Although Richard Wright is best known for his novel Native Son (1940), his nonfiction works, such as the two volumes of his autobiography Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) and American Hunger (1977) along with books such as Twelve Million Black Voices (1941) and White Man, Listen! (1957), have proven to be of lasting interest. He developed a Marxist ideology while writing for the Communist Daily Worker, which was very influential on his early fiction, notably Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children, but which culminated in an article, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” first published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1944. Although he abandoned Marxist ideology, he never abandoned the idea that protest is and should be at the heart of great literature.
Richard Wright is often cited as being the father of the post-World War II African American novel. The works of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison owe a direct debt to the work of Wright, and his role in inspiring the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s is incalculable. Further, he was one of the first African American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century to capture a truly international audience. Among his many honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 and the Spingarn Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1941 for his novel, Native Son. This novel, which James Baldwin said was “unquestionably” the “most powerful and celebrated statement we have had yet of what it means to be a Negro in America,” along with the first volume of his autobiography and the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, constitute Wright’s most important lasting contributions to literature. His plots usually deal with how the harrowing experience of racial inequality transforms a person into a rebel—usually violent, and usually randomly so. The more subtle achievement of his fiction, however, is the psychological insight it provides into the experience of oppression and rebellion.
In addition to his novels, Richard Wright published collections of essays and short stories and two autobiographical volumes. Two collections of short fiction, the early Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and the posthumously collected Eight Men (1961), represent some of Wright’s finest writing. Wright himself felt that the characters in Uncle Tom’s Children were too easily pitied and that they elicited from readers a sympathy that was unlike the tough intellectual judgment he desired. Wright later wrote that his creation of Bigger Thomas in Native Son was an attempt to stiffen that portrayal so that readers could not leniently dismiss his characters with simple compassion, but would have to accept them as free, fully human adults whose actions require assessment. Nevertheless, the stories of Uncle Tom’s Children are carefully written, and the characters, though sometimes defeated, embody the kind of independence and intractability that Wright valued in his fiction.
Two stories from Eight Men reveal the themes to which Wright gave sustained development in his novels. In “The Man Who Was Almos’ a Man,” the main character learns that power means freedom, and although he first bungles his attempt to shoot a gun, his symbol of power, he lies to his family, keeps the gun, and at the conclusion of the story leaves home to grow into manhood elsewhere. In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the main character, nameless at first, is accused of a crime he did not commit. Fleeing underground to the sewers of the city, he becomes a voyeur of life, seen now from a new perspective. The values that served him badly aboveground do not serve him at all below. By the end of the story, he has come to understand that all men are guilty; his name is revealed, and with his new values, he ascends once more to accept responsibility for the crime. Since all men are guilty, it is less important to him that the crime is not his own than that he acknowledge freely that he shares in human guilt.
Even more important than these two collections is the...
In his best work, Richard Wright gives American literature its strongest statement of the existential theme of alienated people defining themselves. Wright’s use of the black American as archetypal outsider gives his work a double edge. On one hand, no American writer so carefully illuminates the black experience in America: The ambivalence of black feeling, the hypocrisies of the dominant culture, and the tension between them find concrete and original manifestation in Wright’s work, a manifestation at once revealing and terrifying.
It is not only in his revelation of black life, however, that Wright’s power lies, for as much as his writing is social and political, it is also personal and philosophical. The story of alienated people is a universal one; because the concrete experiences of the outsider are so vividly rendered in Wright’s fiction, his books have an immediate accessibility. Because they also reveal deeper patterns, they have further claims to attention. Much of Wright’s later fiction seems self-conscious and studied, but it cannot diminish the greatness of his finest work.
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985. The essays “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Alas, Poor Richard” provide important and provocative insights into Wright and his art.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on various aspects of Wright’s work and career, with an introduction by Bloom.
Butler, Robert. “Native Son”: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An accessible critical look at the seminal novel. Includes bibliographical references and index....