Leon Forrest: “Make a Way Out of No Way”

"He regarded with skepticism and clarity the temptations to make racial identity the foundation of our humanity."

First published in 1992, Leon Forrest’s Divine Days was rereleased this week in a joint publication of Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op Bookstore and Northwestern University Press. A “monumental novel” of over 1,100 pages, Divine Days is the masterpiece of Forrest’s decades-long work in processing “the achievements and shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement” in the tradition of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Below is the foreword from the new edition by Professor Kenneth W. Warren.

When I first met Leon Forrest in the late 1980s, I had not read any of his three published novels: There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973), The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), Two Wings to Veil My Face (1983). Leon was then chairing the African American Studies Department, one of the earliest of such programs in the country, at Northwestern University, where I was a beginning assistant professor of English.

I was honored when he inscribed a copy of each of his books to me, but also felt a bit daunted. Would I have time, with all else I had on my plate, to dive into this considerable body of work? (I’ve always felt myself to be much too slow a reader for the profession to which I’ve devoted myself.) And what would I be expected to say? My conversations with Leon up to that point, which had orbited around our shared admiration for the work of Ralph Ellison, Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel García Márquez, had put me on notice about the seriousness of his literary ambition.

His offhand references to many of the topics his novels explore—jazz, the history and politics of Chicago, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement—betokened a depth of knowledge and experience that I knew I could never match.

Then again, there was nothing pedantic in Leon’s many references. He was as often irreverent as he was respectful in speaking of his influences and models. The gods in his pantheon had feet of clay, forced as they were, if they were to live at all, to walk on the same ground that we did. He knew that their failures to live up to the beliefs they inspired and the doctrines they expounded was the stuff of powerful storytelling that could help us make sense of our present.

But before I had the chance to turn the first page of even one of his novels, Leon compounded my disequilibrium by making a request. He had for the first time in his teaching career been persuaded by his students to put one of his novels, The Bloodworth Orphans, on his syllabus.

Having now done so, he was not comfortable with the apparent hubris of teaching his own work, and he wondered if I might do him the favor of helping him out of a tight spot by leading that discussion. How could I accept, not yet knowing quite what I was getting into? And yet, how could I refuse? I dove in.

Leon Forrest wrote some of the most compelling American novels of the late twentieth century.

I was at first overwhelmed, even annoyed, by what felt like a tsunami of allusions. What kind of writer would have the chutzpah to go Faulkner one better by not only usurping the geography of his youth for his fictional playground but also naming this fictional locale and another in Mississippi, with the original spelling of his name, after himself?

But forced to swim, I found myself drawn into the tragic family saga at the heart of the book, which focuses on the Black descendants of the Bloodworth family, as seen through the consciousness of the young Nathaniel Witherspoon. Leon introduced Witherspoon in his first novel, There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, as an orphaned, would-be prophet and chronicler seeking to piece together a sense of himself and to make sense of the nation’s past and the complicated story of African Americans within that narrative.

The plight of the orphan—unparented due to loss or denial, as in the case of the Bloodworth family—is one of Leon’s key narrative themes. Faced with the knowledge of the past, and their estrangement from it, the narrators and characters of Leon’s fiction—at least those who aren’t paralyzed and destroyed by that past—are forced to reinvent and transform themselves. To use one of Leon’s signature phrases, they must “make a way out of no way” by being as voracious and improvisatory as the oratory of the Black preachers and the jazz musicians that Leon had admired growing up.

With the text of The Bloodworth Orphans on the table before me, I faced Leon’s undergraduate seminar armed with the insight that in narrating the efforts of a single individual to reinvent himself from a past equally constituted out of horror and beauty, Leon’s novels not only reimagine the story of the United States and the situation of Black Americans within it, but also involve us as readers in the creation of the novel we are reading.

As I spoke about the book in his class, Leon sat on one side of the room, smiling somewhat enigmatically, a cassette tape recorder whirring on the desk at his elbow. Afterward he thanked me warmly. And yet, despite what I think was the strength of my insight (and I make no claim for its originality), I have found myself hoping that the recording is lost to posterity.


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What I didn’t know at that moment, but would soon become aware of, was that Leon was dramatically upping the ante of his previous work. In 1992, he would publish the monumental novel Divine Days, which is now, finally, returning to print three decades since it first appeared.

Unfolding over a week and a day—from Wednesday, February 16, to Wednesday, February 23—in the year 1966, Divine Days is the story of an attempt by Joubert Antoine Jones, an ambitious, aspiring playwright, to dramatize a story that is much too expansive and raucous for any stage. And yet, its scores of characters demand the intimacy and the intensity that come from being spotlighted before an audience. These characters beguile, plead, and harangue as if their individual stories were all that anyone could or should want to hear.

It may seem outrageous to say of a novel of more than 1,100 pages, but reading it makes you want immediately to reread it. Such is the truth of Divine Days. We only reluctantly leave behind its vignettes, moved along by Joubert’s ambition to write a play based on the life of the legendary and mythic figure of Sugar-Groove, the Bloodworth orphan tasked with trying to redeem and redirect the tragic legacy of his family.

A trickster, a man of many names, Sugar-Groove over the course of his seventy years had pursued many careers, assumed many guises, remaining youthful, seductive, and idealistic until his reported death—which, according to Joubert’s Aunt Eloise, occurred three weeks before Joubert’s return.

It is to the good fortune of us as readers that Leon provided Joubert (“Brer-Bear,” “Baby Bear,” “Brudder Bear”) Jones as a guide and choirmaster. Joubert, another orphan, for most of his life “has been hearing voices” of characters who demand he give himself over to their desire to speak, and thereby live again.

The novel begins with Joubert’s return to Forest County, Illinois, after a two-year stint in the army as a public information specialist in Germany. He has a plan to chronicle the week of his return in a journal to provide the basis for a monumental play he intends to write. The play is to be about Sugar-Groove, the “mythic soul of Forest County, whose early memory was forged mainly in Mississippi” and whose “stories, founded upon these memories” Joubert feels “destined to dramatize” as a means of personally discovering “a meaning of existence out of this man’s divine days upon this planet.”

It may seem outrageous to say of a novel of more than 1,100 pages, but reading “Divine Days” makes you want immediately to reread it.

Although a fledgling playwright, Joubert has already attempted other plays, including one based on another, more dangerous trickster figure—and a foil for Sugar-Groove—the preacher and cult leader W.A.D. Ford. Ford views the chaos of living and the ever-present possibility of reinvention as an opportunity to prey upon the insecurities and self-loathing of his fellow human beings for self-aggrandizement, cruelty, and pleasure.

It is the twinning of these opposing, necessarily intertwined forces that forms the spine connecting the novel’s fifteen sections, each headed with specific days and times as Joubert pursues his tale. We watch and listen as Joubert confronts the practical, emotional, and moral obstacles that come with gathering the material to tell his story. In practical terms he must contend with the gaps and contradictions in the stories he hears. There is no possibility of getting the story in its entirety. To tell it is to fabricate it, and in fabricating it, he must confront the temptation of imposing his needs and his meanings on the stories of others.

Emotionally, Joubert must face the fact that his ambition to become a playwright is being opposed by his aunt, Eloise Jones Hickles, who has raised and nurtured him since his mother’s death, and who currently employs him as a bartender in Aunt Eloise’s Night Light Lounge. Aunt Eloise is also a columnist for The Forest County Dispatch, and no mean storyteller in her own right. She has no objection to playwriting, or the stage as such, but feels that her flighty nephew might be better served by becoming a journalist. She wants him to produce a five-part series on Sugar-Groove’s life that would appear in the paper.

To become the artist he aspires to be, Joubert must in some way distance himself from Aunt Eloise’s loving, if stifling, care. More profoundly, Joubert must in varying ways navigate the tension between living life and writing about it, and the extent to which the latter may betray the former.

For example, late in the novel, Joubert condemns a reprehensible character called Sambi! for having contributed to the suicide of the artist Imani (Julia De Loretto) and then ransacking her apartment. Unable to prevent the desecration, Joubert denounces Sambi! as a “megalomaniac, ego-tripper, and hustler . . . drawn to human chaos the way a moth is drawn to the lights.” But Joubert’s outrage at Sambi!’s attempt to profit from Imani’s death is short-circuited by a shock of recognition. He himself has been trying to understand Imani by reading her diary. Her writing has contributed to his story. “Wasn’t I too,” he asks himself, “something of a scavenger, when all was said and done, and undone? Something too, as a fledgling artist, of a grave robber?” How can he use the life of someone else for storytelling without using the person? The responsibility of the artist could hardly be heavier. Divine Days shoulders this burden with eloquence.

Leon Forrest, born in 1937 at Cook County Hospital, shared with his characters and narrators the experience of having lived a variegated life. He attended the all-Black Wendell Phillips grade school, and then Hyde Park High School when it was just being integrated. He briefly attended Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago without taking a degree. He worked at a liquor store, bartended, and did a couple of stints as a journalist, including writing for Elijah Muhammad’s Muhammad Speaks as one of its two non-Muslim reporters. Though raised in the Catholic Church, he was enamored of the art of Black Protestant preachers.

Like Joubert, he served in the army in Germany. After his military service, as an extension student at the University of Chicago, Leon came under the influence of Perrin H. Lowrey, a white Southern author and teacher of literature who became his gateway to the works of Faulkner, James Joyce, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

These authors and Ralph Ellison led Leon into the depths of the human condition. It was through their complexity, and his own peripatetic experience, that Leon processed the achievements and shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement. He regarded with skepticism and clarity the temptations to make racial identity the foundation of our humanity. Out of all this, Leon wrote some of the most compelling American novels of the late twentieth century. Divine Days is the capstone.


Excerpted from Kenneth W. Warren’s Foreword to Divine Days: A Novel by Leon Forrest. Copyright © 2023 by Northwestern University. Published 2023 by Seminary Co-op Offsets/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. icon

Featured image: Chicago (2011). Photograph by Knar Bedian / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)