Autobiography as Cultural Theory

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

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.

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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 “An Invitation to Madison County,” the black American South offers additional possibilities for community to the displaced poet, whose pilgrimage in this instance retraces that of many African American writers before him. “A Month in the Country,” in turn, offers a first glimpse of the landscape of New Hampshire, which became Wright’s residence in 1973. In later poems, these and other places come together in full-fledged imaginary geographies.

The Homecoming Singer is more than a record of Wright’s early artistic development, however; it also contains the seeds of his later writing. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “The Baptism,” for example, deplore the spiritual paucity of institutionalized African American religions. The lack of “myths to scale your life upon” produces “the senseless, weightless,/ time-denying feeling of not being there” in “Reflections Before the Charity Hospital.” Rather than escalating in the violent despair of “A Poem for Willie Best” by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), on which Wright brilliantly improvises in “The Player at the Crossroads” and “Variations on a Theme by LeRoi Jones,” this dispossession heightens the poet’s awareness that the “tongues of the exiled dead” continue to speak to the living. This awareness gradually matures into the death-defying search for new spiritual and poetic categories that directs Wright toward traditional African societies, rituals, and mythologies in “A Nuer Sacrifice” and “Death as History.” “Sketch for an Aesthetic Project” and “Beginning Again,” which close The Homecoming Singer, are tentative efforts at weaving memories and discontent into a poetic design beyond individual experience.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

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.

Returning to Rutgers in 1965, he spent the next three years there, completing all the requirements for the doctoral degree except the dissertation, and received an M.A. degree in 1966. While studying at Rutgers, he lived and worked in Harlem, where he met other African American writers, including Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka, who were also exploring black tradition. In 1967, Wright was awarded a National Council on the Arts grant to further his studies. That same year, his early poems were published in a chapbook, Death as History.

In 1968, Wright married Lois Silber, and the couple moved to Mexico. They lived briefly in Guadalajara and then in Jalapa, where they stayed until 1971. During this time, Wright occasionally returned to the United States, spending brief periods as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1968 and Talladega College in Alabama in 1969-1970. Beginning in 1970, he wrote plays on a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. In 1971, Wright’s second book of poetry, The Homecoming Singer, was published. Appearing at the height of interest in modern black writing, the book received considerable critical acclaim.

In 1971, the couple left for Scotland, where Wright spent the next two years as a fellow at Dundee University. Returning to the United States, they lived in New Hampshire on and off from 1973 to 1978. In 1975, Wright began teaching at Yale University, where he remained until 1979. During this period, Wright published three books of poetry, all of which refine the mythology and continue the autobiographical themes he began in the early books. In these books, he also synthesizes the results of his studies in African, Latino, and American Indian cultures. His Soothsayers and Omens and Dimensions of History both appeared in 1976, The Double Invention of Komo in 1980.

In 1979, Wright settled in New Hampshire and began teaching at Dartmouth College; he has also taught at the Universities of Utah, Kentucky, and North Carolina. He has traveled extensively throughout the Americas and Europe, and with a writers’ group, he visited the People’s Republic of China in 1988. In the 1980’s, Princeton University Press published three more books of his poetry: Explications/Interpretations in 1984, Selected Poems of Jay Wright in 1987, and Elaine’s Book in 1986. Boleros appeared in 1991.

Wright is also the author of several one-act plays based on African myths, including Balloons (pb. 1968) and The Death and Return of Paul Batuata (pb. 1984). His full-length plays include a version of the poem Death as History (1967). In the 1960’s, a Berkeley radio station performed a number of his dramatic works. His poetry has appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Black World, Evergreen Review, New American Review, New Black Voices, The Nation, and the Yale Review.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

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.

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