Alston Anderson knew his way around a sentence. “We must have danced for over an hour: me guiding her and she following, close and warm, with all the sins in the whole wide world spinning round and round in my brain,” he wrote in Lover Man, his 1959 collection of short stories. The description of holding someone tight even as the mind is occupied with earthier pursuits, and the tension between the two, is quintessential Anderson.
But in most quarters, Alston Anderson is long-forgotten.
Lover Man was one of only two books Anderson published in his lifetime, and the only one that brought him any critical acclaim. What we know for sure about his life story could almost be summarized on the back of a book jacket. Born in 1924 in the Panama Canal Zone, he lived in Jamaica, where his parents were from, until moving to North Carolina to attend a boarding school and then what became North Carolina Central University.
He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and, after the war, bounced around Europe with stops in Paris and the Spanish island of Mallorca. He settled in New York City, wrote fiction and jazz reviews, and then, seemingly, disappeared. After the 1960s, he never seems to have published anything else. He died, remains unclaimed, in 2008.
What happened to Alston Anderson? And why does it matter?
McNally Editions reissued Lover Man this month, introducing a new generation of readers to Anderson. Its publication offers a chance to discover new facts that inform Anderson’s peripatetic life and unconventional literary output, but it also highlights the challenges he faced writing honestly about Black life in America.
Anderson’s time in North Carolina is critical to understanding both his life and his writing. Lover Man’s 15 stories are set primarily in small Southern towns in North Carolina and Alabama. Even with the occasional jump to New York City or Germany (one story follows a soldier on the front during World War II), the protagonists are always working-class Black Southerners.
White people only occasionally appear in the stories and, when they do, it’s almost as a piece of the setting itself—like the lazy white cops who ignore a crime scene “with nary an expression on their face,” because it involves only two Black men. The stories follow, as Anderson writes in one, “negroes of every shade of humanity under the sun, from near-white to near-black.”
The depth with which Lover Man explores Black life comes draped with a raunchy and sly critique as well, something rarely seen in major literature in the 1950s and ’60s. This style is most apparent in “Schooldays in North Carolina,” one of the longest and most important stories in the book. It is set at a Presbyterian Black boarding school in the middle of North Carolina.
The school is closely modeled on Mary Potter Academy in Oxford, North Carolina, which was one of a number of African American boarding schools that the national Presbyterian Church established in the late 19th and early 20th century. Anderson attended Mary Potter Academy, graduating in the class of 1940. The school was known for its high academic standards and, as the alumni association states, was “the epicenter of the black community at that time” and intended to be a “generator of a strong black middle class.”
Anderson’s fictionalized portrayal of the school borrows from its boosters’ aspirations. Aaron Jessup, a new student at the school and seeming stand-in for Anderson himself, meets with the headmistress when he arrives on campus. She warns him that “the rules are pretty strict. … We had to send a few boys home last year for cutting up and carrying on. You wouldn’t want that to happen to you, would you?”
What follows, though, would make the Matron, as the headmistress calls herself, clutch her papers with horror. The boys call themselves “gals,” covertly listen to big-city jazz on radios under bedsheets, and sneak looks at local white girls through the windows. The namesake of the academy is an old white abolitionist from Boston, and Jessup fantasizes about her at night instead of his school girlfriend: “I could see myself as Susan Weber’s husband, with wavy black hair and sideburns and a full dress suit and when we went to bed we slept in the same bedroom, not in different bedrooms like I hear most white people do.”
Mary Potter, the namesake of Anderson’s real boarding school, was a white woman from Schenectady, New York, who was influential in the Presbyterian Church’s projects related to “freedmen” in the late 19th century. Throughout the story, and indeed throughout each tale in Lover Man, Anderson delights in undermining the stultifying respectability politics that Potter represented and that were embedded in both white and Black middle class society at the time.
Indeed, Anderson seemed to have little interest in either respectability or politics. The men of his stories are not interested in advocating for civil rights—one elderly Black man goes on a harangue about “uppity” Black men during Reconstruction “who couldn’t tell you the difference between a summons and a persimmons”—but prefer listening to the “whole wide world of music,” especially the sauntering and uninhibited bebop of jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
From what we know of his time at North Carolina College, Anderson’s talent, as well as his predilection for getting in trouble, blossomed. Anderson attended college after his time in the Army and graduated in 1947. The New Journal and Guide, a popular Black newspaper published out of Norfolk, wrote an article in 1947 crediting him with introducing bebop music to the campus.
When Lover Man was first published in the late ’50s, Anderson sent a letter to the school’s newspaper, The Campus Echo, reminiscing about his time there. He thanked various professors for their generous help, which he seemed to need often for one reason or another:
I also remember Dean Taylor very fondly. Once, when I was in danger of being expelled for some major infraction of the rules, which I’ve conveniently forgotten, he saved my college life. … I would also like to apologize openly to Dr. Taylor for my rudeness to him during my senior year. There was no excuse for it; and he was terribly kind.
It’s unclear what exactly Anderson did, but it’s readily apparent that he had a complicated relationship with authority and the expectations placed on him as a Black writer.
It’s not certain what stopped Anderson from being published again after the 1960s. The critical praise that Lover Man brought him did not seem to earn him much lasting credit with publishers. The prominent writer Robert Graves wrote the introduction to the original publication of Lover Man, but later broke off his friendship with Anderson when he accused him of using “explicit sexual language” with Graves’ wife. Later in his life, Anderson struggled with alcoholism and money issues.
Today, major publishers continue to struggle with showcasing Black storytelling, especially writing that focuses on working-class themes or topics beyond politics or personal trauma. The industry remains overwhelmingly white and, according to Tracy Sherrod, former editor of Amistad, which is an imprint of HarperCollins that focuses on African American literature, culture, and history, the “really painful thing about racism in publishing is the books that are not around, the books that didn’t get to be published.”
Even as contemporary writers like Brandon Taylor, Raven Leilani, and De’Shawn Charles Winslow offer fresh portrayals of Black characters facing complex economic and cultural problems, the literary market still sustains what the critic Ismail Muhammad calls “representation’s trap—the whittling down of Black life’s full scope into marketable, digestible facsimiles that are then thrust onto Black writers.”
The characters portrayed in Lover Man certainly exist outside of any culturally approved image. Anderson’s gritty portrayal of Black, Southern, country life stands as a testament to his talent, but also perhaps what kept him from fulfilling it.
Carr Harkrader is a writer in Chicago. He has written for INDY Week, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Necessary Fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @CarrHarkrader.