Cyrus Colter


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(1910–2002), novelist, lawyer, U.S. Army captain, and professor.

After careers in government service, law, the Army, and academia, Cyrus Colter began writing at fifty. Colter placed his first short story, “A Chance Meeting,” in Threshold in 1960. He went on to place stories in such little magazines as New Letters, Chicago Review, and Prairie Schooner. Fourteen of his stories are collected in his first book, The Beach Umbrella (1970). In 1990 Colter published a second collection of short fiction, The Amoralists and Other Tales.

Colter's first novel, The Rivers of Eros (1972) relates the efforts of Clotilda Pilgrim to raise her grandchildren to lives of respectability. When Clotilda discovers that her sixteen-year-old grandaughter is involved with a married man, the grandmother becomes obsessed with the idea that the girl is repeating her grandmother's own youthful mistakes. Clotilda eventually kills the girl in order to stop what she perceives as a pattern of transgression. Other memorable characters include Clotilda's roomer Ambrose Hammer, who is researching a “History of the Negro Race,” and the granddaughter's lover, who in contrast with the hopeful Hammer, is cynical about the prospects of blacks in America. Rivers is significant for its portrayal of a range of black society, as well as for its representation of place, its Chicago setting.

The Hippodrome (1973), a more experimental novel, opens with Jackson Yeager, a writer on Christian topics, in flight, carrying his wife's head in a bag. She had been involved with a white man, who was left mutilated by Yeager. Yeager finds refuge with Bea, who runs the Hippodrome, where blacks perform a sexual theater for whites. Yeager is required to perform yet cannot bring himself to do so. He flees and is joined by Darlene, who has also escaped from the Hippodrome, which Yeager comes to think of as perhaps a fantasy. Critics noting Yeager's sense of being subject to chance, of discrepancies between appearance and reality, and his feelings of the absurdity of life suggest the novel's existentialist French connection.

With Night Studies (1980) Colter returned to what some have regarded as his own realist-naturalist ground. In the first book of this four-part work, we are introduced to the three main characters: John Calvin Knight, leader of the Black Peoples Congress; Griselda Graves, a seemingly white young woman unaware of her black racial heritage, who appears irresistibly drawn to the Black Peoples Congress political organization; and Mary Dee Adkins, a young black woman of wealthy background. When she learns that marriage to her white lover is not a possibility because of his family's opposition, Mary Dee, too, plunges into the black political movement.

Following an assassination attempt, John Knight is hospitalized. Under medication and through semiconscious reveries Knight envisions scenes of the Middle Passage, slavery, and Reconstruction. This panorama of African American history comprises Book Two. Following a climactic scene at the end of Book Three, in which Knight vainly attempts to promulgate his moderate position at an unruly meeting of the Black Peoples Congress, Book Four concludes with Knight's retreat from political activity to solitary study—“night studies“—of black history. Critics have acknowledged Colter's effective presentation of a wide range of black and white voices in Night Studies, as well as the novel's compelling suggestion of the influence of the African American past on present America.


Subjects: Literature.

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