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Forrest, Leon



Leon Richard Forrest was born January 8, 1937 at Cook County Hospital in Chicago to Adelaide Green Forrest (1920-1964) and Leon Forrest, Sr. (1918-1971). His mother's family was Catholic and from New Orleans. His father's family were Baptists from Bolivar County, Mississippi. Leon Forrest Sr., who worked as a bartender on the Santa Fe railroad, moved to Chicago with his wife and grandmother in the late 1920s. Leon Forrest's great-grandmother Katie helped raise him until the age of nine. His father composed song lyrics and did some recording and his mother loved music and wrote short stories.

Forrest grew up in a middle-class African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He attended Wendell Phillips, an all African-American elementary school where he won the American Legion Award as the best male student in his class. A friend of Forrest's father let the family use his address so that Leon could attend the highly regarded and racially integrated Hyde Park High school. A mediocre student, Forrest excelled in creative writing. He went on to attend Wilson Junior College (later Kennedy-King). His parents divorced in 1956. When Forrest's mother remarried, she and her husband opened a liquor store where Leon worked as clerk and relief bartender while attending Roosevelt University. He took courses in journalism and playwriting at Wilson and Roosevelt and briefly studied accounting.

In 1960 Forrest took a playwriting course at the University of Chicago, but soon dropped out of college and was drafted. He spent his tour of duty in Germany working as a Public Information specialist, reporting on troop training and writing feature stories for the division newspaper. He wrote plays in his off-duty hours.

Upon his discharge, Forrest returned to his parents' liquor store to tend bar while taking extension courses at the University of Chicago. There he met and befriended Professor Allison Davis, social anthropologist, and educational philosopher and English professor John G. Cawelti.

Shortly after attending the March on Washington in August 1963, Forrest moved into a small room in a building filled with musicians, painters, retired professors and writers. Forrest purchased a typewriter and began his first novel while working as an office boy for the Catholic Interracial Council's Speakers Bureau. His play, Theatre of the Soul, was performed at the Parkway Community House, Chicago, in November 1967.

By 1970 Forrest had written for and edited several South Side community newspapers, among them The Woodlawn Booster, The Englewood Bulletin,The Chicago Bulletin (1964-1967), and The Woodlawn Observer (1967-1970). In 1969 Forrest joinedMuhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Muslim movement, as associate editor, writing on the arts. He was promoted to managing editor in 1972, serving for a year. He was the last non-Muslim editor of this newspaper.

On September 25, 1971, Forrest married Marianne Duncan. That year he completed his first novel, There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, parts of which had been published previously. Saul Bellow's praise for the work (box 1, folder 8) was helpful in achieving publication in May of 1973. Ralph Ellison wrote the forward for There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, endorsing it to Random House editor Toni Morrison. The next year Forrest published a six-hour interview with Ellison in Muhammad Speaks (box 7, folder 2). In 1977 Random House published Forrest's second novel, The Bloodworth Orphans. Forrest's verse-play Recreation was set to music and performed in 1978. In 1982 Soldier Boy, Soldier, an opera (box 8), was produced at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In 1984 Random House published Forrest's third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face. This won Forrest the Du Sable Museum Certificate of Merit and Achievement in Fiction, the Carl Sandburg Award, the Friends of Literature Prize and the Society of Midlands Authors Award for fiction. April 14, 1985, was proclaimed by Chicago mayor Harold Washington as Leon Forrest Day (box 1 folder 3).

In 1987 Another Chicago Press brought out Forrest's first three novels in paperback. Toni Morrison wrote the forward for Two Wings to Veil My Face (box 4, folder 3). Another Chicago Press published a paperback version of Forrest's fourth novel, Divine Days, in July 1992, but a fire destroyed most of the copies and Another Chicago Press's distributor went bankrupt. Despite these setbacks, the book received the Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year Award for best local fiction (box 1, folder 5). The next year Another Chicago Press and W. W. Norton issued a hardback version of Divine Days and Norton published a paperback version in January 1995. The literary magazineCalalloo devoted part of its Spring 1993 (V. 16 no. 2) issue to Forrest's writings.

Among the articles Forrest wrote for Chicago journals were Soul in Motion on ecstasy in the Black Baptist Church (Chicago Magazine July 1985), and an article for the Chicago Tribune Bookworld (April 24, 1994), "Remembering Ralph Ellison" (box 7, folder 2). A collection of Forrest's essays, entitled Furious Voice for Freedom, came out in 1992 and was reprinted as a paperback as Relocations of the Spirit in March, 1994. When Ralph Ellison died the next month, Forrest was selected to deliver the eulogy. In 1997 Forrest received a special honor, a 60th birthday party at the Art Institute of Chicago, which had not hosted a similar event since honoring Saul Bellow twenty years before.

Forrest cited many influences on his writing, among them African American oral tradition such as the blues, jazz and particularly Charlie Parker, the oral and written works of Dylan Thomas, the religions of his parents and the writings of William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill and Ralph Ellison.

Forrest's twenty-four year teaching career began in 1973, after a meeting with Jan Carew, chair of the recently created Northwestern University Department of African American Studies. Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Hannah Gray offered Forrest a five-year contract as Associate Professor teaching African American literature and creative writing.

Forrest was recommended for tenure by Provost Raymond Mack in 1978, and two committees voted in favor of tenure, but Dean Rudolph Weingartner refused. In 1981 Forrest gave the inaugural Allison Davis lecture, an annual Northwestern University event (box 2, folder 1) on Herman Melville's Benito Cereno (notes box 2, folder 3). In the spring of 1984 Forrest was promoted to full professor by Dean Weingartner.

Forrest served as chairman of the Northwestern African American Studies department from 1985 to 1994, and also held a professorship in the English department. He served on the Diversity Committee and the Alliance for Success, an organization supporting the advancement of minorities at Northwestern University. Forrest lectured at several U.S. universities, including Yale, Brown, Tufts, Wesleyan, Notre Dame and Harvard. He had a reputation as a masterful teacher, innovator, and mentor and challenging author. His most popular courses included Survey of African American Literature, Literary Techniques in Creative Writing, Art of James Baldwin, Black Presence in Faulkner, Literature of Deviance, Dosteovsky's Way, Studies in Spiritual Agony and Rebirth, Sermons in the Bible, Black Families in Literature, Art of Ralph Ellison and Five Major Poets.

Leon Forrest taught until his death, which came after a long bout with prostate cancer, on November 6, 1997. He was honored in a memorial ceremony at Northwestern on January 30, 1998. Forrest's novel Meteor in the Madhouse was published posthumously in 2000.

In 2014, Forrest was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Leon Forrest (1937-1997) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/1/3

Leon Richard Forrest served as chairman of Northwestern University's African American Studies department from 1985 to 1994, and also held a professorship in the English department. The Leon Forrest Papers consist of 8 boxes spanning the years 1954 to 1998. The bulk of the papers consist of manuscripts and proofs of his novels.

Dates: 1952-1998