The essay is in large part about Allison, who at one point had a reasonably successful play run on Broadway in the late 1930s, and his near-total erasure from the record of crime fiction, regrettably in part because he simply did not publish much work featuring his black detective character, Joe Hill, during his lifetime. But the piece is also in part about how that erasure, and ensuing vacuum, enabled John Ball to publish In The Heat of the Night, which introduced Virgil Tibbs to the reading public and is itself reissued as a Penguin Classic this month.
I explain my issues with the book and the attempt to place it as part of a literary canon when what people really remember -- rightfully so -- is the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. But mostly I want to restore some bit of glory to Hughes Allison. I loved reading his work, and his letters, and I'm glad you will be able to be exposed to those in part through my essay.Thanks to TNR for publishing the essay but above all to Michelle Legro for totally getting what I was trying to accomplish and making it so with excellent edits, and to Laura Reston, who fact-checked the daylights out of the piece, no small task when hard-to-access literary archives were involved! Thanks to the Newark Public Library (and specifically, Tom, who was my contact there) for making Hughes Allison's archives available without restrictions, and to Allison's niece-by-marriage Edna Friman, who gave gracious permission to quote from his correspondence.