Richard Wright Reader
When a writer’s work is chosen for a reader, typically his reputation appears ready for a favorable reevaluation. The memorable Orwell Reader (1956), following significant appreciative essays by Lionel Trilling and other critics, signaled just such an assessment. A similar reason for Richard Wright’s reevaluation now seems justified. Since the author’s death in 1960, many distinguished commentators, perhaps most notably Ishmael Reed, have acknowledged their debt to Wright, not only as an influential contemporary black spokesman, but also as a major American man of letters. Tracing the reputation of Wright’s work from the period of his dramatic successes with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas (1938), Native Son (1940), and Black Boy (1945), through his gradual decline during the next two and a half decades, Michel Fabre argues that his subject deserves a judicious critical reappraisal. In his compact Introduction, he says that the Richard Wright Reader grew “out of the need for a more comprehensive view of Wright’s total production, a need to let readers judge for themselves its rich, if apparently contradictory diversity.”
To display to best advantage this diversity, Fabre selects works from each period of Wright’s creative career. Among examples of the author’s most widely admired early fiction, he includes two complete short stories from Uncle Tom’s Children, “Long Black Song” and “Fire and Cloud,” as well as very brief excerpts from Native Son and Black Boy. In addition, Fabre includes a longer selection from The Outsider, a major novel of 1953 which, he believes, has never enjoyed its appropriate critical appreciation. Also he reprints in its entirety Wright’s stunning long story “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1945). Perhaps the major surprise of the Richard Wright Reader, this fiction, first published in Cross Section magazine and later printed in Eight Men (1961), deserves a wider audience. Also meriting more attention is The Long Dream (1958), represented by an extensive selection. In this neglected novel, projected as the first volume of an uncompleted trilogy, Rex “Fishbelly” Tucker is treated as a representative black American whose coming-of-age symbolizes the fate of his generation of small-town Mississippians. Although reminiscent in many ways of Black Boy, this late novel is vivid enough in characterization to reward many new readers. Certainly the portrait of Tyree Tucker is masterful, and according to Fabre, “stands as the best example of a Black father in all of Wright’s fiction.”
Together with these remarkable selections, Fabre includes several of Wright’s journalistic pieces that are merely of sociohistorical value. For example, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941) is essentially a book-length essay that accompanies the striking photographs of Edwin Rosskam and others. Innovative for its time, the essay now appears strident and unfocused. Wright argues with passion for the rights of oppressed black Americans, appeals to the conscience of his (mostly) liberal white readers, and warns those who will not heed his call of an impending violence. “What we want,” he writes, “what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish.” The author’s message has certainly proved to be prophetic, and Fabre correctly wishes to place on the record Wright’s historical fight against injustice. Nevertheless, his selection is needlessly comprehensive simply to make the desired point. Wright’s discussion is eloquent, generally accurate, but unsupported by the kind of hard sociological evidence that would make an enduring contribution to social history. Rather, the essay is a fine piece of persuasive journalism, valuable as a document.
Similarly, Wright’s long essay Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954) is more important as a social document than as a literary production. From this work derives the key phrase “Black Power,” used widely during the 1960’s; but Wright’s interpretation of Black Power is quite at odds with the revolutionary uses of the concept by most black leaders who later appropriated the catch phrase. Based in part...
(The entire section is 1803 words.)