The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright, 1961

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by Richard Wright, 1961

With the publication of his novel Native Son in 1940, Richard Wright became a cultural celebrity who was not only identified as a spokesperson for African Americans but also as a best-selling author. When his autobiographical Black Boy (1945) was submitted for publication, the editors at Harper Brothers lopped off the conclusion as too critical of the Communist party, which had been favorably portrayed in Native Son. (The excised material appeared in 1977, well after Wright's death, as American Hunger.) In the previous year he published, in venues apart from Harper, two lengthy pieces. One was the autobiographical narrative "I Tried to Be a Communist," which was famous in its time in part because it was reprinted in Richard Crossman's anthology The God That Failed (1949). The other was Wright's best single piece of imaginative writing, The Man Who Lived Underground.

When read together, these two works signal a turning point in the development of Wright's interpretation of experience. The first piece deals critically with the initial affirmation of Wright's intellectual career, his experience within the orbit of the American Communist Party. The theme of his memoir is that the party was always more interested in expanding and solidifying its power than in helping Wright or any African American advance. What makes the memoir a transitional work in Wright's intellectual development is the enormous change in his concept of how good and evil function in social reality. In his early fiction, such as Native Son, some characters clearly shine as friends of African Americans, and others are patently enemies. Wright's attitude toward these figures is decisive. In this and his later work, however, distinctions in Wright's world become less clearly defined.

The Man Who Lived Underground represents Wright's first wholly imaginative attempt at creating a more fluid and ambiguous moral universe. Whereas crimes were once determined by social conditions and, therefore, as in Native Son, sometimes rationalized, they are now presented as acts of accidental impulse. Whereas the earlier book saw reality in the most ordinary activities, here Wright describes events that are often preposterous and whose causes are usually mysterious.

A young African American, escaping from the police, jumps into a manhole to find himself imprisoned in the underground darkness. It seems that the police have accused him of murdering a Mrs. Peabody, but we never know whether or not he actually committed the crime. Sloshing through the slime, the young man encounters various alternatives, and unlike the desperate Bigger Thomas, who is forced to take whatever aid comes to him, Wright's generally nameless protagonist here scans all choices with the cold eye of a gambler. Death, the eternal escape, is the first alternative that fate offers him. Seeing the tiny nude body of a baby snagged in sewer debris, he contemplates its significance for himself, only to kick it loose from its mooring and propel it down the stream.

Through a crack in the wall of an abandoned sewer case, he peeks into the basement of a black church and surveys African American religion, which he finds ludicrously unable to cope with the problems of life:

His first impulse was to laugh, but he checked himself. They oughtn't to do that, he thought. But he could think of no reason why they should not do it. Just singing with the air of the sewer blowing in on them.

He is seized by the desire to shout that their singing is all in vain, but he squelches the impulse.

Fundamentally, The Man Who Lived Underground is, like Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment, about the perils of the sociopolitical choice of complete isolation. It is a type of emigration from America that Ralph Ellison christened "going-under-ground" in his prophetic 1945 article on Wright. Like Dostoevskii before him, Wright meticulously illustrates how separation from the world slowly debilitates the outcast's moral character and, eventually, his human essence. First, the protagonist progressively loses the recognition of how his actions are related to others, as well as his sense of moral values and the pragmatic awareness of actual effects. He burrows into a radio shop and steals some merchandise that he cannot use. As he later observes the owner of the shop accusing an employee of theft, he wonders why he is unable to feel guilty, conjecturing that the principal reason for the absence of feeling is his inability to relate goods to people. That is, he cannot recognize that he is taking something from somebody. In a later scene, after he robs a safe, he watches the police physically beat a watchman into making a confession, and, to his surprise, he feels little remorse. In discovering that anything is possible, he makes the collateral discovery that nothing is morally unjustifiable: "Maybe anything is right he mumbled. Yes, if the world as men have made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture."

Upon emerging from the hole into the midst of traffic, the young man finds that cars swerve "to shun him and the gaping hole," and a voice screams, "You blind, you bastard?" (Which is to say, blind to worldly realities.) Soon afterward, he enters a black church, hoping for solace. An anonymous voice complains that "he's filthy," and an usher escorts him back into the street. The young man later inexplicably goes directly to the police station and confesses to his crime. The policemen reveal that someone else has already confessed to the Peabody murder, and they attempt to dismiss him as a crank. The man who lived underground no longer comprehends the worldly reality of social "freedom," however. Instead, he insists that the police arrest him and, to clinch their case, accompany him to his cave. Embarrassed, the officers follow the man to his sewer, and after he descends the ladder, they shoot him.

Wright's explanation for this metamorphosis resembles Dostoevskii's: once the man becomes the sole inhabitant of his own universe, he becomes his own God. "Sprawling before him in his mind," Wright says of his protagonist, "was his wife, Mrs. Wooton for whom he worked, the three policemen who had picked him up…. He possessed them now more completely than he ever possessed them when he had lived aboveground." Once the man becomes the sole, ultimate judge of his actions, he also becomes his own God, and anyone so emancipated from extrinsic authority is capable of both crime without guilt and honesty without prudence. The man who lived underground loses his human identity. When he first steals a typewriter, he picks the name "freddaniels," which may or may not be his own name, but when he returns to his cave, he attempts the same task only to discover that he has forgotten his name. Earlier, coming upon a lunch basket, he gobbles up the sandwiches and fruit with the greed of an uninhibited animal: "Then, like a dog, he ground the meat bones with his teeth." Wright's final point is that escape into total isolation, while it may at first seem attractive, if not inevitable, condemns the escapee to qualities not fully human.

Perhaps the surest measure of the imaginative impact of this Wright fiction is the fact that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1953), begun soon after the publication of The Man Who Lived Underground, opens with a likewise nameless underground man, now speaking in the first person rather than in Wright's third person. Remembering Ellison's interest in jazz, one can speak of Ellison blowing riffs on Wright's tune. In my book Politics in the African-American Novel (1991), I read Invisible Man as an implicit commentary on Wright.

The Man Who Lived Underground was initially published in 1945 as a novelette in Cross-Section: A Collection of New American Writing, which also contained Ralph Ellison's "Flying Home." It was collected in Wright's Eight Men in 1961 and was published in a bilingual edition in 1971.

—Richard Kostelanetz

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The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright, 1961

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