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.
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...
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