Pharr was born on July 5, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Lucie Deane Pharr, a teacher, and John Benjamin Pharr, a minister. Pharr grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, but returned to Virginia in 1933 to attend Saint Paul’s Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville. He also went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and Virginia Union University in Richmond, graduating in 1939. While doing postbaccalaureate work at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Pharr attempted creative writing for the first time and won a national playwriting contest.
Pharr spent three years in a sanitarium for tuberculosis and alcoholism, and for the two decades following his release waited tables in hotels and resorts up and down the East Coast. While employed at the Columbia University Faculty Club in New York, he developed the publishing contacts necessary to see his first novel, The Book of Numbers, into print. Much of the critical attention that Pharr subsequently received resulted at least in part from the fact that he was an unknown, fifty-three-year-old African American waiter. When asked about this in a 1974 interview, Pharr said, “It’s things like that that tend to drive a black writer up the wall.”
Pharr’s intent as a writer was to become “a black Sinclair Lewis” whose novel, Babbitt, as Pharr states, “set me on fire … Mr. Lewis let me look through windows and peek around corners at the white man as he really lived. I began to understand. And by the time I was 17 I had already made up my mind to do as Mr. Lewis had done. Only I would let white people look at the black man as he lives when the white man is not looking or listening.” This desire to present a true view of African Americans made Pharr’s works appear as fictionalized autobiographies. As in Lewis’s work, social commentary was inlaid into every description.
The Book of Numbers is set in a 1930s black ward of a southern city inspired in large part by Richmond’s Jackson Ward. The main character, David Greene, goes from traveling waiter to millionaire by creating an illegal lottery. Pharr stated that “in order for there to be black wealth in that novel, there had to be law breaking. As long as black people could not break out of the economic ghetto into a world of free enterprise, they had to commit crime.” Thus, The Book of Numbers became Pharr’s analysis of an American Dream distorted by the denial of opportunities to African Americans. The novel eventually sold more than 300,000 copies and in 1973 was adapted for a film directed by Raymond St. Jacques.
Pharr’s second and much longer novel, S. R. O. (1971), revolves around a varied cast of social pariahs all living in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Harlem. It is much closer to an autobiography than any of Pharr’s other works—the protagonist is a middle-aged, college-educated, African American man who waits tables and becomes a writer. Although praised for its powerful depiction of the protagonist’s psychological traumas, the novel drew sharp criticism for its length and its overly large cast of complex characters. Booklist succinctly commented that the novel was “profane, penetrating, but not wholly successful.”
Similar appraisals confronted Pharr’s last three works, The Welfare Bitch (1973), The Soul Murder Case (1975), and Giveadamn Brown (1978). Although marred by Pharr’s didacticism, The Soul Murder Case, a harrowing depiction of addiction and an explicit treatment of sexuality, featured a tight narrative and was considered the most successful of his later works. Giveadamn Brown, a portrait of Harlem’s drug underworld, was criticized for its contrived, cinematic plot but retained Pharr’s gift for strong dialogue and his moving depictions of drug addiction. The subject matter of his latter works and, in the case of Giveadamn Brown, his reliance on action plot devices earned comparisons to black exploitation films of the 1970s.
Ultimately, Pharr’s reputation rests on The Book of Numbers and its perhaps unparalleled evocation of the vibrancy and despair experienced by urban African Americans. As a result, Pharr accomplished much of the goal he laid out for himself at the age of seventeen—to present an honest portrait of how the African Americans he knew lived their lives.
Pharr died of an aneurysm on April 1, 1992, in Syracuse, New York.
- The Book of Numbers (1969)
- S.R.O. (1971)
- The Welfare Bitch (1973)
- The Soul Murder Case (1975)
- Giveadamn Brown (1978)