In This Article Richard Wright

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Archival Materials

American Literature Richard Wright
by
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0048

Introduction

The African American literary icon Richard Wright (b. 1908–d. 1960) began his life as the son of sharecroppers on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1908, but he managed to overcome the tremendous obstacles of racism and poverty and transform himself into an internationally famous writer by the time of his death in Paris in 1960. Wright traveled far from his origins in one of the most brutally racist regions of the country, and he achieved a level of success that his poorly educated father could scarcely have imagined. The geographical trajectory of his life took him first to Memphis as a teenager; then to Chicago, where he spent a decade of intense self-education; then to New York, where he secured his literary reputation; and finally to Paris, where he moved seeking a respite from American racism. His spatial movements were accompanied by parallel intellectual growth as he grappled with influences ranging from the Chicago school of sociology, to Marxism, to existentialism, to Pan-Africanism. Never doctrinaire about any particular belief, Wright developed a complex and changing understanding of the human condition. He vacillated between believing that personal freedom allowed individuals the opportunity to shape their own destinies with the more fatalistic awareness that one’s life chances were largely predetermined by external factors. Throughout his life he struggled to balance a strong sense of individualism with a desire to be a spokesperson for oppressed people, first specifically for African Americans, and then later for victims of racism and political oppression throughout the globe. Wright’s literary output was prolific. He began his career as a writer publishing poetry in left-wing publications, and he soon found himself at the center of an African American literary flowering that became known as the Chicago Renaissance. His growing reputation in communist literary circles earned him the position of director of the Harlem bureau of the Daily Worker in 1937. He first achieved national recognition for Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of novellas published in 1938. To this day, his most widely read and commented-on works, those that earned him his status as one of the most significant 20th-century American writers, remain his novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiography Black Boy (1945). However, despite spells of writer’s block, his most productive period of writing came after he left the United States in 1947. During that time, he published three more novels, three works of creative nonfiction, and a collection of essays, among other things. He also left behind hundreds of manuscript pages, some of which have been published posthumously.

General Overviews

As a self-described polemical writer who wished to use “words as weapons,” Wright’s political, sociological, and philosophical beliefs have been of great interest to students of his work. Brignano 1970 reads Wright’s works in order to better understand the author’s political and social philosophies. Kinnamon 1972 is interested in autobiographical influences in Wright’s writing as well as his role as a social critic. Fabre 1985 tackles an eclectic range of biographical and critical topics ranging from Wright’s reading habits to the influence of literary naturalism on his writing. Hakutani 1996 looks at Wright in relation to the genre of naturalism as well as existentialist philosophy. Periodically, critics have charged that an interest in the particulars of Wright’s biography, particularly his status as a member of an oppressed racial group, has caused many to read his writings from a more sociological than literary point of view. Studies such as Margolies 1969 and Miller 1990 pay close attention to the mechanics of Wright’s artistry. JanMohamed 2005 takes Wright scholarship beyond the discussion of Wright’s politics and his craft with an analysis of how the threat of death by racial violence shaped the ontology of Wright’s various protagonists. Ward 1986 comments that although theoretical concerns and approaches may have shifted over time, the same questions about ideology and aesthetics that animated the earliest Wright criticism have continued to be of interest to scholars ever since.

  • Brignano, Russell C. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brignano reads Wright’s work to trace his evolving and interrelated ideas about racism, Marxism, decolonization, and contemporaneous philosophy.

  • Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    This loosely aligned collection of twelve critical essays covers a broad scope of topics, ranging from an examination of Wright’s reading habits, to his attitudes toward the US South and France, to his work’s relationship to the genre of naturalism. The volume also contains previously unpublished writing by Wright in an appendix.

  • Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

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    Reads Wright’s work in comparison to Theodore Dreiser, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Camus, among others, showing how Wright was influenced by their works and by existential philosophy and literary naturalism but also exhibited originality. Most notable is the final chapter, which analyzes Wright’s haiku, which Hakutani says demonstrates Wright’s transcendent desire to connect with nature.

  • JanMohamed, Abdul R. The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822386629E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Wright’s major fictional characters are psychologically shaped by the fact that they live under the ever-constant threat of death by racial violence.

  • Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study in Literature and Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

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    Study of Wright’s life and work through 1947. Pays close attention to autobiographical influences on his choice of subject matter and contains both aesthetic evaluations of Wright’s prose and an analysis of the author’s effectiveness as a social critic.

  • Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Wright’s work should be analyzed for its artistry and not dismissed as merely “protest literature.” Craft, he claims, was important to Wright alongside the preeminent desire of the writer of protest fiction to inspire social change. Analyzes much of the corpus of Wright’s work, both nonfiction and fiction, with a particular emphasis on Wright’s interest in existentialism.

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

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    Probes Wright’s attempts to develop a theory of artistic expression, arguing that he was influenced by Kenneth Burke, Mark Twain, and other sources of inspiration not typically highlighted in Wright scholarship.

  • Ward, Jerry W., Jr. “The Wright Critical Paradigm: Facing a Future.” In Special Issue: Richard Wright. Edited by Maryemma Graham. Callaloo 28 (Summer 1986): 521–528.

    DOI: 10.2307/2930848E-mail Citation »

    Claims that the questions about the significance of Wright both as an artist and a social critic that engaged the first critics of Wright’s work are still relevant, and scholars must still ask how his “shifting ideology and aesthetic” produced work of enduring significance (p. 526).

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