Born John Allyn Smith in McAlester, Berryman lived in Oklahoma until his father moved the family to Florida when John was 10. His early years in Oklahoma don’t show much evident influence on his poetry, overshadowed by a complicated family and personal dynamic which permeates his confessional, highly stylized work.
Winner of several prestigious poetry prizes, he will be most remembered for the 77 Dream Songs (1964).
Although the Oklahoma City of 1914 may have seemed unreceptive to many African Americans born that year, in Shadow and Act (1964) Ellison says he grew up there thinking of himself as a “Renaissance Man” with friends who were “supposed to be whoever [they] would and could be and do anything and everything which other boys did, and do it better (xvii). A talented musician, he came to writing later, most famously in Invisible Man (1952). A literary use of his early Oklahoma experiences can be found in the Buster and Riley stories collected in Flying Home (1996).