map of chicago

For information about the Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, you may ask a librarian on the Chicago Public Library website.

Guide to the Willard F. Motley Papers, 1939-1951

Processed by Angela Bacon, Mapping the Stacks, University of Chicago.

Supervised by Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

Descriptive Summary


Willard F. Motley Papers




0.5 linear feet


Chicago Public Library
Carter G. Woodson Regional Library
Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature
9525 S. Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60628

Subject Headings


No restrictions


When quoting material from collection, the preferred citation is: Willard Motley Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.


John and Anne Coyne donated the Willard Motley Papers to the Harsh Collection in December of 2002. William P. Schenk, who worked with Motley at Hull House Magazine, collected the clippings and correspondence he had with Motley between 1939 and 1951, and gave them to John and Anne Coyne.

Biographical Note

Willard Francis Motley was born on July 14, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois, and spent his childhood in the racially diverse community of Englewood on Chicago's Southside. Born to a middle class family, his father Archibald Sr. worked as a Pullman porter for a railroad that ran between Chicago and New York, while his mother Mary was the primary caretaker and influence. Archibald John Motley, Jr., (known as Willard's brother though he was actually an older cousin) was becoming a well-known artist during Willard Motley's childhood.

Though known as a writer concerned with the plight of the poor, Motley reports experiencing very little racial discrimination as a child. He notes that, although the Motley's were the only black family in their immediate neighborhood, their white neighbors defended them during the Chicago riot of 1919, and Willard was a well-liked and active student at Englewood High School.

When Motley was 13, he submitted a short story for publication in the Chicago Defender. Published in three installments during September and October of 1922, the short story led Robert S. Abbott to hire Motley to write a weekly children's column, under the pen name Bud Billiken from December 1922 to July 5, 1924.

After graduating high school, and unable to afford college, Motley initially found little success as a writer for an adult audience. Faced with a steady stream of rejections from popular magazines, Motley left his parents home in order to gain more life experience and to gather material for writing. During this time, Motley traveled once to the East Coast by bicycle, and twice to the West Coast by car, until he settled permanently in a slum near Chicago's Maxwell Street. During his travels west Motley gained material for his most successful novel, Knock on Any Door, after meeting a Mexican boy named Joe, while Motley were in a Denver jail for stealing gasoline.

Once back in Chicago, Motley began going to Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in 1889. In the 1930s, it was a gathering place for young radical artists and writers. It was there that Motley met William P. Schenk (known as Peter) and Alexander Saxton. More educated than Motley, Saxton and Schenk are credited with introducing Motley to a host of authors and broadening his literary exposure. Together, they founded Hull House Magazine, a small literary journal, which became the testing ground for Motley's work. In 1940, Motley was accepted to the WPA Federal Writers Project.

From 1940 to 1943, Motley conducted the research for his first novel, Knock on Any Door by visiting reform schools, prisons, and other neighborhoods around Chicago. Ultimately, the novel became a sociological and artistic study of a lower class Italian boy named Nick Romano, which placed Motley in the tradition of "naturalists" such as Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright. In order to uphold the novel's projected image as a "raceless novel," Motley refused to have his photograph printed anywhere on the book, in an attempt to avoid the label of "Negro author." Knock on Any Door became widely successful upon its publication in 1947, selling 47,000 copies in three weeks, and 350,000 copies in two years. In 1949, Humphrey Bogart, along with director Nickolas Ray, produced a film based on the novel. Subsequently, Motley went on to publish We Fished All Night (1951), Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960), Let Noon Be Fair (1966), and, posthumously, The Diaries of Willard Motley (ed. Jerome Klinkowitz, 1979).

Motley died on March 4, 1965, in a Mexico City hospital, of intestinal gangrene. At the time, and due in part to the shift from naturalist and "raceless" novels to authors who emphasized race, Motley was living a meager lifestyle after his decline in popularity. Willard Motley and William Schenk met at Hull House, a gathering place for young intellectuals and liberal artists, located at 800 S. Halstead. Along with Alexander Saxton, Schenk would become integral to Motley's development as a writer. More widely read than Motley, Schenk and Saxton introduced him to authors such as John Steinbeck, Ben Hecht, and Emily Dickinson. Motley, Schenk, and Saxton went on to create Hull House Magazine.

The papers in this collection include eleven letters written or sent by Motley to William P. Schenk regarding Hull House magazine affairs, feedback on writings submitted for publication, and invitations to publicity events. Also, there are sixty newspaper clippings documenting the publication and reception of Knock on any Door, as a book and film, and two articles written by Motley, published in The Commonweal and Opportunity magazines. It is noted that, when Schenk met his wife, Beatrice, at University of Chicago, she thought that the "P" in William P. Schenk stood for Peter. The "P" actually stands for Paul. As a result, Schenk was known as Peter during this time, and the correspondence from Motley to Schenk is addressed to "Peter."

While these papers, located at the Harsh Collection, revolve around a very specific interaction between Motley and Schenk, the bulk of Willard Motley's papers can be found in the Special Collections Division, Northern Illinois University Library.

Scope and Content

The Willard Motley Collection contains correspondence written from Motley to William P. Schenk during the time they worked at Hull House Magazine, along with invitations to various events celebrating the publication of Knock on Any Door. Additionally, there are newspaper clippings documenting the reception of the novel, and its release as a film in 1949.


Series 1: Correspondence

Folder 001

Motley, Willard to Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, 9/30/1943

Folder 002

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, 12/25/1943

Folder 003

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, 3/35/47

Folder 004

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, 5/12/1947

Folder 005

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, 5/26/1947

Folder 006

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 007

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 008

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 009

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 010

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 011

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 012

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 013

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 014

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Folder 015

Motley, Willard to Schenk, William Peter, [N.D.]

Series 2: Clippings

Folder 016

"First Generation of Artists," Survey Graphic, March 1939

Folder 017

"Religion and the Handout," Catholic Digest, May 1939

Folder 018

"Among the Authors," Chicago Tribune, 1/19/1947

Folder 019

"Among the Authors," Chicago Tribune, 4/27/1947

Folder 021

"A Terrifying Cross Section of Chicago," Chicago Tribune, 5/4/1947

Folder 022

"A Terrifying Cross Section of Chicago," Chicago Tribune, 5/4/1947

Folder 023

"Disciple of Dreiser," NY Times, 5/4/1947

Folder 024

"Books in the News," Chicago Daily News, 5/5/1947

Folder 025

"Realistic Novel of the Chicago Slums," Chicago Sun, 5/11/1947

Folder 026

"Knock on Any Door," Chicago Tribune, 5/11/1947

Folder 027

"The Known City," New Republic, 5/12/1947

Folder 028

"Knock on Any Door," Chicago Daily News, 5/14/1947

Folder 029

"Worth Noting: A Tribute to a Talented Writer," Chicago Sun, 5/18/1947

Folder 030

"Honor Author," Chicago Sunday Times, 5/18/1947

Folder 031

"Best Sellers in Midwest," Chicago Tribune; 5/18/1947

Folder 032

"Chicago in Naturalistic Novel," NY Herald Tribune, 5/18/1947

Folder 033

"It's a Smash Hit! Knock on Any Door," Chicago Daily News, 5/23/1947

Folder 034

"From Alter-Boy to Killer," The Saturday Review, 5/24/1947

Folder 035

"Other Books," Newsweek, 5/26/1947

Folder 036

"Knock on Any Door-And Write a Book," Chicago Sun Times, 5/27/1947

Folder 037

"Knock on Any Door- And Write a Book," Chicago Times, 5/27/1947

Folder 038

"Chicago Tragedy," New Masses, 6/17/1947

Folder 039

"His Fiction Realistic? He Even Went to Jail to Obtain Background," Chicago Sun, 6/22/1947

Folder 040

"His Fiction Realistic? He Even Went to Jail to Obtain Background," Chicago Sun, 6/22/1947

Folder 042

"Books for Men," True Magazine, August 1947

Folder 043

"The Carrot or the Club: Writers Break the Ice," Ebony, August 1947

Folder 044

"Willard Motley: Ex-Tramp Spent Eight Years Writing Long 600,00 Word Best Seller--All in Pencil," Ebony, September 1947

Folder 045

"Sunday Radio Highlights," Chicago Daily News, 9/13/1947

Folder 046

Adults Cause Juvenile Crime, Willard Motley Tells Forum," Chicago Daily News, 9/26/1947

Folder 047

"Knock on Any Door," Look, 9/30/1947

Folder 048

"Book Day," Chicago Sun, 10/1/1947

Folder 049

"Notable Appleton-Century Books for Christmas Giving," The Saturday Review, 12/6/1947

Folder 050

"Mark Hellinger, A Film Producer," NY Times, 12/22/1947

Folder 051

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker, 1947 (?)

Folder 052

"Live Fast...Die Young!" Parade, 6/20/1948

Folder 053

"Kup's Column," Chicago Sun-Times," 9/21/1948

Folder 054

"Humphrey Bogart in Knock on Any Door," NY Times, 2/20/1949

Folder 055

"Dramatic Action on the High Seas and in the Court Room," NY Times, 2/20/1949

Folder 056

"'Knock' No Boost," NY Times, 2/27/1949

Folder 057

"The Current Cinema," The New Yorker, 3/5/1949

Folder 058

"Movies: Suffering Humanity," New Republic, 3/7/1949

Folder 059

"Currently," This Week in Chicago, 3/12/1949

Folder 060

"Cinema- Knock on Any Door," Time Magazine," Time Magazine, 3/14/1949

Folder 061

"Humphrey Bogart 'Knock on Any Door," Look, 3/15/1949

Folder 062

"Bogey and Baby," Chicago Herald American(?) 3/23/1949

Folder 063

"Baby-Faced Killer," Silver Screen, March 1949

Folder 064

"Film Newcomer John Derek Scores Triumph in 'Knock on Any Door'," Chicago Suntimes 4/3/1949

Folder 065

"Big Christmas Book Week," Chicago Sun Times, 12/2/1949

Folder 066

"Vet Seeks Peace of Mind on Island in Lake Fire," Chicago Sun Times, 12/4/1949

Folder 067

"Humphrey Bogart 'Knock on Any Door," 1949(?) [N.P.]

Folder 068

"Books of the Times," NY Times, 11/16/1951

Folder 069

"Into The Lower Depths," NY Times, 11/18/1951

Folder 070

"Motley's 2d Novel Lacks Unifying Idea," Chicago Sun Times, 11/25/1951

Folder 071

"Motley's Cynical Study in Futility," Chicago Tribune, 11/25/1951

Folder 072

"Mr. Motley's Chicago, Big and Grim," NY Herald Tribune, 11/25/1951

Folder 073

"A Subtle Change on Halsted Street," [N.P.], [N.D.]

Series 3: Serials

Folder 074

"Small Town Los Angeles," The Commonweal, 6/30/1939

Folder 075

"Negro Art in Chicago," Opportunity- Journal of American Life, January 1940