One of America’s greatest
black writers, Richard Wright was also among the first African American
writers to achieve literary fame and fortune, but his reputation
has less to do with the color of his skin than with the superb quality
of his work. He was born and spent the first years of his life on
a plantation, not far from the affluent city of Natchez on the Mississippi
River, but his life as the son of an illiterate sharecropper was
far from affluent. Though he spent only a few years of his life
in Mississippi, those years would play a key role in his two most
important works: Native Son, a novel, and his autobiography,
Richard Wright was born on a plantation
near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. His father, Nathaniel,
was an illiterate sharecropper and his mother, Ella Wilson, was
a well-educated school teacher. The family’s extreme poverty forced
them to move to Memphis when Richard was six years old. Soon after,
his father left the family for another woman and his mother was
forced to work as a cook in order to support the family. Richard
briefly stayed in an orphanage during this period as well. His mother
became ill while living in Memphis, so the family moved to Jackson,
Mississippi, and lived with Ella’s mother.
Richard’s grandmother, a devout
Seventh Day Adventist, enrolled him in a Seventh Day Adventist school
near Jackson at the age of twelve. He also attended a local public
school for a few years. In the spring of 1924 the Southern Register,
a local black newspaper, printed his first story, “The Voodoo
of Hell’s Half Acre.” From 1925 to 1927, he worked several
menial jobs in Jackson and Memphis. During this time he continued
writing and discovered the works of H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser,
and Sinclair Lewis.
In 1927 he moved to Chicago, where
he became a Post Office clerk until the Great Depression forced
him to take on various temporary positions. During this time he
became involved with the Communist Party, writing articles and stories
for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. In April
1931 he published his first major story, “Superstition,” in Abbot’s
His ties to the Communist Party
continued after moving to New York in 1937. He became the Harlem
editor of the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived
literary magazine, New Challenge. In 1938 four of his stories
were collected as Uncle Tom’s Children. He then received
a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his first
novel, Native Son (1940). In 1939, he married Dhimah Rose
Meadman, a white dancer, but the two separated shortly thereafter.
In 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist
Party, and they had two daughters, Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.
In 1944 he broke with the Communist Party
but continued to follow liberal ideologies. After moving to Paris
in 1946, Wright became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert
Camus while going through an Existentialist phase best depicted
by his second novel, The Outsiders (1953). In 1954 he published
a minor novel, Savage Holiday. After becoming a French citizen
in 1947, he continued to travel throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa,
and these experiences led to a number of nonfiction works.
In his last years, he was plagued
by illness (aerobic dysentary) and financial hardship. Throughout
this period he wrote approximately 4,000 English Haikus (some of
which were recently published for the first time) and another novel,
The Long Dream, in 1958. He also prepared another collection
of short stories, Eight Men, which was published after his
death on November 28, 1960.
Among his other works are two autobiographies.
Black Boy, published in 1945, covered his youth in the segregated
South, and American Hunger, published posthumously in 1977,
treated his membership and disillusionment with the Communist Party.
Many of Wright’s works failed to
satisfy the rigid standards of the New Criticism, but his evolution
as a writer has interested readers throughout the world. The importance
of his works comes not from his technique and style, but from the
impact his ideas and attitudes have had on American life. Wright
is seen as a seminal figure in the black revolution that followed
his earliest novels. Bigger Thomas, the central figure of Native
Son, is a murderer, but his situation galvanized the thought
of black leaders toward the desire to confront the world and help
shape the future of their race.
As his vision of the world extended
beyond the U.S., his quest for solutions expanded to include the
politics and economics of emerging third world nations. Wright’s
development was marked by an ability to respond to the currents
of the social and intellectual history of his time. 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.
(Article first posted January
Richard Wright: Black
a PBS-TV film biography which was first broadcast on September 4,
1995, features more information about Wright, including photos, a
chronology, a teacher’s guide, and more.
- Native Son (The Biography of a Young American): A Play in Ten Scenes, with Paul Green. New York: Harper, 1941.
- Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. New York: Harper, 1938.
- Uncle Tom’s Children: Five Long Stories. New York: Harper, 1938.
- Bright and Morning Star (story). New York: International Publishers, 1938.
- Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940.
- The Outsider. New York: Harper, 1953.
- Savage Holiday. New York: Avon, 1954.
- The Long Dream. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958.
- Eight Men (stories). Cleveland and New York: World, 1961.
- Lawd Today. New York: Walker, 1963.
- How “Bigger” Was Born; the Story of Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940.
- 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. New York: Viking, 1941.
- Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper, 1945.
- Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. New York: Harper, 1954.
- The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland and New York: World, 1956.
- Pagan Spain. New York: Harper, 1957.
- White Man, Listen! Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1957.
- Letters to Joe C. Brown. Edited by Thomas Knipp. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Libraries, 1968.
- American Hunger. (Continuation of Black Boy.) New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
- Haiku: This Other World. Eds. Yoshinobu Hakatuni and Robert L. Tener. Arcade, 1998.
- Native Son, by Wright and Paul Green. New York, St. James Theatre, 24 June 1941.
- Daddy Goodness, by Wright and Louis Sapin. New York, St. Mark’s Playhouse, 4 June 1968.
- Native Son. Dir. Pierre Chenal. Screenplay by Wright. Classic Films, 1950. (Wright starred as Bigger Thomas.)
- Native Son. Dir. Jerrold Freedman. Cinecom Pictures and American Playhouse (PBS), 1986.
- Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973.
- Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Putnam’s, 1968.
- Williams, John A., and Dorothy Sterling. The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.
- Abcarian, Richard, ed. Richard Wright’s Native Son: A Critical
Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1970.
- Bakish, David. Richard Wright. New York: Ungar, 1973.
- Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Notes
of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1955. 85-114.
- ---. “Richard Wright.” Encounter 16 (April 1961):
- Bone, Robert. Richard Wright. Minneapolist: University of Minnesota
- Brignano, Russell C. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man
and His Works. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
- Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Shadow and
Act. New York: Random House, 1964. 77-94.
- Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 1985.
- Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr. Richard Wright Ordeal of a Native Son.
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980.
- Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright.
Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.
- Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons.” A World
More Attractive. New York: Horizon, 1963. 98-110.
- Joyce, Joyce A. Richard Wrights Art of Tragedy. Iowa
City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.
- Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1972.
- Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Preface by Harry
T. Moore. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
- McCall. The Example of Richard Wright. New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1973.
- Reilly, John M. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. New
York: Franklin, 1978.
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