Forgotten Writer Julian Mayfield
After relocating to his bride’s native Puerto Rico in 1954, Julian Mayfield finally sat down to write the Harlem books. In the first novel, based on his own off-Broadway play 417, Mayfield’s style retained a sense of dramatic flair. Publisher James Farrell of the chance-taking Vanguard Press offered him $500 for The Hit. Like my grandma’s belief in the power of dreams that were interpreted and played the following day, Mayfield’s trifling protagonist Hubert Cooley is also guided by dreams: of leaving his wife Gertrude for Sister Clarisse, a fellow church member; of starting a business; of breaking away from the neighborhood; of hitting the number for enough loot to do it all and “create a new life for himself.” In the hands of some, The American Dream can become a nightmare.
After cursing God for his loser life—always a mistake—and getting arrested by a white cop for being an arrogant Black man in America, Hubert dreams the number 417 in the jail cell where he spent the night. “A man was a fool not to pay attention to his dreams especially if they had numbers in them,” Hubert observed. Retrieved by his Korean War vet son James, Hubert returns to Harlem where he plays the number for seven dollars with pretty boy number runner/minor banker John Lewis. Although Hubert hits for big bucks, his life soon bursts like a balloon.
For a first time novelist, Mayfield didn’t fall into the autobiography bag. Unlike the fragmented families in his fiction, in real life his Chocolate City clan, as Mayfield said in 1978, was tight. “I had a very happy childhood in terms of my mother and father being there, being supportive and all that.” Mayfield started writing poems to a teacher when he was in elementary school, and when he was thirteen, ripped-off the premise of Lillian Smith’s popular interracial love affair Strange Fruit to propel his own novice novel.
In later years, Mayfield’s language and style were as stark as Wright and poetic as Hemingway, but were grounded in urban realism. He was also was inspired by Henry James, who was also one of Baldwin’s heroes. While Wright and James had their own takes on realism, in his tales, Mayfield’s sometimes harsh view of Harlem’s residents is balanced with a gentle giant sensitivity. “As Mayfield began to take seriously the task of creating his own novels,” Lawrence P. Jackson writes in The Indigent Generation, “he found himself wandering back through the garden of Henry James.”
Mayfield’s prose was picturesque, as though influenced by the images of Roberto Rossellini, James Van Der Zee, Vittorio De Sica and Gordon Parks. Each chapter in The Hit is told from the perspective of one of the various characters in Hubert’s sad life, including James’ fed-up woman Essie, who becomes essential in the narrative. As the only person who finally does something positive to change her life, she never looks back.
While Hubert’s dream was deferred in The Hit, in the NY Herald Tribune Book Review, poet and fictioneer Langston Hughes described the book as “Vividly pictured in simple, straightforward prose, the characters come alive and their stories seem real. Julian Mayfield writes well, at times poetically, and occasionally with high humor.” The following year, Vanguard Press published The Long Night, which showed Mayfield’s growth as a writer, with its atmospheric “Harlem Nocturne” style that was as loose and mysterious as the jazz standard when performed by Duke Ellington.