Jay Wright Biography

Autobiography as Cultural Theory

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Wright’s multiculturalism has strong autobiographical resonances. Of Irish, African, and Native American descent, Wright grew up in the ethnically diverse settings of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Pedro, California, making frequent trips to Mexico as part of his work as a minor-league baseball player in the early 1950’s. His early poems, collected in The Homecoming Singer (1971), best exemplify the way in which autobiographical experience can serve as a catalyst for constructing an African American cultural and literary tradition. “A Non-Birthday Poem for My Father,” “Origins,” and “The Hunting-Trip Cook” are homages to Mercer Murphy Wright, Wright’s biological father, and to his foster father, Frankie Faucett, that serve as occasions for examining the responsibilities with which the dead charge the living. Such ancestral charges are what connect presences from Wright’s personal past to “the intense communal daring” of Crispus Attucks and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The Homecoming Singer also sketches geographies to which Wright will return throughout his work. The Southwest and California emerge as important places of origin and communion, as does Mexico. “Morning, Leaving Calle Gigantes,” “Chapultepec Castle,” “Jalapeña Gypsies,” and “Bosques de Chapultepec” are chronicles of the time Wright spent in Guadalajara and Jalapa, Mexico, between 1968, the year in which he married Lois Silber, and 1971. In...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jay Wright was born on May 25, 1935, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Leona Dailey, a Virginian of black and American Indian heritage, and George Murphy, an African American from Santa Rosa, New Mexico, who claimed to be of Cherokee and Irish descent. Soon after Jay’s birth, his father, a construction worker and handyman, adopted the name Mercer Murphy Wright and relocated to California. Jay lived with his mother until he was three years old, when she gave her son to a black Albuquerque couple, Frankie and Daisy Faucett, who were known for taking in children. The Faucetts were a religious couple, and they exposed Wright to African American church tradition while he lived in their home.

Wright attended Albuquerque public schools until he was in his early teens, when he went to live with his father and later his stepmother in San Pedro, California. During his high school years, he began to play organized baseball and upon graduation worked as a minor-league catcher for several California teams. During those years, he also learned to play the bass guitar, and this interest in music later led him to explore rhythm and style. Wright joined the Army in 1954 and served in the medical corps until 1957. He was stationed in Germany, and he took the opportunity to travel widely throughout Europe, where he encountered a variety of cultural traditions.

A year after he returned to the United States, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied comparative literature. He received his A.B. in 1961, and the next fall attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City on a Rockefeller grant. He left Union in 1962 and began graduate study in literature at Rutgers University, taking a brief leave to teach English and history at the Butler Institute in Guadalajara, Mexico.


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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In his introduction to Selected Poems of Jay Wright (1987), the critic Robert Stepto stated that Wright’s distinction as a poet is that he explores not only American patterns of community and history but also the larger body of transatlantic traditions. In doing so, Wright “enables us to imagine that breaking the vessels of the past is more an act of uncovering than of sheer destruction, and that we need not necessarily choose between an intellectual and a spiritual life, for both can still be had.”

Wright’s poetry is a record of his quest to understand personally and collectively the patterns of both these lives and the relationships between them. His cross-cultural approach to his quest makes him one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jay Wright was reared in New Mexico and Southern California. Wright became fluent in English and Spanish and knowledgeable regarding African American, Hispanic, and Native American ways of looking at the world. Extended travels in Mexico and Europe in later years also expanded his cultural literacy and empathy. His poetry expresses his interest in understanding all of the many different cultures that have contributed to modern global identity.

After high school in San Pedro, California, Wright played minor league baseball and served in the U.S. Army. He earned a degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961, studied briefly at Union Theological Seminary, and received a master’s degree from Rutgers University in 1966. Though he taught at Tougaloo College, Talladega College, and Yale University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Wright did not pursue a regular academic career. Married in 1971 to Lois Silber, Wright settled in New Hampshire to continue his research and writing.

Wright’s serious devotion to poetry and his prolific production brought him numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1968, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974, and the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1986. These awards allowed Wright time to study and to write. The study of comparative religion, philosophy, and anthropology is central to Wright’s poetic work, which explores the history of slavery in the New World by investigating the mythologies and cosmologies of the African, European, and Native American peoples.