Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Wright’s first novel, The Messenger, was warmly received by reviewers, sold quite well, and developed a following for Wright. Lucy Freeman called it “a poignant portrait of a young man without a country or even a city.” Kay Boyle believed it to be among the most significant of a number of contemporaneous novels presenting “ruthlessly honest” portrayals of “the lonely horror of the junkie and homosexual world of New York.” James Baldwin considered the book to be a “happening” that should serve as a warning to “city fathers” that “this is New York, this is the way we live now.”

Although these critics endorsed the candor of subject matter and admired the fine writing, some critics found it difficult to distinguish between what was fact and what was fiction in The Messenger. This blurring of the boundaries between genres led some reviewers to think the work was wrongly identified as “imaginative writing.” In spite of the fact that Wright drew heavily on his own experiences—he supported himself as a messenger while composing it—the novel, according to Jerome Klinkowitz, deserves its place in the canon of African American literature for shattering old conventions and presenting the usual “’search for meaning’ theme in a radical new form: imaginative literature, and ultimately fantasy.”

Joe Weixlmann has said that the direction open to African American writing in the 1960’s and beyond depends less on prescribed forms and more on the writer’s willingness to mix genres such as realism and fantasy in order to create new hybrid forms of expression. The Messenger stands as an influential example of a novel written with the force and energy of what Charlie calls “the fears, confusion, and pain of being alive.”