William Melvin Kelley

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William Melvin Kelley
Born(1937-11-01)November 1, 1937
New York City, New York
DiedFebruary 1, 2017(2017-02-01) (aged 79)
Manhattan, New York
OccupationWriter, educator
Alma materHarvard University
GenreNovel, short story
Notable worksA Different Drummer, dem
Notable awardsAnisfield-Wolf Book Award
SpouseKaren (Aiki) Kelley[1]
ChildrenJessica (daughter), Cira (daughter)[1]

William Melvin Kelley (November 1, 1937 – February 1, 2017) was an African-American novelist and short-story writer. He is perhaps best known for his debut novel, A Different Drummer, published in 1962.[2][3] He was also a university professor and creative writing instructor. In 2008, he received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Life and work[edit]

William Melvin Kelley was born in New York City on November 1, 1937, and grew up in the Bronx.[2] He was educated at the Fieldston School in New York[3] and at Harvard University (class of 1960),[4] where he studied under John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish. While a student at Harvard, he was awarded the Dana Reed Prize for creative writing.[2]

Kelley lived in Paris and Jamaica, where he and his family converted to Judaism.[5]

Kelley was also a teacher and writing instructor. His academic appointments included a time as writer-in-residence at the State University of New York at Geneseo; he also taught at the New School for Social Research and at Sarah Lawrence College from 1989[6] until his death in 2017.[2]

In 1988 Kelley starred in Excavating Harlem in 2290, which he also wrote and produced, collaborating with Steve Bull to bring it to the screen.[2] He also contributed to The Beauty That I Saw, a film assembled from Kelley's video diaries of Harlem. Edited by Benjamin Oren Abrams, it was featured at the Harlem International Film Festival in 2015.[2]

Kelley published four novels and a volume of short stories. In a 2012 interview he claimed to have completed two more novels that have thus far remained unpublished.[7] According to Robert E. Fleming:

From the beginning of his career in 1962, William Melvin Kelley has employed his distinctive form of Black comedy to examine the absurdities surrounding American racial attitudes.[8]


Kelley died in Manhattan on February 1, 2017, due to complications from kidney failure. He was 79.[2][1]


  • A Different Drummer, Doubleday (1962), reprinted by Anchor Books (1990), ISBN 0-385-41390-4
  • Dancers on the Shore, Doubleday (1964), reprinted by Howard University Press (1982), ISBN 0-8825-8114-7
  • A Drop of Patience, Doubleday (1965), reprinted by Ecco Press (1996), ISBN 0-8800-1460-1
  • dem, Doubleday (1967), reprinted by Coffee House Press (2001), ISBN 1-56689-102-7
  • Dunfords Travels Everywheres, Doubleday (1970), ISBN 0-8936-6101-5


  1. ^ a b c Boyd, Herb (February 10, 2017). "Author William Melvin Kelley passes at 79". Amsterdam News. Retrieved February 16, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Grimes, William (8 February 2017). "William Melvin Kelley, Who Explored Race in Experimental Novels, Is Dead at 79" – via NYTimes.com.
  3. ^ a b Schulz, Kathryn (January 29, 2018). "'The Lost Giant of American Literature: A major black novelist made a remarkable début. How did he disappear?'". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 28, 2018. As "Remainders" in the print issue, pp. 26–31.
  4. ^ Blacks at Harvard, by Werner Sollors, Caldwell Titcomb, Randall Kennedy, Thomas A. Underwood, NYU Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8147-7973-5, ISBN 978-0-8147-7973-6
  5. ^ Schulz, Kathryn. "The Lost Giant of American Literature". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 11, 2018.
  6. ^ Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Emmanuel S. Nelson, editor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999, p. 238. See web version (accessed September 16, 2008).
  7. ^ Kemme, Steve, "William Melvin Kelley", Mosaic
  8. ^ Excerpted from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), quoted in aalbc.com, Retrieved September 16, 2008.

External links[edit]