Wright among literary giants

Often overlooked as one of the great American writers, the Mississippi native drew on issues of racial violence and oppression.

February 28, 1999|By Gerald Horne

ANY DISCUSSION OF WHITE America's great writers is likely to produce names such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and William Faulkner. When it comes to great African-American writers, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker are likely to be at the forefront of the discussions.

But there is one writer who's name is seldom mentioned with greatness who rightfully belongs among the giants of American literature. His name is Richard Wright. Wright was born in Mississippi in 1908, and his formative years were punctuated by racial violence and oppression. He died in France in 1960, a bitter expatriate who fell victim to McCarthyism and Cold War politics.

Wright's best known novel, "Native Son," was published on March 1, 1940, and sold more than 250,000 copies in six weeks. Today, it ranks as the most powerful social protest novel written by a black author, and one of the most analyzed works in American literature.

The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a young black man who is trapped in the poverty and despair of Chicago's slums. The novel is driven by powerful imagery, poignant symbolism, and a forceful condemnation of race and class in America.

In the opening scene, an ugly black rat slips into the apartment Bigger shares with his mother and his younger sister and brother. After a desperate battle, Bigger kills the rat with a skillet.

Later, Mr. Dalton, a rich white man, hires Bigger as his family's chauffeur. By a strange quirk of fate, Bigger inadvertently kills Mr. Dalton's daughter, Mary, and tries to cover up the crime by burning her body in a furnace. He also devises a plan to make her disappearance appear to be a kidnapping.

The plan unravels when Mary's charred remains are discovered. A desperate Bigger then rapes and kills a black woman who has knowledge of his crimes.

Bigger is eventually caught and his lawyer, Max, eloquently portrays him as a victim of poverty and racism. Bigger is convicted and sentenced to death.

"Native Son" blazed onto the literary landscape amid much critical acclaim. In the March 18, 1940, edition of The New Republic, Malcolm Cowley wrote:

"'Native Son' is the most impressive American novel I have read since 'The Grapes of Wrath.' In some ways the two books resemble each other: both deal with the dispossessed and both grew out of the radical movement of the 1930s. There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between the motives of the two authors. Steinbeck, more privileged than the characters in the novel, wrote out of deep pity for them, and the fault he had to avoid was sentimentality.

"Richard Wright, a Negro, was moved by wrongs he had suffered in his own person, and what he had to fear was a blind anger that might destroy the pity in him, making him hate any character whose skin was whiter than his own. His first book, 'Uncle Tom's Children,' had not completely avoided that fault."

'Black Boy' autobiography

Though "Native Son" is Wright's best known novel, many critics consider his autobiography, "Black Boy," to be his most important work. It is Wright's account of growing up in the South, where he was under tremendous pressure to accept racial oppression.

In a review of "Black boy" that ran in Esquire in 1945, the year the book was published, Sinclair Lewis wrote:

"Now this is the story of a colored boy who, just yesterday, found in his native community not merely that he was penalized for having the same qualities that in a white boy would have warmed his neighbors to universal praise -- the qualities of courage, energy, curiosity, refusal to be subservient, the impulse to record life in words -- but that he was in danger of disapproval, then of beatings, then of being killed, for these qualities for being 'uppity.'"

Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez. His father was a sharecropper, and his mother a schoolteacher. In 1914, the family moved to Memphis, Tenn., where Wright's mother worked as a cook for a white family and his father ran off with another woman. A short time later, Wright's mother contracted an illness that eventually made her an invalid.

Books were barred

Wright's maternal grandparents, strict Seventh Day Adventists with whom he lived for a time in Mississippi, barred books from the house and considered fiction to be the work of the devil.

In 1925, after the brother of a high school friend was killed in racial violence, Wright left Mississippi and went back to Memphis, where he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy. While living in Memphis, he was drawn to the writings naturalists such as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and Feodor Dostoevski.

He moved to Chicago in December 1927 and eventually landed a job as a postal clerk. In his spare time, he read Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche and others.

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