The author of poems, plays, novels, and short stories, Frank Manley wrote mostly about southern characters in marginal encounters that force them to engage spiritual questions or dilemmas of faith and reason. Moving easily between academic and literary careers, Manley produced a wide-ranging body of work, with critical editions of John Donne and Sir Thomas More, poems about Roman emperors, and violent tales involving trailer parks and mountain cockfighting arenas.
Manley grew up in Atlanta during the years before World War II (1941-45) and emerged as a southern writer much later, midway through what could be considered his first career, as professor of Renaissance English literature at Emory University. He received various awards for his creative writing, including two Georgia Author of the Year awards (one for fiction and one for short stories/anthologies), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and first prize at the 1985 Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Manley was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on November 13, 1930, the son of Kathryn L. Needham and Aloysius F. Manley. Reared a Roman Catholic, he attended the Marist School in Atlanta, then studied English literature at Emory, earning his B.A. degree in 1952 and his M.A. degree in 1953. In 1952 he married Carolyn Holliday of Decatur, with whom he had two daughters, Evelyn and Mary. After serving as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1955, Manley earned his Ph.D. degree in 1959 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and then taught English at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from 1959 to 1964.
After the publication of his first book, a critical edition of Donne’s The Anniversaries (1963), he returned to Emory as an associate professor of English literature in 1964. Twice a Guggenheim fellow, he remained at Emory until his retirement in 2000. He was named Charles Howard Candler Professor of Renaissance Literature in 1982, and in 1990 he founded Emory’s creative writing program, which he directed from its inception until his retirement. During the 1990s he also cofounded with Vincent Murphy the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Manley began composing poems about family, the historical figures he had studied, and the Gilmer County mountain community where he had built a home. He published his poetry in literary quarterlies and ultimately in a volume entitled Resultances (1980), which won the University of Missouri Press’s Devins Award. A book-length discussion of his poems, Some Poems and Some Talk about Poetry (with fellow Emory professor Floyd Watkins), appeared in 1985.
In a 1985 interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Manley said that he began writing plays simply by chance. He wrote his first play at the suggestion of a colleague in Emory’s theater studies department, who noted the narrative emphasis of Manley’s early attempts at short fiction. Manley thereafter published many of his stories as both dramas and fictional narratives. “The Rain of Terror,” “An Errand of Mercy,” and “The Baptism of Water” appeared initially as parts of his first two plays, Two Masters (1985) and Prior Engagements (1987). He subsequently published them as short stories and included them in his short-story collection Within the Ribbons (1989). His second collection, Among Prisoners (2000), includes several stories that appear as all or part of his plays The Evidence (1990), Married Life (1996), and Learning to Dance (1998). Manley’s coming-of-age-novel, The Cockfighter (1998), was subsequently adapted for the stage by Murphy and made into a feature film. Both Among Prisoners and The Cockfighter won awards from the Georgia Writers Association.
Manley’s narratives typically feature characters who are imprisoned in some way and for whom chance encounters offer the possibility of liberation. His play The Evidence turns on a mountain man’s interpretation of a “Bigfoot” encounter. The Trap (1993), a play produced by Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1993-94, tells the story of a committee of university professors investigating an allegation of sexual harassment. Two Masters, Prior Engagements, and Married Life all include multiple one-act “miniplays” in which characters wrestle to escape physical and spiritual prisons.
Manley’s The Emperors (2001) is a combination of memoir and poetry. The Emperors emerged from Manley’s contemplation of the emperors he was led to consider while editing St. Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (1977).
Manley died in Atlanta on November 11, 2009.