Frank London Brown
(1927–1962), novelist, activist, and important figure among Chicago-based urban realists.
Born in Kansas City, Frank London Brown moved to Chicago at age twelve. Educated at Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago, Brown worked numerous jobs to support his literary ambitions. Most significant of these was his work as an organizer and program officer for the United Packing-house Workers of America and other labor unions. Brown was profoundly impacted by the musical culture of African American Chicago, most significantly jazz, but also gospel and blues. A devotee of bebop, Brown published a seminal interview with Thelonious Monk in Downbeat and pioneered in the reading of fiction to jazz accompaniment. Many critics have also noted the importance of a trip Brown made as a journalist to cover the Emmett Till murder case. At the time of his death, he was an accomplished writer on the Chicago scene and a regular contributor to Negro Digest and various literary magazines. He was also a candidate for a PhD from the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought and was director of the Union Research Center.
His reputation is largely based upon his 1959 novel, Trumbull Park, an account of the struggles facing African American families attempting to integrate a Chicago housing development. However, his short fiction and especially his 1969 posthumous novel, The Myth Maker, deserve greater attention. Trumbull Park was typical of social realist fiction in the style of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, while The Myth Maker demonstrates an interest in Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the existentialist novel. Both texts are clearly influenced by the work of Richard Wright. Their great accomplishment is the detailed description of the “everyday” of urban African American experience, excellent attention to vernacular speech and dialect, and a philosophically sophisticated account of the rise of despair in the ghetto and the continuing deprecatory impact of institutionalized racism. Both novels are occasionally limited by deficient character and plot development. Trumbull Park has received a moderate amount of critical attention and The Myth Maker none. Brown's occasional short stories also reveal attention to language and a strong commitment to realism as a mode of expression and investigation. His most popular story, “McDougal” (Abraham Chapman, Black Voices, 1968) is noteworthy for its sympathetic treatment of a white trumpet player attempting to succeed as a jazz musician within the very environment of Chicago's 58th Street that Brown had long chronicled.
In addition to the accomplishment of his two novels, Brown's reputation should also be enhanced by his exploration of the possibility of an artistic life irreducibly connected to a life of social action. His participation in leftist political activity and counter-cultural artistic movements at the height of McCarthyism and the Cold War is suggestive of a courageous intellect. His succumbing to leukemia in March of 1962 just prior to the dawning of the Black Arts movement in Chicago is one of the major tragedies of contemporary African American literature.
Sterling Stuckey, “Frank London Brown— A Remembrance,” in Black Voices, ed. Abraham Chapman, 1968, pp. 669–676.Maryemma Graham, “Bearing Witness in Black Chicago: A View of Selected Fiction by Richard Wright, Frank London Brown, and Ronald Fair,” CLA Journal 33 (March 1990): 280–297.Charles Tita, “Frank London Brown,” in Contemporary African American Novelists, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson, 1999, pp. 58–63.