The Case for Cyrus Colter

Last weekend I was in Springfield, Illinois, attending a wedding, and pre-reception photos were taken on the grounds of the state capitol building. Luckily, I didn’t have to be in the shot as the bridesmaids and groomsmen tossed autumn leaves on the heads of the new couple, which left me free to consider the facade of the Illinois State Library across the street. The building’s frieze is etched with the names of 35 authors who were either Illinois natives or were closely connected with the state. Most of the selections are no-brainers—Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, etc—but a few I had to look up later. My most embarrassing blind spot, easily, is Cyrus Colter.

Colter lived to the age of 92, but his writing career was relatively brief. He began writing fiction at 50, shifting from a career in law to write stories and novels about the lives of middle-class and working-class blacks, mostly in Chicago. When he published his first books in the 70s he was considered an inheritor of Richard Wright‘s themes, but he was actually a contemporary: Reginald Gibbons, speaking at a memorial service for Colter in 2002, noted that “Cyrus belonged to the generation of Richard Wright (who was born two years earlier), but Cyrus did not publish his first book until the year Richard Wright died.”

I bring up this homework-y biographical stuff partly because its new to me—I was tasked with absorbing lots of “celebrate Illinois authors” material in school, and I don’t recall a single mention of Colter—and partly because what I’ve been able to track down of his work online makes me wonder why he doesn’t have a stronger reputation. (Best as I can tell, all his books are currently out of print.) True, The Hippodrome has an impossible premise—it opens with a man on the run carrying his wife’s severed head—but the opening pages capture all the delusion and rage that might come along with that predicament. Less lurid and more effective is “Overnight Trip,” which follows a stable working-class man—he sets linotype at a Chicago daily newspaper—who’s anxious about letting his wife leave for a shopping trip to Saint Louis. The opening paragraphs, describing Chicago in early winter, do as fine a job describing he city as Algren or Hecht or Bellow or anybody else whose name is chiseled on that frieze:

The street lights and the lights from the store windows shone gauzily through the rainy mist, as Amos slouched up Michigan Boulevard, peering now and then across the Chicago River to the matriarchal old Wrigley building, solitary, stark-naked white, and wet, against its glaring floodlights bursting up from the south bank. For just an instant the Taj Mahal flashed to his mind out of colorful travelogue movie, but right off he realized it was very, very different; it had a soft glow—with placid, waxen tints. Ducking his head, squinting, and turning up his coat collar at the same time, he leaned his long skinny Negroid frame shrinkingly into the weather.

All day long, at his linotype machine, he had been in low spirits, and the miserable night didn’t help any. Sometime during the afternoon he had vaguely decided to take the bus home, instead of the El. That way he wouldn’t have to transfer; and, too, there wasn’t so much commotion on the bus. He could think. Lately, he was always looking for opportunities to isolate himself—in order to think, to persist in this constant mulling over in his mind of matters that had, so far, completely foiled him.

The Chicago Writers Association is in the midst of launching a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and Colter is among the first group of nominees for selection. Online trawling probably isn’t the best way to get a grip on his work—for one thing, it suggests he’s got women issues—so any recommendations about where to start are welcome.