Richard Wright (b. 1908–d. 1960) is regarded today as one of the most important African American writers. Not only was his life and work influential in African American life, but Wright has also been accorded status as a major modern American writer, ranked with such greats as Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. In discussing the importance of Richard Wright, Irving Howe, the eminent modern critic, said, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” “No matter how much qualifying the book might later need,” Howe observed, “it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture” (A World More Attractive, 1963, pp. 100–101). It would appear, from the intensive commentary of the half century since Wright published his earliest works, that the significance of his writings comes not so much from his technique and style, but from the particular impact his ideas and attitudes have made on American life. To assess his achievements in such terms would require a broad study, not only of his art, but also of the social and cultural backgrounds of his work. His early critics’ first consideration was of race. They were unanimous in the view that if Wright had not been black his work would not have been so significant. As his vision of the world extended beyond the United States, his quest for solutions expanded from the problems of race to those of politics and economics in the emerging Third World. Finally, his long exile in France gave his national and international concerns a universal dimension. Indeed, Wright’s development was marked by an ability to respond to the currents of the social and intellectual history of his time. Wright was a remarkably resilient thinker and writer. His successes are beyond dispute, his failures understandable. He has fascinated not only literary critics, but also philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and historians. Though some of his works did not fit in with the rigid standards of literary criticism, his evolution as a writer has enlightened readers the world over. In the mid-20th century, the New Criticism was in vogue, and critics were more interested in a writer’s artistry than ideas. Literary criticism in this period demanded that texts be analyzed and interpreted in terms of the writing within the text without reference to the personal and historical backgrounds of the writer. Michel Fabre is right in speculating that toward the end of his life, Wright “was once again going through a period of ideological change which, had its course been completed, might have caused him to start writing in a new vein. It is highly probable the civil rights and Black Power movements would have given him a second wind, had he lived another five years” (Fabre 1973, p. 526—cited under An American Life, 1908–1945: Overviews).
An American Life, 1908–1945
Wright’s early life was filled with strife and struggles caused by racism, which was rampant in American society. He was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on 4 September 1908, the first child of Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson, a school teacher and assistant to a white physician. All of his grandparents were born in slavery. His father was born shortly before 1880, the son of Nathaniel Wright, a freed slave who farmed a plot of land he had been given at the end of the Civil War. His maternal grandfather, Richard Wilson, served in the United States Navy in 1865, then became disillusioned because of a bureaucratic error that deprived him of his pension. Wright’s maternal grandmother. of Irish, Scottish, Native American, and African descent, was virtually white in appearance. A house slave before Emancipation, she later became a midwife nurse, a devoted Seventh-day Adventist, and the strict head of her household, which included eight surviving children. Wright’s childhood was saddened because his father deserted his family to live with another woman, leaving them impoverished. The young Wright was always hungry, but he was interested in reading and writing, pursuits encouraged by his literate mother. She suffered a stroke and he was forced to leave school to earn money doing odd jobs. Despite the hardship he endured, he kept up reading and writing. In the winter of 1924, barely nineteen years old, he wrote his first short story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” in the Jackson Southern Register. Wright worked for the American Optical Company, cleaning the workshop and making deliveries. In the fall of 1924 he entered the ninth grade at Smith Robertson Junior High School, and he graduated as valedictorian in May 1925. He rejected the graduation speech prepared for him by the principal and instead delivered his own, “The Attributes of Life.” After the graduation, he worked as a delivery boy, sales clerk, hotel hallboy, and bellboy, and in a movie theater. He began classes at the newly founded Lanier High School in the fall, but quit a few weeks later and left Jackson for Memphis, Tennessee. He worked for low pay as a dishwasher and delivery boy and at the Merry Optical Company, as told in Black Boy. Though working long hours, he read widely in Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The American Mercury, and other magazines.
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