Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Richard Wright was the first of two sons born to sharecropper Nathan Wright and former schoolteacher Ella Wilson Wright in a village outside Natchez, Mississippi; all four of his grandparents had been slaves. After a move to Memphis, Tennessee, and his father’s desertion before Richard was five, the family’s circumstances became increasingly difficult as their poverty deepened. When, in 1915, Ella became unable to support her sons, they were temporarily placed in the Memphis Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage.
Subsequent relocations moved Richard back and forth between the rural and urban South. In Elaine, Arkansas, in 1917, he encountered firsthand the virulence of southern racism when his uncle was lynched. His mother experienced her first stroke when Richard was ten, and the crisis precipitated their removal to her parents’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, where Richard chafed under the strict constraints placed on his behavior by the religious fundamentalism of his grandmother. Richard set out on his own in 1925, upon graduating as valedictorian from the ninth grade. Heading first to Memphis, he spent two years saving the funds to move his family to Chicago.
Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937 and held a number of jobs, ranging from busboy to insurance salesman to youth counselor to day laborer. In 1935, he secured a position with the Illinois Federal Writers Project, where he worked with other literary apprentices such as Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, and Arna Bontemps.
While working at the post office in Chicago, Wright befriended several Communists and was recruited in 1933 for the John Reed Club, a leftist organization with a literary as well as political emphasis. The fellowship Wright found there provided his first sense of shared purpose with like-minded individuals; moreover, he found in Marxism a systematic explanation for the oppressive circumstances that had defined his own experience.
In late 1933 Wright joined the Communist Party, and he became an eloquent spokesman for its attacks on racial and class injustice. For almost a decade, the party’s doctrines and aims provided the theoretical skeleton upon which Wright’s fiction and journalism were built; he sought to arouse white readers to a fuller awareness of the degradation caused by institutionalized bigotry and to awaken the black masses to their own revolutionary potential. The effect of Wright’s party affiliation upon his creative work is debated among critics, some arguing that it subjected his writing to a doctrinal straitjacket, and others pointing to the coherence that Communist doctrine gave to his perceptions of reality. Wright privately broke with the party in 1942, disillusioned with its attempts to curtail the individual freedom of the artist and its...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Wright’s career marked the first time that an African American’s work so forcefully commanded the attention of the American literary establishment. It did so through uncompromising depictions of the social and moral crisis that racism had precipitated in the United States. In harnessing his anger and alienation into creative channels and giving the oppressed a voice, Wright inspired the following generation of black writers, including Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin. Ironically, the militant racial activism of the 1960’s led to a temporary rejection of Wright’s achievement, despite his courageous political stances. More recently, however, writers and critics are recovering Wright’s legacy and recognizing him as a man ahead of his time.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The poverty, racial hatred, and violence that Richard Nathaniel Wright dramatizes in fiction come directly from his own experience as the child of an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper. Richard was six years old when his father was driven off the land and the family moved to a two-room slum tenement in Memphis, Tennessee. The father deserted the family there. Richard’s mother, Ella Wright, got a job as a cook, leaving Richard and his younger brother Alan alone in the apartment. When his mother became ill, the brothers were put in an orphanage. An invitation for Ella and the boys to stay with a more prosperous relative in Arkansas ended in panic and flight when white men shot Uncle Hoskins, who had offered the Wrights a home. The family lived for some time with Richard’s grandparents, stern Seventh-day Adventists. In this grim, repressive atmosphere, Richard became increasingly violent and rebellious.
Although he completed his formal education in the ninth grade, the young Richard read widely, especially Stephen Crane, Fyodor Dostoevski, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. The family eventually migrated to Chicago. Wright joined the Communist Party in 1933, and, in 1937 in New York City, became editor of the Daily Worker. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, and Black Boy brought Wright fame both in the United States and in Europe. In 1945, at the invitation of the French government, Wright went to France and became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and other existentialists. His next novel, The Outsider (1953), has been called the first existential novel by an American writer. Wright traveled widely, lectured in several countries, and wrote journalistic accounts of his experiences in Africa and Spain. He died unexpectedly in Paris of amoebic dysentery, probably contracted in Africa or Indonesia under conditions his friend and biographer Margaret Walker, in Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), believes indicate at least medically questionable decisions, or, possibly, homicide.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Born in Mississippi of sharecropper parents, Richard Nathaniel Wright had a lonely and troubled childhood. His father deserted the family early, and after his mother suffered a stroke, Wright was forced at a young age to work to help support the family, which moved frequently from one relative to another. His portrayal of his mother is of a stern but loving parent, unable to contend with the stronger personality of his extremely religious grandmother. Wright’s grandmother believed that all fiction was “the devil’s lies”; her chief goal was to force Wright into a religious conversion, a goal in which she was singularly unsuccessful.
Wright’s direct connection to family members who had been slaves came through both sets of grandparents. Richard Wilson, his mother’s father, had been a slave in the cotton fields and had fled slavery to serve in the Civil War. His anger against whites carried throughout his life and was fueled by the government’s refusal to offer disability assistance. This bitter figure was a strong influence on Wright’s own angst. Less influential to Wright’s ideology was his paternal grandfather, Nathaniel Wright, who had been a slave, a Civil War soldier, and a sharecropper in the post-Civil War south.
Wright moved from school to school, attempting to make friends and make his talents known. Though both tasks were difficult, he became valedictorian of his class. Even this accomplishment was spoiled when the principal insisted...
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Richard Wright rose from abject poverty to become one of America’s foremost writers. His topics consistently focus on the freedom and self-governance of African Americans in texts before 1950. He chronicled his Southern experiences from 1908 to 1927 in Black Boy, and his Northern experiences from 1927 to 1937 in American Hunger. Wright met with success once he moved to New York City in 1937. He won a literary prize in 1938 that earned him a contract with a major publisher, which published Uncle Tom’s Children. A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 enabled Wright to complete Native Son; with that work alone, he earned acclaim as the leading African American writer of his time. The novel is Wright’s moral indictment of America for perpetrating neo-slavery among African Americans. In Native Son, the ghetto produces Bigger Thomas, who dies as a result of his accidentally killing a white woman. The 1940’s brought personal crises to Wright. He faced America’s continuous racial discrimination toward him and toward interracial couples once he married Ellen Poplar in 1941. Ongoing rifts with the Communist Party also added to Wright’s tensions. In 1946, he renounced America for France, as did other expatriates who sought freedom abroad. The 1950’s marked the emergence of Wright’s global consciousness and his writings concerning Western imperialism. His immersion in French existentialism provided the means to assess the effects of Western imperialism on Asian, African, and Spanish cultures. The Outsider became the seminal existentialist novel in African American letters. Wright became an existentialist humanist, transformed from what he identified as an “American Negro” to a “Western man of color” and freedom activist. Wright was prolific as well as a writer of high quality; his writings continued to be published after his death in 1960.
Biography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Wright was the first African American writer to reach a large white audience. His realistic and powerful portrayal of the African American experience in both the South and the northern cities of the United States brought the country’s attention to African American suffering and hardships in the first half of the twentieth century. His masterpiece, Native Son (1940), marks a high point in the development of African American fiction. Its influence can be felt in the work of a whole generation of African American writers. Some black writers became imitators of Wright and consequently formed the Wright School of postwar black fiction. They are often referred to as protest novelists....
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Richard Nathaniel Wright’s literary reputation has been largely determined by the political and racial concerns of his fiction. From the time he published Native Son until his death, he was viewed primarily as the literary spokesman for black radicalism. It has only been since the 1970’s that critics have begun to examine his writing in a broader perspective. Born on September 4, 1908, to Ella and Nathan Wright on a farm near Natchez, Mississippi, Richard had a difficult childhood of economic deprivation, familial disruption, and frequent relocations. The family was living in Memphis when his father abandoned them in 1914. His mother’s poverty and increasing illness made it necessary to rely on relatives and to move...
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Biography (Short Stories for Students)
IntroductionRichard Wright is best known for his controversial novels as well as his troubled life. Wright’s first story was published when he was just 15. His difficulties began in Chicago when he joined the John Reed Club, which was mainly run by communists. He was eventually denounced by both communists and African Americans who thought he acted too “white.” Wright’s most famous novel is Native Son, which has been criticized for its violent themes. Wright also wrote the influential autobiographies Black Boy and American Hunger. During his later years, Wright moved to Paris and became a French citizen. He wrote about many of his experiences abroad and always retained his far-left political views.
- Native Son was the first book by an African American author to be chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection.
- Near the end of his life, Wright discovered a strong interest in haiku and wrote over four thousand of the short poems.
- Many parts of Wright’s books that were deemed too controversial because of violence, sexuality, and politics were cut in the original publications. In 1991, they were rereleased in restored versions.
- Wright got dysentery in 1957 and suffered from ill health until his death in 1960. His daughter insists that he was murdered.
- Wright was asked to join the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but he declined due to his ties to the CIA, which had him under surveillance for many years.