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Richard N. Wright     

Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was an African-American author of powerful, sometimes controversial novels, short stories and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerned racial themes. His work helped redefine discussions of race relations in America in the mid-20th century.

Wright, the grandson of a slave, was born on the Rucker plantation in Adams County, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez. His family soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, his father Nathaniel, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family. His mother, a schoolteacher, had to support herself and her children.

In 1914 Ella Wright became ill, and the two brothers were sent to Settlement House, a Methodist orphanage. The mother then moved with her children to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with relatives. In Jackson, Wright grew up and attended public high school.

In 1916, Wright, his brother, and their mother returned to Mississippi, moving in with Margaret Wilson, Wright’s grandmother. Later, the family moved in with Wright’s aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas, but left after whites murdered Wright’s uncle so the family fled to West Helena, Arkansas, where they lived in fear in rented rooms for several weeks.

Mrs. Wright took the boys to Jackson, Mississippi, for several months in 1917, but they returned to West Helena by the winter of 1918. Further family disintegration occurred after Mrs. Wright suffered a stroke in 1919. Wright reluctantly chose to live with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he could be near his mother, but restrictions placed on him by his aunt and uncle made him an emotional wreck.

On the verge of a nervous breakdown, he was permitted to return to Jackson, where he lived with Grandmother Wilson from early 1920 until late 1925. Wright felt stifled by his aunt and his maternal grandmother, who tried to force him to pray that he might find God. He later threatened to leave home because Grandmother Wilson refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath.

Early strife with his aunt and grandmother left him with a permanent, uncompromising hostility toward religious solutions to mundane problems. At the age of fifteen, Wright penned his first story, 'The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre'. It was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper.

In 1923 Wright was made class valedictorian. Determined not to be called an Uncle Tom, he refused to deliver the assistant principal's carefully prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officials and finally convinced the black administrators to let him read essentially what he had written.

In September of the same year Wright registered for mathematics, English, and history courses at the new Lanier High School in Jackson but had to stop attending classes after a few weeks of irregular attendance because he needed to earn money for family expenses. In Mississippi he formed some lasting impressions of American racism before moving back to Memphis in 1925.

Wright moved to Chicago in 1927. After finally securing employment as a postal clerk, he read other writers and studied their styles during his time off. When his job at the post office was eliminated by the Great Depression, he was forced to go on relief in 1931. In 1932 he began attending meetings of the John Reed Club.

As the club was dominated by the Communist Party, Wright established a relationship with a number of party members. Especially interested in the literary contacts made at the meetings, Wright formally joined the Communist party in late 1933 and as a revolutionary poet wrote numerous proletarian poems ("I Have Seen Black Hands," "We of the Streets," "Red Leaves of Red Books," for example) for New Masses and other left-wing periodicals. A power struggle within the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club led to the dissolution of the club's leadership; Wright was told he had the support of the club's party members if he was willing to join the party.

By 1935, Wright had completed his first novel, "Cesspool," published as Lawd Today (1963), and in January 1936 his story "Big Boy Leaves Home" was accepted for publication in New Caravan.

In February Wright began working with the National Negro Congress, and in April he chaired the South Side Writers' Group, whose membership included Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker. Wright submitted some of his critical essays and poetry to the group for criticism and read aloud some of his short stories. In 1936, he was also revising "Cesspool." Through the club, Wright edited Left Front, a magazine that the Communist Party shut down in 1937, despite Wright's repeated protests.

Throughout this period, Wright also contributed to the New Masses magazine. While Wright was at first pleased by positive relations with white Communists in Chicago, he was later humiliated in New York City by some who rescinded an offer to find housing for Wright because of his race. To make matters worse, some black Communists denounced the articulate, polished Wright as a bourgeois intellectual, assuming he was well educated and overly assimilated into white society. However, he was largely auto-didactic after having been forced to end his public education after the completion of grammar school.

Wright's insistence that young communist writers be given space to cultivate their talents and his working relationship with a black nationalist communist led to a public falling out with the party and the leading African-American communist Buddy Nealson. Wright was threatened at knife point by fellow-traveler coworkers, denounced as a Trotskyite in the street by strikers and physically assaulted by former comrades when he tried to join them during the 1936 May Day march.

In 1937, Richard Wright moved to New York, where he forged new ties with Communist Party members there after getting established. He worked on the WPA Writers’ Project guidebook to the city, New York Panorama (1938), and wrote the book’s essay on Harlem.

Wright became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker. He was happy that during his first year in New York all of his activities involved writing of some kind. In the summer and fall he wrote over two hundred articles for the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine New Challenge. The year was also a landmark for Wright because he met and developed a friendship with Ralph Ellison that would last for years, and he learned that he would receive the Story magazine first prize of five hundred dollars for his short story "Fire and Cloud."

After Wright received the Story magazine prize in early 1938, he shelved his manuscript of Lawd Today and dismissed his literary agent, John Troustine. He hired Paul Reynolds, the well-known agent of Paul Laurence Dunbar, to represent him. Meanwhile, the Story Press offered Harper all of Wright's prize-entry stories for a book, and Harper agreed to publish them.

Wright gained national attention for the collection of four short stories titled Uncle Tom's Children (1938). He based some stories on lynching in the Deep South.

The publication and favorable reception of Uncle Tom's Children improved Wright's status with the Communist party and enabled him to establish a reasonable degree of financial stability.

He was appointed to the editorial board of New Masses, and Granville Hicks, prominent literary critic and Communist sympathizer, introduced him at leftist teas in Boston. By May 6, 1938 excellent sales had provided him with enough money to move to Harlem, where he began writing Native Son (1940). The collection also earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first novel Native Son (1940).

Native Son was selected by the Book of the Month Club as its first book by an African-American author. The lead character, Bigger Thomas, represented limitations that society placed on African Americans. He could only gain his own agency and self-knowledge by committing heinous acts. Wright was criticized for his works' concentration on violence. In the case of Native Son, people complained that he portrayed a black man in ways that seemed to confirm whites' worst fears.

The period following publication of Native Son was a busy time for Wright. In July 1940 he went to Chicago to do research for the text for a folk history of blacks to accompany photographs selected by Edwin Rosskam. While in Chicago he visited the American Negro Exhibition with Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and Claude McKay. He then went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he and Paul Green collaborated on a dramatic version of Native Son.

In January 1941 Wright received the prestigious Spingarn Medal for noteworthy achievement by a black. Native Son opened on Broadway, with Orson Welles as director, to generally favorable reviews in March 1941.

Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States was published in October 1941 to wide critical acclaim. Wright was renowned for his autobiographical Black Boy (1945), which described his early life from Roxie through his move to Chicago, his clashes with his Seventh-day Adventist family, his troubles with white employers and social isolation. American Hunger, published posthumously in 1977, was originally intended as the second volume of Black Boy. The Library of America edition restored it to that form. This book detailed Wright's involvement with the John Reed Clubs and the Communist Party, which he left in 1942. The book implied he left earlier, but his withdrawal was not publicized until 1944.

In the volumes' restored form, the diptych structure compared the certainties and intolerance of organized communism, the "bourgeois" books and condemned members, with similar qualities in fundamentalist organized religion. Wright disapproved of the purges in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Wright continued to believe in far-left democratic solutions to political problems. Due to McCarthyism, Wright was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio executives in the 1950s.

Wright moved to Paris in 1946, and became a permanent American expatriate. In Paris, he became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

His Existentialist phase was depicted in his second novel, The Outsider (1953), which described an African-American character's involvement with the Communist Party in New York. In the book acclaimed as the first American existential novel, Wright warned that the black man had awakened in a disintegrating society not ready to include him.

In 1954 he published a minor novel, Savage Holiday. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, Wright continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa. These experiences were the basis of numerous nonfiction works.

One was Black Power (1954), a commentary on the emerging nations of Africa. In 1949, Wright contributed to the anti-communist anthology The God That Failed; his essay had been published in the Atlantic Monthly three years earlier and was derived from the unpublished portion of Black Boy. He was invited to join the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which he rejected, correctly suspecting that it had connections with the CIA. The CIA and FBI had Wright under surveillance from 1943.

In 1955, Wright visited Indonesia for the Bandung Conference and recorded his observations in The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Wright was upbeat about the possibilities posed by this meeting between recently oppressed nations. Other works by Richard Wright included White Man, Listen! (1957); a novel The Long Dream in 1958; as well as a collection of short stories Eight Men, published after his death in 1961.

His works primarily dealt with the poverty, anger, and protests of northern and southern urban black Americans. His agent, Paul Reynolds sent overwhelmingly negative criticism of Wright's four-hundred page "Island of Hallucinations" manuscript in February 1959. Despite that, in March Wright outlined a novel in which Fish was to be liberated from his racial conditioning and become a dominating character.

By May 1959, Wright wanted to leave Paris and live in London. He felt French politics had become increasingly submissive to American pressure. The peaceful Parisian atmosphere he had enjoyed had been shattered by quarrels and attacks instigated by enemies of the expatriate black writers.

On June 26, 1959, after a party marking the French publication of White Man, Listen! Wright became ill, victim of a virulent attack of amoebic dysentery probably contracted during his stay on the Gold Coast. By November 1959 his wife had found a London apartment, but Wright's illness and "four hassles in twelve days" with British immigration officials ended his desire to live in England.

On February 19, 1960 Wright learned from Reynolds that the New York premiere of the stage adaptation of The Long Dream received such bad reviews that the adapter, Ketti Frings, had decided to cancel other performances. Meanwhile, Wright was running into additional problems trying to get The Long Dream published in France. These setbacks prevented his finishing revisions of Island of Hallucinations, which he needed to get a commitment from Doubleday.

In June 1960, Wright recorded a series of discussions for French radio dealing primarily with his books and literary career. He also covered the racial situation in the United States and the world, and specifically denounced American policy in Africa. In late September, to cover extra expenses for his daughter Julia's move from London to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, Wright wrote blurbs for record jackets for Nicole Barclay, director of the largest record company in Paris.

In spite of his financial straits, Wright refused to compromise his principles. He declined to participate in a series of programs for Canadian radio because he suspected American control over the programs. For the same reason, Wright rejected an invitation from the Congress for Cultural Freedom to go to India to speak at a conference in memory of Leo Tolstoy.

Still interested in literature, Wright helped Kyle Onstott get Mandingo (1957) published in France. His last display of explosive energy occurred on November 8, 1960 in his polemical lecture, "The Situation of the Black Artist and Intellectual in the United States," delivered to students and members of the American Church in Paris. Wright argued that American society reduced the most militant members of the black community to slaves whenever they wanted to question the racial status quo. He offered as proof the subversive attacks of the Communists against Native Son and the quarrels which James Baldwin and other authors sought with him.

On November 26, 1960 Wright talked enthusiastically about Daddy Goodness with Langston Hughes and gave him the manuscript. Wright contracted Amoebic dysentery on a visit to Africa in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health deteriorated over the next three years.
He died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 52. He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. However, Wright's daughter Julia claimed that her father was murdered.

A number of Wright's works have been published posthumously. Some of Wright's more shocking passages dealing with race, sex, and politics were cut or omitted before original publication.

In 1991, unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy, and his other works were published. In addition, his novella Rite of Passage was published in 1994 for the first time. In the last years of his life, Richard Wright became enamored with the Japanese poetry form haiku and he wrote over 4,000.

In 1998 a book was published ("Haiku: This Other World") with 817 haiku which he preferred. A collection of Wright's travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, was published by the Mississippi University Press in 2001.

At his death, Wright left an unfinished book, A Father's Law. It dealt with a black policeman and the son he suspected of murder. Wright's daughter Julia Wright published A Father's Law in January 2008.

Wright's books published during the 1950s disappointed some critics, who said that his move to Europe alienated him from American blacks then separated him from his emotional and psychological roots. Many of Wright’s works failed to satisfy the rigid standards of the New Criticism. During the 1950s Wright grew more internationalist in outlook. While he accomplished much as an important public literary and political figure with a worldwide reputation, his very creative work did decline.

Wright's influence was revived in the 1960's. With the growth of the militant black consciousness movement, there came a resurgence of interest in Wright's work. It is generally agreed that Wright's influence in Native Son is a not a matter of literary style or technique. His impact, rather, has been on ideas and attitudes, and his work has been a force in the social and intellectual history of the United States in the last half of the twentieth century. "Wright was one of the people who made me conscious of the need to struggle," offers writer Amiri Baraka.

During the 1970s and 1980s scholars published critical essays about Wright in prestigious journals. Richard Wright conferences were held on university campuses from Mississippi to New Jersey. A new film version of Native Son, with a screenplay by Richard Wesley, was released in December 1986. Certain Wright novels became required reading in a number of American universities and colleges.

Recent critics have called for a reassessment of Wright's later work in view of his philosophical project. Notably, Paul Gilroy has argued that "the depth of his philosophical interests has been either overlooked or misconceived by the almost exclusively literary enquiries that have dominated analysis of his writing. "His most significant contribution, however, was his desire to accurately portray blacks to white readers, thereby destroying the white myth of the patient, humorous, subservient black man.

While some of his work is weak and unsuccessful especially that completed within the last three years of his life—his best work will continue to attract readers. His three masterpieces Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy—are a crowning achievement for him and for American literature.

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