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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
After Bigger Thomas, the central character of the novel Native Son, has "murdered a white girl and cut her head off and burnt her body," he thinks that he has "created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him." Richard Wright could well have felt the same way about the quiet, creative act of writing Native Son as that novel's protagonist felt about his bloody act of violence. Wright had grown up poor and lonely, without a stable family life, a regular education, or a solid community of friends. Until he was in his late twenties, no one took his ambitions seriously. But Native Son gave Wright "new life" as a financially secure and internationally famous author. And, unlike the brief sense of power that came from Bigger's physical expression of anger, the changes resulting from Wright's literary expression of the same emotion were permanent.
Some of Wright's early background resembles Bigger's. Like Bigger, he was brought up without a father; like Bigger's family, Wright's also left the South for the urban ghetto of Chicago; like Bigger, whose schooling only went as far as the eighth grade, Wright's finished with the ninth, and like his fictional creation, the author of Native Son grew up a loner and a rebel, whose devoutly religious family thought him a candidate for a life of crime.
And Richard Wright's life affected his writing in two more fundamental ways as well. He was often a victim of the white world's hostility to blacks; as a result many of his books, including Native Son, portray both racial discrimination and the black response to that injustice. Similarly, even as an adult, Wright frequently felt isolated, from blacks as well as from whites, and several of his major characters share this sense of being separate and alone.
Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in a tenant farmer's cabin in the hamlet of Roxie, Mississippi. His father, Nathaniel, was a son of one of the few local freedmen to have retained the small farm he had acquired after the Civil War. But because Nathaniel deserted the family when Richard was five, his mother, Ella Wilson Wright, was by far the more important parent to him. Unlike Nathaniel, Ella was from the middle class and had acquired an education. She had been a schoolteacher, but she gave up that profession to help Nathaniel with his farming. After Nathaniel left her, she worked as a maid until a paralytic stroke made her and her children dependent on the support of Ella's own parents and siblings.
In Black Boy, an account of his childhood and youth, Wright says his mother's suffering was one of the major influences on his developing personality. But he experienced much pain of his own too. His family was so poor that Wright was often acutely hungry, and the Wrights moved so frequently that he never put down sustained roots in one community. He also felt oppressed by his maternal grandmother's stern religion, which led her to ban fiction from the household because she regarded it as the work of the devil. With his mother severely ill, Wright found little sympathy or understanding at home and was usually quite lonely.
Wright also chafed under the racial hostility that he experienced. After the Civil War, the South had found ways of preventing the freed slaves from attaining equality. At the time Wright was growing up, Southern whites prevented blacks from voting, maintained separate and inferior educational institutions for them, tried to keep them from holding all but the most menial jobs, and insisted on their behaving deferentially in the presence of whites.
Such discriminatory practices directed against people of a particular color, ethnic background, or race are called "racist," as are the attitudes, ideas, and prejudices used to justify such unequal treatment. As Wright was to learn later, racism existed in the North as well as in the South. But in the South it was sanctioned by law, and it was more universally accepted and more severely applied. Blacks who violated the South's racial codes often faced violence, as did Wright's uncle, Silas "Buster" Hoskins, who was killed by whites who wanted to take over his business and property. Wright describes this incident and many of his later encounters with racism in Black Boy.
In 1925, after completing the ninth and final grade of the black public school in Jackson, Mississippi, Wright saved some money and left for Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked for an optical company. In Memphis, Wright discovered the angry journalism of H. L. Mencken, as well as the realistic novels of writers like Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. Wright had already learned to love fiction and had even written a story published in his local newspaper. But his interest had been adventure and escape stories. Mencken's bitter attacks on American institutions made Wright aware that words could be weapons, while Lewis's and Dreiser's realistic portraits of middle and working class life taught him that literature could help to understand the world, not just to escape from it.
The racism of Memphis was almost as oppressive to Wright as that of Mississippi. In a pattern continuing into his adulthood, he fled to hopefully freer territory, the Northern city of Chicago. Arriving in late 1927, Wright worked as a porter, dishwasher, substitute post office clerk, hospital orderly, and insurance salesman. This last job introduced him to many poor black households and gave him background information for Native Son. And, for a while, the Wrights, like Bigger's family, all shared one room.
As the Great Depression that began in 1929 threw Wright and millions of others out of work, radical political movements gained many new adherents. In 1933, Wright joined the John Reed Club, an organization of writers and artists who were members of or sympathizers with the Communist Party. One of the Chicago club's most active participants, Jan Wittenber, is thought to have become a model for Native Son's Jan Erlone. The club strongly supported Wright's literary efforts, and he agreed with the Communists' call for unity among poor and working people of all races. Left Front, the Chicago club's magazine, published Wright's poetry, and only two months after joining, he was elected executive secretary. Shortly thereafter, Wright joined the Communist Party. He was soon writing poems and essays for national radical publications, such as Anvil, New Masses, International Literature, and Partisan Review. In 1935 the U.S. government set up a Federal Writers' Project to help unemployed writers, and the Illinois branch of the Project hired Wright and assigned him to the Federal Negro Theater. His literary skills were improving, and he began writing fiction, including some short stories about racial oppression and a humorous novel about Chicago blacks. Titled Lawd Today, the novel was not published until 1963, three years after his death.
In May 1937, Wright left Chicago for the nation's literary and publishing capital, New York City, where he became Harlem editor of the Communist Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker. Meanwhile, he was beginning to achieve broader renown. A novella he had submitted to a literary contest won first prize, and that story plus three earlier ones were published as Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Though it was well received and is still highly regarded by many critics, Wright thought the book was too sentimental. He wrote later that he decided to write something "so hard and deep" that readers "would have to face it without the consolation of tears."
That second book was Native Son (1940). An immediate best seller, it was also the major achievement of his career. Though Wright had expected Native Son to be controversial, the response of the white press was immediate, almost unanimous, and wildly enthusiastic. Perhaps the continuing economic crisis and the great popularity of John Steinbeck's social protest novels had created a more positive cultural climate than Wright had realized. Such influential newspapers and magazines as The New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, The New Yorker, the Saturday Review of Literature, The Nation, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Time praised Wright's social analysis and his literary skill. Critics compared him to the famous American novelist Theodore Dreiser, to Steinbeck, and even to the great nineteenth-century novelists Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The response from the black press was also favorable, though tempered with some criticism for his having chosen such a violent protagonist. And the reading public was as excited as the critics. Native Son sold some 200,000 copies in less than three weeks, a record for its publisher. Wright received a huge number of letters, the great majority of them praising the novel. Moreover, the South acclaimed the novel as highly as did the North. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, declared Wright its "adopted son," and after New York and Chicago, sales were best in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas and Houston, Texas. Almost overnight, Richard Wright had become one of the most famous writers in the United States.