Swans Commentary » swans.com October 6, 2008  



Up From Mississippi


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Rowley, Hazel: Richard Wright: The Life and Times, University of Chicago Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-73038-7, ISBN-10: 0-226-73038-7, illustrated, 626 pages. $22.50


(Swans - October 6, 2008)   When Richard Wright's Native Son appeared in 1940, Dorothy Canfield Fischer wrote, "This novel plumbs blacker depths of human experience than American literature has yet had." Later, dealing with its author for the Book of the Month Club, she would be up against what drove Richard Wright as a writer. He stubbornly refused to forget the cruelty he'd suffered in both the Jim Crow South and the industrial North. Canfield Fischer rightly saw Black Boy as another remarkable book. But it was wartime and she wanted the author to add a bit of guff about the American Dream. Wright would not oblige her. The same refusal to forget made him break with the Communist Party at the time of Hitler's invasion of Russia. The Party insisted he overlook the condition of blacks in America and rush to the aid of the Soviet Union. J. Edgar Hoover understood perfectly and noted in a memo: "Wright does not think the Communist Political Association revolutionary enough at the present time with respect to the advancement of the Negro."

Hazel Rowley's 2001 Richard Wright: The Life and Times has been republished in 2008 to mark the centenary of the writer's birth. The 626 pages are not too many to trace Wright's amazing trajectory. It began in a shack in Mississippi where his father, son of a slave, was a sharecropper. At 17, Wright, with an eighth grade education and a passion for reading, arrived in the black ghetto of Chicago's Southside. He was part of the "Great Migration" that between 1916 and 1928 brought twelve million Southern blacks to the North. His fatherless family had escaped the Jim Crow frying pan to fall into the fire of urban squalor. What made Wright different was that he never accepted segregation and its attendant poverty as a fact of nature. His life would be one long challenge to the color line.

Wright's early involvement with the Communist Party had less to do with its program than the fact that it provided the only opportunity for blacks and whites to mingle socially. He was determined not to be trapped in a cultural ghetto or to make do with second best. The John Reed Club became his high school and university. One of the aspiring writers he met there was Nelson Algren. The difference in their situations showed how much Wright had to learn. Algren, though of a poor immigrant background, already had a university degree. Wright was still supporting his family in irregular, low paid work.

Wright's first disappointment with the Party came when it closed down the John Reed Club. In an ideological shake-up it was decided to rein in regional independence and increase decision making in New York. Party philistinism and a crude, instrumental view of art also played a role. The suppression of the Club, which had accepted non-Party people, would foreshadow Wright's relations with the Communists: His value was in his extremely original and individual viewpoint, something the Party no more than the US government would ever be comfortable with.

Wright's education continued with employment by the Federal Writers' Project. In his spare time, he wrote short stories that were brought together in 1938 in a volume entitled Uncle Tom's Children. This pictured the South as a cauldron of terror and examined the meaning of black manhood. The book was generally well received -- except, you might say, by its author. Here Wright showed again his vital stubbornness, the trait that made him irreplaceable. He vowed that he would never write another "cathartic" book, one that made bankers' daughters weep and then feel happier with themselves.

Native Son, appearing in 1940, would make no American, black or white, happy with himself. Bigger Thomas, its antihero, was a befogged young black with touches of a psychopath. A mix of brutality and fear, Bigger commits two murders, demonstrating a chilling callousness. The killing of a rich white girl reveals Wright's fundamental conviction that the terror met with by American blacks produced fear that ripened to blind hatred. It's daunting to count how many times the word hate appears in the novel. Lest a banker's daughter still squeeze an ounce of catharsis from Native Son, Wright adds the coup de grace: Only through his crimes does Bigger find himself and feel like a whole man. Equality comes dear in the Southside ghetto and Bigger will go to the electric chair.

On this rock-solid base of his bleak intuitions, Wright will erect a compelling narrative whose strength comes from placing the reader inside Bigger's mind. The novel caused a national tremor because that point of view wasn't at all familiar to Book of the Month readers. The story describes the rabid anti-red feelings in Chicago at the time and the vile racism of mainstream opinion. But, like the duel in court between the "bad" prosecutor and the "good" Communist defense lawyer, this aspect of the book seems perfunctory when measured against Wright's probing of Bigger's motives.

With hindsight we can see in the difference between Wright's gut feelings and his Communist Party politically-correct clichés that dissidence was in the offing. Wright had wholeheartedly followed the antiwar Party line. Why, he argued, should blacks fight abroad for an America that treated them like second-class citizens at home? Then Hitler's invasion of Russia changed the Party line overnight. Everything was to be subordinated to the defense of the Soviet Union, including Negro grievances. Blacks were urged to serve in the segregated armed forces where they inevitably would be assigned menial tasks. Wright would have none of it and eased himself out of the Party without fanfare.

But on other fronts Wright was learning compromise. At the behest of the Book of the Month Club he'd already altered Native Son. He'd cut Bigger's casual masturbation in a movie house. So, more significantly, did he eliminate indications that the murdered white girl had a healthy appetite for sexual intercourse. This was important since miscegenation was the bugaboo of the moment and lubricity assumed to belong exclusively to blacks, although not to the point of showing them masturbating in the shadow of Hollywood's finest.

The Book of the Month Club also took on Black Boy once the autobiography of 1945 had been pruned. The whole second half of the book was dropped, but what remained was still a stunning, nervous account of Wright's beginnings in the fearful South. Later, as Wright's lifestyle got costly, a cynicism or uncaring would creep in. Was Wright simply intimidated by the Southern gentleman Paul Green who adapted Native Son for the theatre changing its meaning in the process? Wright himself took a hand in diluting the book's import when Pierre Chenal made a film of it with a too-old Wright in the main role.

With fame, Wright's story becomes painfully familiar. There are numerous demands on his time, and he rarely refuses to meet them. Lectures and articles pay well and he's married a white woman -- in fact two in quick succession -- and developed expensive tastes. His fiction projects tend to get bogged down or abandoned. He's restless and, though he's broken with the Communists, the US government hardly considers him harmless. He's clearly one of those paranoids who do in fact have many enemies. (His lifelong hypochondria will be validated by an early death.) He tries Mexico and he tries Canada, but when he's finally granted a passport he settles in Paris with his wife and daughter.

Here the contradictions in Wright's situation and character blossomed forth. He left the USA because he tired of racial prejudice there. The 1940s and 1950s were full of inconvenience and humiliation for couples of mixed race in the Land of the Free. But just as important for Wright was the wish to be more than a black writer. He was still testing the color line and didn't see why he couldn't be a writer tout court. The difficulty was that his fame rested on being the pre-eminent black writer of his country who owed his reputation to his writing about black Americans at a deeper level than anyone else ever had. The Leftist intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who welcomed him to Paris invariably saw him in this light. He not only couldn't shake off that role in France, he didn't disdain to exploit it.

Time would, in a sense, settle the matter. Wright took up residence in France in 1947. His pronouncements and fictional depictions of racial issues in the U.S. were soon out of date. The situation was changing fast. In 1954 the Supreme Court handed down its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared race segregation in public schools unconstitutional. James Baldwin may not have been right in declaring the protest novel, and Wright himself, finished. But it was true that Wright had lost touch with black America. Gradually he accepted the inevitable fate of an expatriate, and directed his interest elsewhere.

However, being a universal writer, not a black writer, but simply a writer, proved a losing strategy for Wright. His insights had their origin in the material he used in Native Son and Black Boy. One can imagine him having stayed in America and written fiction about the tumultuous events of the civil rights campaign. The novels he wrote in France were half-hearted and mediocre. The Outsider was a heavy-handed attempt at a novel of ideas. His friend Ralph Ellison said there had been more existentialism in Uncle Tom's Children, and that Bigger Thomas was an existential hero long before Wright sat down with Sartre and Beauvoir at the Café de Flore. Wright's strong suit was passionate intensity for which he needed a subject close to his heart. He had only a modest grasp of the all-around skills -- dialogue, plotting, sense of form, language mastery -- that would have allowed him to survive as a peripatetic novelist in the manner of Graham Greene or Vladimir Nabokov.

So it's no wonder Wright turned to non-fiction in Paris. The problem then was that he may have escaped being a black writer, but he proved a run of the mill "universal" writer. Africans rightfully detested Black Power, his book about a visit to the Gold Coast as it became Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. Wright, a poor traveler, applied a sophomoric rationalism to everything he saw, ridiculing tribal customs and religion. On leaving he advised an incredulous Nkrumah, who already slept with a portrait of Lenin over his bed, to militarize the country and ruthlessly stamp out all backwardness.

Wright was no more enlightening in The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. He simply hadn't the background for such tasks where his passionate prose merely beclouded the subject. Any number of progressive journalists of the time did a better job of reporting. Pagan Spain was a straightforward travel book. Wright had set out to prove to his publisher that a black man out of Mississippi and Chicago's Southside could sum up a European nation as well as any Oxford or Harvard graduate. It was disheartening to see the author of the epoch making Native Son end up as just another gawking American tourist in Spain.

But the whole last phase of Wright's life throbs with melancholy. He was no longer wealthy and his marriage had broken down. He died at fifty-two with the help of a French doctor who believed that bismuth salts, not yet associated with heavy metal poisoning, would revivify his liver. His early death meant that many of his partners in adultery were still around and eager to weigh up his talents. Hazel Rowley's biography relays their testimony. More importantly, by coming years afterward and employing insistent lawyers, Rowley obtained recently declassified material relating to government espionage into Wright's activities. Revelations of the sort about the Cold War years have now become a kind of joke. But the joke is on us. At the time, news that Moscow or Washington bought opinion came as a shock. Today government and corporate subsidies openly support think tanks that in some cases start wars. Toward the end Wright may have collaborated with embassy authorities to facilitate keeping his passport valid. Many of his international junkets were paid for by the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which he said he learned only in October 1960 was organized and financed by the CIA. Wright died in November.

Hazel Rowley is an unobtrusive biographer who has written a well-balanced and thoroughly readable book. It now stands as the best account of Wright's life. Her recourse to primary sources is impressive. She shies away from literary judgments, which may be just as well considering the long distance she had to travel from Natchez, Mississippi, to Paris via the Southside of Chicago.

How would Richard Wright measure up in the current African-American cultural wars? These, to simplify, have spokesmen like Bill Cosby and Juan Williams urging the black community to assume responsibility for itself. Others -- Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson is typical -- decry the pressure to conform to white standards and re-emphasize the absence of justice, past and present. Seventy years ago, Wright boldly uncovered not only the injustice, which he knew firsthand, but the perverse result it had worked on the black psyche. Wouldn't this put him in the Dyson camp? Maybe. However, his whole life was an attempt to conform, though to standards that were white and more besides. It would be hard to imagine him, any more than Cosby, delighting in the $4-billion-a-year Rap music industry.


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Published October 6, 2008