Wright, Richard 1908–1960
A Black American novelist and short story writer, Wright is the author of Native Son and Black Boy.
Wright's success with this psychological drama [Native Son] may be best viewed through characterization. Bigger, psychopath, is one of the most lucidly delineated characters in fiction of this decade. Just what is so arresting about this character? In the first place he towers over every other character in practically every scene in which he appears. When he is not present, his spectre seems to hover about other persons. The focal point of interest does not shift for one moment from him. Human relationships in the novel center about Bigger and his reactions to various situations….
There is stylistically a studied simplicity about Wright's technique. By concentrating upon fear and the psychological aspects of Bigger and his world, he gives form to his material with economy and speed. This novel realizes a full portrait of flesh and blood. By disciplined objectivity, the author permits Bigger to appear in several different states of mental torment.
Carl Milton Hughes, in his The Negro Novelist 1940–1950, Citadel Press, 1953, pp. 54-63 (in the paperbound edition, 1970).
Wright lacked the ironic cast of mind and heart. Except in intimate privacy and on those rare occasions when he was at ease with his friends, when he was often gay, he had no sport with mockery, especially if it was turned against himself. He had no eye for fun; no ear or tongue for jest. In public—and his books were public—he took the world and all men as he took himself, with grim seriousness….
Wright's heart's home, his mind's tether, was in America. It is not the America of the motion pictures, or of the novels of Thomas Wolfe, J. P. Marquand, and John O'Hara, or of the histories of Allan Nevins and Samuel Eliot Morison. It is the America that only Negroes know. It is a ghetto of the soul, a boundary of the mind, a confine of the heart. There is no cause for wonder in the fact that Wright sought escape from it and tried to reject it….
[That the Negro is always separated from the culture of his native land] is a bitter knowledge, but it sustained [Wright's] great honesty and integrity as a writer. Insofar as he used it to appeal to the cognitive side of man's being, as he did in Twelve Million Black Voices, sections of White Man, Listen! and in various essays, he followed in the tradition of more provincial Negro writers, whose sole effort was to destroy the prevailing racial stereotypes with battering-rams of facts. This is an honorable tradition, and Wright, too, learned from the sociologists, the academic psychologists, and the social activists. But Wright was no one's disciple. He quickened the tradition with his own passionate vitality; he glorified it with his skill for appealing to the connotative and affective side of man's being….
As Richard Wright saw it, redemption lay in revolution; so he became a Communist. He was, he said, at about the time of the publication of Native Son, a "card-bearing" member of the Party….
In a way more direct than is true of most important modern authors of fiction, Wright's heroes were in naked honesty himself, and not imaginary creations that served merely to express his complicated personality. This is not to say, however, that their adventures and their characterizing quirks and habits, their whims of thought and the compulsive violence of their behavior, were also Wright's. Not by any means. These were the fancied and observed externalizations of what such hero-personalities would do and say and outwardly be—personalities which, unlike Wright's own, were not guided by a moral intelligence, an active social sense, or ethical thought. The tragedy of Wright's heroes is that they lack this direction, and the blunt point of Wright's fiction is that American society denies them the opportunity to acquire it….
Only rarely did he write for Negroes, and only then when he was pressed, and then only on political subjects. He reasoned that Negroes already knew the particulars of what it was to have "uncertainty as a way of life" and "of living within the vivid present moment and letting the meaning of that moment suffice as a rationale for life and death." But whites did not know, so he had to tell them….
Saunders Redding, "The Alien Land of Richard Wright" (reprinted by permission of Saunders Redding), in Soon, One Morning, edited by Herbert Hill, Knopf, 1963, pp. 50-9.
Perhaps twenty years from now … Wright's Native Son will be simply another social-protest novel from a distant and benighted time. So it was generally taken to be during the past decade. But in March 1964 one inevitably tries to read it as a document that bears upon present realities, upon the feelings that rise like the sap of the trees in Birmingham and Jacksonville and all the other cities and towns, North and South, that will shortly again be in the news.
However, if Native Son bears upon our crisis, it clearly does so in a problematic way. Indeed, it is still all too easy to experience the book as a symptom of the social disorder it seeks to record and illuminate. Many readers will identify its shock and violence, its crudity and simplicity, with the period of its conception: the closing years of the Depression, when the conflict between the races existed in a more primitive and repressed form than it does today….
No doubt the sensationalism of Native Son helped to shatter the indifference of its readers in 1940, but one can hardly justify the necessity for it today. On the contrary, the immediate effect of Wright's melodrama is to revitalize prejudices and projections on both sides and to contribute to the apocalyptic aura that inflames the imagination of our crisis but distracts from and weakens an understanding of it. Nor does it seem to me very useful or even accurate to celebrate Native Son, on literary as well as social grounds, for bringing to light the gruesome sexual content of our cultural nightmare, or for placing the plight of the Negro in its proper fantastic setting, or for hurling the violence that accumulates in the Negro spirit into the teeth of white apathy. All of this contributes to the power of the novel but, at the same time, is inseparable from the rage and hysteria that Wright was sometimes unable to control and that deflect his interest and ours from the social and psychological issues with which he was most concerned….
If Wright was struggling to find a more general social meaning in Negro violence than its legacy of hate and fear, he was also attempting to explore the nature of human freedom within the context of Bigger's panic, flight, and fate. Both themes are not sufficiently thought through, much less dramatized, to run clearly in the novel, and they are easily lost amid the more overt strands of Negro protest, social determinism, and the conventions of naturalism that make Bigger into a monster and victim….
For all of the didactic deadwood that it drags in tow, the form of Native Son is that of tragedy: the movement of its parts follows the "tragic rhythm" that Francis Fergusson has described of "purpose, passion, and perception."…
What Wright saw in the fate of Bigger, as in his own struggle for freedom, was that only in the acknowledgment of his humanity by other men could he expect to join the scarred and fragmented elements of his emotional life, to reconstitute what society, through its prejudice against him, had shattered. It is to the credit of Wright's honesty that he grants to Bigger only enough consciousness to acknowledge and integrate the feelings that he has had nurtured in this world, not those which he has not. "What I killed for, I am!" This is as much freedom as Bigger has been given to achieve.
Two decades later we come again to our own yearly confrontation with the algebra of hatred and guilt, alienation and violence, freedom and self-integration; and in the struggle for what is called today "civil rights" the meaning of Bigger Thomas and of Richard Wright continues to reveal itself.
Theodore Solotaroff, "The Integration of Bigger Thomas" (1964), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 122-32.
Paradoxically, the first Negro novelist to deal with ghetto life in the Northern cities was a Southern refugee named Richard Wright….
Richard Wright's Native Son marks a high point in the history of the Negro novel, not only because it is a work of art in its own right but because it influenced a whole generation of Negro novelists….
Of the Negro novelists who wrote during the Great Depression, Richard Wright came closest to expressing the essential spirit of the decade. At bottom, the Depression years witnessed a continuation of the cultural dualism of the Negro Renaissance. During the thirties the Negro novelist maintained an active interest in his Negro heritage, systematically exploring the racial past in his search for distinctive literary material. Upon this base, in accordance with the climate of the times, was superimposed the formula of "proletarian art." Wright's contribution to the Negro novel was precisely his fusion of a pronounced racialism with a broader tradition of social protest.
Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 141-52.
Though he had numerous minor predecessors, Mr. Wright was the first American Negro writer of large ambitions to win a major reputation in our literary life…. Within a month after [the publication of Native Son] tens of thousands of copies were moving across book dealers' counters all over the land; it frequently was being said that nothing so comparable to the great tragic fictions of Dostoevski had yet appeared in our literature…. The very directness of the simplicity and violence of the novel's didacticism did, in a way, permit many people to envisage themselves as in league with Mr. Wright and with Christ in the harrowing of a Hell full of all the forces of reaction and illiberality; and, in this way perhaps, the illusion grew that Native Son, by itself and quite suddenly, had very greatly enlarged and deepened our imaginative understanding of a whole dimension of American experience.
This was, however, an illusion, and when one reads today the story of Bigger Thomas, one cannot but be struck by how little the novel gives us of the bite and flavor either of social actuality or of the particular kind of human individual of whom Bigger is offered as an exemplum….
Now this was, I believe, at bottom, Mr. Wright's crucial failure [in Native Son]: he simply did not know enough about the labyrinthine interiorities of the human soul…. [He] made no allowance for human existence having anything other than a purely social-historical dimension….
[The Outsider, when summarized,] may appear to be only a rather lurid sort of potboiler; and, to be sure, there is no minimizing its harsh cacophonousness. Yet, for all of its melodramatic sensationalism, it is an impressive book. Indeed, it is one of the very few American novels of our time that, in admitting into itself a large body of systematic ideas, makes us think that it wants seriously to compete with the major philosophic intelligence of the contemporary period. And it may well be that the strange kind of indifference or even outright denigration that the book elicited at the time of its appearance demands to be understood in terms of the easy assumption which is habitually made in our literary life, that the difference in method and intention between poetry and philosophy ordains the impropriety of a work of fiction being complicated by the dialectical tensions of systematic thought…. The Outsider,… though it is a very imperfect work, is yet (after Black Boy) his finest achievement and, as the one emphatically existentialist novel in contemporary American literature, a book that deserves to have commanded a great deal more attention than it has….
Mr. Wright was always too impatient with what Henry James called the "proving disciplines" of art to win the kind of genuine distinction as a writer for which his talents qualified him…. [For] him the greatest uses of art were not those by which we distance ourselves from the world in order to contemplate more strenuously its pattern and meaning. They were, rather, those by which we seek a more direct entry into the world for the sake of redeeming it from the brutality and the indecencies by which it must otherwise be overwhelmed. So it is rather a sad irony that his own art did in point of fact so often drift toward a definition of man, and particularly of the American Negro, that deeply undercut his conscious intention to make it serve a genuinely humane vision.
Nathan A. Scott, Jr., "The Dark and Haunted Tower of Richard Wright," in Graduate Comment, Vol. VIII, 1964, pp. 93-9 (and, in a slightly revised version, in Five Black Writers, edited by Donald B. Gibson, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 12-25).
On the broadest level, Wright demonstrates [in Native Son] the tortures which human beings suffer when their abstract, theoretical, and symbolic existence is in conflict with the concrete realities of their lives. Specifically, he portrays the contradictions in self-identity forced upon Bigger Thomas by that overriding conflict. Wright merges the two levels of thematic development in the novel through the structural and thematic use of irony and through the blindness motif.
Edward Kearns, "The 'Fate' Section of Native Son," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by The Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 146-55.
Wright is a better writer than most people think, but as yet there is no clear sign that the dim conventional view of him is going to be seriously challenged. The most obvious mistake in past attempts to sum up Wright's achievement has hardly begun to be rectified: I'm speaking of the mistaken assumption that Wright as artist must stand or fall with Native Son. It is hard to see how anyone who reads through, in the order it was written, the seven volumes of Wright's fiction could fail to conclude that his best work was in fact already done when he began Native Son in New York in 1938. I'm referring to the slender body of work completed during his remarkable first decade in the North—the decade in Chicago, 1927–37. This work consists of the five long stories of Uncle Tom's Children, a few additional short stories, and the novel which remained unpublished for nearly three decades, Lawd Today….
What is particularly frustrating, of course, about this exclusive concentration on Native Son is that the stock charges constantly brought against Wright are almost wholly inapplicable to his other books. Consider, for instance, the conventional view of Wright as race propagandist and dogmatic Marxist. Wright's The Outsider … is a fierce attack on American Communists and on socialist thought in general, and though its central figure is a Negro, it eschews the race issue almost altogether. The outsider is outside, not American white society, but the human race. And not because he is black but because he has seen through the "veil of illusions" which, we are given to understand, gives meaning to the lives of the people both black and white around him. In the Wright canon this book, though much less skillful, is the counterpart of Invisible Man in its ambitious attempt to define the predicament of "modern man." Another Wright novel, Savage Holiday, admittedly not one of his better efforts, has no black characters at all….
Ellison and Baldwin insist that Wright could not write about real Negroes. Ellison makes much of Wright's confessions in Black Boy that he could not find among his own people evidence of the tenderness, nobility, and devotion to family that races who have been able to maintain a culture of their own have always developed. There were moods, certainly, in which Wright did feel these traits to be lacking in Negro life (and unlike Ellison, he had certainly found them lacking in his own childhood), but in fact he knew, instinctively, better. To get a balanced view of Wright's feelings about the effect on blacks of living in a caste system, one has to consider, not just the spiritually stunted figure of Bigger Thomas, but also the heroic and deeply emotional people of Uncle Tom's Children…. For those early readers of Lawd Today who knew Wright's other work of the Chicago period, it probably did not come as a surprise that this orphaned first book should turn out to be, of all his novels, the most readable, technically the most interesting, and the most honest and convincing in its depiction of Negro life….
Wright's stories may appear to be simple in technique, but they are not so simple as they seem. Like many fine stories of the highly dramatic type, they give the impression of being effortlessly written, hardly "written" at all—so engrossed does one become in the story and so oblivious of an author behind it carefully arranging his effects. Wright's forte, it seems to me, is the rendering of states of intense emotional suffering, and his best pieces are … relatively short … and describe a brief critical period in one individual's life, often no more than a few hours.
Martha Stephens, "Richard Wright's Fiction: A Reassessment," in Georgia Review, Winter, 1971, pp. 450-70.
In 1938, Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children was published, and for perhaps the first time in fifteen years (since Toomer's Cane) the condition of the black American, the violence, the oppression, and the attendant warping of the spirit were portrayed in enthralling fiction. In the five short stories of this volume, Wright showed a mastery of style and a dramatic sense far superior to that of most of his black contemporaries and predecessors and on a par with that of his most talented white contemporaries. The violence and the terrible effects of prejudice are perhaps nowhere more skillfully set forth than in the first story of the volume, "Big Boy Leaves Home." In this story it is not simply the violence of the white man which militates against the black man; there is a sense of cosmic violence seen in coiling snakes, enraged roosters, snarling dogs, and threatening storms. In the last story of the volume, "Bright and Morning Star," Wright portrays this same sense of violence while at the same time he captures the sense of hope which many black Americans felt as a result of the work of the Communist Party in the twenties and thirties.
Two years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son appeared, and Richard Wright's reputation was established. Here, in one of the finest novels ever produced in America, Wright mercilessly set forth a portrait of one of America's most "native" sons, Bigger Thomas. Bigger Thomas is an archetypal black American, a figure both pulsatingly human and at the same instant "bigger" than the individual case. Bigger's plight, brought on by prejudice and racist societal attitudes, is universal in scope; and Wright's handling of dialogue, mood, and description insured the universal literary appeal of his first novel. The protest in Wright's novel was not a new element in black American literature, but the unflinching realism, the technical mastery, and the magnificent dramatic sense marked Native Son as perhaps the highest point of black literary expression in the novel achieved before the fifties. Moreover, Wright's handling of the Communist ideology in the novel constitutes perhaps the finest literary expression of what Communism and the rising of a new proletariat meant to the black American of the thirties.
Wright's reputation was further enhanced by the 1945 publication of Black Boy, which was both a factual autobiography and a spiritual record of the black American people. In his autobiography, Wright scrupulously and skillfully analyzed the American racial dilemma through the lenses of self-experience.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, pp. 13-14.