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.)
["Black Boy"] tells a harsh and forbidding story and makes one wonder just exactly what its relation to truth is. The [subtitle], "A Record of Childhood and Youth," makes one at first think that the story is autobiographical. It probably is, at least in part. But mainly it is probably intended to be fiction or fictionalized biography. At any rate the reader must regard it as creative writing rather than simply a record of life….
Not only is there [a] misjudgment of black folk and the difficult repulsive characters among them that he is thrown with, but the same thing takes place with white folk. There is not a single broad-minded, open-hearted white person in his book….
One rises from the reading of such a book with mixed thoughts. Richard Wright uses vigorous and straightforward English; often there is real beauty in his words even when they are mingled with sadism….
Yet at the result one is baffled. Evidently if this is an actual record, bad as the world is, such concentrated meanness, filth and despair never completely filled it or any particular part of it. But if the book is meant to be a creative picture and a warning, even then, it misses its possible effectiveness because it is as a work of art so patently and terribly overdrawn.
Nothing that Richard Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is not convincing.
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, "Richard Wright Looks Back," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, March 4, 1945, p. 2.
In this poignant and disturbing book ["Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth"] one of the most gifted of America's younger writers turns from fiction to tell the story of his own life during the nineteen years he lived in the South. The book is poignant because Richard Wright as a child and adolescent was a highly sensitive individual subjected to a series of cruel and almost unbearable shocks. It is disturbing because one wonders how many similarly sensitive individuals have been crushed by the circumstances which did not crush Richard Wright….
It is not easy for those who have had happier childhoods, with little restraint or fear in them, to face up to the truth of this childhood of Richard Wright. One doesn't like to think that the world in which he lived was an American world. How many Negroes saw that world in the same way, to what extent Richard Wright's experience was exceptional, one doesn't know….
Mr. Wright does not idealize either his relatives or his race. The reader will come to understand that the family troubles and dissensions were intensified by the fact of race and racial discrimination, but Mr. Wright does not make a thesis of this point. They were what they were…. Mr. Wright does not even believe in the passionate quality sometimes attributed to Negroes in America, the depth of feeling behind the mask. He came to think that "what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative...
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["Black Boy"] has tremendous power. Its intensity of feeling, sustained drama, and sheer eloquence make reading it an unforgettable experience. This is because it is the product of a remarkable combination: an author of superb talent, a life story of pathos and tragedy, and a human theme of monumental significance.
The story of Wright's own life in the South during his childhood and youth is a true document of race relations in America, for, although as autobiography it is highly personalized, the author's eyes and ears and emotions were vibrantly sensitive, so that he missed as little of what went on around him as what went on inside him. Man and milieu, as described by Wright, demonstrate certain truths about the South, and about Negroes in the South, which seldom strike the consciousness of the American public—certainly not with the impact of this book.
"Black Boy" has been criticised by some reviewers for painting an unrelieved picture of misery, terror, and degradation among the masses of Negroes in the Southern States. Yet this is, in my judgment, the reality, as anyone who has come to know the situation intimately can testify. (pp. 762-63)
Probably the most common criticism of this book by reviewers is that there are no half-tones in the author's picture of Negro life in the South, that the scene is sketched entirely in stark black and white. Here again, in my opinion, the accusation...
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["Uncle Tom's Children," "Native Son," and "Black Boy"] not only made it clear that Mr. Wright was the most eloquent spokesman for the Negro people in his generation; they suggested that his was one of the important literary talents of our time. How important it is, and how little limited to a particular group of people, is demonstrated by his fourth book and second novel "The Outsider."…
"The Outsider," [like "Native Son,"] is concerned with the quest for meaning: not, however, in terms of racial discrimination nor in any sociological terms whatever, but in purely philosophical terms. The leading character is, to be sure, a Negro, but his principal problems have nothing to do with his race. They are pre-eminently the problems of the human being as such, for this is, so far as I can recall, one of the first consciously existentialist novels to be written by an American….
[The] true climax of the novel is in the realm of ideas, not that of violent deeds. Questioned about his attitude toward communism by a party leader after the murders, Cross sets forth his philosophy of history in a long speech that is comparable, as an expression of Mr. Wright's thinking to Mr. Max's speech … in "Native Son." (p. 1)
"The Outsider" is both melodrama and novel of ideas, attempting to render Mr. Wright's "sense of our contemporary living" in both emotional and intellectual terms. If the ideas are sometimes incoherent, that does not detract from the substance and power of the book. It is in...
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Richard Wright's new novel [The Long Dream] is not a book to be studied from a distance, to gain perspective on a work of art. It should be examined myopically, close to the page, as one reads the chart of a strange and dangerous passage….
The structure of The Long Dream is the step-by-step progress of Fishbelly, a shy black boy, from the safe, warm world of the Negro ghetto into the lawless world between the races where a few Negroes, preying on black and white alike, have the arrogance to live by their wits. It opens up aspects of the South not covered by dictionary words like "segregation" or "miscegenation." Its key words are "rape" and "blood," "lynch" and "hide," "lie" and...
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[The Long Dream is] a novel throbbing with the same racial traumas that have done much to compel for its author a large interracial audience ever since Native Son, the classic Negro novel of social protest. That book appeared in 1940, and, judging by his latest, Richard Wright is angrier than he was then.
The color motif dominates all of Mr. Wright's novels to the extent that the social-historical context outweighs the literary. It is not only because The Long Dream is a more uneven work than the poignant Native Son that it is so disappointing. Hot with the fumes of an incendiary counterracism, it could not have chosen a less propitious time to be "timely." Certainly it is...
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[Wright] told us the one thing even the most liberal and well-disposed whites preferred not to hear: that Negroes were far from patient or forgiving, that they were scarred by fear, that they hated every moment of their humiliation even when seeming most acquiescent, and that often enough they hated us, the decent and cultivated white men who, from complicity or neglect, shared in the responsibility for their plight. No Negro writer had ever quite said this before, certainly not with so much force or bluntness, and if such younger Negro novelists as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, were to move beyond Wright's harsh naturalism and toward more subtle modes of fiction, that was possible only because Wright had...
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[The] fact that [Richard Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult. In [his last book,] Eight Men, the earliest story, "The Man Who Saw the Flood," takes place in the deep South and was first published in 1937. One of the two previously unpublished stories in the book, "Man, God Ain't Like That," begins in Africa, achieves its hideous resolution in Paris, and brings us, with an ironical and fitting grimness, to the threshold of the 1960's. It is because of this story, which is remarkable, and "Man of All Work," which is a masterpiece, that I cannot avoid feeling that Wright, as he died, was acquiring a new tone, and a less...
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Wounded as he was by southern birth and upbringing, Richard Wright fought back blindly with the nearest weapon at hand—in his case, anger. Anger mounting to rage rushes across the pages of his work; too often it overflows and drowns it before it can take shape. And it is the terrible anger of a man who accepts and can see no way out, for his rage is thrust in against himself. That is the greatest irony of all, that a man should be guilty in America by reason of his difference from the majority and acquiesce in his guilt. But Wright is involved in guilt, not irony.
There is a further irony in the fact that the shaping tools he used for his work were first Communism and later, after his self-exile in...
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Richard Wright is dead now and I have no intention of belaboring his memory; but he was simply not a good writer, not even a competent one, and it might be useful to make a notation upon what the sources of his reputation were. I think it clear that he was one of those authors about whom circumstances gather to distill extraliterary excitement and interest, in his case of course the circumstance being the fact that he was Negro and the first of his race to write about what that meant, in full acceptance of its terrors, frustrations and imposed shame.
I haven't read Native Son in many years. But if I say that I remember fairly vividly how it jolted me, as it did so many others, it is also true...
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[Lawd Today] is less powerful than either Native Son or Black Boy, but it has its own kind of interest.
It is the story of one day in the life of Jake Jackson, a Negro post office clerk in Chicago. (p. 37)
The day is described in unsparing detail. More than two pages, for instance, are devoted to Jake's combing of his recalcitrant hair…. The bridge game, with three sample hands, runs to nine pages. A medicine man's spiel takes six. Wright gives a full account of the processes by which mail is sorted, together with pages of the aimless conversation with which the four friends accompany their work.
Growing up in Chicago, and starting out as a...
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[Why] is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis? Why is it that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project? Finally, why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?
These questions are aroused by "Black Boys and Native Sons," an essay by Irving Howe, the well-known critic and editor...
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[In] Native Son Wright almost succeeds in achieving the imaginative liberation he sought by writing it. The book eventually runs aground in the author's own intellectuality, a quality which, for the novel's sake, he had succeeded in suppressing both too well and not well enough.
The first two-thirds of Native Son constitute one of the most exciting stretches of melodrama in American literature. (p. 33)
From [the moment of Mary Dalton's death] until Bigger's capture by the police on a snow-covered tenement rooftop some two hundred pages later the novel is pure movement, the kind of overwhelming narrative torrent that Wright had already made into a trademark in a story...
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Wright at his best was master of a taut psychological suspense narrative. Even more important, however, are the ways Wright wove his themes of human fear, alienation, guilt, and dread into the overall texture of his work. Some critics may still today stubbornly cling to the notion that Wright was nothing more than a proletarian writer, but it was to these themes that a postwar generation of French writers responded, and not to Wright's Communism—and it is to these themes that future critics must turn primarily if they wish to re-evaluate Wright's work. (p. 3)
Wright not only wrote well but also he paved the way for a new and vigorous generation of Negro authors to deal with subjects that had...
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One would like to think that the recent flurry of interest in Richard Wright (I write in the unquiet spring of 1969) is not just a by-product of the fashionable enthusiasm for "Black American Literature," but rather an effort to render at last his due to a man praised too soon for the wrong reasons and too soon dismissed for more wrong reasons. One doubts, however, that this man who so much longed to be recognized as an individual would be freshly honored except as a racial symbol. In death as in life, Wright has been forced to win as a Negro who happened to be a writer the recognition that he desired as a writer who happened to be a Negro.
Although much of Wright's best work was done during...
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Richard Wright's The Outsider … disappointed many critics who, for more than a decade, had waited for a second novel from the author of Native Son…. (p. 40)
The critics were partially correct. The Outsider fails to evoke the emotional intensity which stunned readers of Native Son in 1940 and which continues to affect many readers who discover the book for the first time in 1969. The Outsider's frequent echoes of [Dostoyevsky's] Crime and Punishment and of the now familiar tenets of existentialism—these disclose the conscious craftsmanship of a well-read author. Thus, the book lacks the aura of uniqueness, originality, and artless spontaneity which...
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For a useful gloss on Wright's apprentice novel [Lawd Today] with its theme of the brutalization of Black life in the urban North, one may turn to his important theoretical essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing," published soon after he moved to New York. The essay seems a clear statement of the novel's intention if not its achievement. Rejecting the exotic bohemianism of the Harlem Renaissance, Wright urges the assimilation of Black folklore into a sophisticated sensibility steeped in modern literature and guided by a Marxist analysis of society. So equipped the Black writer can bring a sharpened class and social consciousness to the problems of his people, utilizing the rich folk tradition but at the same time...
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[Only] two years after its publication, Wright dismissed Uncle Tom's Children as an overly sentimental, naive book. The evaluation seems to have remained unchallenged ever since. Yet it seems, pace the author, as shortsighted as the criticism that the book lacks unity.
[The thematic progression in both] Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son is the same—from a spontaneous, fear-motivated reaction by a black character against "the white mountain" of racial hatred to a realization of the necessity for concentrated Marxist organization of the poor. Also developed in both works are the ideas that sexual taboos between the races confuse and confound the black man's struggle for...
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One of the curious things about Richard Wright is that while there is no question that his best works occupy a prominent place in the Afro-American canon, or that a survey of Afro-American literature would be incomplete without him, many, including myself, find it difficult to describe his place in the Afro-American literary tradition…. An author's place in a tradition depends on how he reveals that tradition. It is not simply a matter of when his works were published but also of how they illuminate—and in some cases honor—what has come before and anticipate what will follow. In Afro-American literature particularly, the idea of a tradition involves certain questions about the author's posture not only among his...
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Attacked, abandoned as a literary example by [James] Baldwin and [Ralph] Ellison, whose early work he had typically encouraged, [Richard Wright] became, after a long eclipse and after his death in 1960, the favored ancestor of a great many new black writers, who rejected his successors and felt more akin to his militant spirit. Parricide, after all, is one of the quicker methods of succession, and nothing can more conveniently legitimate the bloody deed than an appeal to the authority of the grandfather, himself the previous victim. (p. 159)
[It] would be superficial to think that Baldwin alone killed Richard Wright until the angry sixties came along to resurrect him. In some sense Wright's kind of...
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Lawd Today, written during the 1930's but unpublished until 1963, portrays the unrelieved frustration and consequent violence of black American life—themes Wright developed more strikingly in his next and greater novel, Native Son. Lawd Today, however, is not merely a preliminary sketch for the later novel. Unlike Bigger Thomas, Jake Jackson, Lawd Today's protagonist, develops no revolutionary consciousness of himself or his social condition because he aspires to a distorted version of the American dream and refuses personal responsibility for his actions.
As a postal clerk and recent arrival in Chicago from the South, Jake still belongs properly to the black masses; however,...
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The early fiction of Richard Wright, comprised of short stories written in the thirties and culminating in Native Son (1940), is primarily an expression of personal outrage and frustration. Although Wright's literary heritage has been traced to the American Naturalists, recent readings of his works suggest that Wright was not as confined by that tradition as has generally been believed. Working within the framework of social protest, Wright probed other more metaphysical issues, which were later to become of even greater importance to him. In dramatizing the plight of each of his heroes, from Big Boy in "Big Boy Leaves Home," to Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Wright explored the motivating forces behind...
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