by Willard Motley. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois Press, 1989 (original edition 1947). 515pp. Paper. $19.95. ISBN: 9780875805436.

Reviewed by Walter J. Kendall, III, The John Marshall Law School. E-mail: 7kendall [at]


Brian Tamanaha’s General Jurisprudence “presupposes very little about law, leaving that open to conventional identification, and subsequent conceptual analysis and empirical study. Instead of dictating what law is, it asks how groups of people talk about law. Instead of assuming what law does, it examines what people do with law.” (Tamanaha, 156). This view brings within the realm of jurisprudence, among other cultural formations, novels and the facts and truths in fiction. (Denning, xx). Critics recognize that the details of the experiences of the protagonist in Willard Motley’s KNOCK ON ANY DOOR are grounded in fact on the streets of Chicago, in juvenile institutions, and in the criminal justice system (Fikes, 511-12).

Nick Romano, the protagonist of KNOCK ON ANY DOOR was one of three children of an early twentieth century immigrant couple. He was a good child, perhaps too good; obedient, studious, and an enthusiastic altar boy. Then his father’s small food import business failed. The family moved to a less affluent neighborhood and Nick was transferred to a new school in a new parish. Four hundred eighty nine pages before his death by electrocution for killing a policeman Nick is ensnared in one of those moments of moral and ethical choice experienced by many people. Tony, a classmate and Nick’s best friend, in an act of then not uncommon grade school misbehavior, shoots a bent pin at Sister Ignatius. At that moment Father Scott, the pastor, walks into the classroom.

Tony pulled the rubberband from his fingers and threw it on the floor. It landed in the aisle, halfway between Tony and Nick. Nick reached out with his foot, remembering that Tony would be expelled. His toe barely reached it, the rubberband was stubborn and jelly-like beneath his toe as he tried to pull it under his desk. He stepped over and picked it up, palming it quickly. As he straightened Father Scott’s bony fingers closed on his collar.
‘Did you do that?’ It was an accusation. Y-y-yes Father.’ (p.15).

This quote captures both the style and substance of the novel. The style is Naturalism. It “collect(s) a huge body of evidence, that multiplie(s) similar incidents and amasse(s) detail in order to create its effect.” (Fleming, 119). Its effect is the limiting, but not quite determinative impact of powerful social forces on the choices open to the novel’s protagonist.

Its substance is that of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology. The Chicago school of pre-World War II America sought “to counter the traditional view of the modern American city as chaos, invisibility, unnatural nature, and outside history.” It “conceptualized the city as harmonious [*349] space and intelligible time.” Yet the studies of the Chicago School found the slums as “a natural disorder … contagious, degenerative, and (of) unintelligible fragment(s).” They tried to make sense of these discordances by “case studies” of people’s decision-making in this dangerous and constraining environment. (Cappetti, 36).

Motley and KNOCK ON ANY DOOR are also important to an understanding of the Midwest-based renaissance of African-American literature beginning in the thirties, inspired especially by the early writings on Richard Wright. (Werner, 132-33). Wright in explaining Bigger Thomas, his paradigmatic character in NATIVE SON says he was “not black all the time; he was white too and there were literally millions of him everywhere.” (Hapke, 236). Thus we have Nick Romano, a white ethnic character illustrating urban working class pathology in a novel by an African-American.

Nick’s eight year more or less “forced” march to his death at 21 covers the initial confinement in an abusive and dangerous juvenile home for a crime he did not commit and the move from Denver to Chicago where he falls in with a tough crowd and does a second stint in a reformatory. That experience is the training program for his subsequent life of petty urban street crime, assault, and burglary. Along the way, there’s a good hearted social worker, a caring homosexual friend, a marriage to an innocent girl, often abusive and corrupt police, particularly Officer Riley, and a caring family but one lacking in any understanding of Nick’s experiences and emotions.

The last 160 of the 504 pages of the book concern Nick’s capture, interrogation, confession, trial, conviction, sentencing, and execution for killing Officer Riley. These are presented with the same detailed attention to the reality of the legal processes as the earlier portions of the book presented the urban sociology of poverty.

KNOCK ON ANY DOOR presents in stark detail a picture of both early twentieth century sociological theory and the pre-Warren Court criminal justice system. The first 343 pages can readily be used as a case study against which to analyze and critique contemporary sociological, psychological, and philosophical views of the relationship between environment and criminal behavior in its many permutations, especially juvenile justice. (Heffernan and Kleinig). The last 160 pages can serve as a benchmark or initial position from which to measure the impact of the Warren Court criminal justice decisions on police and court practices. (Thomas). They could thus serve as a case study in courses in criminology, constitutional law, and political sociology.

KNOCK ON ANY DOOR was a best seller when published in 1947, selling almost 50,000 copies in its first month. It was made into a successful movie two years later starring Humphrey Bogart. The film could meet the needs of Professors who have moved away from textbooks and other print materials. Coincidently, the movie was shown on the Turner Classic Movie channel earlier this year, so it is still generally available and of interest. [*350]

Cappetti, Carla. 1993. WRITING CHICAGO: MODERNISM, ETHNOGRAPHY, AND THE NOVEL. New York: Columbia University Press.


Fleming, Robert. 1995. “Willard Motley” in Bloom, ed., MODERN BLACK AMERICAN FICTION WRITERS. New York: Chelsea House.

Fikes, Robert. 1997. “Willard Motley” in Andrews, William, Foster, Frances Smith, and Harris, Trudier eds., THE OXFORD COMPANION TO AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hapke, Laura. 2001. LABOR’S TEXT: THE WORKER IN AMERICAN FICTION. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Heffernan, William and Kleing, John eds. 2000. FROM SOCIAL JUSTICE TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tamanaha, Brian. 2001. A GENERAL JURISPRUDENCE OF LAW AND SOCIETY. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, George C. ed., 2005. “Symposium. The Warren Court Criminal Justice Revolution: Reflections A Generation Later,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 3:1. pp. 1-200.

Werner, Craig. 1997. “Chicago Renaissance” in Andrews, William, Foster, Frances Smith, and Harris, Trudier eds., THE OXFORD COMPANION TO AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE. New York: Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Walter J. Kendall, III.