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Wright, Richard 1908–1960
An American short story writer and novelist, Wright was praised for his early, realistic portraits of the experiences, fears, and frustrations of the southern black. Wright was a spokesman for black rights and beliefs, and his early work pictures a southern society that exhibits few outside influences. His later work, however, of which Native Son is an example, shows both broader scope and the author's philosophical movement from political naiveté, to Marxist belief, and to a final anti-Marxist attitude. (See also CLC, Vols 1, 3, 4.)
Richard Wright has outlined for himself a dual role: To discover and depict the meaning of Negro experience; and to reveal to both Negroes and whites those problems of a psychological and emotional nature which arise between them when they strive for mutual understanding.
Now in Black Boy, he has used his own life to probe what qualities of will, imagination, and intellect are required of a Southern Negro in order to possess the meaning of his life in the United States. Wright is an important writer, perhaps the most articulate Negro American, and what he has to say is highly perceptive. Imagine Bigger Thomas projecting his own life in lucid prose, guided, say, by the insights of Marx and Freud, and you have an idea of this autobiography. (p. 77)
As a nonwhite intellectual's statement of his relationship to western culture, Black Boy recalls the conflicting pattern of identification and rejection found in Nehru's Toward Freedom. In its use of fictional techniques, its concern with criminality (sin) and the artistic sensibility, and in its author's judgment and rejection of the narrow world of his origin, it recalls Joyce's rejection of Dublin in A Portrait of the Artist. And as a psychological document of life under oppressive conditions, it recalls The House of the Dead, Dostoievski's profound study of the humanity of Russian criminals. (p. 78)
[Along] with the themes, equivalent descriptions of milieu and the perspectives to be found in Joyce, Nehru, Dostoievski, George Moore and Rousseau, Black Boy is filled with blues-tempered echoes of railroad trains, the names of Southern towns and cities, estrangements, fights and flights, deaths and disappointments, charged with physical and spiritual hungers and pain. And like a blues sung by such an artist as Bessie Smith, its lyrical prose evokes the paradoxical, almost surreal image of a black boy singing lustily as he probes his own grievous wound. (p. 79)
[The] prerequisites to the writing of Black Boy were, on the one hand, the miscroscopic degree of cultural freedom which Wright found in the South's stony injustice, and, on the other, the existence of a personality agitated to a state of almost manic restlessness. There were, of course, other factors, chiefly ideological; but these came later. (pp. 79-80)
Born on a Mississippi plantation, he was subjected to all those blasting pressures which, in a scant eighty years, have sent the Negro people hurtling, without clearly defined trajectory, from slavery to emancipation, from log cabin to city tenement, from the white folks' fields and kitchens to factory assembly lines; and which, between two wars, have shattered the wholeness of its folk consciousness into a thousand writhing pieces.
Black Boy describes this process in the personal terms of one Negro childhood. Nevertheless, several critics have complained that it does not "explain" Richard Wright. Which, aside from the notion of art involved, serves to remind us that the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin. They forget that human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility; that all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality; that the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism; and that all men are the victims and the beneficiaries of the goading, tormenting, commanding, and informing activity of that imperious process known as the Mind…. (pp. 80-1)
[While] it is true that Black Boy presents an almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by brutal environment, it also presents those fresh, human responses brought to its world by the sensitive child…. (p. 81)
There were also those white men—the one who allowed Wright to use his library privileges and the other who advised him to leave the South, and still others whose offers of friendship he was too frightened to accept.
Wright assumed that the nucleus of plastic sensibility is a human heritage—the right and the opportunity to dilate, deepen, and enrich sensibility—democracy. Thus the drama of Black Boy lies in its depiction of what occurs when Negro sensibility attempts to fulfill itself in the undemocratic South. Here it is not the individual that is the immediate focus, as in Joyce's Stephen Hero, but that upon which his sensibility was nourished.
Those critics who complain that Wright has omitted the development of his own sensibility hold that the work thus fails as art. Others, because it presents too little of what they consider attractive in Negro life, charge that it distorts reality. Both groups miss a very obvious point: That whatever else the environment contained, it has as little chance of prevailing against the overwhelming weight of the child's unpleasant experiences as Beethoven's Quartets would have of destroying the stench of a Nazi prison. (p. 82)
Wright saw his destiny—that combination of forces before which man feels powerless—in terms of a quick and casual violence inflicted upon him by both family and community. His response was likewise violent, and it has been his need to give that violence significance which has shaped his writings. (p. 83)
Ralph Ellison, "Richard Wright's Blues," (originally published in The Antioch Review, Summer, 1945), in his Shadow and Act (copyright 1945 by Ralph Ellison; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1964, pp. 77-94.
Richard Wright is a figure of almost primeval simplicity. There is something about him of the fundamentalist, the Old Testament prophet. His imagination was seized by the race-war myth in its starkest, most unsubtle forms. There is almost nothing in his fiction of tenderness or ambiguity. He is gigantic, unlovable, unequivocal, humorless and artless, monolithic; and necessary. His voice was and is a necessary voice, crude and unpleasant like a siren. (p. 102)
His ready adoption of communism (which dates his fiction more than anything else …) evinces [his] moral simplicity: he seems an earlier variety of man. He was confident of his own righteousness, and that of his black-and-white moral mythology. The white men in his stories are usually flat figures of undetailed evil—which is all they can be, in the terms of his myth. Their deaths, like their motives, simply do not matter. His amoralist Negro heroes, on the other hand, can become tormented martyrs. The only possible relationship, in his scheme, is hate; the only significant action is murder. Out of this austere mythology, Wright created a number of bludgeoning bloody tales with cleaver-cut plots, true more in their awful total effect than in any of their details.
Such a view of Wright, of Wright seen through his fiction, is borne out by the almost autobiographical Black Boy of 1945. This book, the most outspoken of all Negro protest autobiographies, is a necessary document in the race warrior's kit, along with the classic essay which prefigured it, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" (1937). These two works clearly set forth for the first time the inside dimension of the Negro's experience of prejudice in America: what it feels like to live in the mad prison house of sadistic white obsessions. In them was detailed, for perhaps the first time, the Negro's whole elaborate ritual of survival. For this alone, they are as important as anything Wright (or any American Negro) has written.
But Black Boy also reveals its author-hero (never was author more heroic) as a man governed by the most absolute, unreflective, and uncritical certitude of his own virtue. He has had, it would seem, no mean or ignoble motives, no mixed motives even. Any "faults" that appear in the boy Richard are the result of others' moral blindness. He possessed, from infancy nearly, a humorless ethical monumentality; the world is a moral arena for the young Prince Arthur-Wright. Every episode is seen as another fierce combat in the career of this militant young atheist martyr. (pp. 103-04)
Wright was never able to see himself, or other men, or the Negro Problem, or anything else (see his view of world history in White Man, Listen!) except in the shape of the fixed abstractions of his moral myth.
His fictions, then, follow naturally from his character and his vision. They are—to oversimplify—usually epic dramatizations of the race war at its most intense: lynching, murder, fire, beating, castration, psychotic sex combats, police brutality, race riots, pure hate against pure hate. His backgrounds (notoriously in Native Son) are vivid displays of sullen Negro slum life, his characters symbolic racial antagonists of an epic, sometimes existential simplicity. His Negroes, however "wicked," are always morally victorious in defeat. In an extended example like The Long Dream, he will use one Negro's story as an exemplary biography of racial oppression—the standard pattern for the protest novel. He may descend (as in Max's speech in Native Son) to explicit moral justification of his myth. Communism frequently plays a part, more often as party than as dogma, even after Wright's disaffection in 1950. (He was one of the contributors to The God That Failed.) (p. 104)
The most affecting element of his fictions however, is likely to be the brutal detailing of horror that is very nearly his trademark. No one describes a lynching, a burning, a dismembering with quite the same evident gusto…. The effect of such horrors, such subliterary sadism, is perhaps no more "useful," socially, no more legitimate or lasting than that of the pornography it resembles. The offense may have been intentional; or the expressions may have simply been essential to Wright's sanity. (James Baldwin thinks they are there "in place of sex.") (p. 105)
Native Son, and especially its hero Bigger Thomas, has been a storm center of acrimonious racial-literary controversy for … years. By now it may perhaps be granted that Bigger is not only atypical but incredible: no one quite like him ever was or will be. The communist ideology may be skimmed off as something curdled by age, something gray and inessential. The asserted morality (Nous [blancs] sommes tous des assassins) and the Sartrean philosophy may be granted their measure of mythic, not documentary, truth. The novel may be acknowledged, moreover, as one of the most artless, ineffably crude efforts of Dreiserian naturalism—artless and crude both in design and in texture—in American fiction. All this, I think, may be granted, and Native Son still keep its place. Time does wonderful things. (p. 106)
The real value of the book—and this applies to all of Wright's fiction—lies not in the simplistic and too easily resistible moral lessons he purposely implants, but rather in the quite different moral "lesson," moral activity the reader may extract. What this will be I cannot say; it will differ for each reader. It is not, or it should not be a simpleminded bowing of white heads before the black racist lash. (pp. 106-07)
Any simple response to the book is a lie. The moral issues permit neither gulping total acceptance (if this were possible) nor indignant total rejection—not even on the grounds of art.
Most of the obvious, spontaneous responses, in fact, are secondary, and should be transcended. The book is intended as a weapon, and it can be used as a test. It will arouse, excite, inflame; the double murders, the visceral tensions and horrors, all the "unbearable" qualities cannot help but be offensive. The imperious moral claims are bound to intimidate and bewilder. But one can use an exacerbated imagination, a critical vertigo, a moral sense unanchored and set spinning. One can use these books, and their unpleasant effects, as a normal probe of himself. For there is, back of it all, back of the sadistic racist-moralist bullying, a mountainous justice in Wright's fictional claims, and he cannot be entirely denied. Native Son remains, in all senses, an awful book.
After this first novel, in the years of his exile …, Wright's fiction lost much of its force. The Long Dream (1958) is a useful book, as good as many Negroes' novels. It has its own violence, its potency, its gut-effectiveness, its convincing detail; but the whole is too artless to be emotionally credible. It wants the simple mythic surety of the first book. The Outsider (1953) is a flat, windy rewriting of Native Son: an angry sadist seems to be flogging his dead imagination. Eight Men (1961, posthumously published), a collection of short stories, was an attempt to recapture the simple intensities of Uncle Tom's Children; in a few instances—"The Man Who Saw the Flood," "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," "The Man Who Killed a Shadow"—it succeeds. But much of the rest is too consciously contrived, "arty" without being art. "The Man Who Lived Underground," from the collection, was Wright's most determined attempt to prove himself an artist, an objective, symbolist craftsman like Ralph Ellison. It has, one must grant, all the materials of an impressive tale; but it wants the sense of style, of arrangement, of finish and mesure. Wright was not and would never be an "artist"; his lecture (in White Man, Listen!) on American Negro literature demonstrates his tin ear for style. (pp. 107-08)
His own mythic dramatization of the Negro as a pure engine of hate, brutalized, behavioristic, driven by unrelieved suffering ("Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times … and you have the psychology of the Negro people") is as stultifying and incomplete a stereotype (as Ellison and Baldwin have agreed) as any white Southerner's "nigger." Like most useful myths, it is in great part false, but this does not make it any less useful. (p. 109)
David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking Press, 1966.
[The] ambivalence which critics have attacked in Native Son is really a complexity that adds to its validity, comprehension and prophetic power; [and] a conflict of values is skillfully developed and organized throughout. This conflict is embodied in the plot, in American society as Wright sees it, and most centrally in Bigger's mind.
No critic hitherto has pointed out that Bigger Thomas can be described as a split personality character, and yet it is clear enough that Native Son is based on the most famous literary example of the split personality, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Wright, who mentions Dostoevsky in Chapter 13 of Black Boy, shows the influence of Notes from Underground in his own best short story, "The Man Who Lived Underground."
Not only do both Native Son and Crime and Punishment follow the internal experience of a murderer from the events leading up to the crime to his imprisonment and trial, but both share many details…. There are, of course, great differences between Crime and Punishment and Native Son, but in view of the many features they share, it is not surprising that important elements of Dostoevsky's split personality psychology reappear in Native Son. (p. 232)
[This is] the central paradox of the book: [Mary's] murder was an accident and was not. The two sides of this paradox are the two sides of Bigger's mind. The murder has the effect of intensifying Bigger's internal conflict, and after the crime these two sides are developed as independent thematic streams in the novel. On the rational level, the crime is forced on Bigger by circumstances and society and he is a victim. On the emotional level he takes responsibility for the crime as an act of rebellion and becomes a hero. (p. 234)
Bigger is both the helpless victim of social oppression and the purposeful hero of a racial war. Shortsighted critics may seize on one aspect and claim that this is Wright's whole argument. If they do, they will then notice the contradictory evidence and conclude that the book and its ideas are jumbled. The fact is that Wright has balanced both sides in a dialectic, and it is because he keeps the book open ended that Native Son has the depth of perspective of a major work of modern literature rather than mere propaganda. In the modern novel, as Conrad's Marlow observes, "… the last word is not said…." (p. 244)
Sheldon Brivic, "Conflict of Values: Richard Wright's 'Native Son'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1974), Spring, 1974, pp. 231-45.
A personal history by one of our most important writers, lying in some drawer for over 30 years—how was this possible? How could it have been "lost" or "forgotten"? Richard Wright's publisher explains that "American Hunger" forms the second part of an autobiography Wright had completed by 1944, but that only the first part, the now-famous "Black Boy," was put into print. Why we have had to wait so long for the second part we are not told….
For all its gaps and awkwardnesses, this is an enormously moving book—moving as the story of an ill-educated young black man who grapples for his personal existence and as a fitful picture of the Depression years in Chicago, a city that could frighten anyone. (p. 1)
"American Hunger" has flaws. One isn't always certain who is speaking, the Wright being shown in youthful turmoil or the later Wright looking back from a stance of maturity. More troubling is the fact that the only real "character" in the story is the young Wright himself. So overwhelmed is he with his efforts to find a foothold on the shores of consciousness, so enormous do all the powers seem to him that oppose his will, that he cannot really stop to look closely at another human being. In a way, this adds to the emotional vibration of the book. It registers the cost of battling against injustice, the cost of fighting for a humanity that in a decent society would be accepted as the birthright of all of us. (p. 34)
Irving Howe, "Black Boy, Black Man," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 26, 1977, pp. 1, 34.
The publication of American Hunger …, as well as plans to release five additional posthumous books of unpublished writings, urge a reevaluation of [Wrights'] work.
Violence, inhumanity, rage, fear—Wright's themes, from the first collection of stories, Uncle Tom's Children, published in 1938, to the last collection, Eight Men (1961), make one view his estrangement as destiny. His biography is smoldering with trouble, challenge, suffocation, restless movement….
American Hunger, which was considered (apparently by the author himself) too "sensitive to publish during his lifetime," is about Wright's inner damage, about his attempts to understand why racism happened to him, to everyone. It is a political autobiography that touches deeply the aborted material and cultural hopes of black Americans in their migrations north.
No doubt the anguished authority of Wright's best work comes from the brutal realities of his early life, experiences that had everything to do with oppression. He was bitterly removed from moral expectations, and this is why it is peculiar that we think of him as a spokesman for blacks. He gave warnings, shrill and punishing, but never in the terms of American society's redemptive possibilities, never with the wish that assimilation would give healthy flesh to the tattered word of the American Dream….
Part of Wright's originality lay in his not pleading that the humanity of black people be acknowledged by white society, in his not describing the lives of blacks as a glowing, ennobling circumstance. The hulls of beings haunted him, hulls flooded by and sinking under the waves of disadvantage and amputation that are so much a part of black histories. There are tremendous yearnings in the psychology of all his burdened, tortured characters; but they are always futile hopes, desires that betray and ruin. Few have examined the symptoms of racism as it diseases the soul so deeply….
Wright's career seems to be a process of absorptions, repudiations, attempts to discover sentences; an effort which, for everyone, ends maddeningly incomplete. How are we to detract from the high burn of his sentences by concluding that they all amounted to an impasse, a bit too short of the answers the black public has, reflexively, asked of its writers, answers the black writer felt it was his paramount duty to offer?
One hears the heavy coins of uncertainty in Wright's late work, particularly in The Outsider (1953), with which he paid for his early, galloping journeys, his idealistic haste. But there is, in all his books, the indefatigable shadow, the source of all tragedy: his black skin. (p. 80)
Richard Wright does not seem to have firm antecedents in American literature. Influences are not denied, but somehow the mind sets him apart from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He was greatly interested in Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, and, in his early youth, H. L. Mencken—writers who indicted American materialism and the destructive "lust for trash." Wright has more relation, in tone, to the novels of Céline…. And they are similar in believing that the writer has something of a mission in portraying life in its ugly, lurid, unsettling colors—for Céline in the rapid style of hallucination, for Wright, most successfully, in the sweat of realism….
Black Boy and his best-known novel, Native Son (1940), were enormously significant when they appeared, and the legacy other writers have inherited in terms of posture and style causes us to forget the unexpected qualities of these books—to assume, falsely, that they were solidly within a framework long established. That we take the attitudes of these books as such a part of our understanding of blacks, as inevitable, demonstrates that Wright penetrated and gave expression to something utterly genuine and fundamental in American society.
The characteristics of Wright's childhood in Black Boy—loneliness, distrust of all people, impatience with his family's poverty—were to govern his entire life. Wright often boldly asserted his purpose in writing was to lend his tongue to the voiceless black children, never disown them…. To explain himself Wright had to relate to the millions allegedly just like him; it was a crime, especially in his own mind, to be different. One suspects Wright did not disown his people because he could not obliterate his past. The experiences of Wright's characters are brutally real; but in some way the insulated, self-protective, suppressed aspects of his makeup made it hard for him truly to connect with black people, with anyone, except in the abstract, as a central spring of his political opinions….
Richard Wright does not actually stand in the line of Du-Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Malcolm X, or Angela Davis—popular black leaders who were also thinkers. Still, the conflict between political commitment and artistic expression, and Wright's double alienation from blacks as a group, from the values of the forbidden society in which he longed to have a part, make American Hunger an interesting addition to American intellectual history. "The only ways in which I felt that my feelings could go outward without fear of rude rebuff or searing reprisal was in writing and reading, and to me they were ways of living." (p. 81)
Native Son is unmatched in its power. The rage, the human misery, seizes the mind and there is no relief. It is not true, as Baldwin claims, that Bigger Thomas, the doomed, frustrated black boy, is just another stereotype so extreme in his wish to injure himself and do injury to others that he comes out on the same plane as the wooden figures in Uncle Tom's Cabin. (pp. 81-2)
Late in life Richard Wright traveled extensively, observed, thought, but always spoke of his rootlessness. He claimed he valued the "state of abandonment, aloneness." In this he was, finally, a true product of Western culture. In writing about the poet Paul Dunbar, Wright noted that Dunbar was a recessed character, about whom we knew little; that he was haunted, obsessed, and that it was a miracle he was able to write at all, to try to communicate with other humans. The same can be said of Wright himself. In Native Son he gave us a lasting record of the howl of modern man. In American Hunger we are able to hear a little more clearly exactly what Wright was screaming. (p. 82)
Darryl Pinckney, "Richard Wright: The Unnatural History of a Native Son," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), July 4, 1977, pp. 80-2.