Study Guide

Richard Wright

Richard Wright Essay - Wright, Richard

Wright, Richard

Introduction

Richard Wright 1908-1960

(Full name Richard Nathaniel Wright) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Wright's works from 1985 through 2001. See also Richard Wright Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 9, 14, 21.

A seminal figure in African American literature, Wright has been called one of the most powerful and influential writers of twentieth-century America. He was one of the first writers to portray—often in graphic, brutal accounts—the dehumanizing effects of racism on African Americans. His stories usually center on alienated and impoverished black men who, denied freedom and personal identity, lash out against society. Scholars have hailed Native Son (1940) and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth as Wright's most accomplished works. Although some critics fault Wright's oeuvre as too violent and unabashedly propagandistic, such prominent writers as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison consider them essential works of African American literature.

Biographical Information

Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. When he was six years old, his father abandoned the family, forcing his mother to work as a cook for a white family. Life in the South was difficult, and Wright and his younger brother Leon frequently went without food. Wright's first indelible encounter with racial hatred and violence occurred during the family's brief stay with an uncle, who was murdered by a group of white men trying to seize his property. Fearing for their lives, the Wrights fled to West Helena, Arkansas; young Wright was about eight or nine years old. They eventually returned to Mississippi, but Wright went to live with his grandmother when his mother became ill. His formal schooling, frequently interrupted as he moved from town to town, ended when he was seventeen. Wright was strongly influenced by the work of H. L. Mencken, whose trenchant language and outspoken critical opinions awakened him to the possibility of social protest through writing. He also read the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. In 1927 Wright left the South for Chicago. He worked at various menial jobs, all the while reading and writing extensively. During the Depression he joined the WPA Writers' Project and became active in the Communist Party, contributing articles, poems, and short stories to various communist newspapers. In 1944, after witnessing the trial of a party member for ideological “deviationism,” Wright resigned from the party. Wright died in Paris at the age of fifty-two on November 28, 1960.

Major Works

Wright's first major publication was a collection of short stories inspired by the life of an African American communist he had known in Chicago. All of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children (1938) deal with the oppression of black people in the South, of the violence of whites against blacks, and the violence to which the black characters are driven by their victimization. His next book, Native Son, chronicled the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man in Chicago who accidentally murders a white woman and is condemned to death. To depict the dehumanization of blacks in the “hard and deep” manner he wished, Wright avoided making his protagonist a sympathetic character. His autobiographical work, Black Boy, has been called a masterpiece. A work structured in many ways like a novel, the book recounts Wright's experiences as a youth in the South. In this work, Wright attacks both white oppression and the predatory nature of members of his own race. He rebukes his strict religious upbringing and reprimands blacks for their servile response to racial subjugation.

After the commercial success of Native Son and Black Boy, Wright moved with his second wife and daughter to Paris, France, in 1947. Here, he found refuge from the racial tensions of the United States and became friends with several noted intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Wright's literary output during this period, including the novels The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958), is generally considered inferior to his earlier achievements. Eight Men (1961), a posthumously published collection of short stories, contains “The Man Who Lived Underground,” which is often regarded as Wright's most important fictional work of the 1950s.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Wright produced several nonfiction works: 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941), a textual and photographic history of racial prejudice in the United States; Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), a work that recalls Wright's visit to Takoradi, a British colony in Africa where a black man had been appointed prime minister; and The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), Wright's reflections on a conference held in Indonesia by the free nations of the Third World. Pagan Spain (1957) recounts Wright's bitterness over the poverty and corruption he observed while traveling in Spain, and White Man, Listen! (1957) contains four lectures by Wright on race relations.

Critical Reception

Wright's reputation ebbed during the 1950s as younger African American writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin gained in popularity. But in the 1960s, with the growth of the militant Black consciousness movement, there was a resurgence of interest in Wright's work. His place in American literature remains controversial: some critics contend that his writing is of sociological and historical, rather than literary, interest. In the judgment of many commentators, however, Wright remains the most influential African American protest writer in America. According to Ellison, Wright “converted the American Negro impulse toward self-annihilation and ‘going underground’ into a will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly and throw his findings unashamedly into the guilty conscience of America.”

Principal Works

Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (short stories) 1938

Native Son (novel) 1940

12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (nonfiction) 1941

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (autobiography) 1945

The Outsider (novel) 1953

Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (nonfiction) 1954

Savage Holiday (novel) 1954

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (nonfiction) 1956

Pagan Spain (nonfiction) 1957

White Man, Listen! (lectures) 1957

The Long Dream (novel) 1958

Eight Men (short stories) 1961

Daddy Goodness [with Louis Sapin] (play) 1963

Lawd Today (novel) 1963

American Hunger (autobiography) 1977

The Richard Wright Reader (essays, novel excerpts, letters, and poetry) 1978

Richard Wright: Works 2 vols. (novels, essays, and autobiography) 1991

Rite of Passage (novella) 1994

*Haiku (poetry) 2000

*The works in this volume were written in 1960 and appeared in manuscript form as This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner.

Criticism

Janice Thaddeus (essay date May 1985)

SOURCE: Thaddeus, Janice. “The Metamorphosis of Richard Wright's Black Boy.American Literature 57, no. 2 (May 1985): 199-214.

[In the following essay, Thaddeus chronicles the publishing history of Black Boy and traces the book's metamorphosis from an open autobiography to a closed one.]

There are two kinds of autobiography—defined and open. In a defined autobiography, the writer presents his life as a finished product. He is likely to have reached a plateau, a moment of resolution which allows him to recollect emotion in tranquility. This feeling enables him to create a firm setting for his reliable self, to see this self in relief against society...

(The entire section is 6181 words.)

James A. Miller (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Miller, James A. “Bigger Thomas's Quest for Voice and Audience in Richard Wright's Native Son.Callaloo 9, no. 3 (summer 1986): 501-06.

[In the following essay, Miller argues that the concluding scene of Native Son illustrates Bigger's recovery of his voice, which “not only undermines the argument that Max functions as a spokesman for Wright's political views but also challenges the view that Bigger himself is inarticulate.”]

Critical commentary about Native Son has invariably focused on the meaning of the final section of the novel, particularly Max's impassioned speech to the judge in his vain attempt to save Bigger Thomas's life...

(The entire section is 3210 words.)

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date autumn 1986)

SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Richard Wright's Experiment in Naturalism and Satire: Lawd Today.Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (autumn 1986): 165-78.

[In the following essay, Hakutani offers a stylistic analysis of Lawd Today and compares it to James Joyce's Ulysses.]

Lawd Today, completed by 1935 and released posthumously in 1963, is an anomaly in Richard Wright's canon since it was written first but published last. Not only has it puzzled critics since its publication, but it has elicited a variety of responses. Granville Hicks, in a review entitled “Dreiser to Farrell to Wright,” affectionately defended Lawd Today, calling...

(The entire section is 6451 words.)

Joyce Ann Joyce (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Joyce, Joyce Ann. “The Critical Background and a New Perspective.” In Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy, pp. 1-28. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Joyce surveys the critical reception to Wright's work, focusing on interpretations of his novel Native Son.]

In his essay aptly titled “The ‘Fate’ Section of Native Son,” Edward Kearns, in a discussion of courses in Afro-American literature, summarizes the “fate” of criticism written on the works of Black literary artists: “… black American writers have been nearly excluded from serious critical attention, and when attention has been paid, the black...

(The entire section is 9077 words.)

James Robert Saunders (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Saunders, James Robert. “The Social Significance of Wright's Bigger Thomas.” College Literature 14, no. 1 (winter 1987): 32-7.

[In the following essay, Saunders traces the evolution of Bigger Thomas into a character of social significance.]

In an article entitled “Richard Wright's Blues,” which is included in his volume of essays, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison describes what he regards as a “basic ambiguity” in Richard Wright's sensational Native Son. Ellison, a contemporary of Wright's who survived to evaluate new generations of black American writers, assessed it as a crucial flaw that “Wright had to force into Bigger's...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)

Susan Neal Mayberry (essay date January 1989)

SOURCE: Mayberry, Susan Neal. “Symbols in the Sewer: A Symbolic Renunciation of Symbols in Richard Wright's ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’.” South Atlantic Review 54, no. 1 (January 1989): 71-83.

[In the following essay, Mayberry explores the heavy symbolism of Wright's short story “The Man Who Lived Underground.”]

The fact that Richard Wright's “The Man Who Lived Underground” is somewhat paradoxically a long short story prepares its reader for its multiple ambiguities and explains the range of interpretations that have resulted from them. The short story has been variously described as a depiction of the social and ethical problems facing the...

(The entire section is 5507 words.)

Bruce Dick (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Dick, Bruce. “Richard Wright and the Blues Connection.” Mississippi Quarterly 42, no. 4 (fall 1989): 393-408.

[In the following essay, Dick discusses Wright's blues songs and critical work, contending that he “easily stands as one of the forerunners of interpretive blues criticism.”]

Of the major twentieth-century African-American writers, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison are famous for celebrating their forebears' folk roots. Hurston secured a permanent place among eminent American folklorists after the release of Mules and Men (1935), her monumental study of black American folk beliefs. Ellison also joined the first rank of American writers...

(The entire section is 6427 words.)

Trudier Harris (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Harris, Trudier. “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters.” In New Essays on Native Son, edited by Keneth Kinnamon, pp. 63-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Harris investigates the role of African American women in Native Son.]

The black women Richard Wright depicts in Native Son (1940) are portrayed as being in league with the oppressors of black men. Wright sets up an opposition in the novel between the native and the foreign, between the American Dream and American ideals in the abstract and Afro-Americans trying to find their place among those ideals, between Bigger as a representative of something larger and...

(The entire section is 8673 words.)

James W. Tuttleton (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “The Problematic Texts of Richard Wright.” In The Critical Response to Richard Wright, edited by Robert J. Butler, pp. 167-72. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1992, Tuttleton reflects on Wright's place in American literature and his inclusion in The Library of America series.]

It is an event of great cultural importance to have, at last, the best of Richard Wright in The Library of America series.1 Thus far, with respect to black writers, only W. E. B. DuBois has been represented, although it is only fair to the Library to remark that the best black writers are modern,...

(The entire section is 4136 words.)

Horace A. Porter (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Porter, Horace A. “The Horror and the Glory: Wright's Portrait of the Artist in Black Boy and American Hunger.” In Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, pp. 316-27. New York: Amistad, 1993.

[In the following essay, Porter suggests that Black Boy and American Hunger should be read in order, viewing the two autobiographies as a portrait of the artist.]

As the curtain falls on the final page of American Hunger, the continuation of Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, he is alone in his “narrow room, watching the sun sink slowly in the chilly...

(The entire section is 5751 words.)

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “‘Last Call to the West’: Richard Wright's The Color Curtain.” In South Atlantic Review 59, no. 4 (November 1994): 77-88.

[In the following essay, Folks asserts that Wright's The Color Curtain includes insight on the relationship between the Western and non-Western worlds.]

As the record of Richard Wright's travel to Indonesia in 1955 to attend the Bandung Conference of African and Asian nations, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956) reveals Richard Wright's effort to understand his own identity in relation to non-Western cultures. In his capacity as a free-lance observer rather than...

(The entire section is 4559 words.)

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Nature, Haiku, and ‘This Other World’.” In Richard Wright and Racial Discourse, pp. 261-91. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hakutani chronicles Wright's interest in the haiku during his later years, contending that his experiments with this poetic form “poignantly express a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature.”]

1

In 1960, less than a year before his death, Wright selected, under the title This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner, 817 out of the about four thousand haiku he had composed...

(The entire section is 11359 words.)

Desmond Harding (essay date March 1997)

SOURCE: Harding, Desmond. “The Power of Place: Richard Wright's Native Son.CLA Journal 40, no. 3 (March 1997): 367-79.

[In the following essay, Harding investigates Wright's utilization of architectural determinism in his novel Native Son.]

The theory of architectural determinism, which has been linked to theories of environmental and physical determinism, is the assertion that the three-dimensional layout of the physical environment has a direct effect upon human behavior, that changes in “built form” can result in changes in human behavior.1 The degree to which this deterministic theory has been held over from the nineteenth century by...

(The entire section is 4086 words.)

Stephen K. George (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: George, Stephen K. “The Horror of Bigger Thomas: The Perception of Form without Face in Richard Wright's Native Son.African-American Review 31, no. 3 (fall 1997): 497-504.

[In the following essay, George explores Bigger Thomas's inability to interact and make connections with others by applying the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.]

Richard Wright's depiction of Bigger Thomas, a young African American whose social environment moves him to murder and rape, is meant to be both sympathetic and shocking. We, as readers, are to feel compassion for Bigger as he is caught up in economic and racial forces he can neither comprehend nor control, but we...

(The entire section is 4605 words.)

Timothy P. Caron (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Caron, Timothy P. “‘The Reds Are in the Bible Room’: The Bible and Political Activism in Richard Wight's Uncle Tom's Children.” In Struggles over the Word: Race and Religion in O'Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright, pp. 112-40. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Caron underscores the importance of African American religiosity and political radicalism in Wright's Uncle Tom's Children.]

When Israel was in Egyptland,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses …
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

The genius of these preachers lay in...

(The entire section is 8581 words.)

James Smethurst (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Smethurst, James. “Invented by Horror: The Gothic and African American Literary Ideology in Native Son.African American Review 35, no. 1 (spring 2001): 29-40.

[In the following essay, Smethurst examines the role of the gothic in Native Son.]

Richard Wright's Native Son is still usually taken as one of the foremost examples of late American naturalism, and much is made of the impact of modern sociology, particularly what became known as the Chicago School of Sociology, on the conception and shape of the novel.1 Yet numerous scholars, at least in passing, have remarked on the influence of the gothic tradition on Wright's novel,...

(The entire section is 7302 words.)

Dennis F. Evans (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Evans, Dennis F. “The Good Women, Bad Women, Prostitutes and Slaves of Pagan Spain: Richard Wright's Look Beyond the Phallocentric Self.” In Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, pp. 165-75. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Evans argues that Wright's travel book Pagan Spain offers valuable insights into Richard Wright as a writer and a person through his sympathetic treatment of Spanish women.]

I wanted to go to Spain, but something was holding me back. The only thing that stood between me and a Spain that beckoned as much as it repelled...

(The entire section is 5378 words.)