Oxford AASC: Wright, Richard

Wright, Richard

Wright, Richard

It all began with a fire: the one Richard Wright himself set when he was four years old. He had wondered, he tells us at the start of his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), “just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.” They looked splendid, terrifying; and it is a wonder no one was killed. As it turned out, the little boy Wright still was at the time came closer to death than anyone, and not from the fire itself, but from the beating his mother gave him in the aftermath. “I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness,” he recalls. For years he was “chastened,” as he dryly puts it, when he remembered that his mother “had come close to killing” him.

At about that time his father abandoned the family and Wright, the oldest child, underwent an ordeal of initiation. When some local boys beat him and stole the money his mother sent with him to market, she simply gave him more money, a heavy stick, and then locked him out of the house. “I am going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself,” she said. And so he went back out, almost paralyzed with fear: “I was alone upon the dark, hostile streets and gangs were after me. I had the choice of being beaten at home or away from home.” When the gang set upon him he “let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy's skull,” and striking out again and again. His fury horrified the boys: “They had never seen such frenzy.” There were many more beatings, but now they came only from his guardians: his mother, his grandmother, his grandfather.

And there were mystifying events, too, as when the young boy awoke once to a commotion in the next room; his aunt's lover had stolen money from a woman—Wright never learned exactly who—knocked her unconscious, and set her house ablaze. He fled in the night with Wright's aunt and a pistol; the white men were after him. Another aunt, Maggie, had been married to Silas Hoskins, with whom the family briefly lived in Elaine, Arkansas, when Richard Wright was nine—that is, until Hoskins was killed by whites who “coveted his flourishing liquor business.” This time the whole family fled. “Why had we not fought back?” Wright asked his mother. But “the fear that was in her made her slap [him] into silence.” The little boy was learning what it meant to “limp through days lived under the threat of violence.” Later, he heard a tale about a black woman who shot four white men to death—they had murdered her husband—and the story “gave form and meaning” to feelings that had long been “sleeping” in him: violent “fantasies,” as he puts it, were no longer merely “a reflection of his reaction” to the ominous white world beyond; these fantasies had become for him “a culture, a creed, a religion.” And when a young schoolmistress whispered to him the bloody story of Bluebeard, who married seven women and murdered them all, Wright was enchanted. Hearing that story was the first experience in his life, he reports, that elicited from him “a total emotional response.” “I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders.” Buy them he did, when he was old enough and had the money; but what is more important, he composed novels himself, almost all of them written about, and out of, his American experience of violence.

Reading and writing offered Wright a way to sublimate his violent fantasies, a way to redirect them toward socially useful ends, a way to redeem them. And acts of violence are always, in Wright's books, creative, expressive, or transformative. That is why his protagonists—Bigger Thomas chief among them—inevitably decide to own their violent acts, even when these seem forced upon them by circumstance or by chance. And if violent acts can be expressive, then expressive acts can, in some sense, be violent; words do hurt us. Obscenity fascinated Wright for exactly this reason, well before he was old enough really to understand why. For this reason, too, he was electrified when he first read that most pugilistic of American critics, H. L. Mencken. “This man was fighting, fighting with words,” Wright felt at once when he peeked into A Book of Prefaces (1917), a book he had obtained at the whites only public library in Memphis with a forged library pass. (“Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?” it had read). Wright was “jarred and shocked by the style, the clear clean, sweeping sentences.” He “pictured the man as a raging demon”—and here the book became, for Wright, a kind of prospective mirror—“slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American,” and “mocking God, authority.” Mencken “was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club.” Richard Wright had found his calling. Writing emancipated him, and what is more, it laid before him an instrument of retribution against a world that seemed unwilling to allow him even to exist. In the novel of violence Wright would find redemption from the violence that had, since earliest youth, laid claim to him, when it had all begun with a fire.

The Early Years, the Early Works

Richard Wright was born on 4 September 1908 on a farm near Roxie, Mississippi, the son of Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a sometime schoolteacher. The parents of his parents had been born in slavery, and one of them, his maternal grandfather, had served in the Union navy during the war. Mississippi in 1908 had for some twenty years been sitting in darkness; the state was among the first to disenfranchise the slaves whom the war had freed, and whom the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution had made citizens and, at least in the case of men, voters. White supremacy was firmly fixed in Mississippi and would remain so at least until the mid-1960s, by which time Wright, for years an expatriate, had been buried in a cemetery in Paris.

When Wright was five his father deserted the family; this initiated a period of drifting. He lived in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi; in Memphis, Tennessee; in Elaine and West Helena, Arkansas; in Jackson again; in Greenwood, Mississippi; in Jackson a third time; and ultimately, again, in Memphis—all of this by the time he was sixteen. Most of the time Wright lived with his mother, but at one point he was consigned to an orphanage, and for a while he lived with relatives. When he was ten, his mother suffered an incapacitating stroke, whereupon his grandmother, a strict Seventh Day Adventist, took charge of the impoverished family. In schools in a number of towns, Wright managed an itinerant sort of education, attending, in the end, Smith-Robertson Junior High in Jackson, from which he graduated valedictorian. For two years thereafter he worked in Memphis doing odd jobs at an optical company and washing dishes; it was at this time that he discovered H. L. Mencken, and through Mencken, introduced himself to novels by Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Alexandre Dumas. In 1927 he moved to Chicago, following the path many southern-born African Americans took during the period of the Great Migration and afterwards. He took work in a delicatessen, sent for his mother and brother, and eventually landed a job at the central post office. During his early months in Chicago, Wright continued his self-education, reading voraciously, and by 1930 he had begun a novel of his own, tentatively titled Cesspool, which appeared posthumously in 1963 under the title Lawd Today.

Lawd Today chronicles one long day in the life of Jake Jackson, a hapless black employee of the central post office in Chicago. In it Wright adopts certain elements of the documentary style developed by John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. (1937) trilogy. The novel is set on Lincoln's birthday, and extracts from a patriotic commentary on the life of the Great Emancipator and on the Civil War, taken from a radio broadcast, punctuate the narrative. The counterpoint is of course ironic. Some sixty years after the war, Wright's black protagonist runs out the course of his life in what Wright figures as a “squirrel cage” (the subtitle of one section of the novel); the meaning of emancipation remained, in 1935 (when the novel was finished), obscure.

The plot of the novel is simple: we follow Jake from dawn to deep midnight as he argues with his wife, plays the numbers, cuts up with his friends, reports for work, struggles to keep his job, and has his pocket picked at a roughhouse of a midnight party. The novel ends with a bitter, drunken, bloody fight between Jake and his wife Lil. “Lawd, I wish I was dead,” she says to herself, weeping, while outside “an icy wind” sweeps around the corner of the building, “whining and moaning like an idiot in a deep black pit.” The echo in that last phrase of the bleak passage in Macbeth (1605–1606), from which William Faulkner took the title of his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, is no doubt deliberate. Also intentional is the echo of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland (1922) in the subtitle of the concluding section of Lawd Today, “Rats' Alley.” Wright's novel adapts both the techniques and the characteristic themes of the high modernists to a new purpose: a study of the alienation peculiar to American blacks in the great cities of the twentieth century. The novel succeeds admirably in this ambitious project, but it is also, more immediately, an indispensable record of African-American life in the era of the Great Depression; here Wright captures better than he ever would again the idioms, the vitality, and the great range of black American English. (The long, rambling conversation of Jake and his friends over a casual game of bridge is a tour de force in vernacular writing.)

Wright had, in 1931, become interested in communism—the party was active in Chicago, especially among blacks—and in 1933 he joined the local chapter of the John Reed Club, a national organization of left-wing writers and artists associated with the Communist Party; the following year he joined the party itself. His poetry began to appear in Left Front, The Anvil, and New Masses—the leading organs of the literary left, which was, in those days, a formidable element in American intellectual life. In 1937 Wright moved to New York City, where he began to distance himself from the party, whose discipline now seemed to him quite possibly inimical to his private interests as a writer. Although he continued to publish in its journals and to endorse its general aims, he never submitted to its discipline again. (He officially withdrew from the party in 1944.)

Lawd Today is a novel of Wright's apprenticeship to writers like Dos Passos, Faulkner, Eliot, and James Joyce. His second book, Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas, published by Harper and Brothers in 1938, forthrightly reflects his engagement with the Communist Party. It is, among other things, an experiment in socialist realism. With intoxicating optimism, and despite its often bleak and violent content, the book points toward a resolution of racial conflict in class solidarity. As the last of the four novellas, Fire and Cloud, concludes, a black preacher named Dan Taylor leads a march of white and black poor folks on city hall, demanding fair distribution of food to the Depression-starved masses: “A baptism of clean joy swept over Taylor,” we read.

"He kept his eyes on the sea of black and white faces. The song swelled louder and vibrated through him. This is the way! he thought. Gawd ain no lie! He ain no lie! His eyes grew wet with tears, blurring his vision: the sky trembled; the buildings wavered as if about to topple; and the earth shook.…He mumbled out loud, exultingly: “Freedom belongs to the strong!”"

As the title Fire and Cloud suggests, the novella, and the book as a whole, is a powerful reworking of the Mosaic story of the Exodus, which of course African-Americans had long made use of in their literature and song. The passage of the Israelites out of the wilderness of bondage and exile, and their crossing into the Promised Land, are here adapted to the transracial (and secular) dream of a socialist revolution.

Uncle Tom's Children was a commercial success; a second edition, to which a fifth story and a searing essay on The Ethics of Living Jim Crow were added, appeared in 1940. And yet the book left Wright unsatisfied; its warm reception troubled him. “I found that I had written,” he confessed in a 1940 essay titled How Bigger Was Born, “a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.” The book he produced is Native Son (1940), and in it we can see a sublimation, a redemption, of the aggressive motive that underlay its composition—the desire to deal his readers a blow so bitter and so hard as to deny them the cathartic consolation of tears. He would at last realize his ambition to make weapons out of words, and words out of weapons. And as for sentimental bankers' daughters, his need to hurt them, to make them feel the pain of the dispossessed, insofar as they were able, and insofar as novels would suffice to do the job, finds expression in symbolic action. For it is Mary Dalton, a banker's daughter of sorts—a naively leftist young woman who surely would have wept over Uncle Tom's Children—that Bigger Thomas kills.

Native Son

It is hard now rightly to estimate the force of Native Son, though the book retains the power to shock us. In 1940 it was utterly unprecedented in its terrifying violence (two killings, the first horribly brutal in its aftermath, the second singularly brutal in its execution); in its embrace of a wounded and sociopathic hero; and in its candid exploration of sexuality, a feature of the novel muted in the somewhat bowdlerized first edition of 1945. (For details of the novel's textual history, see the “Note on the Texts” in the Library of America 1991 edition of Native Son.)

The plot of the novel is brisk and has something of the momentum of a thriller. The opening section immerses us in Bigger Thomas's milieu, in the poverty-stricken environment of Chicago's South Side that produced him, and of which he is, in certain respects, the perfect expression. We follow him next into the home of Mr. Dalton, to whom Bigger has been recommended as a chauffeur by a relief organization. Dalton is a robber baron who has turned liberal philanthropist, and his daughter, Mary, is a fellow traveler in Chicago Communist Party circles and the lover of a Party organizer, Jan Erlone. Mary and Jan embrace Bigger with a solicitude that is at once condescending and oppressive, and which the novel satirizes effectively.

The killing itself is, on the face of it, an accident. Mary drinks herself into semiconsciousness during a date with Jan on this, Bigger's first night as the family chauffeur. On their return to the Dalton house, Bigger faces a dilemma: how can he get Mary into her bedroom without waking Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, who would then discover that Mary has not been, as she was supposed to be, attending a lecture? He cannot simply leave her in the car, but neither can he wake the Daltons and reveal that he has ignored their instructions—even if he did so at Mary's insistence—to drive her to a lecture. So he hauls Mary upstairs on his own—a tantalizing, painful ordeal during which, as the unbowdlerized 1991 edition makes clear, Mary clumsily comes on to Bigger. As he attempts to tuck her into bed—whether or not he intends to respond to her drunken sexual advances is not clear—Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway like an apparition. She is blind and cannot see Bigger, who in desperation covers Mary's face with a pillow to prevent her from answering her mother's call. For, should he be found at Mary's bedside, no account he might give of how he got there would prevent his being fired; or so, anyway, he fears—and with good reason after all. Before he realizes it, Mary is dead from suffocation; her mother, approaching the bed, gets a whiff of whiskey and cigarette smoke, concludes that the girl is drunk, and leaves her to sleep it off. Bigger stuffs the body into the furnace—he has to sever the head in order to make it fit—and cooks up a scheme to mislead police into believing that Mary has been kidnapped by local communists.

When a reporter, quite by chance, discovers fragments of bone in the ashes, Bigger flees; murders his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears, out of fear that she will betray him; and hides out among the dilapidated buildings of the South Side—the very buildings that absentee landlords like Mr. Dalton fail to develop so as artificially to inflate the rents they charge black tenants. Bigger is captured, charged with capital murder and rape—a crime he did not, in fact, commit—and tried. The Communist Party provides Bigger with an attorney, Boris Max, who, in the course of a long argument before the jury, offers an analysis of American racism that he hopes will account for Bigger's actions in such a way as to mitigate his responsibility and thereby save him from execution. But the effort fails; Bigger is convicted and sentenced to die.

In How Bigger Was Born, his account of the writing of the novel, Wright sets out a theory of authorship. The novelist's imagination, as he sees it, is an intersection of the “public” and “private”—by which he means an intersection of the “socially” determined and the “personally” directed. “An imaginative novel,” Wright explains, “represents the merging of two extremes; it is an intensely intimate expression on the part of a consciousness couched in terms of the most objective and commonly known events.” Associated with this idea is Wright's acknowledgement that much of the meaning of Native Son simply seemed to “happen” to him as he wrote; he did not “intend” so much as “discover” the meaning of the book.

"I say frankly that there are phases of Native Son that I shall make no attempt to account for. There are meanings in my book of which I was not aware until they literally spilled onto the paper. I shall sketch the outline of how I consciously came into possession of the materials that went into Native Son, but there will be many things I shall omit, not because I want to, but simply because I don't know them."

It is through the action of forces beyond the management of the author—Wright calls these “public” as opposed to “private” materials—that his “internal” and “personal” motives actually unfold. Writing is the experience both of acting and of being acted upon; it is in fact the experience of being unable to distinguish between acting and being acted upon.

Once we set the terms of the matter in this way, it becomes apparent that Bigger Thomas in some sense “represents” the situation of his author, and not merely because Wright “identifies” with his violent rebellion (although in How Bigger Was Born, he says that he does). Native Son situates Bigger precisely at the intersection of “external” compulsion and “internal” motivation, of “necessity” and “free will.” Nowhere is this better achieved than in the first murder scene. Wright constructs a scene wherein his protagonist is essentially compelled to commit a crime: circumstance, not Bigger's own volition, is the agent here. Bigger seems to have no true “agency”—no genuinely “personal” motivation—in committing this crime. But though the killing is, in fact, an “accident,” the novel shows how it is also what the critic Kenneth Burke, in another connection, has called a “representative accident.” The act may be “motivated” by necessity. But it unfolds, or allows to emerge, what Bigger himself comes to recognize as his own “true” motivation, his own will: he did have murder in his heart. Bigger discovers himself in the killing. “What I killed for, I am,” he says to his lawyer. “What I killed for must've been good!…I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em.” In taking responsibility for the act—even to the point of acknowledging to his lawyer that he had been, with Mary Dalton, a party to the erotic flirtation that preceded it—he makes his existence meaningful; he creates himself in the act. For the first time, he realizes that he is himself an agent—“a person acting,” not merely “a thing in motion” buffeted about by forces he cannot control. (Again, the terms are adapted from Kenneth Burke.)

In short, in Native Son, Wright depicts an act that is at once “accidental” and a “murder,” something that our legal code, nuanced though it may be, is unable to recognize. And indeed this is Boris Max's argument in his plea on behalf of Bigger: the occurrence at the Dalton home that night did in fact somehow represent Bigger's character, which had been hardened and tempered by oppression. And yet that occurrence was also predetermined, and Bigger's role in it cast long ago. Because our culture is organized by assumptions of white supremacy, and because white supremacy had for generations been so violent and brutal in its operations, the killing of Mary Dalton had about it an air of inevitability.

The whole interest of the novel is in how Wright plays through the paradoxical implications of Bigger's situation. In killing Mary Dalton, Bigger was both volunteer and draftee, both actor and pawn. To what extent did he act that night? To what extent was he only acted upon? Native Son brilliantly explores these questions. And in so doing, it uniquely equips the reader to understand Wright's remarks about authorship in “How Bigger Was Born.” In suffering the happy “accidents” of authorship, the novelist comes more deeply to feel his own, strictly private powers. And that, finally, is the situation of Bigger Thomas—to have his own purposes, his own meaning, revealed by accident. The moment of the killing is the moment where he seems least in control of his own fate, and most a mere cipher compelled by circumstance; but that moment precisely marks the point at which, for the first time in his bewildered life, he becomes meaningfully creative, the first time he ever comes into possession of himself. The killing, in fact, marks the moment of Bigger Thomas's birth, and we may take it, in light of what Wright says in How Bigger Was Born, as peculiarly emblematic of the new “birth” of freedom any author undergoes in risking so transgressive and original a novel as Native Son.

The 1940s and Black Boy

The publication of Native Son was a landmark; it brought to discussions of American race relations a candor as refreshing as it was unnerving. In the first three weeks of its release in 1940, the novel sold more than 200,000 copies and made Wright a literary star. (A successful stage adaptation, directed by Orson Welles, ran on Broadway from 1941 through 1943). For the first time in his life Wright felt financially secure, and his private affairs, too, began to fall into order. In 1941, after his first brief marriage to Dhima Rose Meadman ended unhappily, Wright married Ellen Poplar, a Communist Party organizer of Polish-Jewish extraction; the couple would remain together, bearing two daughters, Julia and Rachel.

On 9 April 1943 Wright delivered a lecture at Fisk University in Nashville, taking as his subject, as he put it later, “what I felt and thought about the world; what I remembered about my life, about being a Negro.” In this experience lay the impetus to begin his autobiography, and its complicated textual history bears looking into not simply for what it reveals about Wright's purposes, but for what it can tell us about the difficult situation of the African-American writer in the mid-twentieth century.

In December 1943 Wright was able to deliver the manuscript of American Hunger, as it was then called, to his agent in New York City. As it then stood, American Hunger was divided into two sections: “Southern Night,” which treats Wright's experiences in the South, up until he fled Memphis for Chicago in 1927, and “The Horror and the Glory,” which for the most part concerns Wright's experiences as a member of the Communist Party in Chicago, and which brings the narrative up to 1937, when he moved to New York City. The book was accepted in January 1944 by Edward Aswell, Wright's editor at Harper and Brothers. Within a month, the revised typescript was at the manufacturing department, and by May, Aswell was sending out bound galleys of American Hunger to other authors for statements he could use as advertising copy. But in June the Book-of-the-Month Club—at that time a formidable force in American publishing—expressed interest in the memoir, and thus began the exchange that ultimately led to the publication of only section 1 of the book—the section titled “Southern Night,” and known ever since as Black Boy. (The rest of the autobiography, about one-third again the length of Black Boy, remained unpublished until 1977, when Harper and Row released it as American Hunger, the title Wright had originally chosen for the work as a whole.)

Correspondence in the Harper and Brothers archive at Princeton makes clear that it was the Book Club's request that only the first part of the memoir be published. The book now was to end as Wright fled to Chicago, with the stark summary that closes section one of American Hunger: “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled.” Wright supplied, also at the suggestion of the Book Club, several pages of new material to round out this conclusion; these followed the two sentences quoted above after a type break. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, one of the Club's officials, acted as liaison between the Club and Wright, working with the author on these final revisions, sometimes suggesting changes, which Wright followed or ignored as he saw fit.

At one point, Fisher suggested a new way to end the book, putting it to Wright in the form of a question. What (she wondered) had inspired the young Richard Wright to suppose that life could, in fact, be lived with dignity? Must it not have been our fundamental political traditions? Had it not been the case (she hopefully asked) that from the “Bastille” of racial oppression, Wright had caught “a glimpse of the American flag?” Of course, Wright was no such believer in American promises; he closed Black Boy without a patriotic benediction. Still, it is only fair to Fisher to add that she was not suggesting this particular change as a condition of the book's acceptance by the Club. Instead, she was asking Wright, as one who should know, to confirm her belief in the democratic promise of America—a promise that simply must, she supposed, transcend cultural, racial, and geographical boundaries. And as for that “glimpse of the American flag,” when Fisher wrote this letter, the Normandy invasion was in its third week; she simply had to believe that the white supremacists were chiefly on the Nazi side of the lines. Wright knew better, and he could not offer her this consolation. He explained to Edward Aswell that he could make no such change as Fisher suggested and still remain faithful to his sense of what American realities actually were. From 1945 until 1991 readers knew Wright's autobiography as Black Boy and read the text that reflected his compromise with the Book Club. In 1991, however, the Library of America published Black Boy (American Hunger) in the form it would have taken had the Book Club never intervened; that text is now the standard.

Black Boy (American Hunger) is a narrative of captivity and of escape; it is, like Frederick Douglass's great autobiographies, the narrative of a fugitive. And there is always something rootless, something restless, about Wright's life and work; we can see this even in the constantly changing style of his prose. The modernist experiment of Lawd Today, his first book, gave way to an exercise in socialist realism, Uncle Tom's Children. After that came Native Son, an almost sociological novel undertaken in the tradition of Dreiser's great works of literary naturalism. Then came the autobiography; an existentialist novel, The Outsider (1953), written in France; travel books; books on politics; his last novel, The Long Dream (1958), which owes so much to psychoanalysis and which is set, as are no other of Wright's novels, in his native Mississippi; and, perhaps most startling of all, a series of some four thousand haiku, written toward the end of his life. Wright never once settled into a style, into a form, or even into a language; his diction, from book to book, is unsure and eclectic. Doubtless this has something to do with the fact that Wright was an autodidact, but it is associated as well with an essentially fugitive quality in his temperament. But from what is he a fugitive—from what is he always in flight?

The best answer to the question lies in a description Wright gives, in Black Boy (American Hunger), of his father as he saw him for the last time, after a separation of twenty-five years. The aged man stood “alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands.” “My mind and consciousness had become so greatly and violently altered,” says Wright, “that when I tried to talk to him I realized that, though ties of blood made us kin…we were forever strangers.” “I was overwhelmed,” he recalls,

"to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know. I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body."

His father was, and would always remain, a “creature of the earth,” a “peasant” held back from what Wright calls the “alien and undreamed of shores of knowing.” The logic underlying this remarkable passage is binary: “animality”-humanity, past-future, “rawness”-refinement, nature-culture, body-mind, “nakedness”-civility, peasantry-cosmopolitanism, and so on, and the terms of each pair are opposed to one another as father is to son. Wright sees in his father a man locked in what the existentialists he would soon be moving among might call a life of immanence: he is bound down by the fate of the body and by the inhuman claim of nature (by the seasons, by the weather, by physical appetites, and so on). His father dwells on the plane of what Wright later calls mere “physical living,” a level at which, in fact, there can be no existence “worthy of being called human.”

Slavery and its aftermath had inculcated in white folks—and colonialism tended to do the same everywhere white Europeans undertook it—a habit of assimilating the opposition black-white to the oppositions body-mind, savagery-civility, and animality-humanity. This assimilation accounts in part for the often morbid fascination with which white men and women contemplate the sexuality of people of color: color, in this context, comes to mean sexuality as such, or pure embodiedness. A life devoted to sensualism of a sort, a life led, as had been his father's, according to “direct, animalistic impulses,” always haunts Wright as the terrible possibility somehow marked out for him by white supremacy. Toward the end of his time in the South, when he was living in Memphis and painfully educating himself, often by subterfuge, he considered giving up the hard struggle to transcend the merely physical plane of existence on which his father had lived. “I could, of course, forget what I had read,” he writes, “thrust the whites out of my mind, forget them; and find release from anxiety and longing in sex and alcohol. But the memory of how my father had conducted himself made that course repugnant. If I did not want others to violate my life, how could I voluntarily violate it myself?” There is something chaste in this line of reasoning, something a little ascetic: violation and self-violation are fates worse than death.

Above all, Wright resisted the reduction of men to bodies, or of persons to things, as the foregoing discussion of Native Son perhaps indicates. And this humiliating reduction clearly underlies the “violation” Wright recalls having suffered at the hands of a white co-worker in the following passage from Black Boy:

"“Richard, how long is your thing?” he asked me.

“What thing?” I asked.

“You know what I mean,” he said. “The thing the bull uses on the cow.”

 I turned away from him; I had heard that whites regarded Negroes as animals in sex matters and his words made me angry.

 “I heard that a nigger can stick his prick in the ground and spin around on it like a top,” he said, chuckling. “I'd like to see you do that. I'd give you a dime if you did it.”"

At the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club, who worried that it might be judged obscene, Wright cut this passage from the first edition of Black Boy. Obscene it surely is, but the obscenity is intrinsic to white supremacy; this is the characteristic gesture of a regime that would, and at the cost of much more than a dime, lock more than half of humanity into the “crude,” “raw,” “naked,” “animalistic” prison house of the body. Black Boy (American Hunger) is a record of Wright's flight from precisely this fate, and the image of his broken father hangs behind the narrative like an admonition; it is an unsettling, ambivalent experience when Wright sees “the shadow of his own face” in his father's, as he puts it, and when he hears in his father's voice “an echo of his own.” This flight would soon lead Wright, together with his new family, into exile. Black Boy rose to the top of the best-seller list—in no small part owing to the marketing strategies of the Book-of-the-Month Club—and earnings from its sale allowed Wright to resettle in Paris in 1947, where he hoped to put behind him for good the racism he still daily faced even in relatively liberal New York City.

The Outsider

Wright began work on The Outsider, the first of his books to be written abroad, in 1948. He had moved with his family into apartments on the Rue de Lille in Paris, had embarked on extensive readings in Continental philosophy, and had formed close relationships with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the two leading exponents of French existentialism. The Outsider is a forthrightly philosophical novel, built upon the existentialist proposition, as its hero explains, that “man is nothing in particular.” The novel opens in Chicago, where Cross Damon, a black postal worker of a bookish turn of mind, finds himself trapped: his estranged wife demands child-support payments he can barely manage; his pregnant lover insists that he obtain a divorce and marry her, and, for leverage, hatches a plot to accuse him of statutory rape. (She had lied to him about her age.) When his wife, on discovering this new entanglement, reports his behavior to the Chicago postmaster, Damon's job is put in peril. Depressed, and drinking almost constantly, he considers suicide, finds himself unable to commit the deed, and descends into utter despair—only to be presented with a way out entirely by chance: a subway accident leaves him shaken, but alive, and when the body of a man who had been riding next to him is found mutilated beyond recognition with Cross's coat tangled about his body—it had gotten hung up as Cross made his escape from the wreck—the police conclude that he is dead. He assumes a false identity, resolves to create a new destiny for himself, and moves to New York City. There he is drawn into the intrigues of a group of Communist Party activists and commits four murders, partly to protect himself from discovery, but partly out of contempt for what the communists represent.

The novel's philosophical argument emerges from lengthy conversations between Cross Damon and Ely Houston, the Manhattan district attorney who ultimately uncovers his true identity, and from a protracted exchange between Damon and an official of the Communist Party who is suspicious of his intentions. The argument has two phases. First, Wright puts forward the Nietzschean view that behind all of the esteemed institutions that constitute Western culture—the church, political parties, so-called enlightened colonialism, and so on—lies a blind struggle of will. Self-sacrifice, altruism, the good of humanity, the white man's burden, the emancipation of the working class: these ideals are simply masks, impostures—instruments by means of which men, acting always in bad faith, dominate the lives of other men. Working through everything is a will to power that is itself amoral. This truth is hateful, which is precisely why we have succeeded so splendidly in deceiving ourselves about the nature of our own most cherished institutions; we do not want to think of ourselves as mere animals struggling for domination. However—and here is the second phase of Wright's argument—capitalist industrial development had, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, eroded the authority and prestige of religious, political, and philosophical institutions to the point that man will soon be compelled to confront himself as he “really” is. The “sentimental illusions” that used to “bind man to man,” as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto (1848), had—one by one—been drowned in the “icy waters” of cold, calculating power, as the West consolidated its grip on the productive capabilities of the entire globe. Humanity had been stripped bare. As Wright sees it, this is at once a curse and an opportunity: it is a curse because humans have been set adrift, have come unmoored from the ideals that used to anchor their enterprises and now find themselves disoriented; it is an opportunity because humans have for the first time acceded to the responsibility, which can be terrifying, to define themselves honestly. The Outsider is well suited to examine these problems; when he is mistakenly identified as among the dead in that subway wreck, Cross Damon stumbles upon precisely the opportunity, and also the burden, of self-creation. And what he discovers both exhilarates and horrifies him; namely, as we have seen, that “man is nothing in particular.”

The Outsider, on its appearance in 1953, confused some of Wright's readers and disappointed others; reviews were ambivalent. His years abroad, his dabblings in philosophy, his fascination with Parisian intellectual life—all this had caused him to lose touch, it was claimed, with his real subject matter; all of this had led him to attempt a kind of novel for which he was unprepared. To be sure, the writing in The Outsider is often awkward, so much so that it strikes many readers as pretentious. Wright's editors at Harper and Brothers required that he make extensive revisions to the manuscript, and they struck scores of phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs from the typescript as it went into production.

Wright does appear to have lost the surefootedness that kept the diction of Black Boy (American Hunger) so forceful and clear. One encounters in The Outsider hundreds of such ungainly sentences as this: “His face was the living personification of stupefied surprise.” Or this: “Imprisoned he was in a state of consciousness that was so infatuated by its own condition that it could not dominate itself; so swamped was he by himself with himself that he could not break forth from behind the bars of that self to claim himself.” Or this: “The assumptive promises he had welched on were not materially anchored, yet they were indubitably the things of this world, comprising as they did the veritable axis of daily existence.” The colloquial vigor of “welched” blends uncomfortably with such starched, bookish phrases as “assumptive promises” and “veritable axis” and with words like “indubitably”; the counterpoint hardly seems intentional or controlled. And why, one wonders, should Wright favor inversions like “imprisoned he was,” which one usually encounters in poetry, and then only when necessities of meter or rhyme require the distortion?

Still, the strange language in which The Outsider is written is actually quite fitting: it is an index of Wright's own restlessness as a man and as a writer—the restlessness that led him, as has been pointed out, to reinvent himself with every new book, and which drew him, at last, into exile. This is the prose of an “outsider,” the prose of a man who never felt quite at home, of a man who was forever a resident alien. The Outsider, precisely because it is a tortured and awkward book, is central to Wright's career. It is perfectly natural that he should compare Cross Damon's struggle to reinvent himself to the work of authorship. Cross, we are told, “would have to imagine this thing out, dream it out, invent it, like a writer constructing a tale.” And neither Cross in The Outsider, nor Wright in his life and work, would ever find a language quite adequate to this purpose.

The difficulty of Wright's style in The Outsider is that of a man who is never entirely master of the language he uses. And his situation is realized allegorically in the situation of Cross Damon—a figure who, more than any other character in Wright's fiction, speaks for his author. Damon tries to stand apart from the fates that would determine him—the fates of the past, of family, and of race. But neither he nor Wright nor any of us can really stand as though humans were authors of themselves and knew no other kin, to adapt a line from Shakespeare's Coriolanus (1607–1608). No human can ever truly possess himself or herself, or so anyway The Outsider seems to argue. And the matter was of peculiar interest to Richard Wright, owing to his own effort to emancipate himself from the past—from the nightmare of American history—and to reinvent himself through writing. This was an effort to the transcend the “animalistic” fate to which his father had been consigned by a racist culture he could neither combat nor ignore; this was a struggle to outrun the fate of the body itself—the fate of lapsing from personhood into mere thing-ness. Cross, we are told, “was despairingly aware of his body as an alien and despised object over which he had no power, a burden that was always cheating him of the fruits of his thought, mocking him with its stubborn and supine solidity.” His appetites always ruin him and are in the end untameable. To the extent that he thinks of himself as a body, to the extent that he allows his body to determine him—especially in a white supremacist culture that sees in the black body the flesh as such—to that extent precisely has he ceased to be a person. To that extent precisely has he been “chained,” as Wright's own father had been, to the “direct, animalistic impulses” of the body. Wright had nothing less than this great problem in mind when he dedicated Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954)—his book about the West African Gold Coast that was, at the time, emerging from British colonial domination and would become the nation of Ghana—to “the unknown African who, because of his primal and poetic humanity, was regarded by white men as a ‘thing’ to be bought, sold, and used as an instrument of production; and who, alone in the forests of West Africa, created a vision of life so simple as to be terrifying, yet a vision that was irreducibly human.” This “unknown African” is the father he would remember in all his life's work—the father America had denied him. And at last, The Outsider sets before us a challenge: how can we, now that all our illusions about humanity have been shattered by slavery and war and empire, begin at last to create a mode of living that truly deserves to be called human?

Richard Wright's Ordeal

In the last moments of The Outsider, Ely Houston asks Cross Damon a question: “How was it with you?” Some indication as to how Wright himself might answer this question if it were put to him is to be found in the Book of Job. It is hardly insignificant that Wright should have set passages from Job, that greatest and most baffling of Western meditations on suffering, at the head of no fewer than four of his books: Native Son (“Even today is my complaint rebellious, and my stroke is heavier than my groaning”); Black Boy (“His strength shall be hunger-bitten, and destruction shall be ready at his side”); The Outsider (“Mark me, and be astonished, and lay your hand upon your mouth”); and Savage Holiday (“And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness and smote the four corners of the house”).

So, how was it with Richard Wright? Apparently as it had been with Job in the midst of his own ordeal. The world seemed to him a place of inscrutable suffering—a place where punishment is administered without regard to justice, and prosperity bestowed without regard to merit. The Communist Party, at least as Wright knew it, attempted a nuanced and ultimately redemptive account of this suffering: it gave suffering meaning and indicated how it all would someday end. Evil was to the party no mystery. But for Wright evil appears to have remained precisely that—which may be one reason why he could not, at the end of the day, be satisfied with communism. He had, in the “southern night” of which he speaks in Black Boy, seen too much of motiveless malignity ever to suppose it might really be overcome; his American books are a chronicle of savage beatings, sadistic laughter, and acts that chill the blood.

Wright's work, especially the fiction, suggests that he had seen something truly unspeakable in his fellow men. And as he aged he found his satisfactions, it may be, where he could, and expected relatively little from the world—much less than he expected when he concluded the first edition of Uncle Tom's Children with an exhilarating promise of socialist revolution. Out of his later years come the ephemeral, often whimsical, pleasures of the haiku, a form hardly suited to the ambitious, totalizing analyses of political problems he had attempted in Native Son and The Outsider. And out of the same years come such scenes as the one in Pagan Spain (1957) that tells the charming, though melancholy, story of a meal he once shared with a Spanish family in Madrid, laughing into the dawn, cutting up, singing, and staging a mock bullfight. These are the good hours, Wright seems to suggest, when the world is somehow redeemed: a fugitive from Mississippi; a Spanish family left fatherless and widowed by Franco and the fascists; an hour or two of mirth set over against a Job-like world of torment; and a promise on Wright's part—for this is what he gave his new Spanish friends as he parted from them at the station—to tell what he had seen.

Still, from the time he published The Outsider until his death seven years later, Wright would never again find an audience like the one that bought copies of Native Son and Black Boy by the hundreds of thousands. Several nonfiction books followed over the next few years: Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, about the Gold Coast (later Ghana), which he visited in 1953; The Color Curtain (1956), a book about the 1955 conference of nonaligned nations in Bandung, Indonesia, which Wright had attended; Pagan Spain, the study of Spanish culture just discussed; and White Man, Listen! (1957), a collection of essays. Wright's last major novel, The Long Dream, which revisits his native Mississippi, appeared in 1958 to bad reviews. The following year the Wrights began preparations to resettle in London; Wright had grown estranged from the literary culture of his adopted Paris and was an outsider once again. But the move was never completed. Wright suffered a series of illnesses, ultimately dying of heart failure in a Paris clinic on 28 November 1960, at the young age of fifty-two—leaving the rest of us to mark him, lay our hands upon our mouths, and be astonished at his violent and redemptive imagination.

See also Harlem Renaissance and Mencken, H. L.

Selected Works

Uncle Tom's Children (1938)
Native Son (1940)
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)
The Outsider (1953)
Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954)
Savage Holiday (1954)
The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956)
Pagan Spain (1957)
White Man, Listen! (1957)
The Long Dream (1958)
Eight Men (1961)
Lawd Today (1963)
American Hunger (1977)
Richard Wright. Vol. 1, Early Works. Vol. 2, Later Works. (1991)

Further Reading

  • Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York, 1972. This book is not devoted to Wright, but it does offer the best portrait we have of the left-wing literary culture of the 1930s in which Wright first found his voice.
  • Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated from the French by Isabel Barzun. New York, 1973. A biography; especially valuable for its treatment of Wright's years in France.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. New York, 1993. A useful anthology of reviews and essays; contains an extensive bibliography of secondary material.
  • Kinnamon, Kenneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study in Literature and Society. Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1972.
  • Rampersad, Arnold, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1995. An important reassessment of Wright by a number of scholars.
  • Rolwey, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York, 2001. The first new biography to be published since Margaret Walker's appeared in 1988.
  • Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Demonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work. New York, 1988.
  • Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York, 1968.

See also the article on Native Son, immediately following.

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