Willard Motley Papers

Institution: Chicago Public Library - Carter G. Woodson Regional Library
9525 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60628
Phone: (312) 747-6900
Date: 1940-1950
Extent: .5 Linear Feet
Finding Aid

Biographical/Historical Note:
Willard Francis Motley was born on July 14, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois, and spent his childhood in the racially diverse community of Englewood on Chicago’s Southside. Born to a middle class family, his father Archibald Sr. worked as a Pullman porter for a railroad that ran between Chicago and New York, while his mother Mary was the primary caretaker and influence. Archibald John Motley, Jr., (known as Willard’s brother though he was actually an older cousin) was becoming a well-known artist during Willard Motley’s childhood. Though known as a writer concerned with the plight of the poor, Motley reports experiencing very little racial discrimination as a child. He notes that, although the Motley’s were the only black family in their immediate neighborhood, their white neighbors defended them during the Chicago riot of 1919, and Willard was a well-liked and active student at Englewood High School.

When Motley was 13, he submitted a short story for publication in the Chicago Defender. Published in three installments during September and October of 1922, the short story led Robert S. Abbott to hire Motley to write a weekly children’s column, under the pen name Bud Billiken from December 1922 to July 5, 1924. After graduating high school, and unable to afford college, Motley initially found little success as a writer for an adult audience. Faced with a steady stream of rejections from popular magazines, Motley left his parents home in order to gain more life experience and to gather material for writing. During this time, Motley traveled once to the East Coast by bicycle, and twice to the West Coast by car, until he settled permanently in a slum near Chicago’s Maxwell Street. During his travels west Motley gained material for his most successful novel, Knock on Any Door, after meeting a Mexican boy named Joe, while Motley were in a Denver jail for stealing gasoline.

Once back in Chicago, Motley began going to Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in 1889. In the 1930s, it was a gathering place for young radical artists and writers. It was there that Motley met William P. Schenk (known as Peter) and Alexander Saxton. More educated than Motley, Saxton and Schenk are credited with introducing Motley to a host of authors and broadening his literary exposure. Together, they founded Hull House Magazine, a small literary journal, which became the testing ground for Motley’s work. In 1940, Motley was accepted to the WPA Federal Writers Project. From 1940 to 1943, Motley conducted the research for his first novel, Knock on Any Door by visiting reform schools, prisons, and other neighborhoods around Chicago. Ultimately, the novel became a sociological and artistic study of a lower class Italian boy named Nick Romano, which placed Motley in the tradition of “naturalists” such as Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright. In order to uphold the novel’s projected image as a “raceless novel,” Motley refused to have his photograph printed anywhere on the book, in an attempt to avoid the label of “Negro author.” Knock on Any Door became widely successful upon its publication in 1947, selling 47,000 copies in three weeks, and 350,000 copies in two years. In 1949, Humphrey Bogart, along with director Nickolas Ray, produced a film based on the novel. Subsequently, Motley went on to publish We Fished All Night (1951), Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960), Let Noon Be Fair (1966), and, posthumously, The Diaries of Willard Motley (ed. Jerome Klinkowitz, 1979).

Motley died on March 4, 1965, in a Mexico City hospital, of intestinal gangrene. At the time, and due in part to the shift from naturalist and “raceless” novels to authors who emphasized race, Motley was living a meager lifestyle after his decline in popularity. Willard Motley and William Schenk met at Hull House, a gathering place for young intellectuals and liberal artists, located at 800 S. Halstead. Along with Alexander Saxton, Schenk would become integral to Motley’s development as a writer. More widely read than Motley, Schenk and Saxton introduced him to authors such as John Steinbeck, Ben Hecht, and Emily Dickinson. Motley, Schenk, and Saxton went on to create Hull House Magazine.

Scope and Content Note:
This small group of Willard Motley’s papers includes newspaper clippings, manuscripts and journal articles by Motley. Also included is significant correspondence between Motley and William P. Shenk, co-founder of Hull House literary magazine.

Related Material: