Richard Wright Wright, Richard (Vol. 4) - Essay

Wright, Richard (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright, Richard 1908–1960

Wright, a Black American novelist and short story writer, was one of this country's most highly respected spokesmen for Black problems and attitudes.

Wright's short fiction of the 1930s is essentially an imaginative re-creation of the atmosphere and milieu of his childhood experiences. The fears, frustrations, and pent-up angers of the Southern Negro are posed against the sadism of the white Southerner. Until, in two of the stories, Marxism enters the lives of some of his Negroes and whites, there are no influences outside of Southern culture to alter an environment generally hostile to the black man. Each story represents a Negro reaction to the white would during a moment of crisis and, usually, of violence. Furthermore, the stories collected in Uncle Tom's Children are so arranged that each marks a progressive increase in resistance to their lot on the part of Negro characters or groups. "Uncle Tom's Children" look less and less like "Uncle Tom." In many respects, the stories could be classified as biased sociological studies, with Negroes created as the human beings and whites as the generalized evil figures. The tone of the stories reflects Wright's attitude of protest, prefiguring his outlook in his celebrated novel of protest set in a Northern metropolis, Native Son.

The stories, too, are filled with the kind of literary naturalism so often linked by commentators to Native Son. Deterministic and materialistic forces are shown as components in an environment of external forces obstructing human freedom. Also stressed are genetic and subconscious limitations on human rationality…. In his terse, dialogue-filled novellas of protestation set in what is basically the rural South, Wright seems to have combined his knowledge of the fictional forms he had met in his reading and his personal impressions of a ghastly South that was antagonistic toward the Negro. In his later writings his adoption of literary naturalism is as consistent, and a posture of protest continues to inform the narratives. Thus, Wright's short fiction of the 1930s provides a valuable introduction to the themes and techniques of his later works. (pp. 20-1)

As a work of art, Lawd Today is beset by numerous shortcomings. The amount of sheer dialogue is overburdening; the meager, often-monosyllabic vocabulary is shallow and poorly descriptive; and the unrelenting stress upon the smallest of details, even to the extent of picturing the card distributions in bridge games, is tedious. The fact that Wright did not offer the novel to the public—his wife had it published after his death—may be an indication of how Wright himself felt about the quality of the work. Nevertheless, Lawd Today is an interesting prelude to Native Son. Because of it, we can imagine Wright's groping to translate his Chicago experiences into an artistic genre. The novel has two significant features: one is Wright's placing of a single Negro character at the center, while at the same time examining all of the events and objects in his environment immediately touching upon his life; the other is an absence of specific white characters who could represent threats to the central figure's being. Wright's emphasis is upon Negro people and Negro life amid the cold forces of Northern urban surroundings. (pp. 22-3)

Native Son differs … from the autobiography and from most of the earlier writings in an important respect: a conscious attempt is made by Wright to picture certain whites as human beings sympathetic to and communicating with Negroes. (p. 37)

Thematically, The Long Dream characterizes a relationship between the whites and the blacks of the South distinguished again by a curtain drawn by the ruling whites. Threats and dangers to Negro property, life, and personality are unrelentingly present. However, the novel differs from Wright's other fiction in two ways: it depicts a middle-class, entrepreneur Negro existence, and it portrays the psychological and emotional growth of a central figure over a period of time. Aritistically noteworthy are the ironies in dialogue and action and the inclusion of mirrored episodes. (p. 43)

The Long Dream is a protest novel. As such, it makes little distinction between the Negro-white relations Wright grew to comprehend during the days of his youth described in Black Boy and the relations he could only read about and sense during his final years in Paris. The Long Dream reiterates a consistent Wright theme that in America a curtain hangs between the black and white races. This curtain is not only an outgrowth of white prejudice, but also a barrier against the elimination of that prejudice through communication between the races. Furthermore, it creates an impediment to the full development and expression of all American Negroes. (pp. 47-8)

Wright's proletarian poetry … generally reflects a movement from propaganda-making to poetry-making. It tends to move from blatant Marxist and Party words to a utilization of words for their beauty and subtle suggestive powers. There is an obvious advance in Wright's skills and techniques, but poetic forms apparently were not large enough to satisfy his desire to encompass the emotion-packed details of his Southern and Northern experiences. They were abandoned for a concentration on the short-story and novel forms. (p. 59)

In Uncle Tom's Children, both the first and the expanded editions, Wright generally relocates his arenas of conflict, racial and class, from the poverty-stricken farms to the small towns of the South. An exception is the setting for "Long Black Song"; however, the town is only a few hills away, and the white men whose respect Silas craves are townspeople, not farmers. This shift parallels a geographical movement in Wright's own life, which offered the live experiences from which the stories could be conceived. In addition, an urban setting provides a convenient basis for a broader Marxist application, even though, because of the geography of Wright's Southern experience, the masses of industrial workers are not incorporated into the plots. The collection of stories is most easily understood on the obvious level of racial conflict. However, as one tale leads into the next, the Marxist undertones develop progressively into functioning materials of the stories until, at last, personal fulfillment and social salvation is identified with action and hope in the Communist Party. Therefore, since the militancy of action increases with successive episodes, Uncle Tom's Children creates the impression of having a novel-like development. (pp. 60-1)

In a sense, 12 Million Black Voices is the symbolic rendering of a political-philosophical dilemma so evidently protruding from the pages of Lawd Today and Native Son, Wright's two novels written during his Communist Party period. In both works, the Negro artist primarily shouts his protest against racial injustice and prejudice. Secondarily, he attempts to superimpose upon his plots and major themes the tenets of a seemingly useful and "rational" motivation for his protest; that is to say, Wright's head seems to have been vying with his heart. In 12 Million Black Voices—an emotional piece really—his heart wins, at the expense of a rigid and "rational" Marxist dialectic. That Wright's position in the Party was shaky is not surprising. (pp. 70-1)

Lawd Today does not openly advocate the Marxist revolution as the solution, but Marxism and the Communist Party survive the novel as unexplored possibilities for hope and salvation, even though they have been battered and beleaguered by the clichés of Jake and his friends. Unlike the later Native Son, Lawd Today assumes on the part of its reading audience a knowledge of both Marxism and the expressed aims of the American Communist Party. Although scenes and speeches in the novel that are literally anti-Marxist are balanced with none that are literally pro-Marxist, the anti-Marxist materials are planted in such a way as to appeal to the reader's ironic sense and to evoke from him a sympathy for a Marxist solution to racial problems. Nevertheless, the reader is never able to forget that the subject of the novel is black men in a white world, not workers in a capitalistic world. There is no assurance that even if the Marxist revolution were to fire and transform America, racial conflict would subside and then swoon in a predictable death. (p. 71)

Lawd Today is artistically unappealing for many reasons, but Wright's method of inserting the Marxist motif shows an admirable skill. The unobtrusiveness, subtlety, and irony with which these particular socio-politico-economic materials are handled are, in fact, especially commendable in the light of how Wright later uses Marxism in the last section of his larger and generally finer novel Native Son. (pp. 76-7)

Wright's treatment of the Marxist materials in the first two sections of Native Son is much the same as in the whole of Lawd Today, although the inclusion of Jan in Native Son accentuates the Marxist motif more strongly. In both novels the concept of salvation through a Marxist revolution is held above the plots as an uninvestigated alternative to a social and economic system that exploits Negro labor and personality. In both, too, the main Negro figures and their cronies are depicted as the uninformed but innocent foes of their possible salvation. Wright does establish early in both novels that the Negro characters are searching in their own half-hearted, unguided manner for some type of plan or leadership to capture the unconscious emotions of all black people and direct them to a willed, dignified, and better fate. (p. 80)

The didacticism of the final section in Native Son seems then to have been intended to be just that, and presumably it was meant to contribute to the artistic unity of the novel. However, intention and effect do not always correspond, and it is precisely the divergence of the two that detracts from the sense of unequivocal achievement for Native Son.

It is not Marxism as such that detracts from the themes of the novel; in fact, a Marxist interpretation does provide a useful tool for partially explaining the sociological and economic backgrounds for American Negro-white relations. Instead, Wright's emphasis on socio-politico-economic explanations of Bigger's predicament causes an undesirable shift in focus from the fascinating personal story of Bigger's psychological life. (p. 82)

After 1953, the publication date for The Outsider, Wright apparently felt a need to retrace the steps of his own philosophical development, including his odyssey from political ignorance, to Marxist belief, to an anti-Marxist position. In his nonfiction of the last half decade of his life—the European, African, and Asian political journey books to be examined in the next chapter—we learn that though Wright experienced urgent impulses to discuss Marxism as a real force in the larger world of continents of many races and ideas, he remained staunchly anti-Communist. Although in his nonfiction of the 1950s he could not avoid treating, and even dwelling upon, Marxist themes and materials, he shunned all such references in his later novels, Savage Holiday (1954) and The Long Dream (1958), both written in France but narrowed to American settings. In effect, Wright may have been confirming that Marxism and America, let alone Marxism and the American-Negro artist, have not mixed well historically. (pp. 85-6)

Wright's years of self-imposed exile in Paris and on his Normandy farm, from 1947 until his death in 1960, were not years of withdrawal and isolation. He continued to write fiction and, near the end of his life, to compose hokku and "haiku" poetry. Furthermore, he became friendly with French writers and philosophers, especially the existentialists, and notably Jean-Paul Sartre. Through Sartre and the other existentialists he probably clarified his own quasi-existential thinking and discovered the ideas and terms that form a basis for The Outsider. His contacts with French intellectuals and thought also helped Wright to extend his sentiments about race and social structures, including Marxism, beyond the boundaries of his American experiences. However, his years away from America provided him with even greater opportunities to enlarge his thinking and to add new subject matter to his writing. As significant in the development of his own ideas and the direction of his prose were his travels to other countries, scattered on different continents. These trips expanded Wright's vision to a world of many races and cultures so that he felt impelled to comment in his nonfiction on what he saw and sensed in such places as Spain, Indonesia, and the African Gold Coast (now Ghana). (pp. 87-8)

In Pagan Spain as in his other nonfictional works resulting from his travels during the 1950s, there is that consistent framework of thought which had helped to influence his embracement in the 1930s of the seemingly rational, pseudo-scientific, secular tenets of Marxism. Perhaps, too, from a related conviction that man's rational mind could and should be the source for the resolution of Negro-white problems, Wright sounds his protest, trusting that his voice will be heard and heeded by other rational men. Although such works as Black Power, The Color Curtain, White Man, Listen! and Pagan Spain indicate new and wider concerns on the part of Wright, the messages found in each identify and establish a basis from which these concerns stemmed—Wright's desire for an orderly and rational universe, created by man out of the concept of his own rational and humane image. (pp. 118-19)

For the sake of Wright's literary reputation, Savage Holiday would best be left untouched between its sensational paperback covers. However, for a fuller picture of the influences on Wright's thinking, especially during his residence in France, the novel is valuable, even if painfully so. Although it focuses on the irrational aspects of man's mind and the irrational mode of his behavior, it also suggests that the irrational has a rational explanation. Possibly too, in the case of Fowler, his violent and destructive actions would never have occurred had his mother given him the love he craved and needed and, correlatively, had she not tramped off with many men in her sexual abandonment. There is a temptation, of course, to extrapolate further and to call Wright a moral Puritan; however, the bulk of his writings would not substantiate such a theory. Savage Holiday is, then, a poorly constructed, too-seriously articulated, over-stated work, purposely employing Freudian devices and a few ideas from Nietzsche. It neatly fits the pattern of Wright's attitudes toward Christianity, and it may be linked to the rationalist impulses behind the type of humanism he seems to have been formulating sometime after he had left the United States. (pp. 142-43)

Native Son is a perplexing novel. Because of Wright's obtrusive pro-Marxism and because of the predominant theme of protest against a particular social injustice, it defies an easy categorization into purely existential literature. The protest in Native Son asks that social changes occur. It also implies that man can bring them about. To the degree that existentialism views man as set free from the claims of a God, Wright also perceives man's position as such. When Bigger meets his death not in despair but with a belief that he has at last been able to acquire a new freedom by shaping his own destiny—though through violence and killing—he symbolizes an authorial tenet that man's freedom is within his grasp, here on earth, if he is willing to accept the responsibility and consequences for it. The message is an existential one; but it does mirror the same social, not metaphysical, concerns and protests that powerfully emerge from Black Boy. (pp. 147-48)

The Outsider is proof not of Wright's existentialism but of his rejection of existentialism. In his portrayal of the destruction left in the path of a man who had walked outside history and society, Wright was really asking man to be responsible for others as well as for himself. Although in his nonfiction after The Outsider he found certain existential tenets useful, especially for exposing the myths he thought man often irrationally lived by, and although he may not have fully realized what he was doing philosophically in The Outsider, the direction of his thinking in the 1950s had shifted away from the grim and dark side of existentialism seen in "The Man Who Lived Underground." (p. 163)

[Though] Wright's later novel, The Long Dream, has been attacked for protesting an American racial situation that by 1958 bore no resemblance to contemporary fact, the inspiration for Wright's protest was consistent with that for such diverse works as Native Son and The Outsider—that man's reason could discover a way out of a history of injustices and irrationalities. Finally, Savage Holiday, by exploring a chain of absurdities built upon the unwillingness of the main character to view rationally his motivations and his existence, underscores how reason should be the key to reality. In many ways it mirrors the approach taken by Wright more than twenty years before in his early short story, "Superstition."

Marxism at one time apparently provided for Wright the pseudo-scientific foundation for the construction of a rational and peaceful world. His later disillusionment with the Communist Party could possibly have influenced his writing of the pessimistic "The Man Who Lived Underground." However, The Outsider is a return to older concepts once held by Wright—feelings and ideas that really grew out of Black Boy. (p. 164)

Nothing in Wright's late works dissolves the thesis that his efforts were those of a black man who, even in his anger, fear, outrage, and frustration, was generally sounding his pleas for change to the ears and minds of rational men, especially white men. If anything, the last short pieces suggest that Wright, the man, was mellowing and that he now could occasionally smile. (p. 171)

Russell Carl Brignano, in his Richard Wright: An Introduction to The Man and His Works, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.