Monday, February 23, 2009

Richard Wright, Author

Writer's Note: When I was very young, before I was 18, Richard Wright became an important writer for me, someone who wrote with honesty, intelligence, and passion about his life in the south and his own ambitions and conflicts as well as insightfully about the world... Here below are my comments on a biography of Richard Wright, and notes on Wright's career and reading interests.

Hazel Rowley. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt and Company. 2001. 626 pages. ISBN 0-8050-4776-X.

“Is this the dirt road,/Winding through windy trees,/That I must travel?” asked writer Richard Wright (1908-1960) in a haiku, #131, written near the end of his life. Wright’s haikus were not published in a book, Haiku: This Other World, until more than three decades after his death, and they are one more testament to what was not known about this famous writer while he lived. Wright’s lyrical and polemical autobiography Black Boy and his grim ideological urban drama Native Son may be well-known references in American literature courses but exclusive consideration of them have given us a narrow view of the author, who also wrote the comic, experimental fiction Lawd Today!, the existential novel The Outsider, and Savage Holiday, a novel featuring no African Americans, as well as books on Africa, Asia, and Europe—Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain.

Richard Wright, born to a sharecropper father and schoolteacher mother in Mississippi, endured a childhood of poverty, familial misunderstanding, religious dogmatism, and racial prejudice. He distinguished himself when young by writing a short story that was published, and being selected as a representative of his grade school class. Reading H.L. Mencken in the late 1920s introduced him to literary and social criticism, and to writers such as Dreiser, Lewis, and Anderson. Wright moved to Chicago, where he worked in the post office. He became a member of the John Reed Club and through it met other writers, and became also a member of the Communist Party—and then moved to New York, where he wrote for a party publication. Wright’s first book, the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children, was published in 1938 and received good reviews. Two years later, Native Son was published and thus Wright became an important American writer. Wright married the white Ellen Poplowitz in 1941, published Black Boy in 1945, and visited France the next year and moved there with Ellen in 1947, where he would live, work, and die.

Hazel Rowley’s biography of Wright may not be elegant or eloquent—it is rather plain and slow-moving—but it is the most factual and fair, the most intelligent, biography of Wright that I am aware of, and it allows future generations to inherit a Wright who is whole, at once man, thinker, and writer. Richard Wright was handsome, likable, and hardworking, with a voice that ranged from high to baritone, a man with the cool confidence of a jazz musician—he liked to talk and laugh and be with friends, who included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (One friend, Gertrude Stein, betrayed him by introducing him to a thief and then by refusing to acknowledge the theft of Wright’s property, which included penicillin for Wright’s daughter.) Wright was, surprisingly, a sexual swordsman who put his marriage to Ellen at risk. Rowley’s book is also interesting for addressing the rumors surrounding Wright’s death (CIA? Femme fatale?). Rowley investigates Wright’s medical treatment, which included the taking of bismuth for intestinal disorders, a prescription given by a doctor who made Wright’s friends uneasy. Oral bismuth was then popular in France, but would later be known to cause heavy-metal poisoning leading to kidney and liver failure.

Richard Wright’s legacy is a complex one—it is aesthetic, intellectual, and political. Intelligent interpretation is what Wright tried to provide in his own work, but not always what he received for his own efforts. Wright’s work was censored before publication—for instance the sexuality of Bigger Thomas was excised from Native Son, and after publication his work was sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented. A 1957 New York Times review of Wright’s White Man, Listen! called the book “argumentative, belligerent and often wrong-headed” and then went on to summarize how correct Wright was in many of his positions but reprimanded him for not understanding well-enough the threat of Communism (Wright, who joined then abandoned the Communist party). African-American novelist David Bradley in 1977’s Quest magazine said Wright seemed a “cold-blooded intellectual.” Feminists more recently have questioned his work’s treatment of women and his dismissal of Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, Wright was for himself and for others a one-man university system. Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, and other women writers acknowledged his active support of their early careers; and Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Gordon Parks admitted his influence, although Wright’s tying literature so closely to politics may have become a burden to subsequent writers.

“All of my life had shaped me to live by my own feelings and thoughts,” Wright wrote in Black Boy (p.298, HarperPerennial, 1993). Hazel Rowley’s necessary biography of Wright is preceded by other books on the life and work of Richard Wright, resources that can help to place the efforts of this controversial writer in the most comprehensive of contexts, such as The World of Richard Wright and Richard Wright: Books & Writers, both by Michel Fabre, and Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah, Voices of A Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright by Eugene E. Miller, Richard Wright by Robert Felgar, and Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Arnold Rampersad. Wright brought not merely heat but light; he was, as in the words of one of his own haikus (#647), a fire: “Burning out its time,/And timing its own burning,/One lonely candle.”

Excerpt from "Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals"

“Every time he thought he was going mad, he met somebody else who had already gone mad, but in a nice, sweet sort of way,” wrote Richard Wright about Cross Damon, faced with a woman allowing herself to become involved in a real estate scheme, in the novel The Outsider (HarperPerennial, 1993; 184). Wright was himself a man of intelligence and taste and, considering what he knew in the era in which he lived, his own sanity is nearly a miracle—except that we know his sanity was cultivated. Michel Fabre paid essayist, novelist, and poet Richard Wright significant respect by producing Richard Wright: Books and Writers (University Press of Mississippi, 1990), which provides an annotated bibliography of Wright’s library and also includes some of his sharp, quick-moving book reviews and other commentaries on literature. Richard Wright read the published (and sometimes unpublished) books of Peter Abrahams, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Austen, Balzac, Djuana Barnes, Joseph Conrad, Rene Descartes, John Dewey, John Dos Passos, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, Engels, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Forster, Freud, Gibbon, Gide, Goethe, Geoffrey Gorer, Gorky, Graham Greene, Knut Hamsun, Hardy, Hawthorne, Hegel, Heidegger, Hemingway, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Husserl, Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kinsey, George Lamming, D.H. Lawrence, Camara Laye, Alain Locke, George Moore, John O’Hara, George Padmore, Edgar Allan Poe, Proust, Pushkin, Rabelais and many, many more, famous and obscure. The important events in a writer’s life—his perceptions, ideas, and discoveries of the uses of various forms—are identified not by considering the people he slept with, fights he had, contracts he broke, or alcohol he drank, but by identifying the books he read and wrote. It was famously said that Richard Wright could imagine a Bigger Thomas (Native Son), but Bigger Thomas could not imagine a Richard Wright. (Wright himself starred in a mid-century film of Native Son as Bigger Thomas, directed by Pierre Chenal; and a subsequent film version of the novel, directed by Jerrold Freedman and starring Victor Love as Bigger, was released in 1986.) Richard Wright could claim the broadest human inheritance for himself because he was aware of its full dimensions; and he was surprised to learn how rare this knowledge was, and where, other than in art, it might be found. In White Man, Listen! he wrote, “It has been almost only among Asians and Africans of an artistic stamp and whose background has consisted of wars, revolutions, and harsh colonial experience that I’ve found a sense of the earth belonging to, and being the natural home of, all the men inhabiting it, an attitude that went well beyond skin color, races, parties, classes, and nations” (HarperPerennial, 1995; 25-26).

All texts (c) DG, 2001 and 2006