LEON FORREST Biography - Writers


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Leon Richard Forrest was born January 8, 1937 at Cook County Hospital in Chicago   
to Adelaide Green Forrest (1920-1964) and Leon Forrest, Sr. (1918-1971). His       
mother's family was Catholic and from New Orleans. His father's family were       
Baptists from Bolivar County, Mississippi. Leon Forrest Sr., who worked as a       
bartender on the Santa Fe railroad, moved to Chicago with his wife and             
grandmother in the late 1920s. Leon Forrest's great-grandmother Katie helped       
raise him until the age of nine. His father composed song lyrics and did some     
recording and his mother loved music and wrote short stories.                     
Forrest grew up in a middle-class African-American neighborhood on the South       
Side of Chicago. He attended Wendell Phillips, an all African-American             
elementary school where he won the American Legion Award as the best male         
student in his class. A friend of Forrest's father let the family use his         
address so that Leon could attend the highly regarded and racially integrated     
Hyde Park High school. A mediocre student, Forrest excelled in creative writing.   
He went on to attend Wilson Junior College (later Kennedy-King). His parents       
divorced in 1956. When Forrest's mother remarried, she and her husband opened a   
liquor store where Leon worked as clerk and relief bartender while attending       
Roosevelt University. He took courses in journalism and playwriting at Wilson     
and Roosevelt and briefly studied accounting.                                     
In 1960 Forrest took a playwriting course at the University of Chicago, but soon   
dropped out of college and was drafted. He spent his tour of duty in Germany       
working as a Public Information specialist, reporting on troop training and       
writing feature stories for the division newspaper. He wrote plays in his off-duty 
Upon his discharge, Forrest returned to his parents' liquor store to tend bar     
while taking extension courses at the University of Chicago. There he met and     
befriended Professor Allison Davis, social anthropologist, and educational         
philosopher and English professor John G. Cawelti.                                 
Shortly after attending the March on Washington in August 1963, Forrest moved     
into a small room in a building filled with musicians, painters, retired           
professors and writers. Forrest purchased a typewriter and began his first novel   
while working as an office boy for the Catholic Interracial Council's Speakers     
Bureau. His play, Theatre of the Soul, was performed at the Parkway Community     
House, Chicago, in November 1967.                                                 
By 1970 Forrest had written for and edited several South Side community           
newspapers, among them The Woodlawn Booster, The Englewood Bulletin,The Chicago   
Bulletin (1964-1967), and The Woodlawn Observer (1967-1970). In 1969 Forrest       
joinedMuhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Muslim movement, as associate editor, 
writing on the arts. He was promoted to managing editor in 1972, serving for a     
year. He was the last non-Muslim editor of this newspaper.                         
On September 25, 1971, Forrest married Marianne Duncan. That year he completed     
his first novel, There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, parts of which had been   
published previously. Saul Bellow's praise for the work (box 1, folder 8) was     
helpful in achieving publication in May of 1973. Ralph Ellison wrote the forward   
for There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, endorsing it to Random House editor   
Toni Morrison. The next year Forrest published a six-hour interview with Ellison   
in Muhammad Speaks (box 7, folder 2). In 1977 Random House published Forrest's     
second novel, The Bloodworth Orphans. Forrest's verse-play Recreation was set to   
music and performed in 1978. In 1982 Soldier Boy, Soldier, an opera (box 8), was   
produced at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In 1984 Random House           
published Forrest's third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face. This won Forrest the   
Du Sable Museum Certificate of Merit and Achievement in Fiction, the Carl         
Sandburg Award, the Friends of Literature Prize and the Society of Midlands       
Authors Award for fiction. April 14, 1985, was proclaimed by Chicago mayor         
Harold Washington as Leon Forrest Day (box 1 folder 3).                           
In 1987 Another Chicago Press brought out Forrest's first three novels in         
paperback. Toni Morrison wrote the forward for Two Wings to Veil My Face (box 4,   
folder 3). Another Chicago Press published a paperback version of Forrest's       
fourth novel, Divine Days, in July 1992, but a fire destroyed most of the copies   
and Another Chicago Press's distributor went bankrupt. Despite these setbacks,     
the book received the Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year Award for best local     
fiction (box 1, folder 5). The next year Another Chicago Press and W. W. Norton   
issued a hardback version of Divine Days and Norton published a paperback         
version in January 1995. The literary magazineCalalloo devoted part of its         
Spring 1993 (V. 16 no. 2) issue to Forrest's writings.                             
Among the articles Forrest wrote for Chicago journals were “Soul in Motion,” on
ecstasy in the Black Baptist Church (Chicago Magazine July 1985), and an article   
for the Chicago Tribune Bookworld (April 24, 1994), “Remembering Ralph Ellison”
(box 7, folder 2). A collection of Forrest's essays, entitled Furious Voice for   
Freedom, came out in 1992 and was reprinted as a paperback as Relocations of the   
Spirit in March, 1994. When Ralph Ellison died the next month, Forrest was         
selected to deliver the eulogy. In 1997 Forrest received a special honor, a 60th   
birthday party at the Art Institute of Chicago, which had not hosted a similar     
event since honoring Saul Bellow twenty years before.                             
Forrest cited many influences on his writing, among them African American oral     
tradition such as the blues, jazz–particularly Charlie Parker, the oral and     
written works of Dylan Thomas, the religions of his parents and the writings of   
William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill and Ralph Ellison.                               
Forrest's twenty-four year teaching career began in 1973, after a meeting with     
Jan Carew, chair of the recently created Northwestern University Department of     
African American Studies. Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Hannah Gray     
offered Forrest a five-year contract as Associate Professor teaching African       
American literature and creative writing.                                         
Forrest was recommended for tenure by Provost Raymond Mack in 1978, and two       
committees voted in favor of tenure, but Dean Rudolph Weingartner refused. In     
1981 Forrest gave the inaugural Allison Davis lecture, an annual Northwestern     
University event (box 2, folder 1) on Herman Melville's Benito Cereno (notes box   
2, folder 3). In the spring of 1984 Forrest was promoted to full professor by     
Dean Weingartner.                                                                 
Forrest served as chairman of the Northwestern African American Studies           
department from 1985 to 1994, and also held a professorship in the English         
department. He served on the Diversity Committee and the Alliance for Success,     
an organization supporting the advancement of minorities at Northwestern           
University. Forrest lectured at several U.S. universities, including Yale, Brown, 
Tufts, Wesleyan, Notre Dame and Harvard. He had a reputation as a masterful       
teacher, innovator, and mentor and challenging author. His most popular courses   
included Survey of African American Literature, Literary Techniques in Creative   
Writing, Art of James Baldwin, Black Presence in Faulkner, Literature of           
Deviance, Dosteovsky's Way, Studies in Spiritual Agony and Rebirth, Sermons in     
the Bible, Black Families in Literature, Art of Ralph Ellison and Five Major       
Leon Forrest taught until his death, which came after a long bout with prostate   
cancer, on November 6, 1997. He was honored in a memorial ceremony at             
Northwestern on January 30, 1998. Forrest's novel Meteor in the Madhouse was       
published posthumously in 2000.