Willard Motley Papers | Northern Illinois University
Willard Motley was born on July 14, 1909 into a middle class family in Chicago and grew up in the almost exclusively white neighborhood of Englewood. In fact, the Motley family was the only African-American family in their immediate neighborhood. Willard Motley was born to Florence Motley, but was raised by Florence's parents, Archibald Motley, Sr., and Mary "Mae" Motley. Florence Motley moved to New York and Willard Motley grew up under the illusion that his grandparents were his parents and that his uncle, the painter Archibald Motley, Jr., was his brother. It was his uncle, Archibald, Jr., who demonstrated to the young Willard that an African-American could achieve recognition in the arts.
Motley began his writing career when, at the age of 13, he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender and had it published. He was given the chance by that newspaper to write a weekly column in the children's section under the pen name "Bud Billiken." It was Motley who was the original "Bud Billiken," writer of entertaining pieces, children's stories, and later, with a growing sense of social awareness, racial pride and human suffering. At Englewood High School, Motley was active with the newspaper and yearbook. Upon his graduation from high school in 1929, Motley knew he wanted to be a writer and planned to attend the University of Wisconsin, but was unable to do so due to the depression. Instead, he took a bicycle trip from Chicago to New York as well as two automobile trips to California and the west, hoping to acquire a sense of what it was he wished to write about.
It was Motley's trip to New York, however, that would provide the impetus for his writings. In New York, Motley visited his mother and he told her of his aspirations to go to Europe and become a writer. His mother, however, told him to return to Chicago to become a writer for all the material he would need to write his stories "could be found in the city by the lake as well as Paris." Motley returned to Chicago and began work on his landmark novel, Knock On Any Door, which would be published in 1947.
Willard Motley moved from his grandparent's middle class home in Englewood to a rat-infested slum apartment in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. It was in this ethnically diverse and poverty-stricken neighborhood that Motley would find the true-to-life characters that permeated his writing.
From his new surroundings, Motley wrote non-fiction and short fiction pieces, but routinely received form rejections from the publishers to which he submitted them. It was not until he helped fund and became an editor of Hull-House Magazine that he was able to publish his short fiction.
Knock On Any Door was published in 1947, after two previous submissions and two revisions. The novel centers around Nick Romano, the son of Italian immigrants in Denver, Colorado. When Nick's father loses his profitable store in the Depression, the family moves to a poor section of Denver. Nick begins associating with tough boys in his new neighborhood and is encouraged by them to commit petty crimes. When Nick is sent to reform school, he is brutalized by his fellow inmates and the guards.
Once released, the family moves to Chicago where Nick becomes involved with youth gangs and learns how to rob drunks and commit armed robbery. The novel comes to an end after Nick murders a policeman and is later executed at the age of 21.
With this novel, Motley shows how a young and innocent boy is drawn into petty crime because of his poverty and is then molded into a hardened criminal by the penal system. Nick learns that in order to survive, he needs to be tougher and more brutal than the other inmates.
Motley obtained much of what he knew about reform schools and prisons by conducting fact-finding visits to such facilities as the St. Charles, Illinois, School for Boys and the Cook County Jail and by talking to and becoming friends with men in his neighborhood. Nick, the novel's main character, is actually a conglomeration of three acquaintances and friends of Motley. According to his diaries, Motley cried on the night he wrote the passage of Nick's execution, suggesting a deep emotional commitment to his characters.
The novel received much praise following its release and sold 47,000 copies in its first three weeks. By 1950, the book had sold 350,000 copies. Knock On Any Door was later made into a movie, starring Humphrey Bogart.
Motley's second novel, We Fished All Night, depicts the lives of three Chicago men and how they are socially, politically, religiously, and culturally affected by World War II. Originally, envisioned as being a two volume series, meetings with his publishers convinced Motley to scale back the original plan into one volume.
The novel's main theme is the effect of World War II on a select group of people, yet it also deals with labor and labor unions; ethnic and racial minorities; and politics. Don Lockwood, one of the novel's characters, is a Polish immigrant who changes his name from Chet Kosinksi. He is an actor before the war, but after losing a leg in the war, he becomes active in Chicago politics. Despite his acquisition of power within the Chicago political machine, he eventually realizes the shallowness of his success. Aaron Levin enters the war as a poet, but soon after, he suffers a break-down and deserts. Upon returning to Chicago, he searches for guidance through religion, trying Judaism, Catholicism, and even communism, however, all fail him. In the end, Levin wanders the city, writing bits of poetry on scraps of paper which he loses. Jim Norris returns home after fighting bravely in the war, but suffers psychologically and begins to molest young girls. He returns to his pre-war occupation as a labor organizer and is killed in a clash between the union and the police.
We Fished All Night was not as well received by the critics and the public as was Knock On Any Door. In trying to cover such a broad panorama of stories, Motley, the critics said, had spread himself too thin.
Let No Man Write My Epitaph was published shortly after We Fished All Night. It is a sequel to Knock On Any Door and tells the story of Nick Romano, Jr., the illegitimate son of Nick Romano, who was executed at the end of Knock On Any Door, and Nick's girlfriend, Nellie Watkins.
Nellie protects her son from the knowledge of his father's death and the harmful neighborhood in which they live. The strain of supporting her small family and the memories of Nick, however, drive her to alcoholism and drug addiction. Nick, Jr. turns to drugs and becomes an addict, too. Nellie and Nick, Jr. are saved in the end by a narcotics detective and Nick, Sr.'s friend, Grant Holloway.
Let No Man Write My Epitaph was a bigger success than Motley's previous novel, We Fished All Night. The characters were better focused and the story more cohesive. In 1960, Columbia Pictures used a simplified version of the story to make a movie.
Willard Motley's last published novel is entitled, Let Noon Be Fair, and was actually published post-humously in 1966. The story line takes place in Motley's adopted country of Mexico, in the fictional fishing village of Las Casas, which was based on Puerta Vallarta.
The novel depicts Motley's opinion that Mexico was suffering exploitation at the hands of the United States. Las Casas, in twenty year's time, goes from a quiet fishing village to an over-developed tourist town, complete with brothels and major hotels. Materialism ruins the town's residents, both economically and morally. Motley shows how this exploitation ruins the town and its people through a wide range of characters.
Motley finished the manuscript for Let Noon Be Fair just two weeks before he died. The novel received poor reviews from the critics, many of whom suggested that the novel was sensationalistic. They argued that the novel contained too much sex and explicit language. Many modern critics, however, defend his use of explicit language and frank depictions of sexual exploitation on the grounds that Motley was a naturalistic writer and was only providing an honest depiction of real events.
(This short bio was written by Mark A. Williams and can also be found on the RBSC website on the Motley page)