Wright, Richard (Vol. 14)
Wright, Richard 1908–1960
An American short story writer and novelist, Wright was praised for his early realistic portraits of the experiences, fears, and frustrations of southern blacks. Wright was a spokesman for black rights and beliefs, and his early work depicts a southern society that exhibits few outside influences. His later work, of which Native Son is an example, shows both broader scope and the author's philosophical movement from political naiveté to Marxist belief, and finally to an anti-Marxist attitude. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9.)
Richard Wright was a Black man born on a white, Mississippi plantation, and carried, by fits and starts, from one white, southern town to the next. In short, he was born into the antagonistic context of hostile whites wielding power against him. In this, his background mirrors our majority Black experience. And so, we readily accept the validity of Native Son/Bigger Thomas, who pits himself against overwhelming, white force. Moreover, Native Son (undoubtedly Wright's most influential book) conforms to white standards we have swallowed regarding literary weight: It is apparently symbolic (rather than realistic), "serious" (unrelievedly grim), socio-political (rather than "personal") in its scale, and not so much "emotional" as impassioned in its deliberate execution.
Given the antagonistic premise of Native Son/the personal beginnings of Richard Wright, a Black man on enemy turf, it follows that his novel should pull you forward with its furious imagination, saturate the reader with varieties of hatred, deal horror, climax in violence, and ram hard—ram hard—against a destiny of doom. But suppose the premise is a different one? (pp. 5-6)
June Jordan, "On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred" (copyright © 1974 June Jordan), in Black World, Vol. XXIII, No. 10, August, 1974, pp. 4-8.∗
(The entire section is 209 words.)
Wright's stories of helpless or long-suffering Blacks victimized by societal and individual White brutality mark the beginning of a new era in Black fiction and even his least important pieces contain unforgettable scenes and characters that burn their way into the reader's consciousness; characteristic is the savage sequence of events of "Big Boy Leaves Home," climaxed by a lynching which leaves the protagonist completely lost, alienated from life, a victim of meaningless and unjustified racial hatred and bigotry. But for all his talent, Wright's people—misunderstood, exploited, vilely misused by Whites—tend to be almost as one-dimensional as many of the stereotypes of the proletarian short fiction of the thirties. As a sad and moving testimonial to the evil of racism and its effect upon a gifted and bitterly disillusioned human being, Uncle Tom's Children and Eight Men constitute a disturbing and towering and permanent landmark in the literary history of Black-White relations, and their influence upon the younger generation of Black writers was and continues to be profound. (pp. 233-34)
William Peden, "The Black Explosion," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 231-41.∗
(The entire section is 191 words.)
Robert F. Moss
With the rise of black studies programs throughout the country, an omnibus collection of Wright's work was inevitable. The author's widow, Ellen Wright, and Michel Fabre … have assembled a broad sampling of Wright's work…. Although the [Richard Wright Reader] is weighted toward Wright's fiction, there are representative selections from his correspondence, his poetry, his political and literary essays, and his travel writing. (p. 46)
Surveying its scope, we see that a man's past is never really dead. For Wright, the formative experiences were his mother's religious fanaticism (she was a Seventh-day Adventist), with its crippling repressions and proscriptions, and the virulent racism that confronted him at nearly every stage of his determined search for self-realization. Brutalized and misunderstood by both his family and his society, Wright developed personal characteristics that were reflected in most of his writing: rebelliousness, introversion, a quest for selfhood, a longing for stable and meaningful values, an appetite for violence.
The editors lead off with a segment from Black Boy that depicts Wright's adolescent struggle to educate himself beyond his station with forbidden library books…. He had already outgrown the one-dimensional identity whites had designed for him and was learning to hate instead of fear them. "It was probably a mere accident that I never killed," he comments...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
The principal value of any reader is that it can present in a single volume a broad sampling of a master's work. The publication of the "Richard Wright Reader" is to be applauded on this account, because the range of subject matter and technique Mr. Wright commanded have been lost to the audience that knows him only as the "angry" author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy." Without disparaging either novel, one can acknowledge that they offer a limited portrait of the artist at a distinct time and place in his career; the selections in this book remind us that Mr. Wright's career spanned 22 productive years.
It is not difficult to find reasons for the fascination Mr. Wright's life and work continue to have for black writers. As Mr. Fabre [the co-editor] often indicates in his notes, Mr. Wright was a conscious artist, a writer who learned from his reading of other masters, who employed inventive literary techniques to dramatize his knowledge of black language and culture. The pattern of Mr. Wright's early life mirrored the mass migration of blacks from South to North, from rural areas to the cities, from communal folk life to urban alienation. In "Black Boy," "Lawd Today" and "Native Son" the promise and bitter disappointment of these historic movements are captured. Mr. Wright's later years reflect the intellectual odyssey of black people in the second half of the 20th century. He examined the legacy of the African past; he documented the...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
Evelyn Gross Avery
Uncle Tom and Sambo have disappeared from contemporary black literature. The black rebel, driven to assert himself, often violently, has replaced the acquiescent victim…. The writer most frequently credited with making the Negro "visible" is Richard Wright…. Offering historical and sociological, as well as psychological insights into the American character, Wright examines the rebel, his behavior and motivations, his background. Products of a lower-class black environment, Wright's rebels are well acquainted with hunger, disease, poverty. They learn quickly from frightened mothers and beaten fathers not to expect much from America. Their dreams of power are undercut by the reality of Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination. Ambition is discouraged; impotency reinforced. All entrances and exits are blocked. Trapped, Wright's black man may choose to suffer his fate passively; he may reluctantly accept his status as a victim. But not for long. Wright's victims are generally minor characters or else they evolve into sullen rebels. (pp. 4-5)
Wright's rebels [are] lonely, alienated individuals [who] seek affirmation in action. Passion, impulsiveness, and often violence characterize many of Wright's protagonists. Most are nonreflective and unable to articulate their agony. Driven by explosive emotions, they seek escape in alcohol, sex, and brutal encounters. Some leave the repressive South for the "promised land." Movement from town to...
(The entire section is 2216 words.)