A native son without a country
Richard Wright gave a voice to black America like no one before him, but he still couldn't find home
In a letter to his literary agent's assistant dated Oct. 24, 1960, just one month before his strange, inexplicable death, Richard Wright exclaimed, "The Western world must make up its mind as to whether it hates colored people more than it hates Communists or does it hate Communists more than it hates colored people."
It was perhaps difficult to tell in 1960, but for many it seemed as if the Western world hated both communists and coloreds with equal passion. They both symbolized the havoc that was plaguing the Western world, from the political challenge of the civil rights movement to the aesthetic and social "degeneracy" of rock 'n' roll. Indeed, in the minds of white American Southern segregationists, this was in effect a distinction without a difference: People of color who complained about their condition were tantamount to being communists.
In the so-called third world, where the cry for nationalist independence from colonialism was nearly universal, there, too, it seemed to the European mind that the colored and the communist were the same.
Wright had been a staunch anticommunist since the early 1940s, but the kind of anticommunist he was did not help him either with American whites (because he remained critical of American racism and white American hypocrisy) or with his fellow black intellectuals and artists (because he saw himself unapologetically as a Westerner).
He could never be the centrist anticommunist that some white intellectuals of the 1950s were, like Lionel Trilling and Arthur Schlesinger.
He had mythologized the marginal man in many of his writings, and by the last decade of his life, he had become such a man himself, without a faction to protect him. He was hated by the communists and distrusted by the anticommunists. Without a country to claim him, he felt abandoned by America, unwanted by England, and, finally, weary and skeptical of France. As a result of being a faithless husband and an absent father, he also found himself without a family.
Hazel Rowley, author of this new, well-written account of Wright's life, gives us Wright in his final years as proud, even vain, about this state of things and more than a little frightened.
Richard Wright was born in Mississippi in 1908, and had only an eighth-grade education in one of the poorest, most segregated school systems in the most rabidly racist state in the Union. His family, or rather, the women of his family, were highly religious and highly repressed and repressive.
Despite this unpromising beginning under a system that was geared to produce a submissive, frustrated, thoroughly defeated man, Wright fashioned himself into a writer and a thinker of great power and accomplishment. He shaped himself into one of the monumental writers of the American Century.
He was the first black American writer to achieve an international reputation of considerable dimension, having his work translated into a number of languages, and the first black American writer to produce several bestsellers and to be taken with a degree of seriousness by the white American literary establishment.
He became a famous expatriate, living the last 13 or so years of his life in Europe, which he had hoped would help him as both a man and writer, but seemed to do not quite either.
Rowley tells the story of the determined black boy who came north to Memphis and then Chicago, during the wave of the Great Black Migration of the 1920s, who ate canned pork and beans in his lonely room at night while reading Mencken and Dreiser, who persevered in the face of criticism from his family.
What helped Wright immeasurably was the Communist Party and the foothold it gained in the United States during the 1930s, particularly in artistic and intellectual circles, when Wright was a young man. It was the party that gave Wright a political philosophy, a social life mostly with whites, and the opportunity to develop and publish his writing.
Rowley tells this particular phase of Wright's story well and reminds the reader that there is, by itself, a tale to be told about how communism shaped African-Americans, especially the generation of young adults during the Depression.
Wright emerged from the Depression as the author of a set of highly regarded short stories about racial violence in the American South, "Uncle Tom's Children"; of a novel about a youthful black murderer that was chosen for the Book of the Month Club and assured his place in American letters, "Native Son"; and, in 1945, of an autobiography, "Black Boy," also chosen by the Book of the Month Club, that is one of the most striking records of the emotional life of adolescence ever written by an American.
We learn in detail the process of editing these books, particularly "Native Son" and "Black Boy," and how the Book of the Month Club, then a powerful influence on America's reading habits, vigorously pushed through cuts that significantly altered these works.
Whether these cuts were motivated by racism is difficult to say, as the author does not provide any discussion of how other fictional works chosen by the BOMC were dealt with to enable the reader to make a comparison. But it is reasonable to think that white racial feelings may have played a part in these changes. Wright himself did not exert himself very strongly in this regard and seemed, for the most part, to make the changes that were asked of him.
Rowley's account of Wright's effort to make "Native Son" into a play in the middle of artistic differences between playwright Paul Green, who was the co-author of the play, and John Houseman, who was helping to stage it, says a great deal about the difficulty of the black artist at this time in asserting control over the intention and message of his work.
Most of the rest of Wright's career was spent abroad, where he wrote several more works, including four books of nonfiction: "Black Power," about independence in Ghana; "Pagan Spain," about traveling in Franco's Spain; "The Color Curtain," about the 1954 Afro-Asian Unity Conference that took place in Bandung; and "White Man, Listen," a set of essays about race and colonialism.
These books were, on the whole, indifferently received, as were his three novels of the 1950s: "The Outsider," a ponderous, pretentious work; "Savage Holiday," a psychological potboiler; and "The Long Dream," in which he returned to the American South and race for his subject with better results. In any case, Wright had largely been usurped by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, and his work, to many, seemed dated.
Rowley's biography is wonderfully readable and fair to the subject. We get a Wright who is boisterously gauche, a philanderer of legendary proportions (mostly with white, usually Jewish, women), paranoid, loud-mouthed, and vain, but sensitive to beauty, committed to human rights, intensely antiracist, a great lover of literature and ideas, gregarious and kind.
Those of a more academic turn of mind might wish for more critical readings of the work and more extensive accounts of their current critical standing. Others might desire a bit more historical foregrounding. But, on the whole, this is a first-rate biography worthy of its towering, larger-than-life subject.
Gerald Early is the director of the International Writers Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Last year, he was a juror for the National Book Award in nonfiction.