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Say Hello To Richard Wright

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 4 months ago

 

 

                                The Entire Life Story of Richard Wright in Context

 

 

Richard Nathaniel Wright felt victimized by racial discrimination and racial prejudice throughout his life in the United States. He experienced some of the most severe abuses of racial oppression in Mississippi, where he was born on 4 September 1908, on a plantation in Roxie twenty-two miles east of Natchez, to sharecropper Nathan Wright and teacher Ella Wilson Wright. Nathan Wright, like most black sharecroppers, was extremely poor. In 1911 Ella Wright went to Natchez to live with her family while Nathan became an itinerant worker. Later that same year, in an effort to improve their economic status, Nathan Wright loaded his family onto a riverboat at Natchez and migrated to Memphis, Tennessee. Nathan Wright then deserted his family.

Richard Wright lived in Memphis until he was almost eight. As small children he and his younger brother Leon were often hungry and were expected to look out for themselves. The menial jobs that Ella Wright now had to take did not provide adequate income to support the family. Wright's autobiography, Black Boy (1945), explains: "I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim." His mother would send him to beg money from his father, now living with a mistress. In 1914 Ella Wright became ill, and the two brothers were sent to Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage.

Mrs. Wright and her sons moved to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with her sister, Maggie, and Maggie's husband, Silas Hoskins, in the summer of 1916. In late 1916 or early 1917 Silas Hoskins was murdered by whites who coveted his property, and the family fled to West Helena, Arkansas, where they lived in fear in rented rooms for several weeks. Mrs. Wright took the boys to Jackson, Mississippi, for several months in 1917, but they returned to West Helena by the winter of 1918. Further family disintegration occurred after Mrs. Wright suffered a stroke in 1919. Wright reluctantly chose to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he could be near his mother, but restrictions placed on him by his aunt and uncle made him an emotional wreck. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, he was permitted to return to Jackson, where he lived with Grandmother Wilson from early 1920 until late 1925.

Wright's education was greatly disrupted by family disorganization. The frequent moves and Mrs. Wright's illness made regular school attendance impossible. Wright first entered Howe Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, around 1916. In 1920 he enrolled and remained for a year at the Seventh Day Adventist school in Jackson, Mississippi, with his Aunt Addie, a fanatical Seventh Day Adventist, the only teacher. Wright felt stifled by his aunt and his maternal grandmother, who tried to force him to pray that he might find God. He later threatened to leave home because Grandmother Wilson refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath. Early strife with his aunt and grandmother left him with a permanent, uncompromising hostility toward religious solutions to mundane problems. Traces of this hostility surface in much of his writing.

Wright's first formal education started in September 1921 when he joined a fifth grade class at Jim Hill Public School, Jackson, Mississippi. Within two weeks he was promoted to the sixth grade. In 1923 he enrolled at the Smith-Robinson School, also in Jackson; because of excellent grades he was made part-time supervisor of the class. Wright also showed special interest in and talent for writing, getting his first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre," published in 1924 in the Southern Register, a black Jackson newspaper. In 1925 Wright was made class valedictorian. Determined not to be called an Uncle Tom, he refused to deliver the assistant principal's carefully prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officials and finally convinced the black administrators to let him read essentially what he had written. In September of the same year Wright registered for mathematics, English, and history courses at the new Lanier High School in Jackson but had to stop attending classes after a few weeks of irregular attendance because he needed to earn money for family expenses.

In November 1925 Wright returned to Memphis with plans to get money to make "the first lap of a journey to a land where [he] could live with a little less fear." The two years he remained in Memphis were especially important, for there he indulged a developing passion for reading. He discovered Harper's magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and the American Mercury. Through subterfuge he was able to borrow books from the white library. Of special importance to him were H. L. Mencken's A Book of Prefaces (1917) and one of his six volumes of Prejudices (1919-1927). Wright was particularly impressed with Mencken's vision of the South as hell.

Late in 1927 Wright arrived in Chicago, where he spent a decade that was as important to his development as his nineteen years in the South were. After finally securing employment as a postal clerk, he read other writers and studied their styles during his time off. His job at the post office eliminated by the Great Depression, he went on relief in 1931. In 1932 he began attending meetings of the Chicago John Reed Club, a Communist literary organization whose supposed purpose was to use art for revolutionary ends. Especially interested in the literary contacts made at the meetings, Wright formally joined the Communist party in late 1933 and as a revolutionary poet wrote numerous proletarian poems ("I Have Seen Black Hands," "We of the Streets," "Red Leaves of Red Books," for example) for New Masses and other left-wing periodicals.

By 1935 Wright had completed his first novel, "Cesspool," published as Lawd Today (1963), and in January 1936 his story "Big Boy Leaves Home" was accepted for publication in New Caravan. In February Wright began working with the National Negro Congress, and in April he chaired the South Side Writers' Group, whose membership included Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker. Wright submitted some of his critical essays and poetry to the group for criticism and read aloud some of his short stories. In 1936 he was also revising "Cesspool."

The year 1937 was a landmark for Wright. After a quarrel with a Communist party leader, he severed ties with the Chicago branch and went to New York in late May to become Harlem editor of the Daily Worker. Wright was also upset over repeated rejections of "Cesspool" and other works. He was happy that during his first year in New York all of his activities involved writing of some kind. In the summer and fall he wrote over two hundred articles for the Daily Worker. He helped organize New Challenge, a quarterly for works of progressive black authors, and wrote for the first issue "Blueprint for Negro Writing," the most complete and profound statement of his theories on Afro-American writing. Wright also wrote articles for New Masses, helped with the New York City Writers' Project, and continued revising the stories that would comprise Uncle Tom's Children (1938). The year was also a landmark for Wright because he met and developed a friendship with Ellison that would last for years, and he learned that he would receive the Story magazine first prize of five hundred dollars for his short story "Fire and Cloud."

Wright completed his final revision of "Cesspool" in 1937, and he was again disappointed that he could not get a publisher. This heavily-autobiographical first novel, published posthumously, is in some ways more structurally sophisticated than some of Wright's later works. The dreams, fantasies, and conscious behavior of its protagonist are the roots for later Wright themes: black nationalism, problems associated with mid-twentieth-century migration of blacks from the rural South to the industrial urban areas, and the absurdities of the existentialist hero.

Following the general structure of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Wright restricts the action of Lawd Today to one twenty-four-hour period, 12 February 1937, in the life of his protagonist, black postal worker Jake Jackson, who hates his job, his wife, his race, and himself. Since the date is specific, Wright can deal with more than the activities of one ordinary black man. Wright's greatest technical success in the novel is his ironic use of devices to give the novel additional dimension. One device is the newspaper Jake reads at breakfast and in the taxi. Jake's comments on what he reads illustrate his acceptance of some of the worst values of white American society. He sounds like a black George F. Babbitt with his empty cliches of money, worship, and even racism directed against "Jews, Dagoes, Hunkies and Mexicans." The central ironic device is the recurrent use of statements from a radio broadcast celebrating Abraham Lincoln's birthday and the northern victory in the Civil War. The continual stream of phrases contains layers of irony. Not only is the contrast between the importance of the events the broadcast relates and the triviality of Jake's life, but also the tragic failure of America to fulfill the promise of the idealism of Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison.

Wright's unsparing naturalistic technique gives a special strength to Lawd Today. Jake Jackson's brutal treatment of his wife Lil, the dreary post office building and monotony of the work in it, the elaborate orgies of drinking, feasting, dancing, and sex—all are described in minute detail. These scenes and others successfully evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of Jake Jackson's Chicago. And Wright makes no overt claims for his protagonist as he does in later works: the implications of Jake's blighted and futile existence speak for themselves.

After Wright received the Story magazine prize in early 1938, he shelved his manuscript of Lawd Today and dismissed his literary agent, John Troustine. He hired Paul Reynolds, the well-known agent of Paul Laurence Dunbar, to represent him. Meanwhile, the Story Press offered Harper all of Wright's prize-entry stories for a book, and Harper published them under Wright's chosen title, Uncle Tom's Children, in 1938.

Uncle Tom's Children, Wright's first book to be published, contains four lengthy short stories whose similarities in themes and method give the work unity. Wright's message is that Uncle Tom is dead, and his children will fight for freedom and survival. In "Big Boy Leaves Home," the first and finest story in the collection, Wright skillfully uses natural setting, varied points of view, and thematic richness to make an apparently simple tale about truancy, murder, lynching, and flight one of high artistic merit. Big Boy Morrison, Bobo, and two fellow truant adolescents are enjoying the idyllic countryside, very much in accord with their natural environment, until a white woman discovers them naked, resting after a swim in a creek forbidden to blacks. Black and white fears suddenly translate the Edenic setting into one of violence and murder, terminating with Big Boy killing the white woman's fiance, after which he hides in a kiln overnight hoping to be ferried away by truck to Chicago the next morning. His hope of safety barely survives the brutal lynching/burning of Bobo by white citizens.

Wright's careful manipulation of viewpoint heightens the intensity of the story. He uses third person viewpoint in the first two sections where the narrative focuses upon the four boys and then upon the boys and the two whites. In the third section Big Boy is the major point of interest. The point of view shifts to first person during Big Boy's reveries in the kiln. The reader sees the lynching of Bobo from Big Boy's peculiar vantage point and, as it were, through his eyes.

"Big Boy Leaves Home" examines many of Wright's major themes: fear, initiation into violence, flight, survival, and freedom. Wright uses a setting and action reminiscent of the story of the Fall in Genesis, but here violent white racism drives Big Boy from the southern garden to uncertain freedom in the North; his initiation into violence and flight add poignancy and depth. There is irony in the title, for Big Boy is not simply leaving home. His survival depends on his flight from home to escape life-threatening racial tensions in his search for justice and freedom. Big Boy Morrison, innocent no longer, and having achieved adulthood through rebellion motivated by fear, is like the protagonists of "Down by the Riverside," "Long Black Song," and "Fire and Cloud," the other stories in the book.

"Down by the Riverside" contains, along with Wright's basic theme of the black man's struggle for survival, the themes of courage and stoic endurance. Brother Mann confronts natural floods and the floods of racial hatred in his futile efforts to save his pregnant wife and son. When the white Heartfield boy Mann is able to save from the floods identifies him to the authorities as the murderer of his father, Mann rebels by dashing away from his captors, forcing them to shoot him in the back. A serious weakness in "Down by the Riverside" is that it has too many contrived incidents. Mrs. Heartfield does not report the murder of her husband when she seeks help, and the Heartfields turn in Mann as a murderer after his act of saving the boy.

In "Long Black Song," one of Wright's rare works written from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, he successfully integrates plot, character, and imagery. A white traveling salesman seduces a young black mother while her husband, Silas, is away purchasing supplies. When the salesman returns the next day with a friend, Silas, who has gotten the details from Sarah, horsewhips one of the men and kills the other one. The tragic theme is Silas's oppression and his doomed awareness of himself: "`The White folks ain never gimme a chance. They ain never give no black man a chance. Their ain nothin in yo whole life yuh kin keep from 'em. They take yo lan! They take yo freedom! They take yo women! N Then they take yo life!'" Silas can assert himself only by fighting to the end, thereby becoming master of his own death. Sarah, in contrast to Silas, is a mother earth character who sadly watches a lynch mob burn down their house when Silas refuses to come out but not before he has killed one or two additional men. Hers is an inner rhythm that harmonizes with her memories and wishes. Wright fuses images of the seasons, the days and nights, the lush colors, and the earth rhythms to unfold her character. Sarah has a pastoral vision of the world that brings to mind William Faulkner's Lena Grove or Gertrude Stein's Melanctha. The entire story echoes Wright's experiences in Elaine, Arkansas, where his Uncle Silas was killed by white men.

Whereas the first three stories in Uncle Tom's Children describe the efforts of the individual black man against the white mob, "Fire and Cloud" deals with the theme of collective resistance to the white oppressor. The story relates the efforts of a black minister, Rev. Dan Taylor, to get food relief for the near-starving community of a southern town. When Taylor does not agree to stop a protest march, he is kidnapped the night before the march by a group of whites and brutally beaten; but the whipping inspires him, and an integrated demonstration takes place with the preacher leading it.

Wright forcefully dramatizes the social issues in the dilemma faced by Taylor, emphasizing themes of freedom and the futility of religion. Taylor, in defying the white power structure, moves from religious resignation to social action. He does not reject God, but he does shift his religious emphasis to accomplish recognizable goals. Under his leadership the group acts and is successful. A major weakness in the work is Wright's reliance on stereotypes. The white villains are all hard, cold, and mean; the blacks are simple, unassuming, driven to their desperate actions only by their hunger. Only Taylor seems an authentic human being. The poor whites joining with the protesting blacks at the end make the conclusion more of a Marxist-desired utopia than an event basically related to the story and undercut Taylor's concluding remark, "Freedom belongs to the strong."

Because of the organization and similarity in theme and method the short stories in the 1938 edition of Uncle Tom's Children form a unified work of fiction. The 1940 edition is diluted by the addition of the essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," and the story, "Bright and Morning Star." The essay is out of place and, "Bright and Morning Star" is very different from the four stories in the 1938 version in that it is a polemic. Wright successfully portrays Big Boy Morrison, Brother Mann, and Silas as individuals fighting oppression and Taylor as a group leader. In "Bright and Morning Star," however, he appears too interested in promoting Marxist themes to delineate a strong character.

The publication and favorable reception of Uncle Tom's Children improved Wright's status with the Communist party and enabled him to establish a reasonable degree of financial stability. He was appointed to the editorial board of New Masses, and Granville Hicks, prominent literary critic and Communist sympathizer, introduced him at leftist teas in Boston. By 6 May 1938 excellent sales had provided him with enough money to move to Harlem, where he began writing Native Son (1940).

In 1939 Wright met two white women who, he thought, met his criteria for a wife: Dhimah Rose Meadman and Ellen Poplar. He married Dhimah in August 1939 with Ralph Ellison as best man. The honeymoon was delayed until the spring of 1940. During the honeymoon in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Wright discovered how little he and Dhimah had in common, and they left Mexico separately, never to be reconciled. After his divorce from Dhimah, Wright married Ellen Poplar on 12 March 1941. Their first daughter Julia was born on 15 April 1942.

On the strength of Uncle Tom's Children and his completion of a section of Native Son, in early 1939 Wright was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which made it possible for him to complete Native Son for publication by 1 March 1940. The publication of the novel marked the beginning of a black literature that refused to compromise with many white expectations.

Native Son has no chapter divisions but instead consists of three books: "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate," and Wright skillfully uses fear as the controlling motif for the entire work. Three key scenes in book 1 dramatize the theme of fear. The opening, fear-filled scene illustrates the emotional violence manifested by the four members of the Thomas family against one another. All are afraid of a huge rat, and Bigger prolongs the fear (even after he kills it) by swinging the dead rat in front of his sister Vera until she faints. When Bigger joins his street-gang friends until time for a job interview at the residence of the wealthy Daltons, who need a chauffeur, another kind of fear surfaces. The gang plans to rob Blum's Delicatessen, a white man's business, and each gang member becomes afraid. Bigger demonstrates his fear through violence, terrifying Gus with kicks and threats of murder until he thinks the hour set for the robbery has passed. Hired by the Daltons, Bigger's fears mount to hysteria when Mary Dalton's blind mother enters Mary's bedroom, where Bigger has taken her after an evening out drinking with Jan Erlone, her boyfriend, during which she has become drunk. Realizing that he, a black man, is alone in a young white woman's bedroom, in 1940 a crime in most places in America, he places a pillow over Mary's head to prevent her from answering her mother. After his desperate effort results in Mary's accidental death by suffocation, Bigger, still acting out of fear, decapitates her body, stuffs it into the furnace, burns it, and returns home.

In "Flight" Wright emphasizes both Bigger's mental and physical responses to fears initiated in book 1. Bigger begins to rationalize that in killing Mary Dalton he has destroyed symbolically all the oppressive forces that have made his life miserable. He is proud, for "he had murdered and created a new life for himself." Out of fear for his own safety he suggests that Jan Erlone is guilty, a suggestion supported by a ransom note which Bigger sends to the family to lead suspicion from himself. Bigger's fears mount, and he goes to Bessie, his mistress, so that she can comfort him; but she wrings from him a confession of the murder. He instructs her to collect the ransom money. At the Dalton home when the ransom note arrives, and afraid that he might see a vivid image of Mary's face as he had seen it upon the bed, Bigger cannot shake down the furnace ashes. This fear to act leads to the discovery of Mary's charred bones, which makes it necessary for him and Bessie to flee. Deciding that Bessie will become a great liability, Bigger, partially out of fear, brutally murders her. With this premeditated murder Bigger becomes a fearful monster who moves from one tenement to the next, creating fear throughout the black ghetto until the vast police network captures him on a rooftop.

In the first two books point of view is limited to what Bigger sees, feels, and hears. Wright's dramatic dialogue and graphic descriptions of Bigger's actions and surroundings force the reader to take special notice of him. He is not the familiar black victim but the violent attacker and appears to confirm the white man's fantasies of black assault and rape. Bigger is deprived and depraved beyond ordinary humanity.

Book 3, "Fate," mainly an analysis of the action in books 1 and 2, reduces Bigger to a somewhat passive character, thereby eliminating the rapid pacing and extraordinary narrative drive which characterize books 1 and 2. But fear remains the central motif. Wright now focuses not on Bigger's individual fears but on those of other individual blacks and the black and white communities in general. Mrs. Thomas worries over Bigger's fate. She and her minister, the Reverend Hammond, fear for his soul. The prosecution at his trial and the press sensationalize events that arouse public fears, and the Ku Klux Klan burns crosses. Boris A. Max, Bigger's lawyer, explores the causes and effects of fear and racism in his summation, arguing that society is partly to blame for Bigger's crimes. Ironically, what Bigger learns as a result of fear enables him to go to the electric chair declaring in existential terms that what he has done has had value: "It must've been good! When a man kills, it's for something. I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for `em."

Foreshadowing, rich imagery, and symbolism are among the many effective literary devices Wright uses to illuminate his themes. The rat scene is the prime example of foreshadowing. The black rat Bigger fights and kills turns desperately on its enemies when it no longer sees a means of escape. The scene prefigures Bigger's fate. When Bigger leads Bessie to the deserted house to await the ransom money, "something with dry whispering feet flitted across his path, emitting as the rush of its flight died a thin, piping wail of lonely fear." When Bigger is looking for a vacant apartment for a hiding place, he sees a big black rat leap over the snow and looks "wistfully at that gaping black hole through which the rat had darted to safety." Alienated, Bigger himself becomes a trapped rat who futilely fights his pursuers when escape becomes impossible.

Dominant symbols in the novel include the cross, whiteness, and blindness. To emphasize his denial of his mother's Christianity Bigger tears the crucifix from his neck. He later rejects the cross offered him by the Reverend Hammond when the Ku Klux Klan ignites its fiery cross not far from the Dalton residence. The rich religious symbol has been reduced to one level, that of hate and rejection.

Wright consistently uses whiteness to represent Bigger's fear and anxieties. Upon meeting Mrs. Dalton he observes "that her hair and face were completely white; she seemed to him like a ghost." When Bigger returns to the kitchen to get some water, "What he saw made him suck his breath in; Mrs. Dalton in flowing white clothes was standing stone stiff in the middle of the kitchen floor." Later at Mary's bedroom door Mrs. Dalton appears an "awesome blur ... silent ghost-like." Bigger is never at ease in the presence of Mrs. Dalton and her ubiquitous white cat. Even the weather takes on symbolic overtones. It begins to snow when Bigger flees the Dalton residence. The ice and snowstorms in book 2 are perpetual reminders of the white hostile environment. Bigger, at the end of book 2, is forced on a cross of snow: "Two men stretched his arms out as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow."

The blindness motif is even more pervasive than that of whiteness. Wright makes all of his characters blind in some way. Mrs. Dalton is physically blind. Racism impairs the moral vision of state prosecutor Buckley. Bigger's limited perception leads him to label all others, especially whites, as blind. Mary Dalton and Jan Erlone believe that the Communist party has all the answers. Mr. Dalton feels that a supply of table tennis tables in the ghetto recreation rooms is an overwhelming humanitarian act. Mrs. Thomas is certain that her religion will provide all solutions.

Native Son sold two hundred thousand copies in under three weeks, breaking a twenty-year record at Harper. Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker compared Wright to Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck and praised his "passion and intelligence" that examined "layers of consciousness only Dostoyevski and a few others have penetrated." Henry S. Canby in Book of the Month Club News wrote that, "like Grapes of Wrath it is a fully realized story ... uncompromisingly realistic and quite as human as it is Negro." Ralph Ellison in New Masses found in it "an artistry, penetration of thought and sheer emotional power that places it in the first rank of American fiction." Jonathan Daniels, Malcolm Cowley, Sterling Brown, and most other eminent black and white critics of the day praised the novel. The few dissenting voices, among them Howard Mumford Jones and David Cohn, had objections that were more personal than literary. While there is yet much critical debate over the place Native Son should occupy in the corpus of great literature, there is a consensus that the novel is one of the classic works of American literature.

The period following publication of Native Son was a busy time for Wright. In July 1940 he went to Chicago to do research for the text for a folk history of blacks to accompany photographs selected by Edwin Rosskam. While in Chicago he visited the American Negro Exhibition with Langston Hughes, Bontemps, and Claude McKay. He then went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he and Paul Green collaborated on a dramatic version of Native Son. In January 1941 Wright received the prestigious Spingarn Medal for noteworthy achievement by a black. Native Son opened on Broadway, with Orson Welles as director, to generally favorable reviews in March 1941. Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States was published in October 1941 to wide critical acclaim.

Twelve Million Black Voices, the outgrowth of a Works Projects Administration assignment, is a sociological study of American black history and the migration from the rural South to the urban North. The text describes the bondage of blacks from slavery and plantation life to sharecropping and to the factories of the North. Wright emphasizes that in the progression from slavery to the industrialized urban cities blacks have experienced in a few hundred years what whites were exposed to over thousands of years, and blacks should feel proud of their accomplishment. His recurrent themes of freedom, oppression, and survival permeate the work.

Part 1, "Our Strange Birth," traces aspects of black development from 1619 to the Emancipation Proclamation. Wright refers to the slave ships as "floating brothels" and describes the "lecherous crew members as they vented the pent up bestiality of their starved sex lives upon our sisters and wives." He speaks of captivity under Christendom as having "blasted" life, destroying family, traditions, and all the values that had given meaning in Africa before the white man came.

Part 2, "Inheritors of Slavery," covers the period from the Civil War until World War I. Wright discusses the presentness of the racial past, black English, race relations, the importance of books, and the significance of the black church. He explains that the word "Negro," the term by which orally or in print, "we black folk in the United States are usually designated is not really a name at all." It is a white man's word—"a psychological island whose objectives form the most unanimous fiat in all American history ... a fiat which artificially and arbitrarily defines, regulates and limits in scope the vital contours of our lives.... " Wright's point was made long before the vast majority of Afro-Americans frowned upon "Negro" and "colored."

In part 3, "Death on the City Pavements," Wright discusses the Great Migration, the movement of southern blacks to northern ghettos. He describes the squalid living quarters, most often old houses converted into kitchenettes, which were "seed bed[s] for scarlet fever, dysentery, typhoid ... pneumonia and malnutrition" and rented "at rates so high they make fabulous fortunes before the houses are too old for habitation."

In "Men in the Making," the concluding section, Wright stresses that black folk are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. "What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish." He emphasizes that black and white workers must unite against the classes that exploit them, the Lords of the Land (those who run the plantations) and the Bosses of the Buildings (those who manage the industries). His Marxist explanations are followed by a description of the march toward freedom that could have been written by Carl Sandburg or Walt Whitman. Wright proclaims: "We are with the new tide. We stand at the crossroads. We watch each new procession.... Voices are speaking. Men are moving! And we shall be with them."

In Twelve Million Black Voices Wright fully identifies with the black experience and convincingly analyzes the roles of blacks in the total American experience. The beautiful lyrical passages that occasionally creep in tend to mitigate temporarily the severity of the naturalistic details, thereby adding a moderating dimension to the work. Wright's extended prose poem, despite its obvious Marxist orientation, is a forceful, saddening, and encouraging black American epic. Uniformly enthusiastic reviewers, Bontemps among them, hailed Wright as a master of poetic prose, belonging to the fine tradition of the Negro spiritual.

While completing Twelve Million Black Voices Wright was also writing two novels—"Black Hope" (unpublished) and "The Man Who Lived Underground," which had only its third section published as a short story in 1944. A visit to Fisk University in April 1943 prompted Wright to start a still unpublished screenplay, "Melody Unlimited," based on the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and highlighting the importance of black colleges as a bridge between black and white. The visit also influenced him to begin his autobiography. On 17 December 1943 he sent Paul Reynolds the manuscript of "American Hunger," which chronicled his life up to his departure from Chicago in 1937. The first section of "American Hunger" was published as Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth in 1945; the Atlantic Monthly published a part of the second section, which described Wright's membership in and eventual rejection of the Communist party, under the title "I Tried to Be a Communist" in August and September 1944. The second section was not published in its entirety until after Wright's death as American Hunger (1977).

In Black Boy Wright develops the observations recorded in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," the introductory section for the 1940 edition of Uncle Tom's Children. The entire autobiography is an episodically structured yet richly thematic work, similar to a movie documentary, with Wright as the narrator. It focuses on significant events in his life from the age of four (1912) through nineteen (1927). With some creative license, according to his biographer Michel Fabre, Wright describes and interprets from an adult perspective the economic, familial, educational, and racial handicaps he faced. The first section helps set the tone for the entire autobiography, for throughout Black Boy Wright is showing how boredom and different kinds of sickness unite to form unyielding ties of oppression. It describes the house four-year-old Richard set on fire because he was bored and ordered to stay inside and remain quiet. Young Richard temporarily escapes punishment when, terrified, he hides under the house. Fire as a dominant image and symbol and the underground motif permeate many of his works, but they are particularly significant in Black Boy because they reinforce its theme, the search for freedom.

Wright relates early familial difficulties. He details how, after a fight with white boys, his mother "lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness" and " ... for a long time I was chastened whenever I remembered that my mother had come close to killing me." He remembers hanging a stray kitten to gain triumph over his father: "How could I get back at him? ... He had said to kill the kitten and I would kill it. I knew that he had not really meant for me to kill the kitten but my deep hate of him urged me toward a literal acceptance of his word."

Wright constantly describes and questions the hunger in his life. He blames his father with a "biological bitterness" for the hunger, "standing at my bedside staring at me." At the foster home, he says, "I was too weak from hunger.... " Living with his Uncle Hopkins, at Granny's, nowhere did he feel free from the want of food. One of the more pathetic scenes in the book is near the end of chapter 2 where his only Christmas gift is an orange. He eats it all day long and just before going to bed he tears "the peeling into bits and munched them slowly." Wright laments, "Why did I always have to wait until others were through? I could not understand why some people had enough food and others did not.... Hunger was with us always." Midway through Black Boy Wright explains, "I vowed that someday I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this external difference."

Wright's description of southern whites is totally negative; they are cruel, violent, inhumane persons who will put forth special efforts to debase blacks. Such declarations from Wright are not shocking. What does appear rather unusual is Wright's attitude toward blacks. He explains:

 

I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were ... how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man and how shallow was even our despair.... I used to brood upon the unconscious irony of those who felt the Negroes led so passional an existence. I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure.

 

This passage and others like it in Black Boy suggest to many that Wright lacked racial pride. He did at times have difficulty expressing individual affection for black culture, but he could display admiration for black group achievements as is convincingly shown in Twelve Million Black Voices. The fact that Wright is an adult attempting to comprehend almost overwhelming childhood experiences indicates that he is interested in understanding his black culture, not in rejecting it.

Black Boy had phenomenal sales and received tremendous critical praise. By March 1945 it had sold over four hundred thousand copies and was listed at the top of most best-seller lists. Critics from the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch were among those who wrote glowing reviews. Dorothy Canfield Fisher placed the work on the level with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions and St. Augustine's Confessions. Among the thousands of congratulatory letters to Wright was one from William Faulkner, who wrote that "Wright said it well, as well as it could have been in this form." Some blacks expressed mixed acceptance. They felt that Wright spent too much time documenting black despair. A few southern critics made extremely negative remarks concerning the book's account of race relations in the South. Most critics and the general reader concurred that Black Boy merits a place on the shelf next to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Adams.

The second part of Wright's autobiography, American Hunger, like Black Boy, explores many of Wright's recurrent themes: manhood, freedom, flight, oppression. Wright focuses on his experiences in Chicago, and he becomes negatively critical of the entire American system, not just the South, as was the case in Black Boy, where he at the end "headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity."

Perhaps the most significant segments of American Hunger deal with Wright's connections with the Communist party and his efforts to retain his integrity despite the party's demands that he sacrifice his artistic aims for the good of the party. After he becomes affiliated with the Chicago John Reed Club, he is upset that he is labeled an intellectual because he reads books other than those endorsed by the party. When he is threatened by the group and scorned even by black Communists, he asks: "Why was it that I was a suspected man because I wanted to reveal the vast physical and spiritual ravages of Negro life.... What was the danger in showing the kinship between the sufferings of the Negro and the sufferings of other people?"

Wright explains, "I wanted to be a Communist but my kind of Communist. I wanted to share people's feelings." After much deliberation he asks that his name be removed from the rolls but continues to work for Communist-affiliated organizations. Because of Communist pressure he loses his job at the Federal Negro Theater, and his position with the Federal Writers' Project is jeopardized. The most humiliating experience, however, comes on May Day when a black Communist invites him to join the parade of marchers, and he reluctantly agrees only to be lifted from the sidewalk by party members and "pitched headlong through the air ... the rows of white and black Communists looking at me with cold eyes of nonrecognition." Wright's spirit is crushed, for he had previously seen communism as a viable alternative to the poverty, hunger, and racism in America. Back at his apartment Wright commences reflecting: "Well, what had I got out of living in the city? What had I got out of living in the South? What had I got out of living in America? I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and a dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life ... I wanted to build a bridge of words between men and that world outside, that world so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal."

Unlike Black Boy, whose ending suggests a success story, American Hunger represents the culmination of Wright's disappointment with America. Moral, economic, and racial conditions in Chicago and New York City are but additional proof of the country's failures. Wright insists upon an acute awareness of conditions and radical changes including a set of values that will respect the rights of everyone. The special importance of American Hunger lies in its vivid presentation of Wright's experiences in the North and its explanation of these wider dimensions of his thought.

The remainder of 1945 and the years 1946 and 1947 were extremely busy and highly critical periods for Wright. He traveled abroad, delivered speeches, engaged in debates, reviewed books, and continued to write. In the fall of 1945 he toured the nation delivering lectures about the racial situation. He gave financial aid to black novelist Chester Himes and secured a grant for James Baldwin. He sailed for Paris on 1 May 1946, where he was lionized by the French press and private citizens. In Paris he became friends with Gertrude Stein and many French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Wright and Ellen visited Switzerland in November, where he gave interviews and contacted a publisher for the German edition of Black Boy. In late 1946 Wright met George Padmore in London. Padmore, the father of African liberation, introduced him to the progressive, militant leaders of the Third World. This meeting had two significant and long-range effects upon Wright. His friendship with Padmore influenced his political thinking and further increased his interest in Africa. Meeting black leaders from all of the English-speaking African countries indicated to Wright that black America's call for freedom was now being echoed throughout the other nonwhite continents of the world, and he concluded that he must visit nonwhite countries.

By January 1947, when the family returned to Manhattan, Wright had become even more dissatisfied with American racial policies. He constantly contrasted the freedom and acceptance he experienced in Paris against the rampant racism he faced in America. Like James Joyce, he felt that he could not expand his artistic and personal freedom unless he exiled himself from the oppressive soil of his native country. Wright and his family returned to Paris in August 1947 and became permanent citizens. Although Wright traveled extensively, France was his home base until his death in 1960. The last fourteen years of his life are especially notable for a shift in ideological emphases: instead of determinism he explored choice; along with racism he emphasized a more metaphysical isolation; in place of colonialism in the Deep South he focused on global oppression. Existentialism and identification with the people of the Third World are outgrowths of his earlier experiences. Though no longer a card-carrying Communist, his writings still reflect Marxist ideals and sympathies.

In 1948 Wright traveled to Milan with Ellen to celebrate Camillo Pellizi's translation of Native Son and attended a reception in Turin where Black Boy was being translated. He met with principal Italian critics. During a five-day stay in Rome in February 1948 he lectured on Afro-American literature. By this time he had started work again on the manuscript of The Outsider (1953) and informed his agent that he wanted to rework it completely.

Upon returning to Paris in May 1948 Wright established himself as a model Parisian intellectual. In interviews he praised the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, commented on his favorite novels, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and The Sound and the Fury, and offered explanations of writers he was currently reading, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, and Soren Kierkegaard among them. Later in the year he stopped working on his new "philosophical" novel, The Outsider, and concentrated on acquiring a better understanding of French and German existentialism.

After his second daughter Rachel was born in Paris on 17 January 1949, Wright traveled to Argentina with French director Pierre Cheval to play Bigger Thomas in a film version of Native Son. Following his sincere but awkward performance in the 1951 film, an artistic and financial failure, Wright worked with the French American Fellowship, an organization to combat racism in American businesses abroad. The excessive number of hours he spent working with this group further delayed his completing The Outsider. Perhaps a greater impediment to its completion was the unfortunate quarrel with James Baldwin over Baldwin's suggestion in "Everybody's Protest Novel" that Native Son was merely Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in reverse. Wright felt betrayed, and much of his creative energy was involved in his overt hostility toward Baldwin.

Although Wright published no books between 1947 and 1953, he wrote English articles for Presence Africaine and French language articles for periodicals such as France-Observateur and Les Temps Modernes. He also wrote short essays for Encounter (England), Twice a Year, and Ebony. The one work of fiction he published was a short story, "The Man Who Killed a Shadow," later collected in Eight Men (1960). During this period he enjoyed rich literary exposure serving on the board of patrons for Presence Africaine with Sartre, Albert Camus, and Andre Gide, all of whom influenced his later works. His purely creative output declined with his move to France, but his political and historical vision certainly deepened.

After almost six years of work Wright finally completed The Outsider in London in early 1952. Long and complex, The Outsider is perhaps the first consciously existentialist novel written by an American. It is the first Wright novel which does not emphasize racial matters. While the protagonist is black, he is not primarily concerned with his plight as a black; he is a thinking, questioning man in the perplexing twentieth century. Partly autobiographical, The Outsider is as much Wright's own spiritual odyssey as it is that of his hero, Cross Damon. Wright's experiences in America, his disaffection with communism, his views on Europe in turmoil based upon his travels during his first year in exile, the long nights spent with Sartre and Beauvoir debating the meaning of freedom, his often deeply felt periods of alienation—all combine to present the picture of a solitary individual intent upon creating the ideal man in the modern world.

Cross Damon feels overwhelmed by tremendous burdens: a wife he no longer loves, a pregnant mistress, and an emotional mother he both loves and hates. When authorities use the overcoat and identification papers he left behind after climbing from a train crash to identify another victim as him, Damon decides to forget his wife and three sons. After assuming a number of aliases he journeys to New York and becomes involved with the Communist party. Damon moves in with Communists Gil and Eva Blount (because the Blounts wish to desegregate their apartment building managed by the Fascist and racist Langley Herndon) and discovers and reads Eva Blount's diary from which he learns Gil Blount had deceived her by marrying her, not out of love, but because the Communist party had ordered it. Alarmed over this cynical violation of individual rights, Damon vows that the party will not destroy his freedom and humanity. That he has violated Eva's privacy never enters his mind. Later, entering a room ostensibly to stop Blount and Herndon from fighting, Damon kills both men and arranges the clues so that it appears they have killed each other. Damon rationalizes that in destroying the Communist and the Fascist he is killing "gods" who would rob him of his freedom. Only much later does he comprehend that in slaying them—exercising his complete freedom—he has himself assumed the role of a god: "Oh, Christ their disease had reached out and claimed him too. He had been subverted by the contagion of the lawless; he had been defeated by that which he had sought to destroy."

In a desperate attempt to conceal his previous crimes Damon murders a high Communist official who has evidence which will convict him. That Damon has become a demon is further dramatized when district attorney Houston tells him his mother has died, possibly because of his deeds, and then ushers Damon's wife and three sons into the room. Damon (demon) acknowledges no one and nothing. With no positive proof Houston cannot arrest him. Damon, alone, enters the streets of Harlem and hides in theaters until Communist party members track and shoot him down. In a final scene reminiscent of Bigger Thomas's last scenes with his lawyer, Boris A. Max, Damon explains in existentialist terms: "Don't think I'm so odd and strange ... I'm not.... I'm legion ... I've lived alone, but I'm everywhere." He warns of a new era when men will stop deceiving themselves about their murderous nature and the meaninglessness of life. Dying, Damon is asked by Houston what he found in life. He responds "Nothing.... Alone a man is nothing."

In The Outsider Wright uses existential tenets to expose the myths by which men often irrationally live. Some sections of the novel are little more than existentialist jargon. The novel, however, is an illustration not of Wright's existentialism, but of his rejection of it as an adequate means to cope with the problems of the modern world. Cross Damon equates freedom with power; while exercising his unbridled freedom he murders four human beings and is partially responsible for the deaths of two others. Damon casts aside almost all societal codes of behavior only to realize in the end that human restrictions help humanize man. Neither man nor society can accommodate completely free individuals, for they are threats to human existence.

While thematically rich, The Outsider has many obvious flaws. As most contemporary critics noted, there are numerous improbabilities, contrived speeches, and a melodramatic plot. Critics from the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time Magazine praised some of the detective story techniques but could not enthusiastically recommend the novel because of its problems. Black writers, the late Lorraine Hansberry among them, called Wright an outsider, outcast from his own people. Only European critics had unqualified praise for the novel, according it a better reception than they did Camus's existential novel The Stranger (1942).

The Outsider had scarcely undergone final revision before Wright was back in Paris at work on another book. Wright announced to novelist and fellow expatriate William Gardner Smith that he had completed another novel, one that "like all my future books, I think ... will take up aspects of the problems broached in The Outsider." Wright managed to generate great enthusiasm among his friends for the completed novel, Savage Holiday (1954), but had great difficulty getting the work published. Harper, his regular publisher, rejected the book, and his agent Paul Reynolds agreed that it was an inferior work. Avon Books printed a paperback edition of Savage Holiday in 1954. The work is especially notable because it is an important black writer's only novel in which all of the major characters are white, and racial concerns are seldom mentioned.

In The Outsider Wright emphasizes tenets of existentialism; in Savage Holiday he adds Freud. Retired insurance executive Erskine Fowler, an apparently successful man who lives in a fashionable section of New York and is very much respected by his peers, has locked away his feelings and passions because of his inability to accept the fact that he had incestuous desires for his beautiful, sexually alluring mother. He also feels guilty about his role in the accidental death of the gorgeous and promiscuous Mrs. Blake's five-year-old son Tony. To assuage his dual grief Fowler hopes to redeem Tony's death by redeeming Mrs. Blake through marriage. Fowler courts and proposes to Mrs. Blake, during which time the long-suppressed Fowler, who wishes to establish a relationship with his mother and possess her sexually, vicariously, through Mrs. Blake, emerges. At the same time he hates Mrs. Blake and vents his sense of outrage against her by killing her: "With machine like motion Erskine lifted the butcher knife and plunged it into her stomach again and again." At this point the novel becomes a Freudian workbook. At the police station where he later reports the murder, Fowler recalls a fantasy he had repressed as a child when his mother scolded him for stabbing a stuffed doll. He decides the stuffed doll represented his mother and concludes that the fantasy arose from an actual occurrence in his childhood when he drew a picture of a dead doll and imagined that he had drawn a picture of his mother. The Freudian movement has been from mother to doll to Mrs. Blake, and the childhood symbolic act has terminated in an adult symbolic act. Fowler feels that he cannot tell the police why he committed the crime because he cannot explain that his real motives originated from a childhood fantasy.

As Edward Margolies points out in The Art of Richard Wright (1969), Wright's ending the book as he does makes one feel that he "has somehow made short shrift of all the problems he had been so laboriously posing throughout the novel." Wright is not able to show that Fowler is in control of his passions because of extreme weaknesses of plot and character; and the too obvious Freudian implications further damage the novel's credibility. Wright reworks some of his favorite themes: freedom, religion as an impotent force, the substitution of violence for love, the presentness of the past; he fails, however, to make them unobtrusive parts of the novel. Since Savage Holiday was never published in hardcover, it was not reviewed by the American press. Like The Outsider, however, it created excitement in Europe where it was translated into French, Italian, German, and Dutch and received some favorable reviews from the French press.

During 1953, the same year The Outsider was published in New York and a few months after completing the first draft of Savage Holiday, Wright journeyed through the undeveloped country of the British West African colony of the Gold Coast (later called Ghana) by way of the Canary Islands. Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), written as a result of that trip, is a very personal book in which Wright draws conclusions about the culture, the people, and the political, social, and economic problems facing the African country. The work has characteristics of a writer's journal of ideas and a travel diary, for Wright includes statistical charts, significant historical data he has gathered from books, dialogue obtained through his questioning of tribal chieftains and British officials, and vivid descriptions of Africans and their country.

In a short introduction, "Apropos Prepossessions," Wright states that the aim of this book is "to pose the problem anew in an area that is proving a decisive example for an entire continent," the problem being whether the West will deal justly with its nonwhite subjects or leave them prey to communism. In doing this Wright reiterates his scorn for religious authority. He reacts to Christian missionary efforts in the same manner that he responded to his Grandmother Wilson's attempts to convert him. Just as his grandmother tried to rob him of his individual freedom for her own satisfaction, so were the missionaries attempting to subjugate and exploit for their own purposes. When he and Nigerian Supreme Court Justice Thomas visit a house of prostitution in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Wright remarks, "It occurred to me that this shabby whorehouse was perhaps the only calm and human spot in this strongly entrenched Catholic city."

In Black Power Wright's recommendation for solving the Gold Coast's problems is simplistic. He argues that Kwame Nkrumah has to enlist and rechannel the frustrated religious energies of the detribalized masses into the cause of industrialization and nationhood. The people must be subjected to a form of militarization that will give "form, organization, direction, meaning and a sense of justification to those lives ... : a temporary discipline that will unite the nations, sweep out the tribal cobwebs, atomize the fetish-ridden past, abolish the mystical and nonsensical family relations." Then Nkrumah and his assistants will be able to use people rather than the dollars of Western capitalists to modernize their industrial economy. History has shown that Wright's do-it-yourself formula could never solve Africa's complex political, economic, and psychological problems.

While Wright does some of his best expository writing in Black Power, his tendencies to make hasty generalizations and to assume the superiority of Western traditions at the expense of indigenous African culture mitigate the effectiveness of the book. Wright calls the African "an oblique, a hard to know man who seemed to take a childish pride in trying to create a state of bewilderment in the minds of strangers." He asserts that "the African almost invariably underestimated the person with whom he was dealing; he always placed too much confidence in an evasive reply, thinking that if he denied something, then that something ceased to exist. It was childlike." The postscript to Black Power concludes, "I found only one intangible but vitally important element in the heritage of tribal culture that militated against cohesiveness of action: African culture has not developed the personalities of the people to a degree that their egos are stout, hard, sharply defined; there is too much cloudiness that makes for lack of confidence, an absence of focus that renders that mentality incapable of grasping the workaday world." A summer tour through a part of one country on the African continent hardly qualifies one to make such judgments. In his introduction Wright states that "the West can meanly lose Africa or the West can nobly save Africa." To follow Wright's plan for African independence, Africa must disband her tribes, industrialize, and become technologically competent in order to assume a position of world leadership, or, as Wright really means, it must become like the West. That native Africans might not wish to replace their entire culture with so-called Western advancements does not seem to occur to Wright. A major theme in the work is freedom, but one has to consider what kind of freedom at the expense of which freedom or freedoms.

Neither Time, Newsweek, nor the daily New York Times reviewed the book, and the New York Times Book Review called it a caricature of British colonialism "drawn not from life but from the dreary old arsenal of Marxist slogans." The New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune highly praised the book.

In early 1955, with the help of Gunnar Myrdal, Wright attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia as a representative for the Congress of Cultural Freedom. He finished his report in June 1955 and in the fall began work on a novel tentatively called "Mississippi," later entitled The Long Dream (1958). The report on the conference, first published in France in 1955, was circulated in the United States as The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference in 1956. In this work Wright expands his thesis from Black Power that poor and weak Africans are exploited by oppressive whites to include all nonwhites, particularly Asians. His overriding thesis is that race is the central issue in determining the development of the new nations of Africa and Asia. This book, a much shorter volume than Black Power, is comprised of excerpts from official speeches and private interviews and Wright's observations and comments.

Wright focuses on Chou En-lai's major speech before the conference in which Chou concentrated on African-Asian unity rather than East-West political and ideological conflict. As he did in Black Power, Wright again offers Western industrialization as the solution to Asia's difficulties: "Is this secular, rational base of thought and feeling in the Western world broad and secure enough to warrant the West's assuming the moral right to interfere sans narrow selfish political motives? My answer is yes."

Reviews of the book were generally favorable. The New York Times Book Review praised everything except Wright's tendency "to exaggerate the racial and religious unity in the Third World and the importance of China." The Saturday Review called Wright's analysis an "important contribution" to understanding the conference.

Wright visited Spain from August 1954 until mid December and continued his tour in the spring of 1955. He went to the major cities, Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville among them, and traveled to numerous rural villages. In 1956 he participated in the planning of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers held in Paris. He translated Louis Sapin's play Papa Bon Dieu (Daddy Goodness), which reflects his great interest in black folk cultures, especially the cults of Father Divine and Daddy Grace. On 22 November 1956 Wright began a tour of Scandinavia, and later the same year he completed White Man, Listen! (1957).

Pagan Spain: A Report of a Journey into the Past (1957), is the published result of the excursion to Spain. The five-chapter report contains excellent descriptive scenes of Spain's cities and towns and a rich variety of information about Spanish life collected from interviews Wright conducted and public events he attended. An especially effective structural device is his use of a Franco government approved handbook which states the aims and principles of the regime. Wright discusses the Spain he sees and at convenient intervals inserts passages from the handbook, thereby providing an excellent contrast between what he actually observes and the propagandistic explanations in the political guide.

Wright issues some severe condemnations of life in Spain. He is convinced that the methods used to persecute and terrorize Protestants correspond to those used in the American South against blacks and other minorities, and he asserts that the church's views toward sex are the reasons sex is the preoccupation among Spaniards and prostitution is a major industry. Poor wages received by women for honest labor force them to prostitution to satisfy the men who do not receive full gratification from the women they love. Wright concludes that Spain is hopelessly mired in an archaic past, that "the prostitution, the corruption, the economics, the politics had about them a sacred aura. All was religion in Spain."

In Pagan Spain Wright adds to his gallery of outsiders people who are not persecuted because of color but because of religion and gender. While the work indicates a broader humane concern, it also shows Wright again making too many hasty generalizations in his evaluation of a country and its ways. He again suggests replacing the indigenous culture of a nation with Western technology and ideals. Pagan Spain was a financial failure, but it received critical praise. The New York Times discussed Wright's great insight into the rituals of Spain. The Saturday Review stressed as a strong point of the book Wright's brilliant analysis of the "unconscious sources of religion."

White Man, Listen!, Richard Wright's last book of nonfiction, consists of a series of lectures delivered between 1950 and 1956 in cities in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. The order of essays follows the essential pattern of Wright's fiction: movement from bondage to freedom, and the flight to new or changed circumstances. The four essays warn of the catastrophe that can befall the Western world if it continues to deny full freedom to large segments of the world's population. These lectures recapitulate much of what Wright states in earlier essays and books. In "The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People," the first and longest of the sections, Wright discusses the missionary zeal which instilled in arrogant Europeans the ideas that they could behave paternalistically toward less developed cultures and that they were perfectly justified in overrunning Asia, Africa, and parts of America. He argues that oppressed people must come from behind their masks and confront the oppressor if they expect to keep "the white shadow of the West" from falling across the rest of the world.

In "Tradition and Industrialization" Wright asserts that Christianity can be viewed favorably only in comparison with the mystical Eastern religious philosophies, which are far worse than the Western ones. He is happy that deluded missionaries brought their Christianity to the Third World because the message they brought was so inappropriate for the Eastern world that in attempting to replace their old beliefs with Western dogma, the Easterners completely lost their religious outlook. Easterners can now say, "Thank you Mr. White Man for freeing me from the rot of my irrational customs and traditions." Wright concludes that this newly purged group must be permitted to act free from Western intervention.

"The Literature of the Negro in the United States" is a historical survey of black American writers. Wright begins by pointing out that Alexandre Dumas and Aleksandr Pushkin are black writers who were fully integrated parts of their respective French and Russian cultures, whereas only one black American writer, Phillis Wheatley, has been able to identify fully with the dominant values of her country. Because black writers in this country have not enjoyed full freedom, freedom is a central theme of Afro-American literature. Black literature as such will disappear when blacks are free, for writing by blacks is a kind of barometer of liberty for Afro-Americans. The more freedom blacks enjoy the more muted the cry for it in their literature. After all "the Negro is America's metaphor," Wright asserts.

The concluding discussion in the book, "The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast," is really a condensed version of Black Power. Wright tells the Africans to overcome their ancestor worshipping attitudes" and "master the techniques of science." His somewhat paradoxical advice to the continent to throw the West out and then become as Western as possible is another illustration of his failure to see that before man can realize a world larger than race, community, tribe, or state, he must show respectful treatment to all segments of the world's cultures. White Man, Listen! is, nevertheless, a very interesting, readable book. It is a provocative exploration of the theme of freedom.

The black press was nearly unanimous in its praise of White Man, Listen! J. Saunders Redding wrote in an Associated Press review that Wright "had never written more brilliantly or poignantly." Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Review refused to review the work, and the New York Times criticized Wright for "treating the white world as a solid block."

By July 1957 Wright had almost finished the second revision of his new novel which he thought of calling "The Double Hearted" or "American Shadow" until his editor at Harper, Edward Aswell, suggested "The Long Dream." By mid February 1958 Wright had made final revisions for "The Long Dream," and he returned to work on "Island of Hallucinations" until The Long Dream was published in New York in mid October 1958.

In The Long Dream, the first and only published book of a projected trilogy, Wright returns to the southern world of Black Boy. The novel focuses on two major concerns: the relationship between Tyree Tucker, a prominent mortician and owner of a house of prostitution, and his son Fishbelly (called Fish), and the complex relationship symbolized by the father as the economic power of the black community and the white police chief as the legal and political power in the city. In each section of a tripartite structure Wright dramatizes events which develop or alter these relationships.

In part 1, "Daydreams and Nightmares," as Fish watches his father examine the corpse of his friend Chris Sims, a young black murdered and castrated by whites for being attracted to a white woman, he expresses his bitter, angry disillusionment with his father and the black community for their passive reactions. In Fish's mind they also underwent castration, and he decides, in a manner which suggests Wright himself in Black Boy, that he can accept neither Southern black attitudes nor white ones. The episode that signals Fish's induction into manhood originates at the Clintonville jail, where Fish and a friend have been arrested for trespassing on a white man's property. When his father comes to get him released, Fish feels humiliated by his subservient behavior before the white officials, but he later realizes that he is released only because of his father's pleas. He then comprehends that Tyree Tucker has been doing all that a black in the South can do and concludes that his secure future is tied in with the acquisition of money and the acceptance of his father's pragmatic philosophy. A central irony is that Fish's maturation is but his accepting his own role as a cheater of other blacks as a way of life, and thus denying them freedom.

The main dramatic event in "Days and Nights," part 2, is the Fourth of July fire at the Grove Dance Hall which takes forty-two lives, including that of Gladys, Fish's mistress. Wright again employs burning, one of his favorite symbols, to bring dramatically to light a corrupt and oppressive business arrangement. The scandal caused by the disaster necessitates a confrontation between Tyree Tucker, who is also the Grove Dance Hall manager, and Gerald Cantley, the white police chief who collects regular payments both to protect prostitution and ignore other violations in the hall. When Tucker attempts to send cancelled checks which show his payments to Chief Cantley to white reformer McWilliams, Tucker is killed in one of Cantley's carefully orchestrated ambushes.

The theme of oppression resurfaces, for Fish now clearly sees that his murdered father followed the same system that the white man uses to oppress and exploit blacks. He retains admiration for his father, however, for he did stand up and strike back at the white oppressor. Ironically enough, Fish will perpetuate his father's oppression and exploitation, for he welcomes the identical corrupt arrangements Tucker had with Cantley and continues to enjoy economic prosperity in Clintonville. Wright creates a mirror effect from one Tucker to the next, symbolizing the continuing fate of the vulnerable southern black.

In "Waking Dream" Fish's long search for his own freedom and dignity evolves into a tragedy. Even though Fish falls on his knees crying that he would not betray a white man, this mirror image of his father's actions does not stop Cantley from having him imprisoned on the false charge of raping a white woman—a terrible irony in that Fish had often imagined raping one. Despite his power in the black community Fish, like his father, cannot defeat the white power structure. Released after serving two and one-half years, Fish, at the first opportunity, leaves for Memphis for a flight to New York and a connecting flight to Paris. An Italian-American on the Paris-bound plane relates to Fish the story of his father's emigration to and successes in America. Fish reflects about himself: "That man's father had come to America and had found a dream; he had been born in America and had found it a nightmare." This last scene clearly shows the particular alienation of the black American and effectively dramatizes Wright's theme of flight from oppression to possible freedom. In "Five Episodes," the only published section of a second part of the planned trilogy, Wright discusses Fish Tucker's life in France.

Two of many noteworthy achievements in The Long Dream are Wright's extraordinary portrait of Tyree Tucker and his effective presentation of the black church. Fish Tucker must be labeled the protagonist, but it is Tyree Tucker whom the reader will remember longest. Tyree Tucker is in turn calculating, cunning, loving, pious, predatory, and saccharine, and at each interval he is convincing. He is a respected leader in the black community, a father who obviously loves his son, a black man who knows when to humble himself before whites, one who dares seduce the mother of a boy recently lynched, and one who prospers off the misery of other blacks. Because he is no one type but a composite of types, he is a fascinating antihero.

Wright never expressed faith in religion, but he was aware of the importance of the black church to the black community. His handling of the funeral services for the forty-two fire victims and Tyree Tucker is extraordinary. At one point in the sermon the Reverend Ragland is explaining to the mourners that their miseries are not caused by whites or corrupt economic and political institutions but by God Himself, and His ways are mysterious. He continues:

 

Who dares say how many of us'll be here a year from now? Your future's in the hollow of Gawd's Hands now, there's men in this town who say that they run it.... The men who run this town can be white as snow, but we know who's the boss! GAWD'S THE BOSS! And He's more powerful than the president, the governor, the mayor, the chief of police.

 

Reverend Ragland's sermon fully captures in philosophy and color the spirit of the mid twentieth century rural black church.

The Long Dream received mostly adverse critical reaction. Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review referred to the "crude prose style and weak characterization." Redding in the New York Times argued that Wright "had been away too long" and that the work "is sensational and fattened by too much iteration." Other critics such as Ted Poston of the New York Post and Nick Aaron Ford writing for Phylon, agreed that the novel was bad. Roi Ottley in the Chicago Sunday Tribune gave the novel one of a few overwhelmingly favorable reviews. He saw The Long Dream as a "superb book balanced by Wright's compassion for his people." Though not a great book, The Long Dream has many great moments.

Despite overwhelming negative criticism from his agent, Paul Reynolds, of his four-hundred page "Island of Hallucinations" manuscript in February 1959, Wright, in March, outlined this third novel in which Fish was finally to be liberated from his racial conditioning and would become a dominating character. By May 1959 Wright had developed a desire to leave Paris and live in London. He felt French politics had become increasingly submissive to American pressure, and the peaceful Parisian atmosphere he had enjoyed had been shattered by quarrels and attacks instigated by enemies of the expatriate black writers. On 26 June 1959, after a party which marked the French publication of White Man, Listen!, Wright became ill, victim of a virulent attack of amoebic dysentery which he had probably contracted during his stay on the Gold Coast. By November 1959 Ellen had found a London apartment, but Wright's illness and "four hassles in twelve days" with British immigration officials made him decide "to abandon any desire to live in England."

On 19 February 1960 Wright learned from Reynolds that the New York premiere of the stage adaptation of The Long Dream received such bad reviews that the adapter, Ketti Frings, had decided to cancel other performances. Meanwhile, Wright was running into additional problems trying to get The Long Dream published in France. These setbacks prevented his finishing revisions of "Island of Hallucinations," which he needed to get a commitment from Doubleday.

Wright was able to complete two radio scripts and a seventy-page story "Leader Man" for "Ten Men," a title he had proposed to his editor in 1959 for a new collection. The title became Eight Men when his editor convinced him that "Leader Man" and "Man and Boy," a new title Wright suggested for the text of Savage Holiday, should not be included. Wright aborted his earlier idea to trace the genesis of each story to give the collection a common theme; hence, the works in Eight Men display the variety and development in Wright's literary and thematic skills. After dedicating the collection to the friends he had made in Paris, Wright sold the work to World Publishers in March 1960 and eagerly awaited publication, but the collection did not reach the public until two months after his death.

"The Man Who Lived Underground," the most critically acclaimed work in Eight Men, brings to mind both Fyodor Dostoyevski's Letters from the Underworld (1864) and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862). Wright, however, has gone a step beyond them and included all humanity in his underground community. Fred Daniels, a black man escaping from the police, who have wrongly accused him of murder, takes up residence in a sewer. Following a nightmarish experience during which time he sees images of death and decay around him and views people engaged in deceit and corruption through a crevice, he concludes that the underground where he resides—the sewer—is the actual world of the human heart, and the world above—the metaphysical sewer—is an area where people attempt to conceal the immense darkness of their souls. This emotional experience brings on a sense of guilt, and he rises to the street to announce his guilt to the world. First rejected by a church congregation, he is later mortally wounded by a policeman who exclaims: "You've got to shoot his kind. They'd wreck things."

The work has a black protagonist, but it transcends racial bounds. Its many themes of self-identity, the search for meaning in the world, the need for communication, and alienation are those which concern all mankind. Existentialist tenets—dread, terror, guilt, nausea—are also present, but Wright has successfully made them characteristics of Fred Daniels's personality, not just existentialist cliches as often is the case in The Outsider. The excellent paradoxes, light and dark imagery, and other vivid, concrete details combine to make "The Man Who Lived Underground" a superior work of art. Wright's suggestion did not go unnoticed by Ralph Ellison whose subsequent Invisible Man (1952) incorporates some of the same structural devices and examines many of the same themes.

The other works in Eight Men show great variety. "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" details the struggles of Dave Saunders who purchases a revolver to assure his manhood will be acknowledged. "Big Black Good Man," one of Wright's few humorous stories, develops the theme of black pride through the adventures of a black sailor. "The Man Who Saw the Flood" is an extended vignette which, like "Down by the Riverside," deals with a black tenant family that returns home after a devastating flood. "The Man Who Killed a Shadow" brings to mind Native Son in that its central character is a black man who inadvertently kills a white woman, a major difference being the black protagonist in the story is used as a symbol of libidinal abandon. "Man of All Work" is a delightful unproduced radio script about mistaken identity. "Man, Gawd Ain't Like That," a much more ambitious radio script, illustrates much of what Wright says in Black Power and White Man, Listen! "The Man Who Went to Chicago" is an autobiographical sketch.

The stories in Eight Men are also representative of the different stages of Wright's development. The ones he wrote in the 1930s ("The Man Who Saw the Flood" and "The Man Who Was Almost a Man") deal with southern workers; the stories of the 1940s ("The Man Who Lived Underground," "The Man Who Went to Chicago," and "The Man Who Killed a Shadow") employ an urban setting to depict blackness, invisibility, outsider or underground status; the stories of the 1950s ("Man of All Work," "Man, Gawd Ain't Like That," and "Big Black Good Man") celebrate a new kind of black nationalism, black virility as opposed to white flabbiness, and a proud awareness of African identity.

During 1959 and 1960, the last two years of his life, Wright was fighting amoebic dysentery, and by February 1960 he was constantly ill. On 19 March 1960, after a roundtable discussion on black theater organized by Claude Planson of the Theatre des Nations, Wright announced to his friend and Dutch translator, Margrit de Sabloniere, that he had returned to poetry. He told her, "During my illness I experimented with the Japanese form of poetry called haiku; I wrote some 4,000 of them and am now sifting them out to see if they are any good." Wright had borrowed the four volumes by R. H. Blyth on the art of haiku in order to learn the rules of its composition. He reduced the number of poems to eight hundred by mid April and sent the eighty-page manuscript to his friend and editor William Targ of World Publishing Company.

Targ's company rejected the poems, but the consolation of writing the haiku enabled Wright to live with illness and to endure the attacks he felt were multiplying against him. In February he had received an unfriendly letter from Sartre. The letter turned out to be a forgery, but it had already greatly hurt Wright. Wright concluded that no reply from either St. Clair Drake or Horace Clayton meant they did not want him to write a new preface for Black Metropolis. Wright even came to doubt the friendship of Chester Himes and to question his relationship with Dr. Victor Schwarzmann, his personal physician. His illness and his generally suspicious nature caused him to regard any changes in regular procedures or negative responses to his writing as parts of a general plot against him.

In June 1960 Wright recorded a series of discussions for French radio dealing primarily with his books and literary career but also with the racial situation in the United States and the world, specifically denouncing American policy in Africa. In late September, to cover extra expenses brought on by his daughter Julia's move from London to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, Wright wrote blurbs for record jackets for Nicole Barclay, director of the largest record company in Paris. In spite of his financial straits Wright refused to compromise his principles. He declined participation in a series of programs for Canadian radio because he suspected American control over the programs, and he rejected the proposal of the Congress for Cultural Freedom that he go to India to speak at a conference in memory of Leo Tolstoy for the same reason.

Still interested in literature, Wright offered to help Kyle Onstott get Mandingo (1957) published in France. His last display of explosive energy occurred on 8 November 1960 in his polemical lecture, "The Situation of the Black Artist and Intellectual in the United States," delivered to students and members of the American Church in Paris. Wright argued that American society reduced the most militant members of the black community to slaves whenever they wanted to question the racial status quo. He offered as proof the subversive attacks of the Communists against Native Son and the quarrels which James Baldwin and other authors sought with him.

On 26 November 1960 Wright talked enthusiastically about Daddy Goodness with Langston Hughes and gave him the manuscript. Two days later, on 28 November 1960, while waiting in the Eugene Gibez Clinic in Paris for extensive medical examinations, Wright died of a heart attack. He is buried in Pere Lachaise, Paris.

Richard Wright is undeniably one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. His books have been translated into many languages, and millions throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East have read about the experiences of a Mississippi black boy. Through his "travel" books he brought the oppressed peoples of the Third World countries to the attention of the East and the West. Wright more than any other American author illustrates the premise that America's basic ills are those of racism. His significance as an interpreter of the racial problem in imaginative literature led Irving Howe to assert in "Black Boys and Native Sons" (1963) that after Native Son appeared. American culture was changed forever. The claim is perhaps excessive, but no black writer between Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin has offered so moving a testimony and delivered so scathing an indictment of America's racial dilemmas to so large an audience as has Richard Wright. Wright elevated the protest novel to a more highly respected art form that numerous other "native sons" have adopted. While some of his work is weak and unsuccessful—especially that completed within the last three years of his life—his best work will continue to attract readers. His three masterpieces—Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy—are a crowning achievement for him and for American literature. They are enduring works of art, each of which transcends any one literary classification.

During the 1970s and 1980s scholars and the general public have shown increasing interest in Richard Wright. Critical essays have been written about his writing in prestigious journals. Richard Wright conferences have been held on university campuses from Mississippi to New Jersey. A new film version of Native Son, with a screenplay by Richard Wesley, was released in December 1986. Selected Wright novels are required reading in a growing number of American universities and colleges. The Outsider, American Hunger, The Long Dream, and other long out-of-print Wright books have been reissued by Harper & Row. Several doctoral dissertations have been accepted, and plans are underway to release more of his unpublished work. Today more and more Americans are reading of Wright's life and problems as a sensitive, intelligent, black American. The rising interest in Wright suggests, happily, a wider understanding and acceptance of the literary importance of America's native son.

 

Clark, Edward D. "Richard Wright."

 

     DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

 

     Discovering Collection Thomson Gale. MN. 8 Jan. 2008

   

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