Richard Wright Biography

Richard Wright is best known for his controversial novels as well as his troubled life. Wright’s first story was published when he was just fifteen. His difficulties began in Chicago when he joined the John Reed Club, which was mainly run by communists. He was eventually denounced by both communists and African Americans who thought he acted too “white.” Wright’s most famous novel is Native Son, which has been criticized for its violent themes. Wright also wrote the influential autobiographies Black Boy and American Hunger. During his later years, Wright moved to Paris and became a French citizen. He wrote about many of his experiences abroad and always retained his far-left political views. 

Facts and Trivia

  • Native Son was the first book by an African American author to be chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection.
  • Near the end of his life, Wright discovered a strong interest in haiku and wrote over four thousand of the short poems.
  • Many parts of Wright’s books that were deemed too controversial because of violence, sexuality, and politics were cut in the original publications. In 1991, they were rereleased in restored versions.
  • Wright got dysentery in 1957 and suffered from ill health until his death in 1960. His daughter insists that he was murdered.
  • Wright was asked to join the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but he declined due to his ties to the CIA, which had him under surveillance for many years.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186

Richard Wright was the first of two sons born to sharecropper Nathan Wright and former schoolteacher Ella Wilson Wright in a village outside Natchez, Mississippi; all four of his grandparents had been slaves. After a move to Memphis, Tennessee, and his father’s desertion before Richard was five, the family’s circumstances...

(The entire section contains 1186 words.)

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Richard Wright was the first of two sons born to sharecropper Nathan Wright and former schoolteacher Ella Wilson Wright in a village outside Natchez, Mississippi; all four of his grandparents had been slaves. After a move to Memphis, Tennessee, and his father’s desertion before Richard was five, the family’s circumstances became increasingly difficult as their poverty deepened. When, in 1915, Ella became unable to support her sons, they were temporarily placed in the Memphis Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage.

Subsequent relocations moved Richard back and forth between the rural and urban South. In Elaine, Arkansas, in 1917, he encountered firsthand the virulence of southern racism when his uncle was lynched. His mother experienced her first stroke when Richard was ten, and the crisis precipitated their removal to her parents’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, where Richard chafed under the strict constraints placed on his behavior by the religious fundamentalism of his grandmother. Richard set out on his own in 1925, upon graduating as valedictorian from the ninth grade. Heading first to Memphis, he spent two years saving the funds to move his family to Chicago.

Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937 and held a number of jobs, ranging from busboy to insurance salesman to youth counselor to day laborer. In 1935, he secured a position with the Illinois Federal Writers Project, where he worked with other literary apprentices such as Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, and Arna Bontemps.

While working at the post office in Chicago, Wright befriended several Communists and was recruited in 1933 for the John Reed Club, a leftist organization with a literary as well as political emphasis. The fellowship Wright found there provided his first sense of shared purpose with like-minded individuals; moreover, he found in Marxism a systematic explanation for the oppressive circumstances that had defined his own experience.

In late 1933 Wright joined the Communist Party, and he became an eloquent spokesman for its attacks on racial and class injustice. For almost a decade, the party’s doctrines and aims provided the theoretical skeleton upon which Wright’s fiction and journalism were built; he sought to arouse white readers to a fuller awareness of the degradation caused by institutionalized bigotry and to awaken the black masses to their own revolutionary potential. The effect of Wright’s party affiliation upon his creative work is debated among critics, some arguing that it subjected his writing to a doctrinal straitjacket, and others pointing to the coherence that Communist doctrine gave to his perceptions of reality. Wright privately broke with the party in 1942, disillusioned with its attempts to curtail the individual freedom of the artist and its criticism of his novel Native Son (1940) as a counterrevolutionary work.

His more public renunciation in 1944 resulted from the Communist Party’s wartime compromise on the question of civil rights. For the rest of his life, Wright was attacked by the international Communist press. He conceded, nevertheless, that the party’s teachings had encouraged him to envision a wholesale reconfiguration of the social order, fueling a passionate idealism about the purposes of his writing. Moreover, through the party he met both of his wives: Dmihah Rose Meadman, whom Wright married in 1939 and divorced soon after, and Ellen Poplar, whom he married in 1941 and with whom he had two daughters, Julia and Rachel.

The decade between 1935 and 1945 was the most productive period in Wright’s creative career. His dedication to nurturing black aesthetic expression prompted his founding of the South Side Writers Group in 1936. Wright moved to New York City in 1937, where he was soon employed as editor for the Harlem bureau of the Communist Daily Worker. In 1938, he published a collection of short fiction about southern racism titled Uncle Tom’s Children and won first prize in a Works Progress Administration (WPA) competition. He soon completed Lawd Today, his first effort to mine the autobiographical experience of southern black migrants in Chicago, published posthumously in 1963.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939, Wright completed Native Son and in 1941 was awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Twelve Million Black Voices, a nonfictional “folk history” of black America composed in collaboration with photographer Edward Rosskam, appeared in that same year, as did a successful stage adaptation of Native Son. The publication of Black Boy (1945) cemented Wright’s international celebrity as the preeminent black author of the decade.

Along with Wright’s increasing literary reputation grew his sense of besieged isolation as an intellectual black artist at odds with factions that sought either to coopt or silence him. He eagerly accepted a 1946 invitation from the French government to visit that country under the sponsorship of his good friend Gertrude Stein. In Paris he exulted in the freedom from racist categorization that had plagued him in the United States, and with a second trip to France in 1947, he became an expatriate.

There Wright immersed himself in existentialism, befriending Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, and committed himself to a humanistic politics. The primary literary result of this philosophical odyssey was the novel The Outsider (1953).

Wright’s expanded metaphysical concerns matched his political preoccupations with the efforts of people in developing nations to throw off colonial domination. The rationale for his support lay in his discovery of an intellectual and spiritual affinity with nonwhite people. They alone, he argued, possessed the moral force to resurrect the West from the soullessness of modern industrialism and totalitarianism. Wright devoted considerable energy during the 1950’s to the encouragement of black solidarity in the arts as well as politics. He became involved in the “negritude” movement exploring the black aesthetic sensibility, and in 1952 he helped organize the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers. Similarly, he attended and reported upon conferences on the liberation of developing countries and social reconstruction in such works as Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), White Man, Listen! (1957) and Pagan Spain (1957).

Wright’s creative efforts also continued during this time, although critics concede that they lack the power of his earlier fiction. In addition to The Outsider, Wright published Savage Holiday (1954) and The Long Dream (1958). Shortly before his death he published Eight Men, a collection of short fiction that appeared in the United States in 1961. In addition, he became deeply involved in a 1951 film adaptation of Native Son, for which he wrote the screenplay and in which he played Bigger Thomas.

The events surrounding Wright’s sudden death in 1960 have received considerable investigation. As an expatriate, he suffered harassment by the U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency(CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a result of his former Communist membership, his outspoken criticism of American foreign policy during the Cold War, and the hysteria of the Joseph McCarthy era.

The stresses of a faltering publishing career, financial difficulties, internal hostilities within the African American community abroad, and recurrent health problems had put Wright in the hospital for extensive tests when a heart attack killed him on November 28, 1960. Conspiracy theories have surfaced, but biographers conclude that while the American government bears responsibility for intensifying the strains on Wright’s health, no evidence of foul play exists.

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