The works of Richard Wright (1908-1960), politically sophisticated and socially involved African American author, are notable for their passionate sincerity. He was perceptive about the universal problems that plague mankind.
Richard Wright was born in Natchez, Miss., on Sept. 4, 1908. His mother was a country school teacher and his father an illiterate sharecropper. The family moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 1914, and soon the father abandoned them. Richard's schooling was spotty, but he had experiences beyond his years. He knew what it was to be a victim of racial hatred before he learned to read, for he was living with an aunt when her husband was lynched by a white mob. Richard's formal education ended after the ninth grade in Jackson, Miss. The fact that his "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-acre" had been published in the local black paper set him apart from his classmates. He was a youth upon whom a "somberness of spirit" had already settled.
At 19 Wright decided he wanted to be a writer. He moved to Chicago, where he had access to public libraries. He read all he could of Dostoevsky, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry and William James. His interest in social problems led to an acquaintance with the sociologist Louis Wirth. When Richard's mother, brother, and an aunt came to Chicago, he supported them as a postal clerk until the job ended in 1929. After months of living on public welfare, he got a job in the Federal Negro Theater Project in the Works Progress Administration, a government relief agency. Later he became a writer for the Illinois Writers' Project.
Meantime, Wright had joined the John Reed Club, beginning an association with the Communist party. His essays, reviews, short stories, and poems appeared regularly in Communist papers, and by 1937, when he became Harlem editor of the Daily Worker, he enjoyed a considerable reputation in left-wing circles. Four novellas, published as Uncle Tom's Children (1938), introduced him to a large general audience.
Wright's first novel, Native Son (1940), a brutally honest depiction of black, urban ghetto life, was an immediate success. The story's protagonist embodies all the fear, rage, and rebellion, all the spiritual hunger and the undisciplined drive to satisfy it, that social psychologists were just beginning to recognize as common elements in the personality of the underprivileged and dispossessed of all races.
Wright's intention was to make the particular truth universal and to project his native son as a symbol of the deprived in all lands. Contemporary critics, however, un-impressed by the universal symbol, were interested instead in Wright's passionate indictment of white racism and the life-style it imposed upon blacks. Wright's implication that there was another and a better way of social organization than democracy, and that communism was perhaps that better way, also impressed them. This implication was toned down in the stage version (1941). In 1941 Wright also published Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro of the United States.
By 1940 Wright had married and divorced; and a few months after his second marriage, he broke with the communist party. (His "I Tried To Be a Communist," published in the Atlantic in 1944, was reprinted in 1949 in The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossman.) The break freed him from social and ideological commitments that were beginning to seem onerous. In Black Boy, a fictionalized autobiography, his only commitment is to truth. The book was published in January 1945, and sales reached 400,000 copies by March. Wright accepted an invitation from the French government to visit France, and the three-month experience, in sharp contrast to his experience in his own country, "exhilarated" him with a "sense of freedom." People of the highest intellectual and artistic circles met him "as an equal."
Wright and his wife and daughter moved permanently to Paris. Within a year and a half Wright was off to Argentina, where he "starred" in the film version of Native Son.
The Outsider, the first of three novels written in France, was deeply influenced by the existentialists, whose most famous spokesmen, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were Wright's warm friends. Following Savage Holiday (1954), a potboiler, The Long Dream (1958) proved that Wright had been too long out of touch with the American reality to deal with it effectively. None of the novels written in France succeeded. His experiments with poetry did not produce enough for a book.
In 1953 Wright visited Africa, where he hoped to "discover his roots" as a black man. Black Power (1954) combines the elements of a travel book with a passionate political treatise on the "completely different order of life" in Africa. In 1955 he attended the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung and published his impressions in The Color Curtain (1956). Pagan Spain (1956), based on two months in Spain, is the best of his nonfiction works. White Man, Listen (1957) is a collection of four long essays on "White-colored, East-West relations."
In 1960, following an unhappy attempt to settle in England, and in the midst of a rugged lecture schedule, Wright fell ill. He entered a hospital in Paris on November 25 and died three days later. Eight Men (1961), a collection of short stories, and Lawd Today (1963), a novel, were published posthumously.
Further Reading on Richard Wright
Constance Webb, Richard Wright (1968), is a "definitive" but dull biography. Full-length critical works are Edward Margolies, The Art of Richard Wright (1969), which emphasizes Wright's role in paving the way for a new generation of Negro authors; Dan McCall, The Example of Richard Wright (1969), a fascinating critique; and Russell C. Brignano, Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works (1970). See also Robert Bone, Richard Wright (1969), a brief perspective. James Baldwin's "Alas, Poor Richard" in his Nobody Knows My Name (1961) is not to be trusted as a delineation of an episode in Wright's life, and its condescending tone spoils it as literary criticism. David Littlejohn's discussion of Wright in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (1966) is worth reading if only to see how misprized a major black novelist can be.