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Long-time New Orleans resident Roark Bradford was a writer and editor for the Times-Picayune and the author of numerous articles, stories, and books in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of Bradford’s eight books and numerous shorter pieces depicted southern African American folklife and culture from a white perspective. One of his books, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, was adapted into a highly successful Broadway play and, later, a popular motion picture titled The Green Pastures.
Roark Whitney Wickliffe Bradford was a native Tennessean whose family owned a great many acres planted with cotton. He graduated from the University of California School of Law, served as a US Army officer in the Panama Canal Zone during World War I, and began his journalistic career in 1920. He did most of his newspaper work for the Times-Picayune, where he worked or socialized with Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and many other aspiring writers. Bradford and Saxon, his best friend among the group, perpetrated a hoax on Times-Picayune readers by creating stories about Annie Christmas, a Louisiana folk hero, whom the two writers made up as kind of a female Mike Fink figure.
Bradford became Sunday editor of the Times-Picayune before leaving to devote himself full-time to writing fiction in 1926. Early success came when Bradford’s story “Child of God” appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1927 and later was awarded an O. Henry Prize as one of the best short stories of the year. In the next decade Bradford published eight books, including Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun,This Side of Jordan, and John Henry.
The author’s main fictional focus was on rural African American life, with a particular emphasis on religion and folklore. Bradford’s treatment of his subject matter and his characters’ actions and speech are problematic, to say the least, for contemporary readers, since they reinforce racial stereotypes and often contain arrant sentimentality. Moreover, much of the humor is flat and dated. Ol’ Man Adam became the popular play and film The Green Pastures, adapted for the stage in 1930 by Marc Connelly. Six years later, the film adaptation gave star status to African American actors Rex Ingram and Eddie Anderson.
Roark and Mary Rose Bradford lived comfortably in the French Quarter during most of the 1930s and 1940s. Their son, Richard, became a successful author; his most notable novel is Red Sky at Morning. Roark Bradford served in World War II, and while in French West Africa contracted amebic dysentery, the continuing effects of which shortened his life. Beginning in 1946 he taught creative writing at Tulane, but this late career was brief. He died on November 13, 1948, in his adopted and beloved city of New Orleans.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Thomas, James W. "Roark Bradford." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published May 23, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/653/.
Thomas, James W. "Roark Bradford." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 23 May 2011. Web. 28 July 2015.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Bradford, Mary Rose. “The Story of Annie Christmas,” in A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore, ed. B. A. Botkin, p. 36. New York, NY: Crown, 1955.
Flora, Joseph M., et al., eds. Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Thomas, James W. Lyle Saxon: A Critical Biography. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1991.
Tracy, Steven C., ed. John Henry: Roark Bradford’s Novel and Play.New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2008.
Major Works by Roark Bradford
Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun (1928)
This Side of Jordan (1929)
How Come Christmas (1930)
Ol’ King David an’ the Philistine Boys (1930)
John Henry (1931)
Kingdom Coming (1933)
Let the Band Play Dixie (1934)
The Three-Headed Angel (1937)