Last reviewed: June 2017
American author of works of black radicalism
September 4, 1908
November 28, 1960
Richard Nathaniel Wright’s literary reputation has been largely determined by the political and racial concerns of his fiction. From the time he published Native Son until his death, he was viewed primarily as the literary spokesperson for black radicalism. It has only been since the 1970’s that critics have begun to examine his writing in a broader perspective. Born on September 4, 1908, to Ella and Nathan Wright on a farm near Natchez, Mississippi, Richard had a difficult childhood of economic deprivation, familial disruption, and frequent relocations. The family was living in Memphis when his father abandoned them in 1914. His mother’s poverty and increasing illness made it necessary to rely on relatives and to move frequently. For a short time, Wright and his younger brother were placed in an orphanage. For the remainder of his youth, the family traveled between Elaine, Arkansas; West Helena, Arkansas; Greenwood, Mississippi; and Jackson, Mississippi.
Wright received the bulk of his formal education at Smith-Robinson High School in Jackson, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1925. While in high school, he wrote “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” a story that was published in the Southern Register, a local black newspaper. After graduation, he worked in Memphis and began an intensive period of reading H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser. In 1927 he traveled to Chicago. There he worked at a variety of jobs, but in 1931 he was forced to go on relief. He continued writing and sold the story “Superstition” to Abbott’s Monthly Magazine. He subsequently found work at Michael Reese Hospital, the South Side Boys’ Club, and the Illinois Federal Writers’ Project. In 1932 he began attending meetings of the John Reed Club, a communist literary society. That connection led him to publish numerous crudely didactic poems in leftist journals. In 1933 Wright officially joined the Communist Party. It was not long, though, before the cynicism of the communist movement, particularly its decision to eliminate the literary aspects of the John Reed Club, angered Wright. Richard Wright
Despite his arguments with the Communist Party in Chicago, Wright was named Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and moved to New York in 1937. During his last two years in Chicago, he had begun to publish the stories that first brought him national attention. His first novel, which was posthumously published as Lawd Today, was rejected, but winning first prize in Story magazine’s fiction contest made it easier for him to find a publisher for Uncle Tom’s Children. Uncle Tom’s Children, in turn, helped Wright get a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction in 1939. With this financial support, he was able to finish Native Son, and that sensational novel became the first best-seller written by a black author. In Native Son, Wright consciously eliminated the sentimentality that had made Uncle Tom’s Children too easy for liberal white readers. In Bigger Thomas, he created one of the least attractive protagonists in American literature, an uncompromising portrait of black anger and frustration.
Buoyed by the success of his novel, Wright entered an artistically active period during which he collaborated with Paul Green on a dramatic version of Native Son, collaborated with photographer Edwin Rosskam on Twelve Million Black Voices, a pictorial history of black Americans, and began work on another novel, the final section of which was published as “The Man Who Lived Underground.” He also worked on his autobiography, the first part of which was published in 1945 as Black Boy. Some critics consider this powerful retelling of his early years Wright’s best work. Disappointed by the continued racism of American society after World War II, Wright emigrated to France in 1947. The influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists is evident in The Outsider, which Wright published in 1953. During the 1950’s he published three books of political commentary based on his travels and lectured on contemporary issues. His last two novels, Savage Holiday and The Long Dream, were critical failures. He died of a heart attack in November 1960, and unsubstantiated rumors that his death was directly or indirectly caused by agents of the United States government have become a persistent part of his legend.
In 2008, nearly a half-century after Wright's death, his final, incomplete manuscript was published as the crime thriller A Father's Law to great anticipation. Because the draft was unfinished and left unpolished, the novel received mixed critical reception when it was released. The book was nevertheless recognized as significant in marking a new direction in Wright's fiction and for being more thematically complex than the crime fiction of Wright's contemporaries.
Wright introduced white America to an assertive black literature and encouraged a generation of black authors that followed his lead. Native Son and several of his short stories are considered masterpieces of social realism, and Black Boy is one of the most influential American autobiographies. Critics have become more appreciative of Wright’s existential novel, The Outsider, but most agree that his most important work was behind him when he left the United States.
In 1990, the Hurston/Wright Foundation was established in honor of him and folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. The organization continues their legacies by promoting and preserving African American literature.