Wright, Richard 1908–1960
Richard Wright 1908–1960
New York: Capital of Art and Literature
As a poor black child growing up in the Deep South, Richard Wright suffered poverty, hunger, racism, and violence—experiences that later became central themes of his work. Wright stands as a major literary figure of the 1930s and ‘40s, his writings a departure from those of the Harlem Renaissance school. Steeped in the literary naturalism of the Depression era, Wright’s work expresses a realistic and brutal portrayal of white society’s oppression of African Americans. Anger and protest served as a catalyst for literature intended to promote social change by exposing the injustices of racism, economic exploitation, and imperialism. Through his art, Wright turned the torment of alienation into a voice calling for human solidarity and racial advancement.
Wright was born on September 8,1908, in the backwoods of Mississippi, on a plantation 25 miles north of Natchez, to a farmer and a schoolteacher. Descended from a family lineage of black, white, and Choctaw Indian, he spent the early years of his life playing among the “moss-clad” oaks along the Mississippi River. After failing to make a profit on his rented farm, Wright’s father decided to move the family to Memphis, Tennessee. Upon arrival by paddleboat steamer in 1911, the Wrights took residence in a two-room tenement not far from Beale Street. To Wright, the concrete pavement appeared hostile and dreary compared to the pastoral serenity of his former home. In a city filled with brothels, saloons, and storefront churches, Wright encountered the terrors of violence, vice, and racism.
The increasing absence of his father fueled Wright’s growing sense of anger and estrangement. By the time the boy was six years old, his father had deserted the family to live with another woman. At first, he was elated to be free from his father’s abusive behavior, but he soon realized that this newfound freedom brought severe poverty. “The image of my father became associated with the pangs of hunger,” wrote Wright in his autobiography Black Boy. “Whenever I felt hunger, I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness.” Left with two children to support, Wright’s mother went to work as a housemaid and cook. After a brief period in an orphanage around 1915, Wright attended school for a short time at Howard Institute. “This period in Memphis was the beginning of adult suffering,” wrote poet Margaret Walker in her book Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius, “the beginning of a terrible rage that he himself did not always understand.”
Around 1919 the failing health of Wright’s mother forced her to take the children to live with relatives in Arkansas. A year
Born September 8, 1908, in Adams County, MS; died of a heart attack November 28, 1960, in Paris, France; son of Nathan “Nate” (a farmer) and Ella Wilson (a schoolteacher) Wright; married Rose Dhimah Mead-man, 1939; married Ellen Poplar, 1941.
Published first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” 1924; worked variously as a dishwasher, busboy, porter, street sweeper, and group leader for a Chicago Boys Club; worked for U.S. Postal Service, Chicago, beginning in 1932; wrote poetry for leftist publications; attended American Writers’ Congress, New York City, 1935; prepared guidebooks for Federal Writer’s Project, mid-1930s; worked for Federal Theater Project, 1936; wrote for the Daily Worker, late 1930s; published Uncle Tom’s Children, 1938; published Native Son, 1940; published autobiography Black Boy, 1945; lectured, appeared on radio and television, and contributed to periodicals, late 1940s; attended Bandung Conference in Indonesia, 1955.
Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1939; Works Progress Administration award, late 1930s; Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1941, for Native Son.
later, the Wrights moved to Richard’s devoutly religious grandparents’ home in Jackson, Mississippi. The household was dominated by Wright’s grandmother and Aunt Addie, both of whom were Seventh-Day Adventists. Because of his rebellious attitude toward evangelical teachings, Wright lived as an outsider within the family. Although nonreligious literature was forbidden, he managed to acquire pulp magazines, newspapers, and detective stories. Inspired by local folklore, country sermons, and popular literature, Wright’s first story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” was published in 1924 by a local black newspaper. Undaunted by the family’s criticism of his work, Wright aspired to become a writer.
To pursue this dream, Wright shifted his attention northward, to a place where he could escape the hostility of southern rural evangelical culture. With only a ninth-grade education and little money in his pocket, Wright fled to Memphis at the age of 17. There he became acquainted with the work of H. L. Mencken. In the fiery prose of Mencken, Wright learned that words could serve as weap-ons with which to lash out at the world. Soon afterward, Wright discovered such naturalist writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis. As Arnold Rampersad stated in the introduction to Wright’s Lawd Today, the author’s avid study of serious literature in Memphis became “the most effective counter to both his profound sense of isolation and the dismal education he received as a boy in Mississippi.”
Unfortunately, Wright did not find the atmosphere of Memphis as enlightening as his private studies. Violence and hatred perpetrated by whites reinforced his dim view of the South. In November of 1927, Wright boarded a train bound for Chicago. His departure symbolized the end of a stay in an alien land where he existed as a “non-man” within the chasm of the black and white worlds.
Wright’s family soon joined him in Chicago. Together they lived in a cramped apartment on the city’s South Side. Bored with his studies, Wright left high school to help support the family. He took a number of odd jobs, working as a dishwasher, porter, busboy, street sweeper, and group leader at a South Side Boys Club. In 1932 Wright worked as a clerk at the Chicago post office. Nicknamed “the University,” the post office employed numerous radical intellectuals, some of whom invited Wright to attend the meetings of the John Reed Club, a revolutionary writers’ organization. While exposing him to Communist literature and Marxist ideology, club members encouraged Wright to pursue a professional writing career. Inspired by their support and enthusiasm, Wright began to write poetry for various left-wing publications.
Around this time, Wright’s interest in race relations and radical thought led him to join the Communist party. Within the Communist ranks, he found, for the first time, a formidable peer group sharing a common goal of promoting racial and social equality. “It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression,” Wright stated in his contribution to the book The God That Failed, “Negro experience could find a home, a functioning value and role.” For a brief period, Wright’s sense of loneliness subsided. Communism appeared to offer an alternative that could not only quell his own inner conflict, but the threat of poverty and racism confronting the disinherited peoples of all nations.
In 1935, after the Communist party disbanded the John Reed Clubs, Wright hitchhiked to New York, where, along with prominent writers like Langston Hughes, Malcolm Cowley, and Dreiser, he attended the American Writers’s Congress. Back in Chicago that year, he found employment preparing guidebooks for the Federal Writer’s Project, a New Deal relief program for unemployed writers. Early in 1936, Wright was transferred for a short time to the Federal Theater Project. Wright also wrote for the Daily Worker and started work on a collection of short stories and a novel, posthumously published as Lawd Today in 1963.
Wright’s burgeoning literary career, however, soon conflicted with his membership in the Communist party. In Chicago, his study of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and literature led him to question the rigid policies of Stalinism and the aesthetic aspects of socialist realism. He found that recruiting, organizing, and distributing party literature interfered with his writing assignments. Moreover, the expulsion of many fellow members and the constant questioning concerning his loyalty alerted Wright to the duplicitous and paranoid nature of the organization. Accused of betraying the party by several Chicago Communists in 1937, Wright— tired of the Chicago scene—decided to leave for New York.
Not long after arriving in New York City, Wright won a Works Progress Administration award for his collection of novellas, published as Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938. Based on Wright’s Mississippi boyhood, “these stories were almost unbearable evocations of cruel realities,” explained poet Arna Bontemps in Anger and Beyond. “His purpose was to force open closed eyes, to compel America to look at what it had done to the black peasantry in which he was born.”
For the better part of a year, Wright took time off from his jobs at the Writer’s Project and the Daily Worker to work on a novel. Published in 1940, Native Son became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, selling over a quarter of a million copies in six months. By far Wright’s most famous and financially successful book, Native Son is a militant racial manifesto exposing the evils of racism and the capitalist oppression of blacks in urban society. Based on the actual criminal case of convicted killer Robert Nixon, the book describes the story of Bigger Thomas, a street-hardened black youth who murders the daughter of a well-to-do white family while working as their chauffeur. Hunted down by white society, Bigger is sentenced to death by the very power structure responsible for his alienation, subjugation, and ultimate impulse to commit murder.
In 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Wright the Spingarn Medal for Native Son. Another great honor was bestowed on Wright when actor-producers John Houseman and Orson Welles mounted a stage adaption of Native Son, featuring the outstanding actor Canada Lee in the role of Bigger. Also in 1941, Wright published his third book, Twelve Million Black Voices, a folk history featuring photographs by Edwin Rosskam. Following his formal break with the Communist party in 1944, Wright wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “I Tried to Be a Communist,” explaining his reasons for leaving the party. Wright’s finest work of the decade, however, was his autobiography Black Boy. Published in 1945, Black Boy is a harrowing record of Wright’s early years in the South. In a review in the Nation, noted literary scholar Lionel Trilling described Black Boy as a “remarkable book” of great “distinction” and “purpose.” Social scientists and historians continue to study the book’s impact on black and white society long after its publication.
Encouraged by avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, Wright expressed an interest in visiting France. In the spring of 1946, he embarked for Paris on an ocean steamer. The city’s colorful streets and cultured citizenry greatly impressed Wright. Stein introduced him to a number of leading French intellectuals, including Claude Magny and Maurice Nadeau. Wright went back to New York in January of 1947. He intended to resume work there, but rampant racism and the anti-radicalism of the Cold War era made him restless to return to France. In May of 1948, Wright moved into an apartment on Paris’s Left Bank.
In permanent exile in Paris, Wright enjoyed celebrity status. He spent a great deal of time lecturing throughout Europe and appearing on radio and television. Besides his close association with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the members of the Les Temps Modernes group, Wright became an active member of the Pan-African organization Presence Africaine. His 1953 novel, The Outsider, exemplifies the increasing influence of existentialism on his work. Black Power, completed following his trip to Ghana in 1954, presents a Pan-African perspective. After attending a 29-nation gathering of representatives of African and Asian countries at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Wright wrote The Color Curtain, which appeared in 1956. A year later, he produced a travelogue, Pagan Spain, based on his observations of Spanish culture, politics, and religion. Up until his death from a heart attack in Paris in 1960, Wright continued to work on several literary projects, including a collection of short stories, Eight Men, published posthumously in 1961.
From the depths of the Mississippi Delta to the cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Richard Wright emerged an international literary figure championing the cause of social and racial justice. Poet, writer, social critic, and journalist, Wright authored about a dozen books and numerous poems and essays, most of which address the evils of racism and man’s inhumanity to man. “Wright’s unrelentingly bleak language was not merely of the Deep South or Chicago,” commented writer James Baldwin in an essay titled “Alas Poor Richard,” “but that of the human heart.” It was Wright’s destiny, as he himself wrote in The God That Failed, “to hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo...no matter how faintly.” Decades after his death, Wright’s words still reverberate across the world—their dark and ominous tone embodying a message of hope for all humanity.
Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas, Harper & Brothers, 1938.
Native Son, Harper & Brothers, 1940.
Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, Viking, 1941.
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, Harper & Brothers, 1945.
The Outsider, 1953.
Black Power, Harper & Brothers, 1954.
Savage Holiday, Avon, 1954.
The Color Curtain, World, 1956.
Pagan Spain, Harper & Brothers, 1957.
White Man Listen, Doubleday, 1957.
Long Dream, Doubleday, 1958.
Eight Men, World, 1961.
Lawd Today, Walker, 1963.
(Contributor) The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossman, Books for Libraries Series, 1972.
American Hunger, Harper & Row, 1977.
Alexander, Charles C., Nationalism in American Thought: 1930-1945, Rand McNally, 1969.
American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Vol.IV, edited by Leonard Unger, Scribner’s, 1974.
Anger and Beyond, edited by Herbert Hill, Harper & Row, 1966.
Baldwin, James, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (includes “Alas Poor Richard”), Dial Press, 1961.
Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Crunden, Robert, From Self to Society: 1919-1941, Prentice Hall, 1972.
The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossman, Books for Libraries Series, 1972.
Richard Wright Reader, edited by Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, Harper & Row, 1978.
Walker, Margaret, Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work, Warner Books, 1988.
Wright, Richard, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, Harper & Brothers, 1945.
Wright, Richard, Lawd Today, introduction by Arnold Rampersad, Northeastern University Press, 1986.
Wright, Richard, Native Son, Harper & Brothers, 1940.
Nation, April 1945.
September 4, 1908
November 28, 1960
The writer Richard Wright was born near Roxie, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper and a rural schoolteacher who supported the family when her husband deserted her. Wright's childhood, which he later described in his classic autobiography, Black Boy (1945), was horrific. His mother, Ella Wilson Wright, was never healthy, and she had become completely paralyzed by the time her son was ten. Wright and his family were destitute, and their lives were sharply constricted by pervasive segregation and racism. Wright and his brother Leon moved several times to the homes of relatives in Natchez and in Memphis, Tennessee, and then to their grandmother's house in Jackson. A staunch Seventh-Day Adventist, Wright's grandmother discouraged his reading, destroyed a radio he had built, and unwittingly alienated him from religious practice. Wright had already had his first story published in a local newspaper, however, by the time he completed the ninth grade, in 1925. He found employment in Memphis, where he discovered the work of H. L. Mencken. Mencken's essays spurred Wright's writing ambitions. Determined to escape the segregated South, which had plagued his childhood, Wright moved to Chicago in 1927.
Over the next several years, during the worst of the Depression, Wright supported himself and his family, which had joined him in Chicago, through menial labor and through work at the post office, and he wrote when he could find the time. He became acquainted with contemporary literature through Mencken's essays and through friends at the post office, and in 1932 he began meeting writers and artists, mostly white, at the communist-run John Reed Club. Impressed by Marxist theory, Wright became a leader of the Chicago club and published revolutionary
verse in New Masses and in small magazines like Anvil, Left Front (whose editorial board he joined), and Partisan Review. Recruited by communists eager to showcase African Americans in their movement, Wright became active in the party as much for literary reasons as for political ones. He wished, he later explained, to describe the real feelings of the common people and serve as the bridge between them and party theorists. Wright participated in party literary conferences, wrote poetry and stories, and gave lectures. Wright's first novel, Lawd Today, written during this period, was published posthumously, in 1963. In 1935, the same year he started as a journalist for New Masses, Wright joined the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), helping write a guide to Illinois; he was transferred to the local Negro Theater unit of the Federal Theater Project the next year. By this time, Wright was having doubts about the Communist Party, which he believed was promoting him only because of his skin color. He insisted on freedom from the party line for his creative work, but he remained publicly committed to the party. In 1937, eager to find a publisher for his work, Wright moved to New York, where he worked as Harlem reporter for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker and wrote the Harlem section of the WPA's New York City Guide (1939).
In the autumn 1937 issue of the leftist magazine Challenge, Wright wrote his influential "Blueprint for Negro Writing," in which, within a larger Marxist perspective, he asserted and tried to encourage black nationalism among writers. Wright called on black writers to make use of folklore and oral tradition in their work, but also to pay attention to psychological and sociological data in framing their work. Wright's own short stories, whose unsparing treatment of racism and violence in the South was couched in poetic style, were winning competitions in Story magazine and elsewhere, and were collected under the title Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Although the work was a success, Wright was dissatisfied. He thought that while he had generated sympathy for victims of racism, he had not shown its effects on all of society.
Native Son (1940), Wright's first published novel, became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and called national attention to his compelling talent, although his unrelenting depiction of racism aroused controversy. In fact, editors had already toned down some controversial material (it was not until 1992 that the unexpurgated version of the novel was published). Native Son is the story of a ghetto youngster, Bigger Thomas. Trapped by white racism and his own fear, Bigger accidentally murders a white woman. He tries to cover up his deed but is arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death. Bigger's white communist lawyer argues that he is not responsible for his crimes, but Bigger feels that the murder and cover-up were his first creative acts, through which he has found a new freedom. The book's success won Wright the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)'s prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1941, and a dramatization by Wright and Paul Green was produced by Orson Welles. It was adapted for film twice, once as a Brazilian film, Sangre Negra (1950), in which Wright himself played the part of Bigger Thomas, and as Native Son (1986), starring Victor Love, but neither was commercially successful.
In 1941 Wright wrote a lyrical Marxist "folk history" of African Americans, Twelve Million Black Voices. The following year, he finally left the Communist Party. Although still a Marxist, Wright felt that the communists were unrealistic, self-serving, and not truly interested in the liberation of African Americans. During the war years, Wright worked on Black Boy (1945), "a record of childhood and youth," which brought him money and international fame. In Black Boy, Wright gives a precise, unrelenting account of how he was scarred by the poisons of poverty and racism during his early years in Mississippi. American Hunger (1977), a version that included Wright's Chicago years, was published posthumously.
The same year Black Boy appeared, Wright wrote an introduction to Black Metropolis, the sociological study by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton of African Americans in Chicago, in which Wright first expounded his major political theories. White American racism, Wright argued, was a symptom of a deeper general insecurity brought about by the dehumanizing forces of modernity and industrialization. He considered the condition of African Americans a model, and an extreme example, of the alienation of the human individual by modern life.
Exile in France
Wright was invited to France by the French government in 1945, and during the trip he found himself lionized by French intellectuals as a spokesperson for his race. Wright had married a white woman, Ellen Poplar, in 1941, and the couple had a daughter, Julia. They wished to escape America's racial discrimination. He was delighted by France's apparent freedom from racial prejudice and impressed by the central role that literature and thought enjoyed in French society. Wright decided to "choose exile," and moved to Paris permanently in 1947, although he kept his American passport.
While in France, Wright became friendly with the French existentialists, although he claimed that reading Dostoyevsky had made him an existentialist long before he met Jean-Paul Sartre and the others. Wright's thesis novel, The Outsider (1953), explores the contemporary condition in existentialist terms, rejecting the ideologies of communism and fascism. A posthumously published novella Wright wrote during the period, The Man Who Lived Underground (1971), also makes use of existential ideas. Neither The Outsider nor Wright's next novel, Savage Holiday (1954), was well received.
Wright shared the French intellectuals' suspicion of America and participated with Sartre and the existentialists in political meetings in 1948 with the idea of producing a "third way" to preserve European culture from the Cold War struggle between American industrial society and Soviet communism. Ironically, Wright was harassed for his leftist background in America, despite his repudiation of communism. The Communist Party's hostility to Wright grew after he published his essay "I Tried to Be a Communist" in the important anticommunist anthology The God That Failed (1950).
Wright had been an original sponsor of the review Présence Africaine in 1946, and he turned his primary attention to anticolonial questions during the 1950s. After visiting Africa's Gold Coast in 1954, he wrote Black Power (1954), "a record of reactions in a land of pathos," in which he approved of Kwame Nkrumah's Pan-Africanist policies but stressed his own estrangement from Africa. Wright's introduction to George Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism? (1956) further disclosed his Pan-African ideas. In The Color Curtain (1956) he reported on the First Conference of Non-Aligned Countries held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, and explored the importance of race and religion in the world of politics. The same year, he helped organize, under Présence Africaine 's auspices, the First Conference of Black Writers and Intellectuals. Papers from the conference, along with texts from the numerous lectures on decolonization Wright gave in Europe, were published as White Man, Listen! in 1959.
Wright's last works include Pagan Spain (1958), a report on Franco's Spain, which included a discussion of the Catholic impact on European culture; The Long Dream (1959), the first novel of an unfinished trilogy dealing with the lasting effects of racism; Eight Men (1960), a collection of short stories; and thousands of unpublished haiku. Wright died unexpectedly in 1960 in Paris of a heart attack. He was under emotional and mental stress at the time, partly due to spying by U.S. intelligence agents on African Americans in Paris. His sudden death fostered lasting rumors that he had been poisoned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) because of his persistent fight against racial oppression and colonialism.
Wright was the first African-American novelist of international stature, and his violent denunciation of American racism and the deprivation and hatred it causes was uncompromising. Wright inspired both African-American novelists such as Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes, and foreign writers such as the novelists Peter Abrahams and George Lanning and the political theorist Frantz Fanon. Wright's legendary generosity to other writers was both moral and sometimes financial, through the grants and jobs he found them. Wright also created for himself a role as expatriate writer and international social critic. His intellectual interests and earnestness, through which he melded Freudian, Marxist, and Pan-African perspectives, were matched by a deep spirituality—despite his rationalist suspicion of religion—and occasional humor and comedy in his works.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Gayle, Addison. Richard Wright: The Ordeal of a Native Son. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at his Work. New York: Warner, 1988.
Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1968.
michel fabre (1996)
The works of Richard Wright, a politically sophisticated and socially involved African American author, are notable for their passionate sincerity. He was perceptive about the universal problems that had the ability to destroy mankind.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born in Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. His mother was a country school teacher and his father an illiterate (a person who is unable to read or write) sharecropper, a poor farmer who shares land with other farmers. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1914, and soon the father abandoned them. From then on Richard's education was inconsistent, but he had attained experience beyond his years. He bounced from school to school and desperately tried to make friends and fit in with his fellow classmates.
Wright 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 (brutally attacked or killed because of one's race). Richard's formal education ended after the ninth grade in Jackson, Mississippi. 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 dark spirit had already settled.
Becoming a writer
At nineteen Wright decided he wanted to be a writer. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he had access to public libraries. He read all he could of Feodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), Henry James (1843–1916), and William James (1842–1910). His interest in social problems led to a friendship with the sociologist (a person who studies the interactions of a society) 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, a political party that believes goods and services should be owned and distributed by a strong central government. 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 (short novels), 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, or main character, represents all the fear, rage, rebellion, spiritual hunger and the undisciplined drive to satisfy it, that social psychologists (people who are trained to study the mental and behavioral characteristics of people) were just beginning to recognize as common elements in the personality of the poor people of all races.
Wright's intention was to make the particular truth universal (all around) and to project his native son as a symbol of the poorly treated in all lands. Critics, however, unimpressed by the universal symbol, were interested instead in Wright's passionate criticisms of white racism (belief that one race is superior to another) and the lifestyle it imposed upon African Americans. Wright believed that there was a better way of social organization different from democracy (government by the people), and that Communism could be the better way. These ideas were toned down in the stage version. 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 commitments that were beginning to seem troublesome. In Black Boy, a fictionalized autobiography (book written about oneself), his only commitment is to truth. The book was published in January 1945, and sales reached four hundred thousand 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" (excited and refreshed) him with a "sense of freedom." People of the highest intellectual and artistic circles met him "as an equal."
Wright, his wife, and daughter moved permanently to Paris, France. 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 existentialism, a philosophy that stresses the individual experience in the universe, whose most famous spokespersons, Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), were Wright's close friends. Following Savage Holiday (1954), a potboiler (a book, that is usually of poorer quality, written to make money), 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, or formal writing, on the "completely different order of life" in Africa. In 1955 he attended the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, 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 after his death.
For More Information
Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books and Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work. New York: Warner Books, 1988.
Webb, Constance. Richard Wright; a Biography. New York: Putnam, 1968.
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.
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. □
Born near Roxie, Mississippi, in 1908, Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908–November 28, 1960) became one of America's foremost chroniclers of African-American life under segregation. The son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher, Wright spent a grim childhood in Mississippi. He detailed his attempts to retain individual dignity in the face of poverty and racism in the autobiographical Black Boy (1945). Valedictorian of his ninth-grade class, Wright received little further formal education. A voracious reader, he was influenced by contemporary literary naturalists and modernists, such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell, as well as the critic H. L. Mencken.
In 1927 Wright joined the great migration of black southerners to Chicago, where he worked as a delivery boy, dishwasher, and a post office clerk, a job he lost after the economy soured in 1930. Wright began to produce poetry and fiction, the bulk of which details the corrosive effects of southern racism. Conditions in Chicago acquainted Wright with the northern face of Jim Crow. While black Chicagoans did not face the threats of physical violence so common in the Deep South, they were segregated on Chicago's South Side, where they paid high rents for bleak ghetto housing. Wright attended meetings of the John Reed Club, read Marxist theory, and joined the Communist Party in 1932. He published poetry and short fiction in progressive magazines such as Left Front, Anvil, and New Masses. In 1935 Wright was hired by the WPA's Federal Writers' Project to help research the Illinois volume in the American Guide series. He also worked for the Negro Federal Theatre of Chicago, a division of the Federal Theatre Project. In 1937 he moved to New York, where he became editor of the Harlem-based Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper. Wright's work in the 1930s and 1940s revealed to white Americans the frustration that black Americans felt toward poverty and racism. One of his best-known essays, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," was published in American Stuff: WPA Writers' Anthology (1937).
In 1940 Wright published his first novel, Native Son, which gained critical and popular success. Set in Chicago, the novel traces the life of Bigger Thomas from his encounters with racism, both paternalistic and violent, through his flirtation with radical politics, to his accidental murder of his white employer's daughter. Wright's fiction was influenced by Marxian materialism and the work of contemporary sociologists. Wright portrayed a society riven by class tensions exacerbated by racism. Wright's characters, like most Americans of the Depression years, seem buffeted by economic, social, and political forces beyond their control.
During World War II, Wright broke with the Communist Party, but he continued to be critical of American racism. In 1947, Wright became an expatriate in France, where he was joined by other major black writers, including James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Wright's later works did not enjoy the critical or financial success he had met in the 1930s and 1940s, although his reputation as one of America's major twentieth-century writers is secure. He died in France in 1960.
Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel." In Notes of a Native Son. 1955.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, rev. edition, translated by Isabel Barzun. 1993.
Gayle, Addison. Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son. 1980.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. 2001.
Trent A. Watts
Richard Wright, 1908–60, American author. An African American born on a Mississippi plantation, Wright struggled through a difficult childhood and worked to educate himself. He moved to Chicago in 1927 and in the 1930s joined the city's Federal Writers' Project and wrote Uncle Tom's Children (1938), a collection of four novellas dealing with Southern racial problems. His novel Native Son (1940), which many consider Wright's most important work, concerns the life of Bigger Thomas, a victimized African American struggling against the complicated political and social conditions of Chicago in the 1930s. In 1932, Wright joined the Communist party but later left it in disillusionment. After World War II, Wright moved to Paris. His Black Boy (1945), also regarded as one of his finest works, is an account of his childhood and youth. Other works include Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), a folk history of African Americans; American Hunger (1977), a two-part autobiography; The Outsider (1953) and The Long Dream (1958), two novels; Black Power (1954), an account of his trip to the Gold Coast (Ghana); and Eight Men (1961), a collection of stories published posthumously. Originally censored by his publishers due to their racial, political, or sexual candor, Wright's works were reissued unexpurgated in 1991.
See biographies by C. Webb (1968), M. Fabre (tr. 1973), A. Gayle (1980), M. Walker (1988), and H. Rowley (2001); studies by D. McCall (1969), K. Kinnamon (1973), and D. Ray and R. M. Farnsworth, ed. (1973).