This sample Richard Wright Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Richard Wright occupies a unique place in African American literature. He was the first black novelist to describe the plight of the urban masses and the first to present this material in the naturalistic tradition. Not only is he the father of the post-World War ii black novel, he is also the main precursor of the black arts movement of the 1960s. Wright was influential on the work of other prominent African American writers like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Dislocated Early Life in Mississippi
Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, twenty-two miles east of Natchez, to sharecropper Nathan Wright and teacher Ella Wilson Wright. Nathan Wright was extremely poor. in 1911, Ella Wright went to Natchez to live with her family while Nathan became an itinerant worker. Later that year, in an effort to improve their economic status, Nathan Wright moved his family to Memphis, Tennessee, but then deserted his family. Richard lived in Memphis until he was almost eight. As small children, he and his younger brother Leon were often hungry; the menial jobs that Ella Wright had to take did not provide adequate income to support the family. in 1914, Ella Wright became ill, and the two brothers were sent to a Methodist orphanage.
Mrs. Wright and her sons moved to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with her sister, Maggie, and Maggie’s husband, Silas Hoskins, in 1916. Soon after this, Hoskins was murdered by whites who coveted his property, and the family fled to West Helena, Arkansas, where they lived in fear for several weeks. Mrs. Wright took the boys to Jackson, Mississippi, but they returned to West Helena by the winter of 1918. Further family disintegration occurred after Mrs. Wright suffered a stroke in 1919. Wright chose to live with an uncle and aunt in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he could be near his mother, but restrictions they placed on him made him an emotional wreck, and he was permitted to return to Jackson in 1920, where he lived with his grandmother.
Wright’s education was disrupted by family disorganization, which made regular school attendance impossible. In 1920, he enrolled at the Seventh Day Adventist school in Jackson, Mississippi, with his Aunt Addie, the only teacher. Wright felt stifled by his aunt and his maternal grandmother, who tried to force him to pray. He later threatened to leave home because his grandmother refused to permit him to work on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath. This strife left him with an uncompromising hostility toward religious solutions to mundane problems.
Wright’s formal education started in 1921, and he attended public schools in Jackson for several years. He was interested in writing, and his first story, ”The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” was published in 1924 in the Southern Register, a black Jackson newspaper. In 1925, Wright was made class valedictorian. Determined not to be called an ”Uncle Tom,” he refused to deliver the assistant principal’s prepared valedictory address that would not offend the white school officials and convinced the black administrators to let him read essentially what he had written.
In November 1925, Wright returned to Memphis where he indulged his passion for reading. Through subterfuge, he was able to borrow books from the white library, at a time when public services were segregated; though the standard was supposed to be ”separate but equal” services for whites and blacks, the facilities for blacks were generally pitiful or nonexistent. Of special importance to Wright when it came to reading were H. L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces (1917) and one of his six volumes of Prejudices (1919-27). Wright was particularly impressed with Mencken’s vision of the South as hell.
Literary Success in Chicago
In 1927, Wright arrived in Chicago, where he worked as a postal clerk, reading extensively during his time off. His job at the post office was eliminated during the Great Depression, and he received government relief in 1931. In 1932, he began attending meetings of the Chicago John Reed Club, a Communist literary organization, and in 1933 Wright formally joined the Communist party. Along with many intellectuals of the day, he was disillusioned with the failures of capitalism, and the atrocities committed in the communist Soviet Union by the dictator Joseph Stalin were not yet generally known.
By 1935, Wright had completed his first novel, ”Cesspool,” which was published after his death as Lawd Today (1963). In February 1936, Wright began working with the National Negro Congress, and the following year, after a quarrel with a Communist party leader, he went to New York to become Harlem editor of the Daily Worker. He helped organize New Challenge, a quarterly for works of progressive black authors, and wrote for the first issue ”Blueprint for Negro Writing,” a statement of his theories on Afro-American writing. Wright also developed a friendship with Ralph Ellison.
In 1938, four of Wright’s short stories were published by Harper under the title Uncle Tom’s Children. In one of the stories, ”Big Boy Leaves Home,” Wright uses natural setting, varied points of view, and thematic richness to make an apparently simple tale about truancy, murder, lynching, and flight one of high artistic merit. Uncle Tom’s Children was favorably received, and excellent sales pro-vided him with enough money to move to Harlem, where he began writing Native Son. In August 1939, Wright married Dhimah Rose Meadman with Ralph Ellison as best man. The marriage ended quickly, however, and Wright married Ellen Poplar in March 1941.
First Novel: Native Son
In 1939, Wright was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to complete Native Son (1940). The novel marked the beginning of a black literature that refused to compromise with many white expectations. Set in Chicago, Native Son centers around a doomed young black man, Bigger Thomas. Desperate to escape poverty, Bigger, with his street gang, considers robbing a white man’s delicatessen, but then gets a job as a chauffeur with a wealthy white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Late one night, the blind Mrs. Dalton enters the bedroom of her rebellious young daughter, Mary, as Bigger is trying to help the drunken girl into bed before her parents realize her misbehavior. Terrified ofthe consequences ifhe is discovered in Mary’s room, Bigger covers her face with a pillow to keep her from answering her mother’s calls. In the process, he unwittingly kills her; then, panic-stricken, he decapitates the body and burns it in the Daltons’ furnace. Bigger tries to implicate Mary’s Communist boyfriend in her disappearance but then decides to flee with his lover Bessie. In his mounting terror, he decides she is a burden and murders her. Bigger then terrorizes the tenements until police finally capture him. In Wright’s unvarnished depiction of the hopeless and tragic fate of a black youth in a racist society, Wright contributed for the first time in the canon of white American literature a relentlessly honest view of black life in the United States.
Native Son sold two hundred thousand copies in under three weeks. The following year, Wright’s sociological study, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States was published to critical acclaim. Wright fully identifies with the black experience and convincingly analyzes the roles of blacks in the total American experience.
Black Boy followed in 1945. It is an autobiography, an episodically structured yet richly thematic work, similar to a movie documentary, with Wright as the narrator. It focuses on significant events in his life from the age of four (1912) through nineteen (1927). Wright describes, from an adult perspective, the economic, familial, educational, and racial handicaps he faced.
Black Boy reached the bestseller lists and received critical praise. The second part of Wright’s autobiography, American Hunger,]7ke Black Boy, explores many of Wright’s recurrent themes: manhood, freedom, flight, oppression. Wright focuses on his experiences in Chicago, and he becomes critical of the entire American system, not just the South. Unlike Black Boy, whose ending suggests a success story, American Hunger, which was not published until 1977, represents the culmination of Wright’s disappointment with America. In the author’s view, moral, economic, and racial conditions in Chicago and New York City are but additional proof of the country’s failures.
A Move to Paris
Wright visited Paris in 1946, where he became friends with Gertrude Stein and many French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre. Later that year, in London, Wright was introduced to the progressive, militant leaders of the Third World, who were shaking off centuries of colonial rule. These meetings significantly affected Wright’s political thinking and his interest in Africa. In 1947, Wright and his family became permanent citizens of France, and France was his home base until his death in 1960.
The last fourteen years of Wright’s life are notable for a shift in ideological emphases: instead of determinism he explored choice; along with racism he emphasized a more metaphysical isolation; in place of colonialism in the Deep South he focused on global oppression. Existentialism and identification with the people of the Third World are outgrowths of his earlier experiences. Though no longer a card-carrying Communist, his writings still reflected Marxist ideals and sympathies.
Wright remained productive during the 1950s, although none of his works from this period equal the mastery of his earlier work. His later works include the existentialist novel The Outsider (1953); Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), which was written as a result of a trip to the Gold Coast (now Ghana); and White Man, Listen!, Wright’s last book of nonfiction, a series of lectures delivered between 1950 and 1956 in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. Wright died of a heart attack in Paris on November 28, 1960.
Works in Literary Context
Racism and Escape
Wright felt victimized by racial discrimination and racial prejudice throughout his life in the United States. It is therefore not surprising that racism, and the possible responses to it, form a consistent theme in his work. In ”Big Boy Leaves Home,” for example, Big Boy Morrison, Bobo, and two fellow truant adolescents are enjoying the idyllic countryside until a white woman discovers them naked, resting after a swim in a creek forbidden to blacks. Black and white fears suddenly translate the Edenic setting into one of violence and murder, terminating with Big Boy killing the white woman’s fiance, after which he hides in a kiln overnight hoping to be taken by truck to Chicago the next morning. His hope of safety barely survives the lynching and burning of Bobo by white citizens.
Many of Wright’s major themes—fear, initiation into violence, flight, survival, and freedom—appear in this story, all related to the tension between the black and white races. Wright uses a setting and action reminiscent of the story of the Fall in Genesis, but here violent white racism drives Big Boy from the southern garden to uncertain freedom in the North; his initiation into violence and flight add poignancy and depth. There is irony in the title, for Big Boy is not simply leaving home. His survival depends on his flight from home to escape life-threatening racial tensions in his search for justice and freedom.
In ”Big Boy Leaves Home,” the protagonist achieves adulthood through rebellion motivated by fear, and fear is also a prominent theme in Native Son. Three key scenes in Book 1 dramatize this theme. The opening, fear-filled scene illustrates the emotional violence manifested by the four members of the Thomas family against one another. All are afraid of a huge rat, and Bigger prolongs the fear (even after he kills it) by swinging the dead rat in front of his sister Vera until she faints. When Bigger joins his street-gang friends until it is time for a job interview at the residence of the wealthy Daltons, another kind of fear surfaces. The gang plans to rob Blum’s Delicatessen, a white man’s business, and each gang member becomes afraid. Bigger demonstrates his fear through violence, terrifying Gus with kicks and threats of murder until he thinks the hour set for the robbery has passed. Hired by the Daltons, Bigger’s fears mount to hysteria when Mary Dalton’s blind mother enters Mary’s bedroom, where Bigger has taken her after an evening out drinking with her boyfriend, during which she has become drunk. Fear remains the central motif throughout the novel, including Book 3, in which Wright now focuses not on Bigger’s individual fears but on those of other individual blacks and the black and white communities in general.
Whiteness and Blindness
Dominant symbols in Native Son include whiteness and blindness. Wright uses whiteness to represent Bigger’s fear and anxieties. Upon meeting Mrs. Dalton, he observes ”that her hair and face were completely white; she seemed to him like a ghost.” When Bigger returns to the kitchen to get some water, ”What he saw made him suck his breath in; Mrs. Dalton in flowing white clothes was standing stone stiff in the middle of the kitchen floor.” Later, at Mary’s bedroom door, Mrs. Dalton appears an ”awesome blur… silent ghost-like.” Bigger is never at ease in the presence of Mrs. Dalton and her ubiquitous white cat. Even the weather takes on symbolic overtones. It begins to snow when Bigger flees the Dalton residence. The ice and snowstorms in Book 2 are perpetual reminders of the hostile white environment.
The blindness motif is also pervasive. Wright makes all his characters blind in some way. Mrs. Dalton is physically blind. Racism impairs the moral vision of state prosecutor Buckley. Bigger’s limited perception leads him to label all others, especially whites, as blind.
Works in Critical Context
The publication of Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and Native Son (1940), within two years of each other made it clear that a new voice had entered American literature. Wright was able to give expression to the black experience in America in a way that few whites had considered.
Wright’s reputation ebbed during the 1950s as younger black writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison rejected his naturalistic approach and the ideological preoccupations of his fiction. In the 1960s, with the growth of the militant black consciousness movement, there was a resurgence of interest in Wright’s work. Wright’s place in American literature remains controversial: some contend that his writing is of sociological and historical, rather than literary, interest; his defenders believe that his books of the early 1940s are as important in the American naturalist tradition as they are in the history of black literature, and that Wright is properly ranked with such writers as Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and John Steinbeck.
The new ground broken by Native Son was apparent in the enthusiasm of the reviews it received. Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker compares Wright to Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck and praises his ”passion and intelligence” that examines ”layers of consciousness only Dostoyevski and a few others have penetrated.” Henry S. Canby in Book of the Month Club News writes that, ”like Grapes of Wrath it is a fully realized story. . . uncompromisingly realistic and quite as human as it is Negro.” Ralph Ellison in New Masses finds in it ”an artistry, penetration of thought and sheer emotional power that places it in the first rank of American fiction.” The few dissenting voices, among them Howard Mum-ford Jones and David Cohn, had objections that were more personal than literary. While there is yet much critical debate over the place that Native Son should occupy in the corpus of great literature, there is a consensus that the novel is one of the classic works of American literature.
Black Boy (1945) met with a similarly positive response. Critics from the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch were among those who wrote glowing reviews. Dorothy Canfield Fisher places the work on the level with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and St. Augustine’s Confessions. Among the thousands of congratulatory letters to Wright was one from William Faulkner, who writes that ”Wright said it well, as well as it could have been in this form.” Some blacks expressed mixed acceptance. They felt that Wright spent too much time documenting black despair. A few southern critics made extremely negative remarks concerning the book’s account of race relations in the South. Most critics and readers concurred that Black Boy merits a place on the shelf next to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Adams.
- Bakish, David. Richard Wright. New York: Ungar, 1973.
- Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
- Brignano, Russell Carl. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
- Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
- Felgar, Robert. Student Companion to Richard Wright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
- Gomes, Peter J. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 2000.
- Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
- Reilly, John M. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. New York: Burt Franklin, 1978.
- Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad, 2000.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.