Life and Work
David Henry Bradley Jr. was born and grew up in Bedford, Pennsylvania. As a Black child raised in a mostly white area, Bradley recalls feeling alienated. Childhood trips to the Southern United States showed him that “Bedford had the same racist structures, but nobody would acknowledge it” (“Business” 20-21). Throughout his youth, his father, Reverend David H. Bradley, Sr., influenced his interest in reading and writing (Button 42).
After graduating from Bedford Area High School in 1968, Bradley was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania. During his college career, he received several scholarships before graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in English/creative writing in 1972. Despite his academic success, Bradley describes feeling out of place due to his rural background: “At this time the image of blacks that was acceptable to that sort of institution was urban black, and so it wasn’t that I got to a place where they were not prepared to have black people, but where they were prepared to have a particular kind of black people” (“Business” 21).
A Thouron British-American Exchange Scholarship allowed Bradley to attend King’s College in London, where he received a master of arts degree in 1974. Bradley also did post-graduate studies at the Institute for United States Studies, University of London.
After completing his education, Bradley began his writing career. Over the years, he has worked as a freelance writer as well as in publishing with J. B.Lippincott, Charter Books, and Ace Science Fiction. He has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina, Mary Baldwin College, Colgate University, University of Pennsylvania, San Diego State University, and Temple University, where he taught writing from 1976-1996. Currently, Bradley is associate professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate fiction courses.
South Street, Bradley’s first novel, came from his experiences as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate, Bradley spent time in a South Street bar that shaped the plot and characters for his novel. The book follows a group of Black and white characters, including a poet, a preacher, and a prostitute and describes the struggles they face living in the inner city of Philadelphia. Although South Street received some critical praise, Bradley’s second novel, The Chaneysville Incident, truly established his career.
Bradley credits his mother for inspiring him to write The Chaneysville Incident, which is based on a story she told him about thirteen runaway slaves who committed suicide rather than face being captured (“Interview” 73). The novel’s protagonist is John Washington, a Black history professor in Philadelphia who returns to his hometown in Central Pennsylvania to care for his dying surrogate father, Old Jack Crawley. After Old Jack’s death, John studies the papers left by his deceased father, Moses Washington, in an attempt to understand his father’s mysterious death. His research leads him to discover the story of the runaway slaves. He also learns that his great grandfather, C. K. Washington, risked his life to help the runaway slaves escape and committed suicide with them when they faced capture. Finally, John comes to realize that his father’s discovery of the historical incident led him to also commit suicide. In addition to helping John understand his family’s history, his journey allows him to finally open up to his white girlfriend Judith, a psychiatrist.
Throughout the book, John struggles with his conception of history. At one point, John thinks of history as “just one long string of atrocities” (186). At times, John’s view of the past is relegated to facts and dates recorded on color coded index cards. He thinks that in order to understand these atrocities, he can’t let strong feelings get in the way. Still, John also realizes that there is more to history than facts and dates. He admits, “the gaps in the stories of the unknown are never filled, never can be filled, for they are larger than the data, larger than deduction, larger than induction” (48-49). In the end, John merges his two ways of viewing history. He uses his index cards as a guide for his discovery of the suicides of the runaway slaves and simultaneously uses feeling and the storytelling ability he learned from Old Jack to flesh out the facts into a story he tells Judith.
Another subject Bradley explores in The Chaneysville Incident is power. As a child, John realizes the power that knowledge brings when a kid at school tells a racist joke. John’s educated response shows him that “knowing nothing can get you humiliated and knowing a little bit can get you killed, but knowing all of it will bring you power” (284). John follows the example of his father Moses, but while John has knowledge of history, Moses had knowledge of the indiscretions of the local men. Although Moses killed agents who interfered with his moonshine business, he rarely relied on physical threats to gain power. Instead, his portfolio of receipts and records allowed him to gain power over the white city government.
John and Moses’ ways to gain power contrast with the ways white slaveholders gained power over their slaves. Slaveholders used physical control as well as forcing Christianity onto the slaves, which changed their definition of death. This heritage allows John to justify his rape of a white woman as some sort of vengeance for his brother’s death in Vietnam as well as for the crimes committed against Blacks throughout history when he tells Judith, “Things have happened and it’s somebody’s fault, and it sure as hell wasn’t ours” (75-76).
Bradley’s style reinforces the plot of The Chaneysville Incident. He moves from the present to the past, from dreams and memories to history lectures about the development of the phone and the origins of Raystown, Pennsylvania. Moving around in time challenges the reader to join the fragments into a unified whole that ties together the deaths of thirteen slaves with the death of Moses as well as with John’s desire to comprehend his family’s past and his own identity. Just as John struggles to find common ground with Judith, Bradley attempts to reach an understanding with his audience: “I try to believe that if you show somebody something from a perspective that they might not have themselves you give them a different kind of vision–a binocular vision, one with depth–and maybe they’ll make new decisions that they wouldn’t otherwise make; but I am aware that you may not like the decisions that they make” (“Business” 35).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- South Street. New York: Viking, 1975.
- The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper, 1981.
- Los Angeles Times
- The Nation
- New York Times Magazine
- New Yorker
- Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
- Village Voice
- Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American fiction. Ed. Terry McMillan. New York: Viking, 1990.
- “The Faith.” In Praise of What Persists. Ed. Stephen Berg. New York: Harper, 1983. 9-18.
- “Christmas Eve.” While Someone Else is Eating. Ed. Earl Shorris. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 175-98.
- “Black and American.” Essays for ‘80s. Ed. William Vesterman. New York: Random House, 1987. 397-402.
- “Bringing Down the Fire.” Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing. Ed. William Zinser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
- “Harvest Home.” Family Portraits. Ed. Carolyn Anthony. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1989. 49-66.
- “Jim and the Dead Man.” The New Yorker. 26 June-3 July 1995: 126-33.
- “Psalms and Gospels.” Communion. Ed. David Rosenberg. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
- “To Make Them Stand in Fear.” When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories. Ed. Bernestine Singley. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2002. 111-37.
- The Chaneysville Incident. Includes interview with Judy Ray. Audiocassette. New Letters Magazine, 1984.
- David Bradley Reads The Chaneysville Incident (excerpts). Audiocassettes. American Audio Prose Library, 1992.
- American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature for The Chaneysville Incident, 1982
- Hazelitt Award for Excellence in the Arts (Pennsylvania), 1982
- New York Times Book Review’s “Editor’s Choice” Citation for The Chaneysville Incident, 1982
- PEN/Faulkner Award for The Chaneysville Incident, 1982
- Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, 1989
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1991
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Benito, Jesús. “David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident: The Narrator as Historian.”Telling Histories: Narrativizing History, Historicizing Literature. Ed. Susana Onega. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1995. 181-91.
- Button, Marilyn D. “David Henry Bradley, Jr.” Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 42-46.
- Brigham, Cathy. “Identity, Masculinity, and Desire in David Bradley’s Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 36.2 (Summer 1995): 289-316.
- Bush, Harold K., Jr. “Our Mark Twain? Or, Some Thoughts on the ‘Autobiographical Critic.’” New England Quarterly 73.1 (Mar. 2000): 100-21.
- Callahan, John F. In the African American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth Century Black Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.
- Campbell, Jane. Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 137-53.
- Clayton, Jay. “The Narrative Turn in Recent Minority Fiction.” American Literary History 2.3 (Autumn 1990): 375-93.
- Contemporary Authors. 2001. Gale Literary Databases. 8 Apr. 2004 <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1984.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 8 Apr. 2004 <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Egan, Phillip. “Unraveling Misogyny and Forging the New Self: Mother, Lover, and Storyteller in The Chaneysville Incident.” Papers on Language and Literature33.3 (Summer 1997): 265-87.
- Ensslen, Klaus. “Fictionalizing History: David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” Callaloo 35 (Spring 1988): 280-96.
- Entzminger, Betina.: “Snow Job: The Whitening of History in William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” Studies in Popular Culture 28.2 (2005): 99-119.
- Glasser, Perry. “Visigoths inside the gates.” North American Review 282.3/4 (1997): 76-80.
- Gliserman, Martin J. “David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident: The Belly of the Text.” American Imago 43.2 (Summer 1986): 97-120.
- Henderson, George L. “South of the North, North of the South: Spatial Practices in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” Keep your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground. Ed. Grey Gundaker and Tynes Cowan. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 1998. 113-43.
- Hogue, Lawrence. “Problematizing History: David Bradley’s The Chaneyville Incident.” College Language Association Journal 38.4 (June 1985): 441-60.
- Holt, Patricia. “David Bradley.” Publishers Weekly 219.15 (10 Apr. 1981): 12-14.
- Johnson, Charles. “Whole Sight: Notes on New Black Fiction.” Callaloo 22 (Autumn 1984): 1-6.
- Koolish, Lynda. African American Writers: Portraits and Visions. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 14-15.
- Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “‘So You Want a History, Do You?’: Epistemologies and The Chaneysville Incident.” Mississippi Quarterly 49.4 (Fall 1996): 755-74.
- Kutzinski, Vera M. “History, Literature and the Problem of Synthesis.” Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies. Ed. Gunter H. Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Brock-Sallah. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990. 128-44
- Lock, Helen. “‘Building up from Fragments’: The Oral Memory Process in Some Recent African American Written Narratives.” College Literature 22.3 (Oct. 1995): 109-20.
- —. “David Bradley.” www.LitEncyc.com. The Literary Encyclopedia. 7 Apr. 2004 <http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec= true&UID=535>.
- Pavlić, Edward. “Syndetic Redemption: Above-Underground Emergence in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” African American Review 30.2 (Summer 1996): 165-84.
- Reckley, Ralph, Sr. “The Quest for Immortality in David Bradley’s Chaneysville Incident.” MAWA Review 1.2-3 (Summer-Fall 1982): 56-59.
- Reichardt, Ulfried.: “Writing the Past: History, Fiction, and Subjectivity in Two Recent Novels about Slavery.” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American literature 11 (1995): 283-98.
- Rotella, Carlo. October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. Berkeley: California UP, 1998.
- Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.
- Sadler, Lynn Veach. “The Black Man’s Burden: The Pursuit of Nonconformity in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” West Virginia Philological Papers 32 (1986-1987): 119-27.
- Van Mierlo, Wim. “Spatial Memory in Chaneysville Incident and Dear Future: New Literatures, History, and Literary History.” Convergences and Interferences: Newness in Intercultural Practices. Ed. Kathleen Gyssels, Isabel Hoving, and Maggie Ann Bowers. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 235-54.
- Watkins, Mel. “Thirteen Runaway Slaves and David Bradley.” New York Times Book Review 19 Apr. 1981: 7, 20-21.
- Wilson, Matthew. “The African American Historian: David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident.” African American Review 29.1 (Spring 1995): 97-107.
- Yarborough, Richard. “The Crisis in Afro-American Letters.” College English 43.8 (Dec. 1981): 773-78.
- “The Business of Writing: An Interview with David Bradley.” Callaloo 21 (1984): 19-39.
- “An Interview with David Bradley.” Missouri Review 15 (1992): 69-88.
- “Some Thoughts on Censorship and Teaching of Huckleberry Finn: An Interview with David Bradley.” Multicultural Review 5.4 (Dec. 1995): 42-44.