|Born:||September 4, 1908
|Died:||November 28, 1960
|Occupation(s):||Novelist, short story writer|
Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was an African-American novelist and short story writer, who is arguably the most prominent and influential African-American novelist of the first half of the twentieth century. Wright's works, most notably the story collection Uncle Tom's Children and the novel Native Son, depict movingly the trials and tribulations lower-class black Americans and their struggle for upward mobility in a segregated country.
Wright's early works, most notably the autobiographical work Black Boy, are also notable for their political undertones; in addition to being an acclaimed writer Wright was also a political activist. He spent a number of years in his early career championing the cause of communism, believing that it promised to bring about a future where people of all races and classes could live and work together as equals. Eventually Wright distanced himself from communism, even contributing a famous essay to the anthology The God That Failed detailing his disillusionment with that ideology.
Nonetheless, Wright continued to pursue, both in his fictions and in his actions, a means to bring about a change in racial attitudes in American society and his works, which are now seen as some of the most sincerely felt and sincerely written of all African-American literature, have become a cornerstone of multicultural American literature. A number of writers, both black and white, including James Baldwin, have gone on to cite Wright as a major influence.
Wright, the grandson of slaves, was born on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, a tiny town located about 22 miles east of Natchez, in Franklin County. Wright's family soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, his father Nathaniel, a former sharecropper, abandoned them. Wright, his brother, and mother Ella, a schoolteacher, soon moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to live with relatives. In Jackson, Wright grew up and attended public high school. Here, he formed some of his most lasting early impressions of American racism before eventually moving back to Memphis in 1927, where he began to read extensively and become enamored with literary writing, and particularly the writings of the preeminent American journalist H. L. Mencken.
Eventually, Wright moved to Chicago, where he began to write, becoming active in the John Reed Clubs, and eventually joining the Communist Party. Wright moved to New York City to become the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, also contributing to the New Masses magazine. Wright experienced positive contact with whites during his communist activity, but became frustrated by the party's theoretical rigidity and disapproved of the Soviet Union's purges.
Wright first gained notoriety for his collection of short stories entitled Uncle Tom's Children, published in 1937. In this work he fictionalized the incidents of lynching in the Deep South. He followed up this work with a novel Native Son (1940), which was the first book written by an African-American to receive the endorsement of the National Book of the Month Club. Native Son relates the story of the murderer, Bigger Thomas, intended by Wright to be a representation of the limitations that society placed on African Americans. In the novel, Thomas, desperate from poverty and struggling to survive, is only able gain his own freedom through becoming a heinous criminal. Wright was much criticized for the book’s concentration on violence, but the book nonetheless garnered serious critical acclaim and continues to be widely read and taught on college campuses.
Wright is also renowned for the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), which describes his early life from Roxie through his move to Chicago, his clashes with his Seventh-Day Adventist family, his difficulties with white employers and social isolation. American Hunger, (published posthumously in 1977) was originally intended as the second book of Black Boy, which details his involvement and ultimate disillusionment with the Communist Party, which he left in 1942.
In May 1946 Wright traveled to France as a guest of the French government, where he was well received by French intellectuals. It was after this visit that he settled in Paris to become a permanent American expatriate, though on occasion he would return to the United States.
In the last years of his life, Richard Wright became enamored with the Japanese poetry form of haiku, writing over four thousand of them. In 1998 a book of his haiku was published (Haiku: This Other World) with the 817 haiku that he preferred.
Wright contracted amoebic dysentery on a visit to the British Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health continued to deteriorate over the next three years. He died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 52. He is interred there in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Native Son, published in 1940, continues to be one of the most important texts in the history of African-American literature and is universally considered to be Wright's masterpiece. It tells the story of 20-year old Bigger Thomas, an African-American of the poorest class, struggling to live in Chicago's South Side ghetto in the 1930s. The novel opens with Thomas accidentally killing a white woman, and from there the novel follows him as he flees the police and scrambles for freedom, wreaking havoc as he goes.
Written mostly in an objective and almost journalistic third-person narration, Wright gets inside the head of his "brute Negro," revealing his feelings, thoughts and point of view as he commits crimes, is confronted with racism, violence and debasement. While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them and the social injustices which forced young African-Americans to resort to theft and violence in order to stay alive. As Wright would later write, "No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull."
When published, Native Son was an immediate bestseller, selling 250,000 hardcover copies in its initial run. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African-American issues, and a "father of Black American literature."
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