Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Margaret Walker, professor emeritus of English at Jackson State University and author of the best-selling novel Jubilee (1966) and the award-winning book of poetry For My People (1942), writes the life of Richard Wright from both a personal and a professional point of view. She brings not only her own black racial heritage to the task but also her youthful friendship with Wright and the mature judgment of her professional career as scholar and artist.

The biography divides Wright’s life into five periods: the Southern childhood and early adolescence, the Chicago years and the struggle to find a voice for the frustration of the Southern past, the New York years of literary success, the Paris years and the quest for freedom, and the tragic end.

Defining Wright as a daemonic genius, Walker pinpoints the role of obsession with sex and rage at the heart of the artist’s creative response to life. Anger, ambivalence, alienation, and aberration are the key words that she uses to classify the demons that plagued the man but produced the art.

While the book provides valuable insights into the creative genius of Wright, it is equally valuable in its revelation of Walker. Walker’s biography of Wright is created through a complex narrative vision that embodies her own autobiography. She tells the Wright story through five distinct authorial voices: the young woman enamored of the dynamic emerging author, the racial apologist who interprets the correlation between oppression and contribution in the formation of identity, the literary scholar who values the traditions behind the creation of text, the consummate teacher who is compelled to set understanding in a broadened context, and the critic of Western cultural foundations who must identify the matrix responsible for the particular cast of art.

Walker may well be at her best when she resumes the persona of the youthful black woman in Chicago whose writing life was nurtured by the older, more experienced Wright. Her memory of her first encounter with Wright combined her youthful self-consciousness over having “nothing to wear to make a nice appearance,” her “Sunday-school horror” at the “pungent epithets” Wright used in lamenting the state of contemporary Negro writing, and her sense of isolation in the emerging South Side Writers’ Group. Later, Wright’s role as her supervisor on the Works Project Administration (WPA) Writers’ Project brought her into a pattern of biweekly contact that developed into a relationship that would stimulate growth in her reading and writing. Wright’s enthusiasm for reading caused Walker to reexamine such writers as James Joyce, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Erskine Caldwell. Together they read Marcel Proust and worked on her poetry and his use of Negro dialect. As the friendship developed, the young Southern girl was shaped by the energy of the older artist.

The innocence of the young woman was also tried by the radical thinking of the angry young man. Walker was encouraged to read not only James Farrell and Clifford Odets but also John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867-1894), and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). Wright’s infatuation with communism, however, was not the only factor complicating their relationship. Despite their growing friendship, a friendship Walker insists was only “platonic, political, intellectual, and literary,” she found that she also had to deal with Wright’s ambivalence toward black women. On the one hand, Wright talked to Walker “as he could never talk to anybody else about anything,” and on the other hand he told her that “black women don’t do anything but pull you down when you’re trying to get up.”

After Wright left for New York, he and Walker continued their relationship by mail. She spent enormous amounts of time helping him with research for Native Son (1940), only to find that her emotional commitment to his project would be repaid by a book teeming with anger at the image of black womanhood. In 1938, Wright had read the newspaper reports of Robert Nixon’s confession to the murder of five women and the rape of several others. He wanted all the newspaper clippings that were available, intending to use them as Theodore Dreiser had used newspaper accounts in the writing of An American Tragedy (1925). Walker also provided Wright with sociological...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXIV, November 15, 1987, p. 533.

Essence. XVIII, March, 1988, p. 26.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, November 1, 1987, p. 1564.

Library Journal. CXII, November 1, 1987, p. 113.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 14, 1988, p. 54.

The Washington Post. November 20, 1988, p. K1.