Richard Wright 1908-1960
(Full name Richard Nathaniel Wright) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Wright's works from 1985 through 2001. See also Richard Wright Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 9, 14, 21.
A seminal figure in African American literature, Wright has been called one of the most powerful and influential writers of twentieth-century America. He was one of the first writers to portray—often in graphic, brutal accounts—the dehumanizing effects of racism on African Americans. His stories usually center on alienated and impoverished black men who, denied freedom and personal identity, lash out against society. Scholars have hailed Native Son (1940) and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth as Wright's most accomplished works. Although some critics fault Wright's oeuvre as too violent and unabashedly propagandistic, such prominent writers as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison consider them essential works of African American literature.
Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. When he was six years old, his father abandoned the family, forcing his mother to work as a cook for a white family. Life in the South was difficult, and Wright and his younger brother Leon frequently went without food. Wright's first indelible encounter with racial hatred and violence occurred during the family's brief stay with an uncle, who was murdered by a group of white men trying to seize his property. Fearing for their lives, the Wrights fled to West Helena, Arkansas; young Wright was about eight or nine years old. They eventually returned to Mississippi, but Wright went to live with his grandmother when his mother became ill. His formal schooling, frequently interrupted as he moved from town to town, ended when he was seventeen. Wright was strongly influenced by the work of H. L. Mencken, whose trenchant language and outspoken critical opinions awakened him to the possibility of social protest through writing. He also read the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. In 1927 Wright left the South for Chicago. He worked at various menial jobs, all the while reading and writing extensively. During the Depression he joined the WPA Writers' Project and became active in the Communist Party, contributing articles, poems, and short stories to various communist newspapers. In 1944, after witnessing the trial of a party member for ideological “deviationism,” Wright resigned from the party. Wright died in Paris at the age of fifty-two on November 28, 1960.
Wright's first major publication was a collection of short stories inspired by the life of an African American communist he had known in Chicago. All of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children (1938) deal with the oppression of black people in the South, of the violence of whites against blacks, and the violence to which the black characters are driven by their victimization. His next book, Native Son, chronicled the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man in Chicago who accidentally murders a white woman and is condemned to death. To depict the dehumanization of blacks in the “hard and deep” manner he wished, Wright avoided making his protagonist a sympathetic character. His autobiographical work, Black Boy, has been called a masterpiece. A work structured in many ways like a novel, the book recounts Wright's experiences as a youth in the South. In this work, Wright attacks both white oppression and the predatory nature of members of his own race. He rebukes his strict religious upbringing and reprimands blacks for their servile response to racial subjugation.
After the commercial success of Native Son and Black Boy, Wright moved with his second wife and daughter to Paris, France, in 1947. Here, he found refuge from the racial tensions of the United States and became friends with several noted intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Wright's literary output during this period, including the novels The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958), is generally considered inferior to his earlier achievements. Eight Men (1961), a posthumously published collection of short stories, contains “The Man Who Lived Underground,” which is often regarded as Wright's most important fictional work of the 1950s.
In addition to his novels and short stories, Wright produced several nonfiction works: 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941), a textual and photographic history of racial prejudice in the United States; Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), a work that recalls Wright's visit to Takoradi, a British colony in Africa where a black man had been appointed prime minister; and The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), Wright's reflections on a conference held in Indonesia by the free nations of the Third World. Pagan Spain (1957) recounts Wright's bitterness over the poverty and corruption he observed while traveling in Spain, and White Man, Listen! (1957) contains four lectures by Wright on race relations.
Wright's reputation ebbed during the 1950s as younger African American writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin gained in popularity. But in the 1960s, with the growth of the militant Black consciousness movement, there was a resurgence of interest in Wright's work. His place in American literature remains controversial: some critics contend that his writing is of sociological and historical, rather than literary, interest. In the judgment of many commentators, however, Wright remains the most influential African American protest writer in America. According to Ellison, Wright “converted the American Negro impulse toward self-annihilation and ‘going underground’ into a will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly and throw his findings unashamedly into the guilty conscience of America.”