American short story writer and novelist, whose best known work is Native Son (1940). The book immediately established Wright as an important author and a spokesman on conditions facing African-Americans. It gained a large multiracial readership and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Wright's works drew on the poverty and segregation of his childhood in the South and early adulthood in Chicago.
"And, curiously, he felt that he was something, somebody, precisely and simply because of that cold threat of death. The terror of the white world had left no doubt in him about his worth; in fact, that white world had guaranteed his worth in the most brutal and dramatic manner. Most surely he was was something, in the eyes of the white world, or it would not have threatened him as it had. That white world, then, threatened as much as it beckoned. Though he did not know it, he was fatally in love with that white world, in love in a way that could never be cured. That white world's attempt to curb him dangerously and irresponsibly claimed him for its own." (from The Long Dream, 1958)
Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents had been slaves and his father, Nathaniel, who was an illiterate sharecropper and mill worker, left home when Richard was six. Wright grew up in poverty, staying often at homes of relatives. His mother, Ella Wilson, was a schoolteacher; she moved with her family to Memphis, where she found employment as a cook. In 1915-16 Wright attended school for a few months, but his mother's illness forced him to leave.
Wright attended school sporadically, lived in Arkansas with his aunt Maggie and uncle Silas, who was murdered, and in Mississippi. In his childhood Wright was often beaten."My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety," he later wrote in his autobiography Black Boy (1945). However, he continued to teach himself, secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library. He had been permitted entrance in order to pick up books requested by a fellow factory worker, whose card he could use. When the librarian asked him whether he was actually planning to read the works himself, he said, "Oh, no, ma'am, I can't read." Two of the first books he borrowed were H.L. Mencken's Prejudices and A Book of Prefaces.
From early on, Wright worked at various jobs, among others as a newspaper delivery boy and as an assistant to an insurance agent. His spare-time jobs enabled Wright to buy schoolbooks, pulp magazines, and dime novels, all of which he read avidly. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first story, 'The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre.' It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. Wright attended junior high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and graduated in 1925. From 1925 to 1927 Wright lived in Memphis, where he was employed by an optical company.
During these years he read widely and decided to become a writer. Tired of segregation law, he moved to Chicago, hoping that life would be better there. He worked as a post office clerk, at that time the only place educated blacks could find work. During the Great Depression he hold several other jobs. Wright was also given the opportunity to write through the Federal Writers' Project. While working on the Theatre Project he saw plays by Erskine Caldwell and Clifford Odets. He read such philosophers as Hegel and Nietzsche, as well as the Art of Fiction by Henry James, Mencken's Prefaces and On the Art of Novel, and works by Sigmund Freud. By the time he moved to New York City, he had written most of the novel Lawd Today, which was published posthumously in 1963. It centered around the life of Jake Jackson, a violent man from Chicago, who has not much hope in his mean environment. Social environment also plays a central role in Native Son, a view that was advocated especially leftist writers.
Following his growing Marxist view of the world, Wright joined the Communist Party in 1932. He was an executive secretary of the local John Reed Club of leftist writers and authors of Chicago and wrote poetry for such journals as Left Front, Midland Left, Anvil, International Literature, Partisan Review, and New Masses. 'Big Boy Leaves Home', telling about the shocking end of the childhood of a young black boy, was first published in The New Caravan and greeted as the best piece in the anthology. In the late 1930s Wright was named to the literature editorial board of New Masses. Due to his political involvement, Wright was denounced by the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities investigating the Federal Writers' Project.
In 1937 Wright moved to New York City, becoming editor of Daily Worker, and a later vice president of the League for American Writers. Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of stories of Southern racism, which appeared in 1938, was reissued in expanded form two years later. The story 'Fire and Cloud' received the O. Henry Memorial award. Uncle Tom's Children helped Wright to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to devote his full time to writing.
Native Son became an instant best-seller. In some bookstores stock was sold out within hours; the novel sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks. Many white Americans saw Bigger Thomas, the central character, as a symbol of the entire black community, and Wright later stated that "there are meanings in my books of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper." Wright used in the book a 1938 criminal case involving a black youth, Robert Nixon, who killed a white woman. Reviewers immediately reconized the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866). Shortly before he died, Wright stated that "Dostoyevsky was my model when I started writing." Ralp Ellison could have said the same about the Russian writer, but his Invisible Man (1952) was in debt to Notes from the Underground (1864).
For the most part, the book was rendered in the present. Wright was an avid filmgoer and he explained that "I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger's story was happening now, like play upon a stage or a movie..." In the first film version, directed by Pierre Chenal, and adapted by Chenal and Wright, the author himself acted the role of Bigger Thomas. Wright spent three years on the project. The film was a disaster. The 1986 version was directed by Jerrold Freedman and adapted by Richard Wesley. Oprah Winfrey was in the role of Bigger's mother. "The second adaptation even goes so far as to eliminate Bigger's murder of Bessie, in order to reinforce the idea that Bigger is a mild-mannered victim, thus robbing the story of any controversy, and dialectic, and any philosophical significance. It also robs the story of the complexities of gender relations between black men and black women that are touched upon by Wright." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
The protagonist of Native Son is a young black man in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who lives in a one-room apartment in Chicago's South Side Black Belt, with his mother, his young sister, Vera, and younger brother, Buddy. He is hired by a wealthy family named Dalton as their chauffeur. Mr. Dalton gives money for social welfare, but at the same time owns the rat-infested building in which Bigger lives. The rhythms of Bigger's life are "indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger – like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force." The family's free-thinking daughter Mary befriends him – with her he visits Communist headquarters, where she meets her boyfriend Jan Erlone. Mary has had too much drink. Bigger carries Mary back to her room. When her blind mother enters the room, he accidentally smothers her. In panic, he burns the body in the basement and attempt to implicate Jan. Mary's bones are discovered and Bigger also kills his own girlfriend, Bessie, to cover his tracks. He is captured and in the jail Bigger feels for the first time a sense of freedom: "Seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be." He is then condemned to death and faces his destiny unrepentantly, affirming that 'what I killed for, I am!' Yet in prison he also comes to terms with the need for a common brotherhood. The last third of the book is largely a speech given by Boris A. Max, a party attorney, in Bigger's defense at his trial. Wright clearly used Max to convey his own Marxist assessment of the racial situation in the United States. The speech is also based on Clarence Darrow's defense of Leopold and Loeb. Wright's leftist friends were troubled because the Wright did not view Bigger's fate from an exploited worker's perspective. During the 1950s, the widespread fear of communism incited by the Cold War and McCarthyism led to the diminished popularity of Native Son. The sexually explicit scenes were removed from the Book-of-the-Month Club publication and Thomas did not show such obvious interest in the white character, Mary Dalton.
After his breakthrough as a writer, Wright collaborated with Paul Green on a stage adaptation of the book, which was directed by Orson Welles and run successfully on Broadway in 1941-43. However, a reviewer in The Nation found it less satisfactory than the novel. The play separated further "the two elements of the novel . . . crude melodrama and social peachment." Critics' Theatre Reviews wrote that the adaptation "lacks the richness and subterranerous power of the book, as well as the essential meaning." Native Son was Welles's last real triumph on the New York stage.
In August 1939, Wright married Rose Dhimah Meadman, a belly dancer. Their best man was the young Ralph Ellison. "The ladies of the race, I presume, are raising hell!" speculated Langston Hughes about the marriage, which turned out to be unsuccessful. After divorce, Wright married in 1941 Ellen Poplar, a daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants and a fellow leftist. They had two daughters. The autobiographical Black Boy received good reviews. The book was set in the 1920s. It begins as the narrator accidentally burns his house down. Readers learn how he became a drunkard in his sixth year, and how begging drinks became his obsession. His mother and grandmother beat him, so hard sometimes that he lost consciousness. He was also beaten by his aunt in a Seventh-day Adventist school, where she was a teacher.
In 1944 Wright left Communist Party. He spent the summer of 1945 as an artist-in-residence at the Bread Loaf School for writers in Middlebury, Vermont, and then went to France with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. Wright met among others Gertrude Stein, André Gide, and Léopold Senghor. He returned to the United States only briefly and settled in Paris, where he associated with existentialists and such American writers as James Baldwin. Wright helped Baldwin to win a prestigious literary fellowship, and Baldwin repaid him four years later by criticizing the tactics of Native Son in his career-launching essay 'Everybody's Protest Novel.'
In 1949 Wright joined George Plimpton and others in founding the Paris Review. He acted in the film based on the novel Native Son – the American release was not successful and the film was banned in several cities. Wright's existentialist novel The Outsider (1952), depicting a black intellectual's search for identity, received mixed reviews. It was praised mostly in Europe. In Paris Wright was not treated like in the American South, but he gradually lost touch with his inspiration, or "the rhythms of his life."
During his years in France, Wright spent much of his time supporting nationalist movements in Africa. In 1953 he travelled in Africa, gathering material for Black Power (1954), and witnessing the rise of the Pan-African movement. Among his other works in the 1950s were Savage Holiday (1954), about a white man caught in a web of violence, The Color Curtain (1956), about Asia, Pagan Spain (1957), a travel book of a Catholic country full of contradictions, and White Man, Listen! (1958), a collection of lectures on racial injustice. Wright's last short story, 'Big Black Good Man', which originally was published in Esquire and was collected in Eight Men (1961), was set in Copenhangen and dealt with prejudices. American Hunger, a sequel to Black Boy, came out in 1977.
The Long Dream (1958), a novel set in Mississippi, had a poor reception. Its sequel, Island of Hallucination, was left unfinished. The third part of the intended trilogy would have been set in Africa. "Everything in the book happened, but I've twisted characters so that people won't recognise them," said Wright to his agent. This roman à cleft followed the life of a character from the 1958 novel, Rex "Fishbelly" Tucker, in Paris. James Baldwin was caricatured under the name of Mechanical, a homosexual, perhaps the most unlikeable character in the novel, which is populated by a large number of liars and schemers. Richard Gibson, an editor at the Agence France-Presse, was cast as Bill Hart, the "superspy from Rome who spied on spies." Wright's good friend Ollie Harrington, a cartoonist, appeared as Fishbelly's tutor, Ned Harrison.
Island of Hallucination dramatized events surrounding the "Gibson affair," in which a letter condemning French policy in Algeria was sent to Life magazine and The Observer in London. Gibson, who was behind the letter but signed it under the name of Harrington, said in 2005 that he has no objections to the publication of the manuscript. ('Book of Spies' by Jefferson Morley, in Newsweek, June 01, 2018)
Wright distanced in the last years of his life from his associates. He suffered from poor health and financial difficulties and grew suspicious about the activities of CIA in Paris – in which he was right. Wright's plans to move to London were rejected by the British officials. In 1959 he began composing haiku, producing almost four thousand of them. Wright died nearly penniless at the age of fifty-two in Paris, on November 28, 1960. At his request, his body was cremated and his ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of Black Boy. Wright's daughter Julia has claimed that his father was murdered. Moreover, Wright had said to Harrington that if anything happened to him, his urine or vomit should be tested. (Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley, 2008, p. 524) Upon his death, Wright left behind an unfinished book on French West Africa. His travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, appeared in 2001.
For further reading: Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955); Richard Wright by Robert Bone (1969); Richard Wright's Native Son by Richard Abcarian (1970); The Life and Work of Richard Wright, edited by David Ray and Robert M. Farnsworth (1971); Richard Wright by David Bakish (1973); by Robert Felgar (1980); Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. by Yashinobu Hakutani (1982); Richard Wright: A Primary Biography by C.T. Davis and M. Fabre (1982); Richard Wright by Addison Gayle (1983); The World of Richard Wright by Michel Fabre (1985); Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy by J.A. Joyce (1986); Richard Wright's Native Son, ed. by H. Bloom (1988); A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982, compiled by Keneth Kinnamon et al. (1988); Richard Wright's Black Boy, ed. by H. Bloom (1988); Voice of a Native Son by E. Miller (1990); New Essays on Native Son, ed. by Keneth Kinnamon (1990); 'Richard Wright: Native Son and Novelist', in Great Black Writers by Steven Otfinoski (1994); The Critical Response to Richar Wright, ed. by Robert J. Butler (1995); Richard Wright and Racial Discourse by Yashinobu Hakutani (1996); Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley (2001); Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley (2008); Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen by Jennifer Jensen Wallach (2010); Richard Wright and Haiku by Yoshinobu Hakutani (2014); Richard Wright in a Post-Racial Imaginary, edited by Alice Mikal Craven and William E. Dow (2014) - Note: Wright's Native Son was main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1949. It took nearly 30 year before the next novel by a black author became a main selection. The book was Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977).
- Uncle Tom's Children: Five Long Stories, 1938 (also: Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas)
- Native Son, 1940
- Amerikan poika (suom. Antero Tiusanen & Eva Siikarla, 1972)
- films: Native Son / Sangre negra, 1951 (a low-budget Argentine version), dir. by Pierre Chenal, Wright acted the role of Bigger Thomas, with Gloria Madison, Willa Pearl Curtis, Nicholas Joy, Ruth Robert, Charles Cane; 1986, dir. by Jerrold Freedman, starring Victor Love, Carroll Baker, Akousuwa Busia, Matt Dillon, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Page
- How "Bigger" Was Born; the Story of Native Son, 1940
- 12 Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 1941 (photo-direction by Edwin Rosskam)
- Bright and Morning Star, 1941
- The Negro and Parkway Community House, 1941
- Native son (the Biography of a Young American), 1941 (play, with P. Green, a Mercury production by Orson Welles, presented by Orson Welles and John Houseman; rev. ed. 1980)
- The Man Who Lived Underground, 1942-44
- Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, 1945
- Musta poika: kertomus lapsuudesta ja nuoruudesta (suom. Eeva Kangasmaa, 1948)
- The God that Failed, 1950 (with others)
- Native Son, 1951 (sceenplay)
- The Outsider, 1953
- Pikku jumalat: romaani Amerikan mustista ja valkoisista (suom. Kai Kaila, 1955)
- Savage Holiday, 1954
- films: Domingo salvaje, 1967, prod. Sagitario Films (Merxico), dir. Francisco del Villar, adapted by Emilio Carballido, starring Kitty de Hoyos, David Reynoso, José Gálvez, Bertha Moss, Raúl Ramírez; La Passerelle, 1988, prod. T. Films (France), dir. Jean-Claude Sussfeld, starring Pierre Arditi, Mathilda May, Aurelle Doazan, Jean-Marie Marion
- Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, 1954
- The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, 1956 (foreword by Gunnar Myrdal)
- Pagan Spain, 1957 (a new edition in 2002 by University Press of Mississippi, with an introductory essay by Faith Berry)
- White Man, Listen!, 1957
- The Long Dream: A Novel, 1958
- Pitkä uni (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1960)
- Daddy Goodness, 1959 (prod., adapted from Louis Sapin's Papa Bon Dieu)
- Eight Men, 1961
- Kahdeksan miestä (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1974)
- Quintet, 1961 (ed.)
- Lawd Today, 1963 (with a new foreword by Arnold Rampersad, 1986)
- Letters to Joe C. Brown, 1968 (edited with an introd. by Thomas Knipp)
- American Hunger, 1977 (afterword by Michel Fabre)
- Richard Wright Reader, 1978 (edited by Ellen Wright and Micherl Fabre; notes by Michel Fabre)
- Richard Wright: Early Works: Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, 1991
- Richard Wright: Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger), The Outsider, 1991
- Rite of Passage, 1994 (afterword by Arnold Rampersad)
- Haiku: This Other World, 1998 (edited and with notes and afterword by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, introduction by Julia Wright)
- Down by the Riverside, 2001 (with four etchings by John Wilson)
- Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections, 2001 (ed. by Virginia Whatley Smith)
- Black Power: Three Books from Exile: Black Power, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen!, 2008 (with an introduction by Cornel West)
- Byline, Richard Wright: Articles from the Daily Worker and New Masses, 2015 (edited by Earle V. Bryant)
- Seeing into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright, 2018 (illustrated by Nina Crews)
- The Man Who Lived Underground, 2021 (afterword by Malcolm Wright)
Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES
PARIS, Nov. 29--Richard Wright, the American Negro writer, died of a heart attack last night in a Paris clinic. He was 52 years old.
Mr. Wright, author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy," had lived abroad, mostly in Paris, for more than fifteen years. According to friends, he found here a greater degree of freedom from discrimination against members of his race than in his homeland.
Once attracted to communism, Mr. Wright was disillusioned and became notably anti- Communist during his stay in France. He refused to have any contact with the party here.
His most recent work, "Fishbelly," a study of Negro reaction to race prejudice and discrimination, was published recently.
Surviving Mr. Wright are his widow, Ellen, and two daughters, Julia and Rachel.
Mr. Wright was hailed by critics as the most eloquent spokesman for the American Negro in this generation and one of the most important literary talents of contemporary America.
His greatest success, both financial and literary, was "Native Son," a harsh, realistic, brutal, angry novel that appeared in 1940. This story was based partly on Wright's own experiences in the Chicago slums and partly on the case of Robert Nixon, a Chicago Negro who was put to death in the electric chair in 1938 for the murder of a white girl.
The novel won almost universal acclaim from reviewers. Charles Poore in The New York Times said that it was "enormously stirring," and Peter Monro Jack, writing in The Sunday Times Book Review, called it the "Negro American tragedy."
"Native Son" was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and enjoyed a large sale not only in the United States but also in most other countries, including the Soviet Union. Paul Green dramatized it for the stage. It was a hit on Broadway in 1941 with the late Canada Lee in the lead role of Bigger Thomas, the scared Negro boy who kills two persons and is captured and put to death.
In 1950 Mr. Wright made "Native Son" as a film in Argentina, with himself in the lead role. But he was a poor actor and the movie failed.
Mr. Wright's own life had made him bitter. He was born Sept. 4, 1908, on a plantation near Natchez, Miss. His mother was hard-working and devoted to her children, but his father was drunken and brutal. After his father deserted the family they moved to Memphis, Tenn., when Richard was 6 years old.
His genius with words was shown early; at the age of 14, a short story of his was published in a Negro paper in the South. He began to work at menial jobs in a Memphis optical business before going to Chicago by himself at the age of 19.
He worked as a porter, street cleaner, dishwasher, postal clerk, any odd job. Sometimes he was unemployed and hungry, and during the early Nineteen Thirties was on relief. It was then that he joined the Communist party. All the time he was writing about his experiences in fictional form.
In 1937, Mr. Wright was in the Federal Writers Project and the next year his book of four novellas, "Uncle Tom's Children," was published and won a $500 prize from Story magazine. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 and the next year "Native Son" made him independent and famous. In 1941 he won the Spingarn Medal as the American Negro who made the highest achievement during the preceding year.
His next big success was the autobiography of his youth, "Black Boy," issued in 1944. This was also a Book-of-the-Month Club choice and sold throughout the world. After World War II, Mr. Wright expatriated himself to Paris, where he could live more congenially with his white wife, Ellen Poplar of Brooklyn, whom he had married in 1940.
This coincided with Mr. Wright's break with the Communists, although he remained leftist, materialist and atheist. In 1950 he was one of several distinguished writers who contributed testimony to "The God That Failed," a disavowal by former Communists.
None of Mr. Wright's other books equaled "Native Son" and "Black Boy" in critical or commercial success, although all were reviewed with adequate publicity and respect. In 1953 appeared "The Outsider," a philosophical novel complicated with several murders; in 1954, "Black Power," his impressions of the Gold Coast of Africa; in 1956, "The Color Curtain," a report on the Bandung Conference in Java of Asian and African delegates; in 1957, "Pagan Spain," severely critical personal observations of Spain, and the same year, "White Man, Listen!" a lecture on the evils of racial injustice.
His "The Long Dream," published in 1958, a novel about a Negro corruptionist, was dramatized by Ketti Frings and presented unsuccessfully in New York this year.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Acclaim for Richard Wright
Richard Wright went from a big name in Black American literature after his novel, Native Son was a best-seller in 1940, to being pushed to the margins about a decade later. But more than 60 years after his death, Wright's novel, The Man Who Lived Underground, was published in 2021. (Robert Kradin/AP)
How an 80-year-old manuscript renewed Black writer Richard Wright's legacy
Richard Wright went from a big name in Black American literature to being pushed to the margins until now
*This episode originally aired on May 19, 2022.
Richard Wright was the most prominent Black American writer of the 1940s. His novel Native Son about the corrosive effects of racism made him a literary star and a rarity for the time — a Black bestselling novelist.
But his tenure as an influential Black American writer only lasted about a decade. He'd fallen out of favour with readers, scholars and cultural critics alike. His writing was thought to be too preoccupied with the ways Black people were victimized and dehumanized by racism, neglecting to show the beauty and humanity of Black American life.
"Native Son was a bestseller among white readers and Wright saw it as a way for white America to wake up to what it was that they were doing to Black minds and Black souls," said Ralph Eubanks, a writer whose work focuses on race, identity and the American South.
"Yet over time, a lot of people have come to see Native Son as a book that only codifies racial stereotypes about the whole myth of the Black beast rapist."
Wright's Native Son is an unsettling, controversial and divisive book in Black American literature.
The story focuses on the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old living in extreme poverty in Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. He is employed as a chauffeur by a wealthy white liberal family. One evening Mary — one of his employers — was extremely drunk, so Thomas helped her get to her bedroom. Mary's blind mother comes into the bedroom, and Thomas accidentally suffocates Mary. He is put on trial for rape and murder.
"Bigger Thomas becomes who he is … as a result of the visible and structural constraints of the way race was lived in Chicago in the 1930s and 40s," Eubanks said.
Now almost 80 years after Native Son, a rejected manuscript of Wright's novel, The Man Who Lived Underground has been published — prompting a renewed relevance of his work at a time when racist violence and police killings of Black Americans are top of mind.
'Black rage on the page'
In 1940, Jim Crow was still the law of the American South, it was the middle of the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans from the South to northern cities like Chicago. The Civil Rights movement was still 15 years away.
Wright's Native Son became a blockbuster hit, selling a quarter-million copies in three weeks. He considered this novel to be a work of protest, exploring racism, oppression and violence against Black Americans.
As a young man, Eddie Glaude didn't find Native Son to be liberating. Quite the contrary. The Princeton professor and author said he was terrified "to see that kind of Black rage on the page."
"To have it come alive was in some ways an externalization of something that I felt in me... the sense of being pent in and pent up, of the society pressing in on one's shoulders, and knowing why and being able to name it, and sitting in that rage, and spying the violence that could follow from, it was really extraordinary for me."
More harm than good
Wright was eventually pushed to the sidelines when criticism of Native Son became more prevalent. His brand of protest literature was seen as crude and doing more harm than good to the cause of Black uplift and equality.
Eventually, he was eclipsed by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
In 1948, activist and writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, Everybody's Protest Novel, arguing that Wright compromised his art for the sake of making a political statement. He was 24 at the time and said Wright stripped characters like Bigger Thomas of their humanity.
"One of Baldwin's big criticisms of Native Son is — and Ellison's too — is that Bigger Thomas in some ways isn't really a person. He's kind of a caricature. I've always felt he overstates it to say that the book isn't really art. The criticism from both Ellison and Baldwin is that the book doesn't do nearly enough to make Bigger Thomas into a human being. He's sort of a monster," said Anthony Stewart, an English professor at Bucknell University.
Wright was a mentor and close friend to literary critic Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel, Invisible Man. He encouraged Ellison to write fiction as a career.
Ellison's critique of Native Son was included in an essay published in 1963 called The World and the Jug, looking at race in literature.
"Wright began with the ideological proposition that what whites think of the Negro's reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be," Ellison wrote of the controversial book.
"Wright could imagine Bigger, but Bigger could not possibly have imagined Richard Wright. Wright saw to that."
According to Princeton University professor Imani Perry, Baldwin and Ellison critiquing Wright's work is par for the course to make room for their own work.
"It was very much a moment in which there could only be one Black literary star at a time. And so that was sort of a kind of literary patricide."
She argues the controversy that ensued from the barrage of criticism came at a cost by neglecting to appreciate the genuine talent Wright had.
"So many of us have failed to see how extraordinary Wright was as a writer and as an intellectual, irrespective of whether one agreed with his political takes on Black Life."
But the accusation against Wright has stood for decades — that his fiction portrayed Black people as defenseless targets, helplessly stunted and distorted by forces beyond their control, robbed of any agency — that it was a failure of his imagination to not depict the humanity, beauty, richness and resilience of Black people's inner lives.
A changed legacy
Wright's work is often not taught in universities or discussed much in general. But that changed when The Man Who Lived Underground, his follow-up novel to Native Son, was published in 2021.
The novel is very different from Native Son. Experimental, dreamlike and surrealist, with a Black protagonist named Fred Daniels who is almost nothing like Bigger Thomas, and yet more victimized by racism.
"Fred Daniels is an innocent, churchgoing, God-fearing man with a wife who has a child with a baby on the way and who's falsely accused of murdering someone and is put in prison because of it. He's the polar opposite of Bigger Thomas," said Eubanks.
In The Man Who Lived Underground, Fred Daniels is randomly picked up by police after a brutal double murder. He's tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn't commit. Eventually, Daniels manages to escape, slipping through an open manhole cover and beginning a new life in the world beneath the pavement and buildings of the city. Daniels learns to navigate his way through the underground and finds burrows into several different buildings and businesses. At one of them, he witnesses someone being falsely accused of a crime and being beaten — by the same police who accused and beat him. When he goes back aboveground to tell those police what he's seen and learned underground, he's shot and killed by one of them.
For Glaude, this newly published book is a searing take on the kind of anxiety that resonates in the U.S.
"It is an unflinching account of the effects, the horror of white supremacist life. Period," said Glaude.
"He's getting at the heart of who we take ourselves to be in the world we've built. And that's not reducible to just simply white violence exacted on black folk or black folk turning into monsters because of white. No, no, no. It's something much bigger."
The Man Who Lived Underground may have been too much for 1942 — but 2021 seemed to be a time it was written for.
"I think the reissue of The Man Who Lived Underground was so important in a moment in which cops are still killing us. To make clear that what is happening today isn't new, it doesn't mean that you have to agree with Wright's aesthetic. But the point is that what he was trying to account for still needs an accounting," said Glaude.
And it's not just what Wright accounted for that's important. According to Anthony Stewart, it's also what he made possible.
"What Wright makes possible is for people to see an African-American intellectual living in their midst... a well-known African-American in the public eye and not for being an entertainer or an athlete."
Stewart argues that it was easier for people to see a Black baseball player like Jackie Robinson Right than to see a prominent Black intellectual.
"This is an unusual thing, a really unusual thing. And so what Wright makes possible is, you know, Wright makes Baldwin possible. Wright makes Ellison possible."
Guests in this episode:
Ralph Eubanks is a literary scholar, professor, journalist and author of several books, including, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past.
Eddie Glaude is an award-winning author, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University professor of African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.
Imani Perry is a Hughes-Rogers professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and contributing writer at The Atlantic magazine.
Anthony Stewart is a Canadian-American professor of English at Bucknell University and expert in 20th Century Black American literature.
*This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.
|American author Richard Wright sits at his desk in 1957 desk
with a pen in his hand shortly before the publication of his book, "White Man, Listen!"
Uncle Tom's Children (1938)
The Man Who Was Almost a Man (1939)
Native Son (1940)
The Outsider (1953)
Savage Holiday (1954)
The Long Dream (1958)
Eight Men (1961)
Lawd Today (1963)
Rite of Passage (1994)
A Father's Law (2008) (unfinished)
Native Son: The Biography of a Young American with Paul Green (1941)
How "Bigger" Was Born; Notes of a Native Son (1940)
12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941)
Black Boy (1945)
Black Power (1954)
The Color Curtain (1956)
Pagan Spain (1957)
Letters to Joe C. Brown (1968)
American Hunger (1977)
Black Power: Three Books from Exile (2008)
The Ethics Of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch (1937)
Introduction to Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945)
I Choose Exile (1951)
White Man, Listen! (1957)
Blueprint for Negro Literature (1937)
The God that Failed (contributor) (1949)
Haiku: This Other World (eds. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, 1998)
Haiku: The Last Poetry of Richard Wright (2012)