Hal Bennett

(b. 1930)

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(1930-2004), novelist and short fiction writer.

Born in Buckingham, Virginia, on 21 April 1930, George Harold Bennett was raised and educated in Newark, New Jersey. He sold his first short story when he was fifteen, became a feature writer for the Newark Herald News at the age of sixteen, and edited his high school yearbook. During the Korean War he served a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, where he wrote for the Public Information Division and edited a newsletter for U.S. airmen. After his discharge, he continued to pursue his career as a writer, serving as fiction editor for several African American newspapers between 1953 and 1955 and attempting to launch his own newspaper in Westbury, Long Island. After that venture failed, he moved to Mexico, where he attended Mexico City College and became a fellow of the Centro Mexicano de Escritores. During this period he completed most of his first novel, A Wilderness of Vines, a manuscript that won him a fiction fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in 1966. Several years later, in 1970, Bennett was selected most promising writer of the year by Playboy magazine for his short story “Dotson Gerber Resurrected.” He received the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1973.

Between 1966 and 1976, Hal Bennett published five novels; his collection of short fiction, Insanity Runs in Our Family, was published in 1977. Bennett's experiences in both Buckingham, Virginia, and Newark, New Jersey, provide the backdrop for his fictional settings of Burnside, Virginia, and Cousinville, New Jersey—the terrain between which many of his characters shuttle back and forth, vainly seeking a salvation that somehow always manages to elude them. Somewhat like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Bennett's Burnside and Cousinville are self-contained fictional universes. His novels and short stories are linked by characters who restlessly move north and south—often reappearing in other novels and stories—and by recurring themes and preoccupations. In a broad sense, Bennett's novels recount the saga of African Americans who—like other dreamers, seekers, and outcasts—seek a new life through migration from the South to the North, from the country to the city. In Bennett's case, however, this story is filtered through an iconoclastic, satiric, and absurdist sensibility.

Set in 1939, A Wilderness of Vines (1966) introduces the racial pathology of the pre-World War II black community of Burnside, Virginia, a community in which the worship of hierarchies based on color has become elevated to the status of a religion. It also introduces Bennett's recurring stylistic and thematic concerns: his inversion of traditional Christian symbols and images; his preoccupation with sex, salvation, and insanity; his perspective on the corrosive legacy of America's racial history. In many respects, the community of Burnside emerges as a corruption of the garden of Eden-and as a microcosm of the American insanity forged by centuries of racism and sexual hypocrisy. The novel concludes with an act of brutal violence and the exodus north of the key characters, followed by prostitutes, the insane, the downhearted, and the defeated. Bennett's subsequent novels explore the lives and experiences of those characters who have participated in the exodus. The Black Wine (1968) spans the years between 1953 and 1960 and is concerned with the lives and fates of those who traveled north to Cousinville. Like A Wilderness of Vines, The Black Wine concludes on a note of explosive violence and with ambiguous proclamations of faith. Lord of Dark Places (1970) introduces the character of Joe Market, an outrageous, southern-born, black phallic hero, and offers a sustained and profane assault on the racial and sexual mythologies that have haunted American life. The novel begins in 1951 in Burnside and ends in June 1968, shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, with Joe's execution in New Jersey. Wait until the Evening (1974) begins in 1944 and ends in 1970, with the central character, Kevin Brittain, plotting the murder of his father in Burnside. Seventh Heaven (1976)–the sardonic title conferred upon a seedy housing project in Cousinville–begins in the wake of the urban riots of the 1960s and ends with the Watergate scandal. Like so many of Bennett's characters, Bill Kelsey travels from the South to the North only to be engulfed in the larger madness of American life. Taken together, Bennett's novels constitute an extended saga of post-World War II African American life and a disturbing and satirical vision of the underside of American society.


Subjects: Literature.

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