Richard Wright: The Life and Times
by Hazel Rowley
Henry Holt, 626 pp., $35.00
There hadn’t been anything in African-American literature to match the power of the slave narratives, it seemed, until Richard Wright published his collection of four long stories about racial violence in the South, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). In an autobiographical sketch that serves as a preface to the 1940 edition, Wright describes how in 1927, when he was eighteen years old, he found the courage to ask a white man at the place where he then worked if he could use his library card. As a Roman Catholic in the Protestant South, the man was perhaps sympathetic to a black youth wanting to visit the segregated public library. Armed with a library card, Wright penned a note that read, “Please let this nigger boy have the following books,” and signed the white man’s name. Wright had not heard of the slave narratives any more than the slaves who could read and write had likely heard of Prometheus. However, like the fugitive slaves whose literacy was their freedom, Wright dared to reenact the theft of fire.
Good Eleanor Roosevelt was so moved by Uncle Tom’s Children that Wright decided he had to produce a work that would leave his readers “without the consolation of tears.” The result was Native Son (1940). The story of Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old sullen, violent black youth who murders two young women, one white and one black, was immediately controversial, not least because after Bigger’s conviction his Communist defense attorney makes a long, impas-sioned plea against the death penalty in which he seeks to explain Bigger’s grisly deeds as a consequence of the social forces that oppress black people.
Wright followed his landmark novel with a lyrical essay on the story of the Negro in America, Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), and an autobiography, Black Boy, which created almost as much of a sensation when it appeared in 1945 as had Native Son. It was to be the last book Wright wrote in the United States.
Wright’s biography, like the tone of his work, is all speed and urgency. He escaped the South, went first to Chicago, then to New York, and finally to Paris in 1947, where he died in 1960 at the age of fifty-two. McCarthyism’s reach was long, making Wright’s last years of exile and eclipse even more difficult for someone already said by blacks and whites alike to be cut off from his material, his audience, and poorly adjusted to his new surroundings. He published three more novels, The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958); and four works of travel writing and essays on colonialism, Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1955), Pagan Spain (1956), and White Man, Listen! (1957). A collection of short stories, Eight Men (1961), came out shortly after his death.
There may be things we wish he hadn’t written, but most everything Wright attempted, including the later unsuccessful “existential” novels, had about it something …