Illinois State Library

Illinois Center for the Book

Individual Author Record

General Information

Name:  Jeffery Renard Allen  

Pen Name: None

Genre: Poetry

Born: Chicago

-- Website --
-- Jeffrey Renard Allen on WorldCat --

Illinois Connection

Allen was born and raised in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Biographical and Professional Information

Jeffery Renard Allen is a poet, essayist, short story writer, and novelist. Raised on the south side of Chicago, he now lives in New York and teaches at Queens College and in the writing program at the New School.

Published Works Expand for more information

Titles At Your Library

Harbors and Spirits
ISBN: 155921208X

Asphodel Press. 1999

Poet, novelist and critic, Jeffery Renard Allen brings a number of characteristics to his first collection of poems. He adapts jazz and blues forms to lyric poetry and uses a variety of cultural sources to draw together materials that exist in a shared mythology. The result has the directness of an African-American Homeric hymn. Rich in musicality, Allen's work offers an extra-ordinary breadth of reference and discovery.

Rails Under My Back
ISBN: 0374246262

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2000

An astonishing debut novel, exploring the bonds, boundaries, and bondage of an African American family.

Rails Under My Back is a daring work of art that reveals its family theme in a stunning depiction of its paradoxically opposite: abandonment.

In this multifaceted, brilliantly colored, intensely musical novel, Jeffery Renard Allen tracks the interwoven lives of two brothers, Lucius and John Jones, who are married to two sisters, Gracie and Sheila McShan. For them, their parents, and their children, life is always full of departures someone is always fleeing town and leaving the remaining family to suffer the often dramatic, sometimes tragic consequences. The multiple effects of the comings and goings are devastating: these are the almost mythic expression of the African American experience during the past half-century.

Rails Under My Back ranges, as the characters do, from the City, which is somewhat like both New York and Chicago, to Memphis, to the West, and to many "inner" and "outer" locales. One image that holds the family together is that of the railroads taking them from place to place-from the South to the North, from their living to their working quarters, from one form of bondage or freedom to another. The McShans and the Joneses somehow prevail, in their bigger-than-life way, and their story has extraordinary literary, religious, and historical power. Allen's voice is unforgettable.

Stellar Places
ISBN: 155921385X

Asphodel Press. 2007

Collected poems of Jeffery Renard Allen.

Holding Pattern: Stories
ISBN: 1555975097

Graywolf Press. 2008

The world of Jeffery Renard Allen's stunning short-story collection is a place like no other. A recognizable city, certainly, but one in which a man might sprout wings or copper pennies might fall from the skies onto your head. Yet these are no fairy tales. The hostility, the hurt, is all too human.

The protagonists circle each other with steely determination: a grandson taunts his grandmother, determined to expose her secret past for years, a sister tries to keep a menacing neighbor away from her brother and in the local police station, an officer and prisoner try to break each other's resolve.

In all the stories, Allen calibrates the mounting tension with exquisite timing, in mesmerizing prose that has won him comparisons with Joyce and Faulkner. Holding Pattern is a captivating collection by a prodigiously talented writer.

Song of the Shank: A Novel
ISBN: 1555976808

Graywolf Press. 2014

A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era

At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere―inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots―who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom's boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.


Rails Under My Back

  • Heartland Prize for Fiction, Chicago Tribune

    Holding Pattern

  • Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

    Other Awards:

  • Whiting Writer's Award

  • Chicago Public Library's Twenty-first Century Award

  • Pioneering Achievements in Fiction, African American Literature and Culture Association

  • Charles Angoff Award for Fiction, The Literary Review, 2003

  • Special citations from the Society for Midlands Authors and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation

    Speaking Engagements

    Speaking Engagement Availability: (Yes)

    Jeffery Renard Allen is represented by the Jodi Solomon Speakers Bureau.