Richard Wright was one of the first African-Americans to rise to gain fame and fortune as a professional writer. He published in numerous literary genres, including, short stories, autobiographies, novels, haikus and other forms of poetry, and a folk history. His influence went far beyond his own work, affecting the literary careers of many other African-Americans, including James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker. Among Wright’s literary achievements were his ability to portray Black America to White America in a stark new light and his understanding that words could be used as weapons in the America’s racial conflict. In American Hunger he wrote, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
Richard Nathan Wright was born September 4, 1908 on Rucker’s Plantation, located near Natchez, Mississippi. He had only one sibling, a younger brother, Leon. While his father, Nathaniel, could not read, his mother Ella Wilson, was a schoolteacher. Richard was only five when Nathaniel abandoned Ella. She quit teaching, and took on a number of jobs that forced her to spend long periods of time far away from home until she was paralyzed in 1920. Richard and Leon spent some time in an orphanage before moving to Jackson to live with Wright’s maternal grandparents, the Wilsons. Richard’s grandparents were strict Seventh Day Adventists; in his book Black Boy he writes of her forbidding any type of creativity including music or books. His stern grandmother and broken mother were to have a profound influence on the way Wright portrayed women and religion in his works.
Wright’s first success as a writer came when he able to publish “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre” in the Southern Register. He had not yet completed Smith Robertson Junior High School at the time, but graduated as class valedictorian in 1925. He attended Lanier High School, but dropped out to work on a number of odd jobs, saving up enough money to eventually escape his grandmother’s household and leave Jackson for Memphis, Tennessee when he was seventeen.
Memphis was where Richard really became exposed to American Literature. In the Jim Crow South a black man was not allowed to have a library card, but Richard contrived a scheme to use a white man’s card and checked out numerous books including the works of H.L. Mencken, which had a profound affect on him. As his education increased, so did his awareness of the Jim Crow South and his desire to escape it. He finally did so in 1927 when he took a train to Chicago.
In Chicago, Wright continued to take odd jobs – a post office worker, an insurance agent – but he continued to produce his own work as well. He was a member of the South Side Writers Group, where he met Margaret Walker in 1936. It was a symbiotic relationship. Wright helped Walker to explore how literature could be used for social activism, and after Richard moved to New York, Walker sent him clippings from the Robert Nixon case, which Wright used later in writing Native Son. His first major story, “Superstition” appeared in Abbots Monthly in 1931. He also published poetry in Left Front, Midland Left, Anvil, International Literature, Partisan Review, and New Masses. Chicago was also where Richard was introduced to the Communist Party. He joined in 1932 and became executive secretary on the John Reed Club, an intellectual arm of the Communist Party.
Wright’s Communist ties helped him when he moved to New York in 1937 where he became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and coeditor of Left Front. He was also involved in the startup of the magazine New Challenger. Still most critics agree that his professional literary career really began in 1938 when he published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories. The response to Children was extremely positive, but Richard was uncomfortable with the sympathy the characters evoked. He vowed that his next creation would not be characters the reading public would shed tears for. Wright wanted to confront white America with a more accurate picture of black male America, not as patient and subservient but seething with rage and frustration. When he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, he resigned from the Federal Writers Project and used it to complete his first novel, Native Son, in 1940. In the novel, Wright exposes the cruel effect of racism on the black population of the 1930’s through the psychological corruption and castration of the main character Bigger Thomas. Bigger’s frustration and impotence fill him with anger and fear, a suspicion that white America is conspiring to rob him of his individuality as a black man, and the only way to save himself, to create himself, is through murder.
He felt in the quiet presence of his mother, brother, and sister a force, inarticulate and unconscious, making for a living without thinking, making for peace and habit, making for a hope that blinded. He felt that they wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was only one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others were doing if that did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was be bold, do something nobody ever thought of. The whole thing came to him in a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never get caught at it... Elation filled him.
The public response was phenomenal. Native Son was the first bestselling novel by a black American writer and the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American writer. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1941. He became the wealthiest and most famous black writer in America. While Wright’s success with this novel made many black Americans proud, many others were concerned by the protagonist’s stereotypical “brute Negro” behavior, which other black writers had been trying to overcome with novels of uplift. Wright argued that racist America had created Bigger, and therefore in order to prevent more desperate people like Bigger reacting to this oppression in the same destructive way America itself had a responsibility to change. Native Son continues to be regarded as Wright’s greatest and most influential book, and has resulted in him being known as the father of Black American literature. The book was adopted on Broadway in 1941 by Orson Wells. In 1947, a Hollywood producer offered to make a film on Native Son but wanted change the character of Bigger Thomas into a white man, but Wright refused. He produced a movie version in 1951 with himself in the role of Thomas, but it was poorly received, with notable criticism directed toward Wright, who was seen as too old for the primary role. A second version of the film was produced in 1986 with Matt Dillon playing the role of the communist Jan Erlone, but it too failed to make any lasting positive critical impressions.
In 1941, Wright published Twelve Million Black Voices, a folk history in which he used photographs along with prose to trace the American Negro’s history from the horrors of the Middle Passage through slavery, the Great Migration and their continued exploitation in Northern tenements. In 1945 he published, the semi-autobiographical Black Boy, narrating events in his boyhood up until he left Jackson for Memphis. While critically not as well-received as Native Son, many scholars consider Black Boy to be one of the best African American autobiographies, displaying Wright’s mastery of language, symbolism, and narration. Like Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, Wright’s story transcends the personal to encompass an entire generation of the Black experience.
In his personal life, Wright was briefly married to a white dancer, Dhimah Rose Meadman, but they separated almost immediately. In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a white Communist; they had two daughters: Julia in 1942, and Rachel in 1949. However, Wright was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Communist party, and broke from it in 1944, publicizing his break in “I Tried to Be a Communist” published in Atlantic Monthly. While the Communist party understood the issue of class, from Wright’s perspective it failed to take into consideration the unique situation of blacks in America and the added dimension of race into the equation of human existence.
Richard moved to Paris in 1946 and became a French citizen in 1947. Many critics feel that this decision distanced him emotionally from the political and psychological forces that had been his inspiration, and the quality of his work suffered. He became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and their existentialist influence (along with Dostoevsky’s) was clear in his second novel, The Outsider (1953), a novel where the protagonist attempts to exist outside of social norms, law, and morality. In 1954, his work Savage Holiday, a novel whose main characters were not black, was focused more on the narrative and entertainment value than on social change. In the mind 1950s, he began traveling throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. His travels and subsequent nonfiction writings reflect a growing concern for the emerging “Third World” countries, which led to a number of his nonfiction works. Black Power (1954) examined the color line in Africa and the new elitists in the former colonies. Among the critics of Power was Ghanian writer Kwame Appiah, who argued that Wright’s recommendation that Africans abandon tribal traditions to move into a new technological world showed a lack of understanding. The Color Curtain (1956) was a recounting of his experiences at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia of the twenty-nine new African and Asian nations. In Curtain, Wright continues a theme evident in much of his work: the irrational but very real forces of race and religion in society. Wright’s cynicism about religion was evident in Pagan Spain (1956). Wright uses the anecdotes of Spaniards to criticize the violence and hypocrisy of the Franco government while professing its commitment to Catholicism.
During his last years Wright had contracted an illness, amoebic dysentery and he was also plagued by financial hardship. During this period he published what was originally a series of lectures in White Man Listen! and over 4000 English haikus. His next novel, The Long Dream, published in 1958, was intended to be the first in a trilogy and a return to his philosophy of composition that writing should be a form of social protest. Wright began its sequel in “Island of Hallucinations,” set in France, but it received poor reviews. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960, in financial debt, separated from his family, and on bad terms with his fellow black expatriates. The official cause was a heart attack, but his lack of previous heart disease, rushed cremation without autopsy, and failure of officials to notify the family caused conspiracy theories to erupt. He was cremated along with a copy of Black Boy. After his death several other works were published. In 1963 Lawd Today was published, which he had been working on as “Cesspool” in Chicago in the early 1930s. A collection of short stories, Eight Men followed. Finally American Hunger, the continuation of his life story after Black Boy, was published in 1977.
Wright influenced numerous other writers, including Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Ellison agreed with Wright’s naturalistic determinism, but criticized Wright’s portrayal of Black life as to limited and aiding in stereotypes of black males. James Baldwin benefited from his acquaintance with Wright when Richard recommended him for a Eugene Saxton Fellowship in 1945. Like Ellison, he criticized Wright in a series of critical essays, Notes of a Native Son, for oversimplification in using the novel as a form of social protest.
Prominent critical works and biographies on Wright include: Harold Bloom (ed.), Richard Wright: Modern Critical Views (1987); Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973, 1993) and The World of Richard Wright (1985); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993); Addison Gayle, Richard Wright: The Ordeal of a Native Son (1980); Joyce Ann Joyce, Richard Wright’s Art of Tragedy (1986); Keneth Kinnamon, The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study of Literature and Society (1972), A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1932-1982 (1988), Keneth Kinnamon (ed.), New Essays on Native Son (1990); Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre (eds.), Conversations with Richard Wright (1993);Edward Margolies, The Art of Richard Wright (1969) Eugene Miller, Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990); Margaret Walker, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988); and John A. Williams, The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970).
Fowler, Gregory W.. "Richard Wright". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 March 2005
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