|Born||John Wesley Conroy
December 5, 1899
Monkey Nest, a coal mining camp near Moberly, Missouri
|Died||February 28, 1990
|Pen name||Jack Conroy, Tim Brennan, John Norcross|
|Notable works||The Disinherited (1933)|
|Notable awards||Guggenheim Fellowship, State of Illinois Literary Times Award, NEA artist’s grant, Society of Midland Authors Lifetime Achievement Award, Society for Midwestern Literature’s Mark Twain Award|
John Wesley Conroy (December 5, 1899 - February 28, 1990) was a leftist American writer, also known as a Worker-Writer, best known for his contributions to “proletarian literature,” fiction and nonfiction about the life of American workers during the early decades of the 20th century.
He was born John Wesley Conroy to Irish immigrants on December 5, 1898, in the coal mining camp of Monkey Nest near Moberly, Missouri. A Depression-era novelist, Conroy drew upon his childhood growing up in a mining camp and elements of this can be seen in his novels, The Disinherited and A World to Win.
Though he did not complete a formal education, Conroy worked at various jobs including: railroad shop apprentice (and eventual foreman), recording secretary for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America union office, an auto factory worker, and construction. While he worked, he wrote, and it is said that in 1934, when soaring temperatures had burned up crops and blistered city streets, Conroy moved his kitchen table outdoors beneath a shade tree where he created his second novel, A World to Win.
From 1931 to 1941 Conroy edited successively the magazines Rebel Poet, The Anvil, and The New Anvil. He included works by Erskine Caldwell, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams, among others. Conroy later edited, with Curt Johnson, a collection of these pieces, Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology (1973). In 1938 Conroy came to Chicago, on Algren's suggestions, to work on the Illinois Writers' Project. Along with recording folktales and industrial folklore, Conroy was assigned to the black history portion of the IWP, and collaborated with Arna Bontemps, producing the pioneering black studies works They Seek A City (1945) and Anyplace But Here (1965), both about African-American migration from the South to the North. Conroy and Bontemps also collaborated on several successful juvenile books based on folktales, including The Fast Sooner Hound (1942) and Slappy Hooper, The Wonderful Sign Painter (1946).
In 1965, Conroy moved from Chicago back to Moberly, Missouri, where he lived until his death. He continued to write into his 80s, publishing The Weed King and Other Stories in 1985. Over the course of his career, Conroy was also a teacher and lecturer, and a mentor to younger radical writers. Known as The Sage of Moberly, Conroy also wrote under the pseudonyms of Tim Brennan and John Norcross.
The difficulty scholars have had in finding theoretical studies about the worker-writer in America signifies how ground-breaking Jack Conroy’s work was with introducing the worker-writer in literature. Conroy’s first novel, The Disinherited, confused critics because it was a narrative that challenged traditional views of the novel and did not seem to align with what was considered influential literature at the time. Most critics felt that there should be a definite line drawn between the world of the middle-class literate, and the world of the worker.
Although Conroy first achieved national attention when H.L. Mencken discovered his work and published Conroy’s sketches and stories in The American Mercury magazine, recognition of Conroy’s work was all but abandoned between the 1930s and 1960s. Awareness of Conroy’s work disappeared for a variety of reasons, including the difficulty Conroy had in simultaneously establishing himself as a writer and staying loyal to his identity as a worker. Although Conroy longed for literary success, he decided not to abandon his worker identity, and so he worked for 23 years as an editor of an encyclopedia sold through Sears stores and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Sun and the Daily Defender. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Conroy was recognized by a new generation as a writer who knew very well the life of the worker, and as an influential writer of that worker identity. On the other hand, in the Soviet Union Conroy's works were noticed immediately: Russian translation of The Disinherited appeared in 1935 and was warmly greeted by Soviet magazines, and as late as in 1990 Soviet sources claimed that Conroy's novels truly describe the reality of working-class America.
Conroy is now remembered not only as the worker-writer, but also as a teacher, lecturer, and mentor to younger radical writers. Until Jack Conroy, the worker had hardly been mentioned in American literature. Best-seller lists suggest that people would rather read about lives of the wealthy, but Jack Conroy’s legacy as a worker-writer has introduced to American literature one writer’s desire in “educating readers to prefer ‘crude vigor to polished urbanity’”.
- The Disinherited (1933) reflects Conroy’s own life as it tells the story of a work-seeking coal miner’s son during the Great Depression.
- A World to Win (1935) is a proletariat novel that follows two brothers as they seek their own definitions of worldly success during the Great Depression
- The Weed King and Other Stories (1985) is a collection of tales reflecting Conroy’s life and personality
- Founded The Anvil (1935) - a literary magazine that published authors such as Richard Wright, Meridel LeSueur, Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and August Derleth. The magazine's slogan was “We Prefer Crude Vigor to Polished Banality.” After being taken over by Communist officials and merged with the Partisan Review, it was later republished as The New Anvil.
- Edited The New Anvil (1938–1942) with Nelson Algren was created in attempt to revive the working class magazine, The Anvil. Contributing writers included Frank Yerby, Karl Shapiro, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams.
Conroy wrote a number of books with Arna Bontemps, including:
- The Fast Sooner Hound (1942), children’s book, first of three that paints a picture of African-American migration and settlement.
- They Seek A City (1945) children’s book, second of three on the northern migration of African-Americans, both pre- and post-Civil War.
- Slappy Hooper, The Wonderful Sign Painter (1946), third of three, folktales
- Sam Patch, The High, Wide and Handsome Jumper (1951) with Arna Bontemps
- Midland Humor: A Harvest of Fun and Folklore (1947)
- Anyplace But Here (1966) is a republished version of They Seek A City written with Arna Bontemps. This expanded version adds chapters on Marcus Garvey, the Black Muslims, Malcolm X, and other racial issues.
- Edited Unrest (1929–1931) with Ralph Cheyney
- Edited The Rebel Poet (1931–1932)
- Senior editor for The New Standard Encyclopedia (1947)
- Edited Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology (1973) with Curt Johnson
Along with his work with rather unusual literary themes, Conroy has won various awards and recognition, including:
- Guggenheim Fellowship, 1935
- Literary Times Award, State of Illinois, 1967
- Society of Midland Authors James L. Dow Award for Anyplace But Here, 1967
- Rabinowitz grant to write his autobiography
- Missouri Literary Association, Literary Award, 1969
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Missouri at Kansas City, 1975
- National Endowment for the Arts, Artist’s grant (1978)
- Mark Twain Award, Society for the Midwestern Literature, 1980
- Recognition by the Missouri Senate, 1984
- City of Moberly, Jack Conroy Day, May 22, 1985
- Society of Midland Authors Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1986
- Lifetime Membership, Missouri Folklore Society
- “A True Friend of Working People”, Central Missouri Labor Council, AFL-CIO and all the working men and women of Mid-Missouri
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- Conroy, Jack. A World To Win. Intro by Douglas Wixson. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2000.
- Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994. Print.
- "Abrams, Alan. "Author found his inspiration in Toledo's Willys plant." Toledo Blade 06 Mar 1994: E-4. Online. <https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19940306&idoYAUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=XAMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4854>
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- "Jack Conroy and the Anvils--Original, New, and North Country." KickTime. The KickTime Management, Web. 29 Oct 2009. <http://www.kicktime.org/story/2005/7/29/182840/766>
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