William Attaway was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 11 November 1911 but spent most of his life outside the South. He moved north to Chicago with his family by the time he was six, and his most important work was shaped by his experience as an African American in the Great Migration and the Great Depression.
As a young man, Atttaway attended the University of Illinois and spent two years as a hobo, riding the rails across the United States. After graduating from college, he moved to New York and worked as an actor under the tutelage of his sister, Ruth, a successful Broadway actress. He later became a member of group of writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1939 Attaway published his first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder, the story of a group of hobo migrant farmworkers. Attaway’s most important work, Blood on the Forge (1941), also deals with the issue of migration and the rootlessness of African Americans who moved to the North in the early twentieth century in search of opportunity and to escape the suffocating and violent experience of living in the South. Blood on the Forge follows the lives of three brothers who move from the hills of Kentucky to the Allegheny Valley at the end of World War I. This novel is considered the greatest treatment not only of African American migration but also of turn-of-the-century labor strife in America and the disintegration of folk cultures in the wake of modern industrialism. However, Blood on the Forge was largely ignored in its day, perhaps because of the publication of Richard Wright’s Native Son one year earlier.
Attaway never wrote another novel. He became a songwriter for calypso singer Harry Belafonte and penned most of Belafonte’s biggest hits. Attaway was also the first African American to break into television and film writing. As a consequence of his success with shows such as Wide Wide World and The Colgate Hour, Attaway was able to bring African American culture to the small screen with 1964’s Hundred Years of Laughter. After living in Barbados for many years, Attaway returned to California to continue his career as a screenwriter. He died there of cancer in June 1986.
- James P. Drapher, Black Literature Criticism, vol. 1 (1992)
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)