Richard Wright

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 116

What explains the unusual amount of recognition that Richard Wright received as an African American writer as early as the 1940’s?

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How does Wright succeed in inducing sympathy for the violently antisocial Bigger Thomas in Native Son?

Ralph Ellison compared Wright’s work to the blues. What characteristics of this form of music find their parallel in Wright’s novels?

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Consider the significance of hunger, both literal and metaphorical, in Black Boy.

What circumstances caused Wright to be simultaneously vilified by both communists and federal agencies combating communism?

To date, Wright’s reputation as a novelist has fluctuated. What characteristics of his work are most likely to entitle him to the rank of major American writer?

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Although Richard Wright is best known for his novel Native Son (1940), his nonfiction works, such as the two volumes of his autobiography Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) and American Hunger (1977) along with books such as Twelve Million Black Voices (1941) and White Man, Listen! (1957), have proven to be of lasting interest. He developed a Marxist ideology while writing for the Communist Daily Worker, which was very influential on his early fiction, notably Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children, but which culminated in an article, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” first published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1944. Although he abandoned Marxist ideology, he never abandoned the idea that protest is and should be at the heart of great literature.

Achievements

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Richard Wright is often cited as being the father of the post-World War II African American novel. The works of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison owe a direct debt to the work of Wright, and his role in inspiring the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s is incalculable. Further, he was one of the first African American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century to capture a truly international audience. Among his many honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 and the Spingarn Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1941 for his novel, Native Son. This novel, which James Baldwin said was “unquestionably” the “most powerful and celebrated statement we have had yet of what it means to be a Negro in America,” along with the first volume of his autobiography and the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, constitute Wright’s most important lasting contributions to literature. His plots usually deal with how the harrowing experience of racial inequality transforms a person into a rebel—usually violent, and usually randomly so. The more subtle achievement of his fiction, however, is the psychological insight it provides into the experience of oppression and rebellion.

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In addition to his novels, Richard Wright published collections of essays and short stories and two autobiographical volumes. Two collections of short fiction, the early Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and the posthumously collected Eight Men (1961), represent some of Wright’s finest writing. Wright himself felt that the characters in Uncle Tom’s Children were too easily pitied and that they elicited from readers a sympathy that was unlike the tough intellectual judgment he desired. Wright later wrote that his creation of Bigger Thomas in Native Son was an attempt to stiffen that portrayal so that readers could not leniently dismiss his characters with simple compassion, but would have to accept them as free, fully human adults whose actions require assessment. Nevertheless, the stories of Uncle Tom’s Children are carefully written, and the characters, though sometimes defeated, embody the kind of independence and intractability that Wright valued in his fiction.

Two stories from Eight Men reveal the themes to which Wright gave sustained development in his novels. In “The Man Who Was Almos’ a Man,” the main character learns that power means freedom, and although he first bungles his attempt to shoot a gun, his symbol of power, he lies to his family, keeps the gun, and at the conclusion of the story leaves home to grow into manhood elsewhere. In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the main character, nameless at first, is accused of a crime he did not commit. Fleeing underground to the sewers of the city, he becomes a voyeur of life, seen now from a new perspective. The values that served him badly aboveground do not serve him at all below. By the end of the story, he has come to understand that all men are guilty; his name is revealed, and with his new values, he ascends once more to accept responsibility for the crime. Since all men are guilty, it is less important to him that the crime is not his own than that he acknowledge freely that he shares in human guilt.

Even more important than these two collections is the first volume of Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), which opens up a world of experience to the reader. It traces the first seventeen years of Wright’s life—from his birth in Mississippi and the desertion of the family by his father through years of displacement as he travels from one relative to another with his ill mother and religious grandmother. The early years find Wright, like his laterprotagonists, an outsider, cut off from family, from friends, from culture. He is as out of place among blacks as among whites, baffled by those blacks who play the roles whites expect of them, himself unable to dissimulate his feelings and thoughts. Although the work is nonfiction, it is united by powerful metaphors: fire, hunger, and blindness. Wright’s inner fire is mirrored throughout the work by actual fires; indeed, his first act is to set afire the curtains in his home. His physical hunger, a constant companion, is an image of his hunger for knowledge and connection, and his two jobs in optical factories suggest the blindness of society, a blindness given further representation in Native Son.

What Wright learns in Black Boy is the power of words. His early life is marked by physical violence: He witnesses murders and beatings, but it is the violence of words that offers liberation from his suffocating environment. Whether it is the profanity with which he shocks his grandmother, the literalness with which he takes his father’s words, or the crude expressions with which he taunts Jewish shopkeepers, he discovers that words have a power that makes him an equal to those around him. When he feels unequal, as in his early school experiences, he is speechless. The culmination of this theme occurs when Wright acquires a library card and discovers through his readings of the works of American social critics of the early part of the twentieth century, such as H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, that he is not alone in his feelings and that there are others who share his alienation and discontent.

When Wright finally sees his father many years after his desertion, his hatred dissolves: He realizes that his father, trapped by his surroundings, with neither a cultural past nor an individual future, speaks a language different from his own, holds different thoughts, and is truly a victim and therefore not worthy even of his hatred. Wright’s characters must never be victims, for as such they hold no interest. At the end of the book, he goes north, first to Memphis and, when that fails, north again to Chicago, pursuing the dream, having now the power of words to articulate it and to define himself.

The record of Wright’s years in Chicago is found in the posthumously published second autobiographical volume, American Hunger (written in 1944, published in 1977). Largely a record of his involvement and later disillusionment with the Communist Party, this book is interesting for its view of a later, mature Wright who is still struggling with institutions that would limit his freedom.

Achievements

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In his best work, Richard Wright gives American literature its strongest statement of the existential theme of alienated people defining themselves. Wright’s use of the black American as archetypal outsider gives his work a double edge. On one hand, no American writer so carefully illuminates the black experience in America: The ambivalence of black feeling, the hypocrisies of the dominant culture, and the tension between them find concrete and original manifestation in Wright’s work, a manifestation at once revealing and terrifying.

It is not only in his revelation of black life, however, that Wright’s power lies, for as much as his writing is social and political, it is also personal and philosophical. The story of alienated people is a universal one; because the concrete experiences of the outsider are so vividly rendered in Wright’s fiction, his books have an immediate accessibility. Because they also reveal deeper patterns, they have further claims to attention. Much of Wright’s later fiction seems self-conscious and studied, but it cannot diminish the greatness of his finest work.

Bibliography

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Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985. The essays “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Alas, Poor Richard” provide important and provocative insights into Wright and his art.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on various aspects of Wright’s work and career, with an introduction by Bloom.

Butler, Robert. “Native Son”: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An accessible critical look at the seminal novel. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: William Morrow, 1973. Although this volume is one of the most important and authoritative biographies available on Wright, readers interested in Wright’s life should consult Margaret Walker’s biography as well (see below).

Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985. A collection of Fabre’s essays on Wright. A valuable resource, though not a sustained, full-length study. It contains two chapters on individual short stories by Wright, including the short story “Superstition.” Supplemented by an appendix.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A general biographical and critical source, this work devotes two chapters to the short fiction of Wright.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996. This study of Wright’s fiction as racial discourse and the product of diverse cultures devotes one chapter to Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, focusing primarily on racial and cultural contexts of “Big Boy Leaves Home.”

Kinnamon, Kenneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972. A study of Wright’s background and development as a writer, up until the publication of Native Son.

Kinnamon, Kenneth, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” New York: Twayne, 1997. Divided into sections of reviews, reprinted essays, and new essays. Includes discussions of Wright’s handling of race, voice, tone, novelistic structure, the city, and literary influences. Index but no bibliography.

Kinnamon, Kenneth, ed. A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary: 1933-1982. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A mammoth annotated bibliography (one of the largest annotated bibliographies ever assembled on an American writer), which traces the history of Wright criticism. This bibliography is invaluable as a research tool.

Rand, William E. “The Structure of the Outsider in the Short Fiction of Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” CLA Journal 40 (December, 1996): 230-245. Compares theme, imagery, and form of Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” with Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” in terms of the treatment of the outsider. Argues that both Fitzgerald and Wright saw themselves as outsiders—Wright because of race and Fitzgerald because of economic class.

Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner Publishing, 1988. A critically acclaimed study of Wright’s life and work written by a friend and fellow novelist. Not a replacement for Michel Fabre’s biography but written with the benefit of several more years of scholarship on issues that include the medical controversy over Wright’s death. Walker is especially insightful on Wright’s early life, and her comments on Wright’s short fiction are short but pithy. Includes a useful bibliographic essay at the end.

Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1968. A well-written biography which remains useful.

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