There hadn’t been anything in African-American literature to match the power of the slave narratives, it seemed, until Richard Wright published his collection of four long stories about racial violence in the South, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). In an autobiographical sketch that serves as a preface to the 1940 edition, Wright describes how in 1927, when he was eighteen years old, he found the courage to ask a white man at the place where he then worked if he could use his library card. As a Roman Catholic in the Protestant South, the man was perhaps sympathetic to a black youth wanting to visit the segregated public library. Armed with a library card, Wright penned a note that read, “Please let this nigger boy have the following books,” and signed the white man’s name. Wright had not heard of the slave narratives any more than the slaves who could read and write had likely heard of Prometheus. However, like the fugitive slaves whose literacy was their freedom, Wright dared to reenact the theft of fire.
Good Eleanor Roosevelt was so moved by Uncle Tom’s Children that Wright decided he had to produce a work that would leave his readers “without the consolation of tears.” The result was Native Son (1940). The story of Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old sullen, violent black youth who murders two young women, one white and one black, was immediately controversial, not least because after Bigger’s conviction his Communist defense attorney makes a long, impas-sioned plea against the death penalty in which he seeks to explain Bigger’s grisly deeds as a consequence of the social forces that oppress black people.
Wright followed his landmark novel with a lyrical essay on the story of the Negro in America, Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), and an autobiography, Black Boy, which created almost as much of a sensation when it appeared in 1945 as had Native Son. It was to be the last book Wright wrote in the United States.
Wright’s biography, like the tone of his work, is all speed and urgency. He escaped the South, went first to Chicago, then to New York, and finally to Paris in 1947, where he died in 1960 at the age of fifty-two. McCarthyism’s reach was long, making Wright’s last years of exile and eclipse even more difficult for someone already said by blacks and whites alike to be cut off from his material, his audience, and poorly adjusted to his new surroundings. He published three more novels, The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958); and four works of travel writing and essays on colonialism, Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1955), Pagan Spain (1956), and White Man, Listen! (1957). A collection of short stories, Eight Men (1961), came out shortly after his death.
There may be things we wish he hadn’t written, but most everything Wright attempted, including the later unsuccessful “existential” novels, had about it something of the drama of his having stolen the angry secret of illumination. The boldness of his work, its depth of feeling, and the sheer force of his tragic vision come from his burning awareness of how precarious was his enterprise of discovering himself and making sense of his world through literature. As a broadcaster of what he presented as incontestable truths about the social sickness, racism, that had made its way into the hearts and minds of white and black people alike, Wright reanimated the protest tradition. By now, the protest tradition is regarded as a movement that has had its day, but Wright’s complexity as a writer urges us to reconsider how narrow our definitions of protest writing have been.
In his dense study of the development of realism in American literature, On Native Grounds (1942), Alfred Kazin warned that it was an illusion to assume that the interest in Richard Wright’s Native Son meant that the novel of social significance had entered the thinking of the middle classes. The “manipulation of terror” in Wright’s best seller struck the young critic as “sinister,” precisely because Wright was so “passionately honest” about “the sufferings of his race.” Kazin went on to say that
Wright was only the child of his generation, and his resources no different in kind from the resources of naturalism and the left-wing conception of life and literature to which, like many Negro writers, he surrendered his thinking because of the general indifference or hostility to Negroes and Negro writing. If he chose to write the story of Bigger Thomas as a grotesque crime story, it is because his own indignation and the sickness of the age combined to make him dependent on violence and shock, to astonish the reader by torrential scenes of cruelty, hunger, rape, murder, and flight, and then enlighten him by crude Stalinist homilies.
Bigger Thomas “found” himself in jail, as Wright “found” himself, after much personal suffering and confusion, in the Communist party; what did it matter that Bigger’s self-discovery was mechanical and unconvincing, or that Wright—from the highest possible motives—had written “one of those books in which everything is undertaken with seriousness except for the writing”?
Kazin was taking Wright to task not only for what he viewed as an easy solution, but also for failing to rise above his high motives, as if the considerations of a writer and those of a Negro writer were in conflict and presented the Negro writer with a hard choice, and the wrong choice. Negro writers sacrificed artistic independence to make arguments for social justice and disqualified themselves from writing pure literature.
Over the years Kazin revised his judgment, and when in 1991 he came to review the two-volume Library of America edition of Wright’s work, superbly edited by Arnold Rampersad, he hailed Wright as
a most extraordinary writer, with two masterpieces to his credit, the novel Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), that are more overwhelming today, now that they are judged by their literary power, than they were in a period when it was easy to accept them as “news,” shocking and even thrilling.1
By the time Kazin’s reconsideration of Wright appeared, that year of Gorbachev’s fall and Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police, anti-Communist hysteria was an unsettling memory, and the country’s urban history since World War II had made room for, if not vindicated, Wright’s harsh creation.
Moreover, Rampersad’s edition of Native Son restores passages about the sexual desires of the black youth and the white girl that editors and Book-of-the-Month Club judges had persuaded Wright to cut. Kazin said in 1991 that Wright had been “too honest” for his own time. “Yes, there is a canon, one nobody can impose on anyone else,” he observed. “It just takes time to recognize the few who belong to it.” But as Sartre put it in his reflections on Wright in What Is Literature? (1949), “Sometimes it is harmful for a society to become self-conscious.”
“My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.”
Wright’s autobiography makes him a hard act for his biographers to follow, but there have been a few.2 Michel Fabre’s The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973), written before FBI files on Wright were released under the Freedom of Information Act, is still extremely useful as an intellectual biography. In 1991, Fabre published a slightly revised edition.3 In its preface he faults himself for concentrating on Wright’s ideas at the expense of his emotional and everyday life and discusses some of the new material that had surfaced since his biography.
In her excellent, entirely readable Richard Wright: The Life and Times, Hazel Rowley accomplishes what Fabre would have liked to do with once-guarded letters, aging witnesses, previously unidentified girlfriends. She also gives us more of Wright’s journals than we’ve had before. Rowley does less with Wright’s work than Fabre, perhaps because so many books of criticism on Wright are available.4 But she provides a summary of his books when needed, particularly of the later, lesser-known nonfiction, which has received attention recently as an African-American’s encounter with Africa in the crucial period when several nations were claiming their independence.5 Mostly, Rowley concentrates on telling Wright’s very powerful story.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on a farm near Natchez, Mississippi, in 1908. Wright’s mother had been a schoolteacher, but his father was an illiterate sharecropper. In his search for work, Wright’s father moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1911. Wright’s mother went to work as a cook in white houses while his father drifted through a series of menial jobs before abandoning his family for Beale Street, that district sacred in the history of the Blues. Destitute and hungry, the deserted family moved from place to place. Wright and his younger brother were put into a Methodist orphanage for a while.
In 1917, Wright’s mother moved to a sister’s house in Elaine, Arkansas, but not long after their arrival Wright’s uncle was murdered by whites who wanted to take over his prosperous saloon business. The family fled to another small Arkansas town. But when Wright’s mother suffered a paralytic stroke, relatives took his younger brother to Detroit while Richard moved to the home of unfriendly relations in Greenwood, Mississippi. Then, in 1920, Wright and his mother were taken to his grandmother in Jackson. She was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a strict sect that forbade working on the Saturday Sabbath, eating pork, and reading anything other than religious tracts. She had been a house slave, fair enough in complexion for Wright to be confused as a child by the division between black and white.
Though the years of moving from place to place seemed to be behind him, Wright’s life remained defined by an atmosphere of want. His family didn’t have the money for his school books, decent clothes, or lunch. He was twelve years old before he had completed a full year of school. Wright walked several miles every day to attend the first junior high school for blacks in Jackson. Isolated by his family’s poverty, religion, and pride, Wright was overtaken at an early age by a driving ambition to realize himself somehow. He dreamed of going north to write books. But he dropped out of high school, went to work, and in 1925, at the age of seventeen, left Jackson and went back to Memphis.
In one Southern newspaper, Wright read an editorial attacking H.L. Mencken. He’d been reading—almost in secret—magazines such as Harper’s and the American Mercury. He wanted to know more about someone whom the South so hated. From that whites-only library, using the white man’s library card, he got out Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces and one volume of his Prejudices, a work wholly impatient with the philistinism of American letters. Mencken’s contempt for the culture of those who, as Wright couldn’t help but see, were mostly responsible for the social order that oppressed him because he was black also taught him something about language. Mencken’s lack of deference filled Wright with a desire to express himself with a similar provocative force.
Meanwhile, his mother, brother, and another aunt joined him in Memphis. Completely dependent on him, the family made plans to migrate north. In December of 1927, a train carried him away from the South. He took with him the memories of squalor, violence, and fear that make his autobiography read like a prison-break drama.
His inner life had been his underground railroad. He left the South with a fierce opposition to what the status quo dictated his life as a black should be. He had a capacity to take risks, and a passion for books, for self-education. By the time he arrived in Chicago, too thin and undernourished to pass the physical examination required for employment in the post office, he had read Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. He would say later that his life had prepared him for the realism of the modern novel.
Most of the two hundred thousand blacks of Chicago’s three million inhabitants lived crowded together on the South Side, “where black soot clouds shut out the sunshine for seven months of the year, a city in which, on a fine balmy May morning, one can sniff the stench of the stockyards,” as Wright recalls in American Hunger, the second part of his autobiography, which deals with Chicago and his passage through the Communist Party. Wright had agreed to cut this second half, which was considered too sensitive in 1945, and it was finally published on its own only in 1977.
In Chicago Wright had gained enough weight by 1929 to be hired at the post office. There he found white and black colleagues also interested in literature. Wright continued to read widely in US fiction and poetry, English classics, French, Russian, and German literature in translation. However, in 1930 the Depression cost Wright his job. He then found work as an insurance agent for a black funeral home. Selling dubious policies to the ignorant black poor disgusted him, but his mother had suffered a relapse and he was desperate for money. While unemployment rates grew, the insurance business failed. Ashamed and hungry, he went to the relief office. That day, he said, he knew he “had come to the end of something.” He noticed that strangers were talking and that as they sensed “the collectivity of their lives,” he could tell that their “fear was passing.” He, too, realized that he was not alone. “Society had cast millions of others with me. But how could I be with them?… I grew open and questioning.”
In 1932 a Jewish friend from the post office told Wright about the John Reed Club, a national revolutionary artists’ group sponsored by the Communist Party. Wright had been dismissive of black Communists in their Lenin-style caps who daily harangued crowds from soapboxes in the ghetto. But he responded to the club’s welcome and threw himself into its work. Mostly because Wright was black, he was elected executive secretary of the Chicago club.
Since historically blacks were excluded from labor unions and frequently used as strikebreakers, they had had little to do with white working-class movements. However, as the Depression worsened, many blacks began to view Communists as champions of their interests because of the Party’s involvement in the defense of the nine black Scottsboro Boys convicted of the rape of two white girls in Alabama in 1931, its campaigns for unemployment relief, and its willingness to confront police at demonstrations protesting evictions.
Instead of making dogmatism repugnant to Wright, the rigid upbringing of his Seventh Day Adventist home, with its bleak mysticism about the Second Coming, seems to have prepared him for his lifelong search for an alternative system. For Wright, doctrines not only shaped and explained personalities, they themselves had definite personalities. Where the black church represented to Wright capitulation to the South, to his tribe, and to the women in his family, the outspoken anti-segregationism of the Communist Party as he knew it in the John Reed Club came as a tremendous release. Soft-spoken, reserved, Wright didn’t like to drink, to play cards, or even to dance, because he was sensitive that whites had always used these pastimes in their stereotypes of blacks. Most importantly, he believed in his self-appointed mission as a mediator between the Communist Party and the black masses. He would explain the Party’s aims to blacks and at the same time instruct white radicals about the deeper implications of racial exploitation. Wright joined the Communist Party sometime in 1933, mostly because of what the John Reed Club had come to mean to him.
Ralph Ellison didn’t believe that the Party could claim to have discovered Wright, because Wright was already literary back in Mississippi, before he was in the Party. But Ellison first took note of Wright’s name when he read a poem of his in Partisan Review in 1935, when it was still linked with the John Reed Clubs. It was in such periodicals that, between 1933 and 1937, Wright acquired a reputation as a poet of the revolution.
In 1935 Wright published his first article in New Masses, an eyewitness report on the spontaneous celebration by blacks in the streets following Joe Louis’s victory in the boxing ring over Max Baer. Wright’s enthusiastic journalism about the urban Black Belt conformed to what his orthodox comrades considered correct Marxist principles insofar as it suggested what was called the revolutionary potential of the unorganized black masses. But that same year the Communist Party, reacting to directives from Moscow, dissolved the John Reed Clubs. Though New Masses continued, the period of revolutionary ferment was officially at an end in favor of the alliances of the Popular Front against fascism.
Wright enrolled in the Federal Writers’ Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration. Both the Writers’ Project and the Federal Theatre Project gave Wright a milieu that compensated somewhat for the closure of the John Reed Clubs. Then, too, Wright, who was writing one-act plays as well as poetry and fiction, became active with the South Side Writers’ Group, a small collective of black writers who saw themselves as successors to writers of the Negro Awakening in the previous decade. As Wright’s reputation grew, he came into conflict with the Party over their demanding that he follow the line and that he do straight Party work. They were suspicious of him when he showed initiative such as interviewing a black Communist for an article. “I used to lie awake nights wondering what would happen to me if I lived in the Soviet Union.”
The intellectualism that some Party members had been accusing him of was precisely what Wright longed to explore.
But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist Party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro entrapped by ignorance and exploitation—as I had been—could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived. And it was these people that the Communists could not understand.
When his brother found work with the WPA, which meant that he was no longer his mother’s sole support, Wright saw his chance. He left Chicago for New York in 1937. The tenements of the Promised Land had added more than enough to his fund of observed life.
Though he’d broken with the Chicago Party, Wright became Harlem editor of The Daily Worker. But it was in New Challenge, a short-lived black left-wing magazine that he helped to edit, that Wright published “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” his manifesto setting out what he believed should be the aims of the black writer in US society. Negro writing was rarely addressed to Negroes themselves and the gap between Negro writers and the Negro people had only widened over time, he says. Wright emphasizes his difference from the “so-called Harlem school of expression” of the previous generation:
Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America. They entered the Court of American Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people…. White America never offered these Negro writers any serious criticism. The mere fact that a Negro could write was astonishing.
There was a culture of the Negro, he says, made from the Negro church and from folklore. It was in folklore that the Negro achieved his “most indigenous and complete expression.” He exhorts black writers to take a Marxist perspective, believing that they could mold the consciousness of the black masses and direct them toward new goals.
What partly distinguished Wright from what we associate with Harlem Renaissance writing has to do with the attitude in his fiction toward urban living. Novels about Harlem tended to emphasize the sheer exuberance of being there. Wright’s black characters would never regard Chicago’s South Side with the same spirit. In Lawd Today!, a novel put aside when he went to New York, everything about Chicago has the secondhand, less-good aspect of Jim Crow.
The novel’s protagonist is Jake Jackson, a black Chicago postal worker who leads a small life, a man of middling character with something of Dreiser’s yearning unfortunates about him. A great deal of the novel is concerned with Jake’s appalling victimization of his wife. Dreiser was the re- alist who had the most profound in-fluence on Wright, but Lawd Today! also features stream-of-consciousness passages, dream sequences, and newsreel-like fragments that say he took narrative techniques from Joyce, James T. Farrell, and Dos Passos, however unsuccessfully.
The action of Lawd Today! is limited to one day, Lincoln’s birthday, in the winter of 1936. The patriotism of the day’s overheard radio programs about the Great Emancipator contrasts sharply with the conversations of Wright’s corralled black Chicagoans. Because the story is told entirely from Jake Jackson’s point of view, a man tossed about by forces he does not understand, the work suffers at times from an overreliance on dramatic irony. But Wright’s intention was to let Jake’s life speak for itself, and in following Jake through his day, he takes the reader on a tour of the urban Black Belt, from numbers racket to faith healers, from Garvey-like processions in the streets to buffet flats of gambling, drinking, marijuana, and high-yellow prostitutes. Central to the novel is Jake’s job, and Wright does for the post office what Upton Sinclair did for the slaughterhouse. Lawd Today! was not published until 1963, three years after Wright’s death. Its sexual frankness is perhaps one of the reasons he failed to find a publisher for it.
While Lawd Today! deals with Wright’s impressions and anxieties as a migrant, the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children go back to Mississippi. “Big Boy Leaves Home” is a coming-of-age tale, Jim Crow style. Four boys use a swimming hole, though the owner doesn’t “erllow no niggers” to swim there. “Black and naked,” they are soon splashing in the water. “The white folks got plenty swimmin pools n we ain got none.” They are surprised by a white woman. Her screams bring a white man and in the struggle the white man is killed. Big Boy’s family and neighbors know that his only chance to survive is to hop a freight train. Big Boy will make it, but not before he has to watch from his hiding place the lynching of one of his friends:
There was a sudden quiet. Then he shrank violently as the wind carried, like a flurry of snow, a widening spiral of white feathers into the night. The flames leaped tall as the trees. The scream came again, Big Boy trembled and looked. The mob was running down the slopes, leaving the fire clear. Then he saw a writhing white mass cradled in yellow flame, and heard screams, one on top of the other, each shriller and shorter than the last. The mob was quiet now, standing still, looking up at the writhing white mass gradually growing black, growing black in a cradle of yellow flame.
In “Down by the Riverside,” a sharecropper must use a boat he knows was stolen from whites in order to save his mother-in-law, son, and pregnant, ailing wife from a terrible flood. Brother Mann struggles with the churning water, the wind, the darkness, his terror. His efforts only take him near the house the boat was stolen from. In an exchange of gunfire, the white man in the house is killed. Further along, their boat is stopped by soldiers. Brother Mann’s wife is carried to a first-aid station, where she dies, and Mann is pressed into helping the soldiers save people. He ends up rescuing the family of the man he had to kill, and once they are safe he himself is killed. A quick outline of what happens in the story can give no indication of the agonizing suspense Wright injects into the telling and how even more galling segregation is in a natural disaster.
The line between coercion and seduction is blurred in “Long Black Song.” A black man kills the white phonograph salesman who has been with his wife, and is in turn killed, burned alive in the house she escapes from with her child. “Bright and Morning Star” is sympathetic to the white Communist organizers, but in this story, a mother trusts the wrong person and thereby delivers her Communist son into the hands of the local sheriff. She hides a shotgun in her clothes and goes to the woods where her son is being tortured. She shoots him and then is killed herself.
Before he found the work of modern masters, Wright read the dime-store literature of his period and never lost a thirst for action and a populist streak of melodrama. His scenes and dialogue create a theatrical spell and that is what makes his fiction so awakening to the imagination, however familiar his subject. He was interested in how people behaved, rather than in what people were like. Early on, inspired by Henry James as much as by the left-wing literary theory of the time, Wright decided that a Representative Man suited the purposes of his fiction. His approach to characterization is entirely concentrated in his gift for plot. In Uncle Tom’s Children, he springs unexpected situations on his main characters, predicaments that test their beliefs and push them toward the brink. Wright labored to make his voice elemental. But it is plot that drives his language and gives to his prose its clarity and eerie velocity.
Whether or not Uncle Tom’s Children fit Wright’s definition of the reconciliation between a nationalist and a proletarian literature, when it came to the mystery of his talent it helped that he wrote as though Trotsky were standing over him to remind him that a work of art must be correct in the literary sense before it can be correct in the political sense. He was able to transcend his own political formula to make his stories powerful revenge fantasies. In her review of Uncle Tom’s Children, Zora Neale Hurston called it a book “about hatreds,” grim, and devoid of any acts of understanding or sympathy. She regretted that Wright confined himself to the “spectacular,” instead of dealing with plots that in her view would have touched on broader and more fundamental issues of black life. Hurston also wondered about Wright’s dialect for his black characters and how he arrived at it, because “certainly he does not write by ear unless he is tone-deaf.”
Hurston was restrained when we consider that, earlier, Wright had belittled her Their Eyes Were Watching God in a review for New Masses. Wright allowed that Hurston’s dialogue “manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.” Her prose, he said, had the “facile sensuality” that had dogged Negro expression since the times of Phillis Wheatley, the black poet who wrote during the Revolutionary War. Hurston voluntarily continued the minstrel tradition that had been forced upon the Negro in the theater. She exploited what was considered quaint in Negro life.
They each thought the other falsified the South. Yet Wright and Hurston both advanced in their work about rural blacks the way to render black dialect. Black speech in their fiction was free of the usual historical connotations of inferiority associated with dialect, because they pruned, omitted apostrophes, and did not point out the places in dialogue where consonants had been dropped. This meant that the reader wasn’t cutting through thickets of punctuation. They sped up the dialogue and that made their black characters seem to be talking naturally.
The success of Uncle Tom’s Children galvanized Wright. He plunged into work on a novel he half expected to be rejected by his publishers, Rowley tells us, because he meant it to be uncompromising in its depiction of the urban Black Belt as a trap. The rage and misery in Native Son seize the mind and there is no relief. From the first scene, where Bigger Thomas kills a rat in the one-room Chicago tenement that he shares with his mother, brother, and sister, it is clear that what Bigger must combat is circumstances, and we know he can’t win. Certainly he is a victim, in his poverty, in the racism that restricts his possibilities. Much of the conversation he has when hanging out with friends is about what whites get to do and what blacks can’t do, like become pilots.
Maybe Bigger’s black skin is the real object of his scorn and he hates those who make him aware of it—whites.
His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary [his employer’s daughter] now meant. No matter how they laughed at him for his being black and clownlike, he could look them in the eyes and not feel angry.
The murder of Mary Dalton, the pro-Communist daughter of a slum-owning white philanthropist for whom he works as a chauffeur, is sad because it’s accidental and miserable—he disposes of her body in the basement incinerator. To cover up his crime, he involves his girlfriend in a kidnap conspiracy, and, later, his escape attempt. But he then rapes and murders the girlfriend, Bessie, dropping her body down an airshaft. A citywide manhunt is undertaken, and the black community is subjected to a reign of terror, of search and harassment:
Dizzily, he drew back. This was the end. There were no more roofs over which to run and dodge. He looked; the man was still coming. Bigger stood up. The siren was louder than before and there were more shouts and screams. Yes; those in the streets knew now that the police and vigilantes had trapped him upon the roofs. He remembered the quick glimpse he had had of the white looming bulk; he looked up. Directly above him, white with snow, was a high water tank with a round flat top. There was a ladder made of iron whose slick rungs were coated with ice that gleamed like neon in the circling blades of yellow. He caught hold and climbed. He did not know where he was going; he knew only that he had to hide.
By the end of his trial Bigger feels that by his acts he has been able to determine his own life, to live creatively, and, at the least, to be heard. Bigger is never likable and sympathy is hard to summon, regardless of his background. But he also doesn’t know or understand himself. Self-creation through criminal acts—the weakness of this notion to contemporary audiences says something about how Existentialism, that creed of man making his own world in the absence of God, has lost its influence. But we are moved by the murders, by Bessie’s fears, by blind Mrs. Dalton’s grief for her daughter, by the hurt feelings of the young Communist who tries to befriend Bigger, and by the waste, by the desperate, improvised, blundering acts that then take on the dignity of being Bigger’s fate.
To understand Bigger, the meaning of his crimes, perhaps we should not view them as merely a desire to get revenge on white society. Poverty, urban decay, has in this country produced not only generations of the oppressed, but also generations of the insane. Maybe it is wrong to read this novel as a matter of group reality, a matter of race. Bigger has no real relations with other blacks. Everyone is an enemy. Bigger’s only kinsman, in literature, is Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). There is some obscurity concerning Christmas’s parentage, but he is most likely black, a “nigger,” and feels himself marked, doomed, outside. His rage also leads him to murder. He is hunted down, killed, in a large search. Bigger Thomas and Joe Christmas are suffering, driven characters, asking to be put out of their misery.
Native Son, as the first work by a Negro novelist to be chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, was an event back in those days of Negro Firsterism, when black writers joked among themselves about there being a rule whereby white America paid attention to only one black writer per generation, and the figure of Richard Wright could have seemed inconveniently huge, as well as an inspiration. Apparently, fame took Wright by storm. He married, moved to Mexico, where his new wife spent too much of his money, and was back in New York and divorced in a year. And then there was the war, which Wright was trying to get away from. The Party line was dictated by Moscow, but in Rowley’s biography Wright is determined not to serve because of segregation in the US army. It also made it possible for him to downplay his opinion of the antiwar Party position in 1940.
He had trouble with the novel that was to follow Native Son, and turned to writing his autobiography after some of the blacks in the audience when he gave a talk at Fisk told him that nobody had said such things in public before. Black Boy, as it appeared in 1945, took Wright’s life story up to 1927, with his departure for Chicago. Once again, Wright had agreed to crucial cuts for commercial, political, and cultural reasons. He wanted to be published, to have another success. Whatever the reasons, dropping the second half was not necessarily the wrong decision.
Because Black Boy concludes with a sober rumination about what awaited Wright compared to what he had been through, it ends on something like a note of hope, which was what his publishers and Book-of-the-Month Club wanted. It is an up-from-slavery, up-from-the-dangerous-South story, and its emotional outlines are familiar, even reassuring. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. once pointed out, readers of slave autobiographies in the nineteenth century were comforted by the knowledge that the sheer existence of such a book meant that the narrator had escaped slavery and was looking back on his troubles from the safe haven of the North.
The Library of America edition of Wright’s work includes his autobiography as he first intended it. Arnold Rampersad notes that the previous omission of the second section of Wright’s autobiography altered considerably Wright’s meaning about growing up black in the US. The inclusion here of the Chicago material—the Black Belt during the Depression, Party idealism succeeded by disillusion—makes for a much bleaker work overall. There is now no personal triumph over his environment; the North is no less brutal than the South in its racism. The complete work is critical of the Party. Wright recalls the shock of the purge trial of another black Party member in Chicago in 1935 and that shortly afterward, when he marched in a May Day parade, Party members spotted him and dragged him from the line to the sidewalk. He was under suspicion.
Wright picked himself up and returned to his paper and pen and isolation. And the two sections of American Hunger end with a sense of lonely mission. “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo,…to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” Wright published a portion of the second section in a magazine in 1944, in order to publicize his break with the Communist Party, and in time he would rail more against his former associates than against the FBI for trying to wreck his career.
It took some years before Wright published another book, by which time he was remarried and living with his young family in France, where he had gone with Gertrude Stein’s help and against the State Department’s wishes. Wright traveled widely, to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1953, to the Bandung conference of nonaligned nations in Indonesia in 1955. Rowley is good on Wright’s years of voluntary exile, though other sources provide more details about the rivalries and political infighting among black expatriates on the Left Bank,6 infighting that exacerbated Wright’s anxieties about political plots and rumors of conspiracy in his last years.
W.E.B. Du Bois had been refused a passport to travel to the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. He sent a blunt message to the congress attacking African-Americans approved of by the US State Department, which hurt Wright, because he was an organizer of the congress. But Wright had also gone to the American embassy before the congress opened and then written to the State Department in Washington to express his concern that the Communist Party might achieve undue influence at the congress through African-American delegates such as Paul Robeson and Du Bois. Wright was aware of FBI and CIA surveillance of his activities. He signed an affidavit concerning his Communist past at the American embassy in 1954, and maybe his moments of cooperation with US authorities came not only from his anticommunism, but also from his unease about his position as a self-employed black writer abroad.
Immediately after Wright’s sudden death of a heart attack in a Paris hospital in 1960, rumors began to circulate that the CIA had poisoned him. It was one of these stories that got magnified by the politics of the decade. The alleged assassination of Wright became the subject of John A. Williams’s novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1968). But the picture we have long had, of Wright hounded in his sanctuary because the US government feared the publicity of his negative remarks about the racial situation in the US, has been tempered somewhat by the knowledge that he volunteered to brief the American consulate in Accra on Nkrumah’s politics in 1953.
Then, too, black Americans in France lived under considerable constraint during the escalation of the independence war in Algeria. The French government threatened to deport them if they spoke out. Even if the language was not a barrier to their becoming more integrated into French society, black intellectuals were discouraged from taking a public part in the most important political debate going on in France at that time. The restriction threw them back on one another, back to quarrels and feelings from home they could not leave behind. Wright apparently told Ralph Ellison that he went to France because he had no place else to go after he left the Communist Party.
Hard times in France as well as bad memories of the US may help to explain why developing an international perspective became so important to Wright. He reacted to Africa as a Western intellectual, one who couldn’t wait to see the defeat of tribalism, which he deplored, as much as colonialism. He had his Céline-like moments of hate. Some observers—among them James Baldwin—sneered at his close relationship with Beauvoir and, to a lesser extent, Sartre, because they were sure their philosophy had nothing to teach him. Now that we know that it was Ellison—i.e., a black writer—who first interested Wright in Existentialist writings, we hear less about Wright’s Eurocentrism. When the young Baldwin watched Wright in a café, ignored by Africans and by African-Americans, he took Wright’s isolation as a warning to himself. But Wright’s isolation was what he could always trust. He claimed to value the “state of abandonment, aloneness.”
Wright looked forward to the disappearance of black literature as a category, according to a 1957 essay, “The Literature of the Negro of the United States.” Black literature was not, for Wright, a static category, but one formed and continually shaped by history. Pushkin and Dumas, though black according to the American code, were not black writers since they were at one with their culture. Not even Phillis Wheatley, with her stanzas in the style of Pope, was a part of the black literary heritage as defined by Wright. Because she was so deeply integrated into American colonial culture she was able to share the passions and the hopes of the general population. Black, Wright states, is a word having purely social meaning in America, not racial or biological. Being black was, further, a personal attitude, an imposed circumstance. It meant, in translation, suffering. Hence, black literature was one of lament, of despair rising from race hate and subjugation.
The black writer, Wright says, felt an emotional predicament—forced to express himself in this culture’s language and yet excluded from full participation in the culture. A further confinement: “The Negro writer had no choice in his subject matter: he could not select his experiences.” The “folk utterance” remained for the dispossessed, and Wright includes himself in this tradition.
He hoped that one day black writers would write out of the shared hopes of millions, that they would feel a community with the miserable all over the globe, and come to represent the aspirations of the downtrodden everywhere. He saw in the novels of writers like Ellison the beginnings of a new, wider identification with the world. “If the expression of the American Negro should take a sharp turn toward strictly racial themes, then you will know by that token that we are suffering our old and ancient agonies at the hands of our white neighbors.”
Reviews of black writers of the 1940s and 1950s conveyed the overall impression that blacks could write autobiography more reliably than they could write good novels. When they did write fiction, the expectation was that it would have the sweat of realism, or else it was not authentic. But authenticity was at the core of arguments about Wright, arguments that were a continuation on the black side of town of the “paleface and redskin” debate in American literature between the genteel tradition and pioneer roughness. Hurston had complained that Wright’s picture of the South as “a dismal, hopeless section ruled by brutal hatred” coincided with Communist propaganda while Wright charged that Hurston gave whites the black South that made them either laugh or weep. The debate about where to put the emphasis in the experience of blacks in the South, either on the health of the black community in spite of racism or on a racism that made the South the soil of dysfunction, was also a debate about historical and emotional accuracy. What was the South really like?
Baldwin and Ellison both knew that Bigger Thomas was merely an example to Wright, not a hero, but they objected to Native Son for what they viewed as Wright’s failure to “grasp the function of artistically induced catharsis,” for not having a main character who can be redeemed, for not sufficiently honoring the affirmative qualities of black culture. Nowadays their famous criticisms seem less revealing about his work than about their historical period. It was a time of unease with political content. Just as the passage of time has made clear how modern Native Son was, so their objections to the unremitting violence in Wright now look like old-fashioned uplift criticism in their concern for what Wright might be saying about the general image of blacks—as in there are some things best left unsaid in front of whites.
Nevertheless, Baldwin wrote with such eloquence, twice, against Wright’s novel and the protest tradition as though he knew his two essays would be a defining moment for him as a young writer. Ellison said he read Native Son as it came out of Wright’s typewriter. They were very close then. Toward the end of his life, Ellison was saying that he and Albert Murray hadn’t needed Native Son, because they’d read Malraux’s Man’s Fate (1932), but that was literary snobbery, revealing where they were willing to go when it came to liking a novel sympathetic to Communists. Ellison had had an irascible exchange with Irving Howe over Wright and Howe’s contention that a Negro novelist could hardly write about anything other than the unrelieved suffering of his people.7
In writing about the turn-of-the-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Wright noted that Dunbar was a recessive character, about whom we knew little; that he was haunted, obsessed, and that it was a miracle he was able to write at all, to try to communicate with other humans. In a way, the same could be said of Wright. Now that we accept that black and white writers in the US had more in common than was previously considered, it is possible to see Wright for what he finally was: the last of the great Midwestern realists. An American Tragedy, Native Son…
November 1, 2001
The New York Times Book Review, December 22, 1991. Rampersad has an article in the same issue on editing the Library of America edition. See also Eleanor Blau’s interview with Rampersad, The New York Times, August 28, 1991. ↩
Constance Webb, who knew Wright and had been active in radical politics, published her sympathetic Richard Wright: A Biography in 1968. Margaret Walker’s Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (Warner Books, 1988) examines his “ambivalence about women,” perhaps because Walker, black poet and novelist, knew Wright in his Chicago days, helped him when he was writing Native Son in New York in 1939, and then endured the humiliation of learning from him that her love was not returned. Addison Gayle Jr.’s Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (Anchor, 1980) was the first biography to make use of FBI files in order to explain some of the mysteries surrounding Wright’s last days in Paris. ↩
Fabre, as a literary executor of Wright’s estate, was well placed. He wrote the afterword to the first US edition of American Hunger, coedited, with Wright’s widow, Ellen Wright, the Richard Wright Reader (Harper and Row, 1978), wrote a book of essays on Wright’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, The World of Richard Wright (University Press of Mississippi, 1985), and a curious bibliophile’s study of Wright’s personal library, Richard Wright: Books and Writers (University Press of Mississippi, 1990). Fabre edited, with Kenneth Kinnamon, Conversations with Richard Wright (1993), a gathering of important interviews with and news stories about Wright from 1938 until his death. ↩
See Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah (Amistad Press, 1993). ↩
See Richard Wright, Travel Writing: New Reflections edited by Virginia Whatley Smith (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). ↩
Such as James Campbell’s Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian, and Others on the Left Bank, 1946–1960 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1994). ↩
See Critical Essays on Richard Wright, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani (G.K. Hall, 1982), which reprints the Howe, Baldwin, and Ellison essays. ↩