America by Jerome Klinkowitz
  • The Life of Fiction by Jermoe Klinkowitz and Roy Behrens (U of Ill. Press)
  • Literary Disruptions by Jerome Klinkowitz (U of Ill. Press)
  • Keeping Literary Company by Jerome Klinkowitz (SUNY)
  • Race and the Modern Artist by Heather Hathaway et al. (Oxford)
  • Reading Simulacra by M. W. Smith
  • The Blues Detective: A Study of African-American Detective Fiction by Stephen F. Soitos

External links[edit]