(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiographical Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945). Between 1968 and 1988 four biographies of him appeared, two of them before his voluminous papers became readily available to researchers, one of them (that by Margaret Walker) soured by unhappy personal relations with her subject, and none of them approaching in thoroughness and literary grace Hazel Rowley’s “life and times.”

The contrast between the violent, primitive black men who predominate in Wright’s fiction and their author is striking. Although Wright was as intense and angry as his most famous character, Bigger Thomas of Native Son, his weapon against racial oppression was always the English language, whether his literary recreations of the versions spoken by African Americans in his native Mississippi and in Chicago’s South Side or the sophisticated prose of his nonfiction works. A gifted, self-taught writer, Wright found the intellectual stimulation he needed as a young man not in any college or university, but in the American Communist Party in Chicago. He always regarded his membership in the Party, which endured for twelve years and generated substantial files in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and, later, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as primarily an opportunity to meet and learn from writers who shared his conviction of the inequalities and injustices of American society. Only in gatherings of Party members could he escape the racial bigotry that assailed him and associate freely with whites, including many Jews burdened with their own legacy of persecution. His fierce independence, however, produced deeply ambivalent feelings in him, prevented him from contributing the degree of activism and loyalty that the Party expected, and ultimately evoked suspicion and even hostility in fellow members.

Despite his restless and peripatetic nature, Wright apparently never threw away notes, drafts, jottings of any sort, or letters written to him, and Hazel Rowley seems to have mined all of them that are accessible. (Not all his correspondents saved his letters, while his letters to some correspondents, notably Margaret Walker, remain unavailable to the public.) Along with the works of earlier biographers and critics, Rowley has drawn on FBI files on Wright and several of his associates, which often came grudgingly and with many details blacked out. She has deftly organized the fruits of this extensive research and unfolded the life of a complex man in an unobtrusive yet vigorous style.

One of the strands of this complexity was a fierce and defiant independence which vitalized his writing but vitiated his personal and family life, especially when it tended toward selfishness and self-indulgence. His behavior following the great success of Native Son early in 1940 is a case in point. Reading a magazine article by an acquaintance who had settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, filled Wright with an urge to do the same. Mexico promised an array of amenities—a large house, gardens, a swimming pool—within the budget of a man whose Book-of-the-Month Club novel had, for the first time in his life, made such a dream into a real possibility. In Cuernavaca, the recently married Wright fell out of the habit of regular writing, brooded over the absence of his Chicago friends, and proved his basic incompatibility with his wife, Dhimah Meidman. Both the Mexican sojourn and the marriage itself lasted only a matter of months.

The following year he took a more suitable bride, Ellen Poplowitz, like Dhimah a Jew, but a more intelligent woman and a fellow Party member. They stayed together for years, had two daughters, and seemed to many of their friends to be truly in love, but eventually Wright’s unfaithfulness turned the union into one kept alive only for the sake of the children. Rowley passes no judgment on his conduct but leaves the reader with the impression that Ellen was an attractive and devoted wife until the later years, when Wright lived in Paris, she and their daughters in England.

Tongue and groove with Wright’s independence went his restlessness. By early 1945, with World War II winding down and his latest book, Black Boy, another Book-of-the-Month Club choice, the thirty-six-year-old Wright began to feel the expatriate urge that has so frequently gripped serious American writers. Like many other African Americans in the 1920’s, he had migrated from the Deep South to Chicago, and like a...

(The entire section is 1853 words.)