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Richard Wright: In a Class by Himself

 Richard Wright: The Life and Times
by Hazel Rowley

(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001, 626 pages, $35.00)

reviewed by Ralph Dumain

"Who else fought longer or harder for the inalienable right to be an intellectual?"

How could Richard Wright, the first black American literary superstar, be so misconstrued by so many people over the course of decades? Wright's rootless cosmopolitanism, militant individualism, secularism, and iconoclasm have rendered him, in whole or part, unacceptable to many people across the racial and political spectrum for over six decades. Were it not for the totalitarianism of skin color, perhaps more people might approach Wright as an intellectual first (albeit an outsider), instead of effacing his intellectual identity and reducing him to a racial representative.

Hazel Rowley's Richard Wright: The Life and Times, the most thoroughly researched biography to date, is now the indispensable foundation for all future scholarship on Wright's life.

Rowley's biography is not a work of literary criticism, though her own prose, including her summaries of several of Wright's works, possesses considerable literary quality. We learn about the course of composition and publication of Wright's works: his intentions, work processes, literary associates, influences, revisions, editorial interventions by others and even censorship. Indispensable as this information is, one cannot gain an adequate thematic understanding of Wright's works from Rowley's descriptions of them, and must turn to the works themselves and to the critical literature. As a biographer, Rowley does not subject Wright's work or ideas to sustained literary or conceptual analysis.

Nor does she offer speculation on his inner frame of mind beyond the empirical evidence she adduces: autobiographical and biographical sources, interviews, etc. The burden is on us to construct a composite portrait of Wright as man and writer. We are then faced with a series of difficulties, chief among them, understanding the relationships connecting Wright's imaginative life and writerly persona, his total personality, and his social being. So much perplexity: how to account for the discrepancy between Wright as a social being—charming and convivial—and the brutality pervading his fiction and autobiography?

Richard Wright's early life was brutal. Born in Jim Crow rural Mississippi in 1908, and living in various locales in the deep South, Wright endured the oppression of poverty and racial terror, compounded by the religious fanaticism of his family. He was viscerally rebellious but at the same time developed remarkable literary and intellectual proclivities. He was a good student, but he never made it to high school. Always resistant to religion, he risked a whipping in school for denying God's ability to make rain. Without any schooling in literature, he published his first story as a teenager.

As a young man, Wright discovered H.L. Mencken and had to resort to trickery to borrow books from the public library, from which black people were barred. Throughout his young life, Wright struggled to develop himself as an intellectual while struggling just to survive. Eventually, he escaped the South and migrated to Chicago. Cooped up with his bickering family in a South Side tenement, Wright continued to pursue his obsession with reading and writing.

In 1933 Wright hooked up with a circle of writers in the John Reed Club sponsored by the Communist Party. Initially suspicious of the party, he got involved in the club and ultimately became its leader, all the while engaged in its internal disputes and always defending the interests of creative writers against the imposition of political hackwork. Just before the club was dissolved by the party in a major policy shift, Wright co-founded an informal writers' group. He successively participated in a variety of writers' groups, projects, and congresses. Ultimately, he moved to New York, where, as a member of the Communist Party, he worked as a correspondent in the Harlem branch. He moved up in the literary world as well, the culmination of his success being the publication of Uncle Tom's Children. 

Wright's Leap into Stardom

At the cusp of Wright's leap into stardom with Native Son in 1940, what do we see? It seems that Wright's happiest and most positive moments come through his activity as a writer and association with other writers. However difficult his life, whenever he is in the midst of writing circles he is at his most buoyant. His popularity with women is comprehensively chronicled in this biography. All of this reveals Wright as an outgoing person with considerable charm, certainly no desperate loner. He also emerges intellectually and artistically very strong and confident, taking the lead in his relations with much better educated people and acting as the authority figure in any group of black writers.

Native Son inaugurated a new era for black writers, poised at the threshold of the great leap in black self-assertion in the 1940s. The controversy over the novel's meaning and value has never subsided. Upon publication the reaction was electrifying. Acclaim came from many quarters. Naturally there was a backlash as well from some whites. Some black critics and readers expressed discontent. The sticking point was the protagonist Bigger Thomas, a desperate lumpen who kills a white woman and his black girlfriend: his character was viewed by some as projecting a negative public image of the whole black race. Langston Hughes ultimately wrote an essay "The Need for Heroes" to promote a positive take on the black experience. While some Communists praised Wright's book, others opposed it. Numerous black Communists were furious over it, and there was feverish reaction in the Harlem branch.

Wright scorned the lot of his opponents, and he thought very little of blacks who feared for their people's public image. The pattern of Wright's iconoclasm was set for life. Later, when reviewing the autobiographies of Hughes and Du Bois, Wright had harsh words for Du Bois' Puritan conservatism and Hughes' role as cultural ambassador (while admiring his realism).

America's entry into World War II changed the whole political scene, including the Communist Party's policies, while America's racism granted no reprieve. Wright had no use for the Party's top-down methods in any case, but patriotic war fervor combined with the outrage of a Jim Crow army, to which the party capitulated, became intolerable to Wright. During the war Wright broke with the party, though he only made this public in 1944. Subsequently he was denounced by people associated with the party, and thus began Wright's near-paranoia towards it.  

Baptism by Fire

Wright achieved further milestones as a writer, including 12,000,000 Black Voices, and ultimately, his second towering achievement, the autobiographical Black Boy. The book underwent a baptism of fire en route to publication. The original manuscript, titled American Hunger, was abridged to eliminate Wright's problems in Chicago with the Communist Party. Moreover, Wright was forced to cut explicit sexual references. He was even prodded to add a more positive, patriotic ending, which he refused to do. When Black Boy came out in 1945, it caused an immediate sensation on a par with the reception of Native Son. This time Du Bois, who had defended the latter, condemned Black Boy for its unrelenting negativity.

A combination of circumstances impelled Wright to leave the country. He was always restless, and he wanted to travel. His disillusionment with the Communist Party did not give him much worth holding onto in the United States. The political climate soured following Roosevelt's death and the war's end. Wright's fame as a writer could not protect him and his family against the merciless racism he faced everywhere. His second wife Ellen was white and Jewish (as was his first, Dhimah), and in addition to the hazards faced by an interracial couple, Wright did not want his very young daughter Julia to have to grow up under such inhuman conditions. Whatever Wright did, he felt he would always be trapped within the confines of the social role accorded a Negro writer. Wright was fed up with the American way of life. After one trip to France in 1946, Wright and his family packed up and moved there in 1947.

Amidst the devastation of post-war France, Wright lived a privileged life. His second daughter Rachel was born in 1949. His association with his existentialist friends Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre grew into a full-fledged political project. Opposed to both the USA and the USSR, Wright supported the independent left's project of a political third way for Europe.

In 1953 Wright's "existentialist" novel The Outsider, his first book since 1945, was published. This much-misunderstood novel, disdained by friend and stranger alike, is often cited as evidence that Wright lost his way once separated from his American roots. Yet its delineation of the historic dilemma Wright saw in the early cold war is unmistakable.

Wright spent the 1950s following the world's anticolonial movements as a critical sympathizer, but in his opposition to both Moscow and Washington, and in his irreconcilable hostility to all tradition, he was evidently overcome with confusion as to how to proceed politically. His contradictory political behavior reveals how precarious the choices were in the cold war 1950s. His actions during his 1953 visit in the Gold Coast (to become Ghana upon independence) are virtually inexplicable.

The book Black Power issued from this voyage. Wright produced two more travel books. Pagan Spain, his non-fiction masterpiece of the 1950s, is a scathing indictment of backward, Catholic, fascist Spanish society. As a Westerner treated as an outsider in Western civilization, Wright settles accounts with a Western country that is too primitive to be properly counted as Western. The Color Curtain is Wright's account of the Bandung Conference. While showcasing the colonized peoples' resentment against the white West, Wright nonetheless rejects any gesture towards the renewal of traditional Asian and African cultures and religions. Here as in Africa, Wright acts as an intellectual mediator between the West and the modernizing colonial world.

Other works of the 1950s include a significant essay collection, White Man, Listen!, two unsuccessful novels, Savage Holiday and The Long Dream, and a collection of short stories, Eight Men. In his final years Wright embarked on an ambitious program of writing haiku, which are now published. Also posthumously published were the missing chapters of American Hunger and Wright's experimental first novel Lawd Today.

The FBI had first put Wright under surveillance during the war. After he left the USA, Wright continued to be bitterly outspoken against American racism. The CIA kept close tabs on him. A number of suspicious incidents fed a growing paranoia about what the U.S. government might do to him. Other black Americans were used against him, and he was periodically subjected to attacks back home in the black press as well as in the mainstream press. While France was initially seen as a refuge, Wright saw the growing influence of the U.S. in France as a stimulus to racism there, prompting anti-racist activism on his part. Wright was not permitted to establish permanent residence in Britain, likely due to American influence. Aside from Wright's feeling irredeemably alien in France, the repressive atmosphere of the Algerian War did not help matters.

Wright's Last Years

Wright's last years were beset with troubles. Though he never divorced his wife Ellen, their marriage deteriorated beyond repair. He began to experience money problems. In failing health, he became more solitary, and his relationships with his female friends and lovers began to sour. Though fearful of plots against him, Wright was paradoxically devoted to his rather dubious physician, who may well have poisoned him with his treatments. Wright died under ambiguous circumstances in 1960. Among people close to Wright opinion is still divided on whether there was foul play.

Wright has been pigeonholed as a naturalistic, protest writer, either a visceral writer, consumed with rage, or overly intellectual in his European period. Why is Wright so presumptuously underestimated in so many ways? Is it not due to the mystique of race, which mystifies blacks as it does whites? It seems impossible for people to conceptualize Wright's writing as anything more than a racial posture. Wright is chronically criticized as one-dimensional and negative in his portrayal of blacks. Yet the basis of Wright's thematic selectively has to do with his iconoclasm, his fanatical search for total freedom. Although known to have enjoyed friendship with women and camaraderie with black men, he was not interested in selling black culture. Wright was indeed trapped in a world of race, but he opposed the very concept. "My color is not my country," he said towards the end of his life.

Wright's uncompromising individualism combined with ruthless pursuit of unflattering truths sets him in a class by himself among his black intellectual contemporaries. On a global scale, the twentieth century is replete with working class autodidacts who clawed their way upward toward Enlightenment, but did even the most destitute of them trod a road of travail that could match the distance Richard Wright had to go? Who else fought longer or harder for the inalienable right to be an intellectual?


Ralph Dumain is an information specialist and independent scholar, now serving as the librarian/archivist for the C.L.R. James Institute in New York City.


SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. "Richard Wright: In a Class by Himself" [review of Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley], The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 35, Spring 2002, pp. 135-137.

Book Review (Draft): Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley

Richard Wright Study Guide

The Richard Wright Connection (The C.L.R. James Institute)


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Uploaded 28 July 2002

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