Richard Wright (author)

November 6, 2012 1:41 pm
Richard Wright (author) (1908-1960), American writer, whose novels and short stories helped redefine discussions of race relations in America in the mid-20th century. Wright publicly opposed racial prejudice and was perhaps the most eloquent spokesperson in the United States for his generation of blacks. His most acclaimed works are the novel Native Son (1940) and the autobiographical memoir Black Boy (1945).
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born outside of Natchez, Mississippi. His father left the family when Wright was still young and his mother, a schoolteacher, was stricken with a paralyzing illness when he was a child. Raised mostly by relatives, Wright left school at the age of 17. He subsequently moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked at odd jobs and began to educate himself.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Wright worked on various writing and editing projects for the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago. Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938; revised 1940), consisted of four novellas that dramatize racial prejudice. The book won first prize in a writing competition sponsored by the Writers’ Project. In 1937 Wright moved to New York City. He worked there on a Writers’ Project guidebook to the city entitled New York Panorama (1938) and wrote the book’s essay on the Harlem neighborhood. Wright had joined the Communist Party while in Chicago, and once in New York he published reviews and political essays in Communist Party publications such as New Masses. Wright remained an active member of the party into the 1940s before leaving over ideological issues.
After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939, Wright completed his novel Native Son. The book explores the violent psychological pressures that drive Bigger Thomas, a young black man, to murder. In the story, Thomas, a 20-year-old from the largely black South Side of Chicago, takes a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family whose fortune is based on real estate dealings in black neighborhoods. The daughter of the family seduces Bigger, and he accidentally smothers her to death when he fears they will be discovered together in bed. The quick-paced melodrama of the first half of the novel then yields to a more deliberate treatment of Bigger’s trial for murder. In the second half of the book, Wright presents a careful psychological and social examination of the story’s events—and of American race relations. Native Sonwas an immediate sensation with white and black readers, and this wide appeal helped make Wright the first black American writer to have a Book-of-the-Month club selection. With dramatist Paul Green, Wright adapted the story for the stage in 1941. In 1950 he produced a film version.
Wright moved to France in the late 1940s. He published several more novels during his lifetime, including The Outsider (1953), which describes an African American character’s involvement with the Communist Party in Chicago; and The Long Dream (1958), about a boy’s childhood in Mississippi. The short-story collection Eight Men (1961) and the novel Lawd Today (1963) were published after Wright’s death. Haiku: This Other World (published posthumously, 1998) is a collection of haiku poems that Wright wrote shortly before his death.
Wright also produced a considerable body of nonfiction. His first autobiographical work, Black Boy, reveals in bitter personal terms the devastating impact of racial prejudice on young black males in the United States. Black Boy points out the many psychological and cultural similarities between 20th-century racism and its predecessor, slavery. Wright’s other nonfiction works include Black Power (1954), a commentary on the emerging nations of Africa; The Color Curtain (1956), which focuses on the so-called Third World; Pagan Spain (1957), which addresses the Fascist rule in that country; and American Hunger (1977), a second autobiographical work. In 1941 Wright collaborated with photographer Edwin Rosskam on 12 Million Black Voices, a folk history of blacks in America.
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