Richard Wright: The Life and Times
by Hazel Rowley

(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001, x + 626 pp., $35.00)

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

How could Richard Wright, the first black American literary superstar, be so misconstrued by so many people over the course of decades? Not that everyone got Wright wrong, but certain themes (and works) have been lost and rediscovered with the changing times. (Wright's books from the '50s, having vanished into obscurity not long after publication, underwent a flurry of reprinting in the '90s, when his most prominent fiction was restored and published in two volumes of the Library of America, and Rite of Passage and Haiku were published for the first time.) Wright's apostleship of modernity, a fundamental theme recognized by Constance Webb and C.L.R. James in the '40s, was eclipsed with the '60s generation's regression to primitivism, only to be reborn in the '90s through such people as Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic. Under the postmodern intellectual dispensation, though, Wright is defamed or misrepresented up to the highest levels of academe; for example, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West. Wright's rootless cosmopolitanism, militant individualism, secularism, and iconoclasm have rendered him, in whole or part, unacceptable to 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.

The genre of Wright biography, too, manifests diversity, from the compelling novelistic style of Constance Webb's empathetic portrayal, to Michel Fabre's professional scholarship, to Margaret Walker's tendentious hatchet-job. Now we have Hazel Rowley's Richard Wright: The Life and Times, the most thoroughly researched biography to date, which will serve as the indispensable foundation for all future scholarship on Wright's life.

The Wright biographer faces a daunting dilemma: how to extrapolate, from the documentary record of events, combined with observations on Wright's character by self and others, a coherent understanding of the inner man, and connect and compare both with the actual literary work?

Rowley's biography is not a work of literary criticism, though her own prose, including her summaries of several of Wright's works, is vivid and engrossing. 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. Without any schooling in literature, he published his first story as a teenager. Always resistant to religion, he risked a whipping in school for denying God's ability to make rain. 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. Scratching for a living by day, at night he read Marcel Proust. 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. Wright 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.

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. He also has a way with the ladies. There is more detail here about his affairs with women than in anything else I have read. All 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 on the national scene 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 girl friend: his character was viewed as presenting 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 himself scorned the whole 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). Native Son became so successful that it was turned into a stage play, which proved to be quite an ordeal. Aside from the infighting in the Houseman-Welles production, Wright had to wrangle with his well-intentioned but overly saccharine white co-writer, Paul Green.

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. 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.

Wright achieved further milestones as a writer, including 12,000,00 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. Plus Wright was forced to cut explicit sexual references. He was even prodded to add a more positive, patriotic ending, which he would not do. When Black Boy came out in 1945, it caused an immediate sensation on par with Native Son. This time Du Bois, who had defended the latter, condemned Black Boy for its unrelenting negativity.

A combination of circumstances propelled Wright to think about leaving the country. Wright 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 turned unfavorable 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.

As I see a turning point here, I want to sum things up. Wright was repeatedly warned before he left the USA that he would suffer as a writer separated from his American roots. Finishing writing projects and finding time for writing were always problems, but in Europe he was overdue for a new book. As for marriage, when Wright first contemplated the subject and then became engaged more than once at the end of the 1930s, it seems he was impulsive and did not have a clear-eyed conception of what to expect. His first marriage to Dhimah was a short-lived, miserable failure. Yet his marriage with Ellen lasted, and seems to have been stable, in spite of Wright's affairs with other women. His eternal restlessness and abrupt initiation into a foreign culture notwithstanding, Wright seems to have been reasonably well-adjusted in France for a time. Ultimately he grew dissatisfied and highly conscious of himself as an alien.

Once he made the trip to Argentina in 1949 to make a film of Native Son, in which he starred as Bigger Thomas, his judgment seems to have become seriously impaired. His behavior is not explained. The conditions under which Wright made the film were miserable, his script butchered the original story, he was certainly not fit to play Bigger, and the film was censored before it was shown in America and Europe. Wright seems to have lost all judgment in making this travesty.

In Argentina Wright turned against his family, beginning with Ellen. He blamed Ellen for messing up his life and keeping him from writing. He took up with Madelyn Jackson and travelled everywhere with her. He even became distant from his children by the time he returned home.

His behavior was positively bizarre when in 1953 he travelled to the Gold Coast (to become Ghana upon independence). His pompous, insincere, and schizoid relationship to Kwame Nkrumah and Ghanaian politics is unaccountable, as well as his behavior toward the people. Africa was alien to him; as a Westerner he was hostile to its traditions and customs, but his blustering behavior was just not savvy for a guest in the country. In Black Power, which resulted from this trip, and the first of his travel books, Wright recommended to Nkrumah the militarization of Ghanaian society as the sole means of making it fit for the modern world, contrary to Wright's normal aversion to dictatorship. Yet Wright was so distrustful of Nkrumah and of the possibility of Soviet Communist influence in his party, Wright clandestinely informed on Nkrumah to the U.S. State Department, which was otherwise Wright's enemy.

Rowley makes plain the strangeness of Wright's actions but attempts no explanation. It looks like Wright lost his third way at this point. 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. This shows how precarious the choices were in the Cold War '50s.

Not surprisingly, there were contrary reactions to Black Power. Among the black left, Wright's pan-Africanist friend George Padmore approved of the book, while Du Bois hated it.

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. Wright also produces a significant essay collection, White Man, Listen!

Now we must backtrack to 1953, when Wright publishes his "Existentialist" novel The Outsider, his first book since 1945 and leaving the U.S. From the original draft to the published novel, it seems as if everyone hated The Outsider. While it is claimed that the rougher draft version spilled over with ponderous passages, it is still amazing how the people closest to Wright disdained it. Ellen hated the draft. Nobody liked the published version either. Simone de Beauvoir, whose pioneering feminist book The Second Sex was influenced by Wright's earlier work, thought The Outsider was meaningless and stupid. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin dismissed it. Writer and former friend Nelson Algren, whose friends of late were mostly junkies, made a very revealing remark: Wright should not have tried to write like an intellectual, as he writes from his belly. Everyone thought the book a manifestation of second-rate Existentialist pseudo-intellectualism; nobody got the point.

Yet I read the Library of America version of the novel, and I could not put it down. While the main characters are not completely believable and some of the action is contrived to illustrate political points, the novel is not only a great read but it is crystal clear in delineating the historic dilemma that Wright saw in the political and social landscape of the early Cold War. He portrayed in the harshest terms the precarious position of the individual in a cutthroat society. This was not just cut-rate Existentialism.

This theme is often echoed: Wright wrote (or should have written) viscerally, not like an intellectual. It is one of a host of fundmental misunderstandings. Constance Webb (no doubt in conjunction with influences from C.L.R. James) grasped Wright's evolving framework in the 1940s. In the 1990s Paul Gilroy helped to set the record straight on The Outsider and on the significance of Wright's downgraded writings of the 1950s.

Another supposition, recurring to this day, is that Wright was consumed with rage, that his writing was an outpouring of rage. James Baldwin thought that accounted for the surfeit of violence in Wright's fiction. Rowley sticks to the record here too, quoting Wright to the effect that "all writing is a secret form of autobiography." Yet this purported explanation falls short, and also undervalues Wright as an intellectual and neglects the dimension of writing as a focused, imaginative act. Wright was essentially an iconoclast, a breaker of taboos, a revealer of concealed dimensions of experience, a man who relentlessly concentrated on the negative as a critic of life and a seeker of solutions. Naturally, a man who suffered a traumatic past and remains disquieted may be assumed to be damming up a sea of frustration, and so there is the persistent speculation on the marvel of Wright's external congeniality in contrast with his violent imagination. Had he not become an intellectual, Wright could have been a Bigger, yet Wright as an imaginative mediator, whose writing always demonstrates a propensity to distance himself from the immediacy of his circumstances, is more complex than a man just driven by bottled-up hostility.

Why is Wright so presumptuously underestimated in so many ways? (Another is reducing him to the level of a naturalistic or protest writer.) 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 other 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. Of course Wright was 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.

There is one further question not addressed by Rowley. We know that Wright enjoyed a wide variety of relationships with people of the most diverse backgrounds, and intellectuals of all types, in both America and Europe. He closely consulted with his white friend Jane Newton while working on Native Son. Aside from the nuts and bolts of writing fiction he mulled over with other writers, he also had the opportunity to discuss ideas with a variety of people. Yet we are left with the question, how solitary was Wright's mind, ultimately? No matter how badly written The Outsider may have been initially, something is surely amiss if nobody could divine what Wright was up to. Did he ever find the person he needed who could adequately respond to the ideas that most mattered to him?

Before concluding, let us first wrap up the rest of Wright's life in the 1950s. The FBI first put Wright under surveillance during the war. After he left the USA, Wright continued to be bitterly outspoken against American racism, which would not do for America's image during the Cold War. The CIA kept close tabs on Wright. 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 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 always had trouble negotiating his anti-communism. While in principle opposed to professional anti-communism, he consented to be included in Richard Crossman's The God That Failed. Sometimes Wright's fear of the Communists in the USA or in the colonial world approached the pathological. By the end of the 1950s, his anti-Americanism had grown to the point where, in an unexpected turnabout, he vehemently rejected all communist-baiting, even denouncing Crossman.

The novel Savage Holiday, Wright's first with no black characters, was dead on arrival. The Long Dream did not fare much better. A collection of short stories, Eight Men, had better prospects. 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.)

Wright's last years were beset with troubles. Though he never divorced Ellen, their marriage was obviously defunct. He began to experience money problems. Once he took ill, he became more solitary, and his relationships with his female friends and lovers began to sour. Eventually, Julia was reunited with him and looked after him. 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's last visitor was Langston Hughes. Wright died under ambiguous circumstances in 1960. Among people close to Wright opinion is still divided on whether there was foul play.

Wright's last speech, "The Position of the Negro Artist and Intellectual in American Society," was exceptionally bitter. Wright depicted a nightmarish world in which whites who wanted to destroy blacks found other blacks to pit against them. The scarcity of positions for blacks in the limelight induced nasty and deadly rivalries. At some unknown date Wright wrote a letter in which he expressed his aversion to reviewing books by black Americans. He added: "The Negro intellectual world in America is small and protectively glued together like a can of squirming worms, and any objective criticisms directed toward any one of them is accepted as having been hurled at all of them." Wright was not a man who could take being boxed in. Not only backward Mississippi, but the world as it was, was too small for a man like him.

Wright's uncompromising individualism combined with ruthless pursuit of the unflattering truth sets him in a class by himself among his peers, in this respect outstripping W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Ralph Ellison. On a world 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?

10 January 2002

© 2002 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

This draft was considerably revised and re-organized for publication. While a few details were added, I had to cut out some of the factual detail and much of my commentary, especially on other Wright scholarship. Here is the bibliographical information with a link to the published version:

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.

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