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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Richard (Nathaniel) Wright (1908-1960)


American short story writer and novelist, whose best known work is Native Son (1940). The book immediately established Wright as an important author and a spokesman on conditions facing African-Americans. It gained a large multiracial readership and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Wright's works drew on the poverty and segregation of his childhood in the South and early adulthood in Chicago.

"And, curiously, he felt that he was something, somebody, precisely and simply because of that cold threat of death. The terror of the white world had left no doubt in him about his worth; in fact, that white world had guaranteed his worth in the most brutal and dramatic manner. Most surely he was was something, in the eyes of the white world, or it would not have threatened him as it had. That white world, then, threatened as much as it beckoned. Though he did not know it, he was fatally in love with that white world, in love in a way that could never be cured. That white world's attempt to curb him dangerously and irresponsibly claimed him for its own." (from The Long Dream, 1958)

Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents had been slaves and his father, Nathaniel, who was an illiterate sharecropper and mill worker, left home when Richard was six. Wright grew up in poverty, staying often at homes of relatives. His mother, Ella Wilson, was a schoolteacher; she moved with her family to Memphis, where she found employment as a cook. In 1915-16 Wright attended school for a few months, but his mother's illness forced him to leave.

Wright attended school sporadically, lived in Arkansas with his aunt Maggie and uncle Silas, who was murdered, and in Mississippi. In his childhood Wright was often beaten."My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety," he later wrote in his autobiography Black Boy (1945). However, he continued to teach himself, secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library. He had been permitted entrance in order to pick up books requested by a fellow factory worker, whose card he could use. When the librarian asked him whether he was actually planning to read the works himself, he said, "Oh, no, ma'am, I can't read." Two of the first books he borrowed were H.L. Mencken's Prejudices and A Book of Prefaces.

From early on, Wright worked at various jobs, among others as a newspaper delivery boy and as an assistant to an insurance agent. His spare-time jobs enabled Wright to buy schoolbooks, pulp magazines, and dime novels, all of which he read avidly. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first story, 'The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre.' It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper. Wright attended junior high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and graduated in 1925. From 1925 to 1927 Wright lived in Memphis, where he was employed by an optical company.

During these years he read widely and decided to become a writer. Tired of segregation law, he moved to Chicago, hoping that life would be better there. He worked as a post office clerk, at that time the only place educated blacks could find work. During the Great Depression he hold several other jobs. Wright was also given the opportunity to write through the Federal Writers' Project. While working on the Theatre Project he saw plays by Erskine Caldwell and Clifford Odets. He read such philosophers as Hegel and Nietzsche, as well as the Art of Fiction by Henry James, Mencken's Prefaces and On the Art of Novel, and works by Sigmund Freud. By the time he moved to New York City, he had written most of the novel Lawd Today, which was published posthumously in 1963. It centered around the life of Jake Jackson, a violent man from Chicago, who has not much hope in his mean environment. Social environment also plays a central role in Native Son, a view that was advocated especially leftist writers.

Following his growing Marxist view of the world, Wright joined the Communist Party in 1932. He was an executive secretary of the local John Reed Club of leftist writers and authors of Chicago and wrote poetry for such journals as Left Front, Midland Left, Anvil, International Literature, Partisan Review, and New Masses. 'Big Boy Leaves Home', telling about the shocking end of the childhood of a young black boy, was first published in The New Caravan and greeted as the best piece in the anthology. In the late 1930s Wright was named to the literature editorial board of New Masses. Due to his political involvement, Wright was denounced by the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities investigating the Federal Writers' Project.

In 1937 Wright moved to New York City, becoming editor of Daily Worker, and a later vice president of the League for American Writers. Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of stories of Southern racism, which appeared in 1938, was reissued in expanded form two years later. The story 'Fire and Cloud' received the O. Henry Memorial award. Uncle Tom's Children helped Wright to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to devote his full time to writing.

Native Son became an instant best-seller. In some bookstores stock was sold out within hours; the novel sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks. Many white Americans saw Bigger Thomas, the central character, as a symbol of the entire black community, and Wright later stated that "there are meanings in my books of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper." Wright used in the book a 1938 criminal case involving a black youth, Robert Nixon, who killed a white woman.

For the most part, the book was rendered in the present. Wright was an avid filmgoer and he explained that "I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger's story was happening now, like play upon a stage or a movie..." In the first film version, directed by Pierre Chenal, and adapted by Chenal and Wright, the author himself acted the role of Bigger Thomas. Wright spent three years on the project. The film was a disaster. The 1986 version was directed by Jerrold Freedman and adapted by Richard Wesley. Oprah Winfrey was in the role of Bigger's mother. "The second adaptation even goes so far as to eliminate Bigger's murder of Bessie, in order to reinforce the idea that Bigger is a mild-mannered victim, thus robbing the story of any controversy, and dialectic, and any philosophical significance. It also robs the story of the complexities of gender relations between black men and black women that are touched upon by Wright." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)

The protagonist of Native Son is a young black man in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who lives in a one-room apartment in Chicago's South Side Black Belt, with his mother, his young sister, Vera, and younger brother, Buddy. He is hired by a wealthy family named Dalton as their chauffeur. Mr. Dalton gives money for social welfare, but at the same time owns the rat-infested building in which Bigger lives. The rhythms of Bigger's life are "indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger – like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force." The family's free-thinking daughter Mary befriends him – with her he visits Communist headquarters, where she meets her boyfriend Jan Erlone. Mary has had too much drink. Bigger carries Mary back to her room. When her blind mother enters the room, he accidentally smothers her. In panic, he burns the body in the basement and attempt to implicate Jan. Mary's bones are discovered and Bigger also kills his own girlfriend, Bessie, to cover his tracks. He is captured and in the jail Bigger feels for the first time a sense of freedom: "Seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be." He is then condemned to death and faces his destiny unrepentantly, affirming that 'what I killed for, I am!' Yet in prison he also comes to terms with the need for a common brotherhood. The last third of the book is largely a speech given by Boris A. Max, a party attorney, in Bigger's defense at his trial. Wright clearly used Max to convey his own Marxist assessment of the racial situation in the United States. The speech is also based on Clarence Darrow's defense of Leopold and Loeb. Wright's leftist friends were troubled because the Wright did not view Bigger's fate from an exploited worker's perspective. During the 1950s, the widespread fear of communism incited by the Cold War and McCarthyism led to the diminished popularity of Native Son. The sexually explicit scenes were removed from the Book-of-the-Month Club publication and Thomas did not show such obvious interest in the white character, Mary Dalton.

After his breakthrough as a writer, Wright collaborated with Paul Green on a stage adaptation of the book, which was directed by Orson Welles and run successfully on Broadway in 1941-43. However, a reviewer in The Nation found it less satisfactory than the novel. The play separated further "the two elements of the novel . . . crude melodrama and social peachment." Critics' Theatre Reviews  wrote that the adaptation "lacks the richness and subterranerous power of the book, as well as the essential meaning." Native Son was Welles's last real triumph on the New York stage.

In August 1939, Wright married Rose Dhimah Meadman, a belly dancer. Their best man was the young Ralph Ellison. "The ladies of the race, I presume, are raising hell!" speculated Langston Hughes about the marriage, which turned out to be unsuccessful. After divorce, Wright married in 1941 Ellen Poplar, a daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants and a fellow leftist. They had two daughters. The autobiographical Black Boy received good reviews. The book was set in the 1920s. It begins as the narrator accidentally burns his house down. Readers learn how he became a drunkard in his sixth year, and how begging drinks became his obsession. His mother and grandmother beat him, so hard sometimes that he lost consciousness. He was also beaten by his aunt in a Seventh-day Adventist school, where she was a teacher.

In 1944 Wright left Communist Party. He spent the summer of 1945 as an artist-in-residence at the Bread Loaf School for writers in Middlebury, Vermont, and then went to France with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. Wright met among others Gertrude Stein, André Gide, and Léopold Senghor. He returned to the United States only briefly and settled in Paris, where he associated with existentialists and such American writers as James Baldwin. Wright helped Baldwin to win a prestigious literary fellowship, and Baldwin repaid him four years later by criticizing the tactics of Native Son in his career-launching essay 'Everybody's Protest Novel.'

In 1949 Wright joined George Plimpton and others in founding the Paris Review. He acted in the film based on the novel Native Son – the American release was not successful and the film was banned in several cities. Wright's existentialist novel The Outsider (1952), depicting a black intellectual's search for identity, received mixed reviews. It was praised mostly in Europe. In Paris Wright was not treated like in the American South, but he gradually lost touch with his inspiration, or "the rhythms of his life."

During his years in France, Wright spent much of his time supporting nationalist movements in Africa. In 1953 he travelled in Africa, gathering material for Black Power (1954), and witnessing the rise of the Pan-African movement. Among his other works in the 1950s were Savage Holiday (1954), about a white man caught in a web of violence, The Color Curtain (1956), about Asia, Pagan Spain (1957), a travel book of a Catholic country full of contradictions, and White Man, Listen! (1958), a collection of lectures on racial injustice. Wright's last short story, 'Big Black Good Man', which originally was published in Esquire and was collected in Eight Men  (1961), was set in Copenhangen and dealt with prejudices. The Long Dream (1958), a novel set in Mississippi, had a poor reception. Its sequel, Island of Hallucination, set in Paris, was not published. "Everything in the book happened, but I've twisted characters so that people won't recognise them," said Wright to his agent. American Hunger, a sequel to Black Boy, came out in 1977.

Wright distanced in the last years of his life from his associates. He suffered from poor health and financial difficulties and grew suspicious about the activities of CIA in Paris – in which he was right. Wright's plans to move to London were rejected by the British officials. In 1959 he began composing haiku, producing almost four thousand of them. Wright died nearly penniless at the age of fifty-two in Paris, on November 28, 1960. At his request, his body was cremated and his ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of Black Boy. Wright's daughter Julia has claimed that his father was murdered. Upon his death, Wright left behind an unfinished book on French West Africa. His travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, appeared in 2001.

For further reading: Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955); Richard Wright by Robert Bone (1969); Richard Wright's Native Son by Richard Abcarian (1970); The Life and Work of Richard Wright, edited by David Ray and Robert M. Farnsworth (1971); Richard Wright by David Bakish (1973); by Robert Felgar (1980); Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. by Yashinobu Hakutani (1982); Richard Wright: A Primary Biography by C.T. Davis and M. Fabre (1982); Richard Wright by Addison Gayle (1983); The World of Richard Wright by Michel Fabre (1985); Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy by J.A. Joyce (1986); Richard Wright's Native Son, ed. by H. Bloom (1988); A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982, compiled by Keneth Kinnamon et al. (1988); Richard Wright's Black Boy, ed. by H. Bloom (1988); Voice of a Native Son by E. Miller (1990); New Essays on Native Son, ed. by Keneth Kinnamon (1990); 'Richard Wright: Native Son and Novelist', in Great Black Writers by Steven Otfinoski (1994); The Critical Response to Richar Wright, ed. by Robert J. Butler (1995); Richard Wright and Racial Discourse by Yashinobu Hakutani (1996); Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley (2001); Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley (2008); Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen by Jennifer Jensen Wallach (2010) - Note: Wright's Native Son was main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1949. It took nearly 30 year before the next novel by a black author became a main selection. The book was Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977). See also other American writers in Paris: Chester Himes, James Baldwin

Selected works:

  • Uncle Tom's Children: Five Long Stories, 1938 (also: Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas)
  • Native Son, 1940
    - Amerikan poika (suom. Antero Tiusanen & Eva Siikarla, 1972)
    - films: Native Son / Sangre negra, 1951 (a low-budget Argentine version), dir. by Pierre Chenal, Wright acted the role of Bigger Thomas, with Gloria Madison, Willa Pearl Curtis, Nicholas Joy, Ruth Robert, Charles Cane; 1986, dir. by Jerrold Freedman, starring Victor Love, Carroll Baker, Akousuwa Busia, Matt Dillon, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Page
  • How "Bigger" Was Born; the Story of Native Son, 1940
  • 12 Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 1941 (photo-direction by Edwin Rosskam)
  • Bright and Morning Star, 1941
  • The Negro and Parkway Community House, 1941
  • Native son (the Biography of a Young American), 1941 (play, with P. Green, a Mercury production by Orson Welles, presented by Orson Welles and John Houseman; rev. ed. 1980)
  • The Man Who Lived Underground, 1942-44
  • Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, 1945
    - Musta poika: kertomus lapsuudesta ja nuoruudesta (suom. Eeva Kangasmaa, 1948)
  • The God that Failed, 1950 (with others)
  • Native Son, 1951 (sceenplay)
  • The Outsider, 1953
    - Pikku jumalat: romaani Amerikan mustista ja valkoisista (suom. Kai Kaila, 1955)
  • Savage Holiday, 1954
    - films: Domingo salvaje, 1967, prod. Sagitario Films (Merxico), dir. Francisco del Villar, adapted by Emilio Carballido, starring Kitty de Hoyos, David Reynoso, José Gálvez, Bertha Moss, Raúl Ramírez; La Passerelle, 1988, prod. T. Films (France), dir. Jean-Claude Sussfeld, starring Pierre Arditi, Mathilda May, Aurelle Doazan, Jean-Marie Marion
  • Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, 1954
  • The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, 1956 (foreword by Gunnar Myrdal)  
  • Pagan Spain, 1957 (a new edition in 2002 by University Press of Mississippi, with an introductory essay by Faith Berry)
  • White Man, Listen!, 1957
  • The Long Dream: A Novel, 1958
    - Pitkä uni (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1960)
  • Daddy Goodness, 1959 (prod., adapted from Louis Sapin's Papa Bon Dieu)
  • Eight Men, 1961
    - Kahdeksan miestä (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1974)
  • Quintet, 1961 (ed.)
  • Lawd Today, 1963 (with a new foreword by Arnold Rampersad, 1986)
  • Letters to Joe C. Brown, 1968 (edited with an introd. by Thomas Knipp)  
  • American Hunger, 1977 (afterword by Michel Fabre)
  • Richard Wright Reader, 1978 (edited by Ellen Wright and Micherl Fabre; notes by Michel Fabre)
  • Richard Wright: Early Works: Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, 1991
  • Richard Wright: Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger), The Outsider, 1991  
  • Rite of Passage, 1994 (afterword by Arnold Rampersad)
  • Haiku: This Other World, 1998 (edited and with notes and afterword by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, introduction by Julia Wright)
  • Down by the Riverside, 2001 (with four etchings by John Wilson)
  • Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections, 2001 (ed. by Virginia Whatley Smith)
  • Black Power: Three Books from Exile: Black Power, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen!, 2008 (with an introduction by Cornel West)

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