“The Man Who Lived Underground”

by Richard Wright

Annotated Select Bibliography by Ralph Dumain

SOURCE: Wright, Richard. Eight Men, with an introduction by Paul Gilroy (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), pp. 19-84. (Book originally published 1961. Final version of story originally published in 1945. First of several drafts written in 1942. Early version of the story published in 1942.)

Secondary Literature

Miller, Eugene E. Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

This is one of my favorite books on Wright. The author ventures into some eccentricities, in the process of linking Wright to voodoo, Twain, Reich, et al, but the material—especially unpublished manuscripts—that Miller analyzes is priceless. Wright negotiates the relationship between folk consciousness and his highly developed individual consciousness. Though vehemently rejecting the superstitious religious mind, Wright finds "something"—beyond religion—in the psyches of black Americans, Africans, and all primal peoples, a sensibility he strives to elucidate, from his early writing to his final engagement with haiku. "The Man Who Lived Underground" (MWLU) is central to this book, as is Wright's unpublished essay "Memories of My Grandmother." Wright's engagement with literary modernism, the avant-garde, surrealism, and other non-naturalistic literary modes is crystallized in an unpublished manuscript "Personalism" (1935-7), revealing a sophisticated perspective foreign to the prescribed proletarian literature of the time.

In-depth analysis of MWLU is concentrated in chapters 4 and 5, continues to some extent in chapter 6 where is merges into a comparison to Mark Twain (See esp. p. 160 to end of chapter), and surfaces in a discussion of Kenneth Burke in chapter 7. Of key importance is Miller's examination of Wright's much longer unpublished drafts of MWLU. Central themes discussed are guilt (100-109), death (110-113), Daniels as a Christ-like figure (115-118), the ongoing war with fascism (119-120), race (120-122), and Promethean rebellion (122-124). Chapter 5 concentrates on psychology (Freud and Jung).

Brignano, Russell Carl. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), pp. 148-155. Discussion of "The Man Who Lived Underground."

In spite of Wright's preoccupation with extremes of fear, violence, and degradation, he has an optimistic streak which can be found in most of his writing, even in the grim conclusions of works such as Native Son and The Outsider. This story, however, is the exception. Perhaps mirroring his imminent break with the Communist Party, here we find Wright at a nadir of pessimism. Shorn of a political perspective, the bleak existential theme takes over, in a world without redemption.

Peterson, Dale E. Richard Wright's Long Journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky - Maxim Gorky and Fyodor Dostoevsky, African American Review, Fall, 1994.

An important article. Note:

“Gorky and Wright are the two modern writers who most inconvenience the cultural separatists and sentimental populists among their own people. No two major writers were raised closer to the folk who had recently risen from bondage, and yet both Gorky and Wright rejected the vestiges of the traditional peasant cultures of survival that had spawned them.(1) Both writers carried the large psychic burden of the inside outsider, ever seeking to account for the source of the rage and removal that made them so different. Ultimately the pressure of Gorky's "bitter" knowledge forced him to imagine and then to help canonize the positive hero of socialist realism, the universal proletarian who would replace the ex-peasant has-beens (byvshie liudi) of his early fiction. But Richard Wright's black-and-blue sensibility, the pain of his profoundly alienated and wounded individuality, eventually led him away from Gorky's faith in collectivist culture and social engineering. Sometime around 1942 Richard Wright began to risk a desperate transcendentalism, an absurd Dostoevskian faith in solitary leaps of consciousness that prefigured the later existential humanism of his expatriate years in France.”

Cappetti, Carla. Black Orpheus: Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" - Critical Essay, Melus, Winter 2001.

Some important intertextual analysis, viz. Dostoevsky, Conrad, et al. Note comparisons to Lukacs, Benjamin. Author agrees with Gilroy against misrepresentations of Wright's engagement with European ideas. Reaches back to Native Son, ahead to Black Boy and The Outsider. Author also sees this story as a critique of the nihilistic literary/artistic avant-garde, the lone modernist. Fred Daniels falls out of culture and its accepted values into nature. Daniels holed up in his cave becomes the avant-garde artist, also witnessing the nihilistic destruction of World War II. He morphs from contempt for the people in the outer world to sympathy. Hence, after subverting acepted values, he also rejects his new, amoral perspective of the alienated artist. In the end, Daniels rejects both rationalism and irrationalism. Daniels, unlike his counterpart in Conrad, cannot articulate his new perspective to the outside world upon his return. But this story remains more hopeful.

There is much worth considering in this perspective, but there are some major flaws in it. At no point does Daniels evince control or awareness as to the true nature of his situation. He does experience a turning point when his conscience is troubled after uniwttingly causing the suicide of the night watchman. Guilt, his own and everyone's, becomes his overriding preoccupation. He returns to the aboveground world to confess. It proves to be a futile exercise. Daniels never gains a new perspective transcending that of society or of the hallucinatory reality of his underground experience. The author also fails to characterize the nature of Daniels' experience underground, in which he gets a chance to appropriate the white world in an unreal manner.

Watkins, Patricia. "The Paradoxical Structure of Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground.'" Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 767-83. (JSTOR URL)

Excellent article, starting from the premise—allegedly foreign to much criticism — that the story must be read as both a naturalistic and an existential fable. Fred Daniels undergoes a Christlike experiences in a godless world, navigates between ordinary and existential guilt, assumes an amoral godlike stance underground, which he ultimately rejects. Watkins concludes that "that man is not simply a god in the existential sense or an animal in the naturalistic sense; nor is man's existence the existence of a god or an animal." Man's paradoxical existence is mirrored in the naturalistic and symbolic levels on which this story is played out.

Watson, Adam. Fred Daniels as Christ Noir: The Shadow-Savior Imagery of "The Man Who Lived Underground". 2003.

Watson sees Daniels as a Christ figure who rejects American "materialism" and capitalism. This is a defective analysis. There is almost merit to the analogy, but Daniels' behavior in and out of the sewer belies the comparison.

Young, Joseph A. Phenomenology and textual power in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" - Critical Essay, Melus, Winter 2001.

Sophisticated tomfoolery.

Anderson, Thea. Blurring Boundaries: The Role of the Trickster in Zamyatin’s We and Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground.

Nice try, but useless.

Mayberry, Susan Neal. ‘Symbols in the Sewer: A Symbolic Renunciation of Symbols in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground", ’ South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54, No. 1, Jan. 1989, pp. 71-83. (JSTOR URL)

The story has been analyzed from a number of viewpoints and the journey of Fred Daniels has a number of literary precedents. Story themes discussed are laughter, guilt, the reversal of values of material and symbolic objects, reemergence into the daylight, and the policeman's murder of Daniels.

Gilyard, Keith. “The Sociolinguistics of Underground Blues,” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 158-159. (JSTOR URL)

Following up on Houston Baker's work, Gilyard finds the role of language central to Wright's story.

Miller, Eugene E. “Richard Wright, Community, and the French Connection,” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal (TCL), vol. 41, no. 3, Fall 1995, pp. 265-80. (JSTOR URL)

Miller argues for a significant influence of Henri Barbusse on Wright's work, most extensively in MWLU.

McNallie, Robin. ‘Richard Wright's Allegory of the Cave: "The Man Who Lived Underground",’ South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 76-84. (JSTOR URL)

Critical scrutiny of this story has been cursory at best. McNallie not only cites the usually cited influences on Wright (esp. Dostoevsky) but analyzes the story as an inverted version of Plato's allegory of the cave.

Ridenour, Ronald. ‘"The Man Who Lived Underground": A Critique,’ Phylon, Vol. 31, No. 1., 1st Quarter, 1970, pp. 54-57. (JSTOR URL)

The author deplores the neglect and undervaluation of Wright's short fiction. As do other critics, this one sees Fred Daniels as the next step beyond Bigger Thomas. Daniels gains an inner knowledge the world does not want to know.

Meyer, Shirley. ‘The Identity of "The Man Who Lived Underground",’ Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 1970, pp. 52-55. (JSTOR URL)

Elementary analysis with quotes.

Gounard, J. F. “Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground": A Literary Analysis,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, March 1978, pp. 381-386. (JSTOR URL)

Extremely elementary summary and analysis.

Fabre, Michel. “From Tabloid to Myth: 'The Man Who Lived Underground,” in The World of Richard Wright (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1985), pp. 93-107. (Questia account required)


Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

Notes from the Underground
in English translation

Notes from the Underground” in White Nights and Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1918)

The Project Gutenberg Etext Notes from the Underground

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Project Gutenberg Audio Book

Notes from Underground - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground": Notes for Discussion by R. Dumain

Richard Wright Study Guide

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide


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