Born in Oak Park, IL, Kenneth Fearing was the son of attorney Henry Lester Fearing and journalist Olive Flexner. His mother walked out on the marriage, in favor of returning to her writing career in Chicago, when the boy wasn't even a year old, and Fearing was raised by his father and, primarily, by his father's sister. He showed a strong talent as a writer even in high school. While attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he wrote for and edited the school's literary journal. He also developed a drinking problem while attending college from which he never found (or sought) recovery. He never graduated due to his failure in a math course in his senior year, though he was granted a degree in 1938, after he was established as an author.
Fearing worked as a journalist in Oak Park and moved to New York in 1925, first to Staten Island and later to Greenwich Village, becoming an active part of that neighborhood's burgeoning bohemian community and living for a time with author Margery Latimer. He earned a living of a kind writing cheap erotic novels, using the name "Kirk Wolf." He also began authoring poetry in his spare time, and later described Walt Whitman as a major influence on his work. It was his poetry that got Fearing his first notice by the literary establishment, when he was published in Poetry and later in The New Yorker. He also wrote for and edited the journal New Masses during the mid-'20s. He remained a contributing editor for New Masses into the 1930s, and he became one of the founders of the Partisan Review.
It was during this period that Fearing became well known to the public as a writer. His 1929 poetry collection, Angel Arms, a harsh attack on American life and its perceived decline, even amid the supposedly good times of the 1920s, won high critical praise. Further, the book seemed, in retrospect, to reflect some of the same discontents that later manifested themselves among the general public during the Great Depression. The collection was far enough out in front of events that it gained popularity in the years immediately following its publication, and Fearing emerged as an important literary voice as the economic ruin of the early '30s set in. He was compared favorably to Carl Sandburg and was referred to as one of the leading Marxist poets of the 1930s; he was sufficiently well known in literary circles, so that when his ex-paramour Margery Latimer published her novel This Is My Body (1930), he was recognizable (and recognized) as the model for one character in the book.
Fearing began his formal career in fiction -- separate from his early dabblings in erotica -- during this period, but his primary focus remained poetry. His second book, Poems, was published in 1935, and received considerable critical acclaim, though it earned nowhere near enough for him to live on. He was always trying to expand his literary horizons and the financial rewards that went with them, and his first two books of poetry overlapped with his authorship of three unpublished novels. In 1936, Fearing earned a Guggenheim Fellowship for his poetry, and was again a recipient three years later. Those awards allowed Fearing and his first wife, Rachel Meltzer, and their son to live in London for a time, and for him to finish a third collection of poetry, Dead Reckoning. He also completed his first published novel, The Hospital, which was a modest success. Another volume of poetry, The Collected Poems of Kenneth Fearing, was published in 1940, but in the wake of The Hospital's positive reception, he decided to try and concentrate on fiction for the remainder of his career. His next books -- The Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford's Body (1942, told from 21 different points-of-view), and Sherlock Spends a Day in the Country (1944) -- weren't overly successful, and he did publish a further poetry collection, Afternoon of a Pawnbroker and Other Poems (1943).
In 1946, Fearing published the novel The Big Clock, a thriller -- told from a half-dozen different characters' points-of-view -- set amid the world of corporate publishing and communications, featuring a hero who drank too much and who was unsettled in his life and career. It created an immediate sensation among aficionados of thrillers and mysteries, and also found wide appeal with mainstream readers. Like most of his best work, the prose was especially vivid in its textures, capturing the rhythms of New York City and its people, of all classes and types, within its pages. A story involving a protagonist who is caught in a web of deceit and implicated in a murder, it also carried within its narrative an implicit critique of big business and big capitalism, and of middle-class and upper-class sensibilities. According to Nicholas Christopher in his introduction to the 2006 edition of the novel, Fearing personally handled the sale of the book's film rights to Paramount Pictures.
In 1947, Paramount Pictures released a screen adaptation by director John Farrow, starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, George Macready, and Maureen O'Sullivan. The movie, with a screenplay by veteran crime author Jonathan Latimer, became a classic in the fields of mystery and film noir, and beautifully captured the essence of the book, despite a number of compromises made in the characterizations, and an over-reliance on humor. (Curiously, Latimer's screenplay also has merciless "fun" at the expense of its "bohemian" creative characters, mostly embodied by Elsa Lanchester's nutty but well-meaning artist.) Even with this success, Fearing was never able to make a living exclusively from his fiction and poetry. From the 1930s onward, he regularly contributed to various magazines as a literary critic, and he also wrote speeches and advertising copy. Fearing's first marriage ended in 1941 with a divorce, and in 1946, he married Nan Lurie, a painter -- perhaps not coincidentally, The Big Clock, published that same year, featured a female painter as a key supporting character. That marriage also ended in divorce in 1950.
The Big Clock marked the peak of Fearing's popularity, though the movie's success did sustain sales of the book into the end of the decade. His reputation faded in the decade that followed, possibly as a result of his politics. As a dedicated leftist and pacifist, Fearing reflected those political outlooks in his work during the 1930s, most notably in the 1938 satiric poem "Ad," which presented the opportunity to die in combat in Europe in the vernacular of American advertising. Though he never joined the Communist Party -- reportedly describing the meetings as too boring -- he was a defender of Stalin during the 1930s and early '40s, when that point-of-view was controversial but not crippling (or uncommon); that history, however, coupled with Fearing's always satiric and harsh observations on American life, likely contributed to his loss of popularity after the 1940s.
Fearing's last books -- Loneliest Girl in the World: A Novel (1951), The Generous Heart: A Novel (1954), and The Crozart Story (1960) -- were unsuccessful, and the 1956 volume New and Selected Poems was similarly neglected. His life imploded during the final decade of his life, as his financial problems and his drinking worsened -- he was notorious, even during the good years, for not taking care of himself, but by the mid-'50s, he was known for seldom bathing or changing clothes, and for his disheveled appearance. Fearing died of cancer in 1961.