African-American novelist William Demby was born on Christmas Day 1922 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended West Virginia State College for a time, including enrolling in a creative writing class taught by Margaret Walker. His education interrupted by World War II, Demby entered the horse cavalry of the United States Army, serving in both Italy and North Africa. While in Italy, he wrote for a time for the Stars and Stripes. After the war ended, Demby returned to the United States and enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, to continue his education. He completed his BA in 1947 and returned to Italy, studying art history at the University of Rome. Demby lived and worked in Rome for many years, writing filmstrips for the Italian film and television industries and translating Italian screenplays into English. He married an Italian woman, Lucia Drudi, and the couple had a son, James, who continues to live in Italy where he was born. Demby returned to the United States in 1969 to teach English at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, where he was an assistant professor until his retirement in 1989.
Though he was living in Italy when it was written, William Demby’s first novel, Beetlecreek (1950), is set in the West Virginia of his childhood. Expanding on “St. Joey,” a short story Demby had first written while a student at Fisk, Beetlecreek is a novel of race relations in a remote West Virginia town.
His second novel, The Catacombs, was published in 1965 and was not immediately received or understood by critics. The novel is written in an avant-garde style that involves a narrator who is a novelist (who like the author is an African-American living in Rome) writing a novel contrasting the lives of an African nun and a sensuous model and actress romantically involved with a European aristocrat. Demby’s third novel, Love Story Black, was written and published after his return to the United States.
Demby published his fourth novel, Blueboy, in 1979, but Beetlecreek remains his best-known and most-admired work.
Love Story Black