Richard Wright 1908–1960
Black American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Wright is considered the most esteemed spokesman for the oppressed black American in the late 1930s and 1940s. His earliest fiction, Uncle Tom's Children, portrayed the violent mechanics of Southern racial bigotry with unprecedented realism. Two of the stories, "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star," contain Wright's first explicit use of communism as a subject of his fiction and, in this way, anticipate his next work, Native Son.
Native Son chronicles the effects of racism and bigotry on the mind and life of Bigger Thomas, a young Northern black man. It is at once, and with varying degrees of success, a thriller, a psychological novel, and a social and political indictment. The violence in Native Son is intense and explicit and presented as the inevitable outcome of the black experience in America. Such a presentation was extremely radical for its time and verified the fact that Wright did not want sympathy or, in his words, "banker's daughter's tears," from his mostly white audience. Because of the book's implication that society has created and is responsible for the tragedy of Bigger Thomas, Native Son was read with great emotion and quickly became one of the most controversial books of its time.
Although Wright's interest in communism was evident in his early fiction, these works were mainly recreations of the experiences of his childhood and young manhood in the South. Of these early works, Black Boy is considered Wright's masterpiece. Unlike the sometimes didactic Native Son, it is thought to be one of America's most eloquent and effective protest autobiographies.
Wright seemed to experience a creative crisis after his break with the Communist party in 1944 and his move to France in 1946. While in France, he published several works of fiction and nonfiction that were considered inferior to his earlier work. Many critics attribute Wright's literary decline to his attempt to incorporate existential and Freudian tenets into his fiction.
The Outsider was the first novel Wright wrote after Native Son. Using an existential framework, the novel is the story of a black man who becomes involved with a Marxist group, murders several of its members, and is then murdered himself. The Outsider met with lukewarm reception; critics called it ambitious but poorly executed. Wright's next novel, Savage Holiday, pointedly avoids racial issues. Its white protagonist is symbolic of alienated modern humanity, caught in a tangle of despair and neuroses. Few American critics reviewed the book, and those who did were not complimentary. In The Long Dream, the last novel Wright wrote before his death, he studies the relationship between a black man and his son and black/white relations in a small Mississippi town. The Long Dream received mixed reviews from white critics and generally unfavorable notices from black critics who felt that Wright had lost touch with the black American experience.
In spite of Wright's poor critical success in the 1950s, he has without question made an important contribution to American literature. Critics continue to debate the literary merits of Native Son, but most concede that the book was a watershed in the evolution of black protest fiction. Black Boy is considered an American classic. Interest in Wright was revived in the militancy of the 1960s; Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rap Brown, among others, claim Wright as an influence and an inspiration. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, and 14.)