Richard Wright, the Life and Times, by Hazel Rowley

How does a desperately poor, half-educated black man in 20th century America transcend the brutality and racism of his childhood to become one of the most notable writers of his era?  The Australian biographer Hazel Rowley (1951-2011) set out to unravel this story forty years after the death of Richard Wright (1908-1960) and this biography is the result. Richard Wright, The Life and Times (2001) was Hazel Rowley’s second biography after her award-winning biography of Christina Stead (1994, see my review).  She went on to write Tête-à-tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre (2005) and Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (2010, see my review) before her untimely death in 2011.  In the obituary by Margalit Fox for the New York Times, her attraction to writing the lives of charismatic outsiders is explained: Ms. Rowley was often asked what united the seemingly diverse subjects of her books. “For those who have read all four, the thread is clear,” she wrote in an introductory passage on her Web site, (hazelrowley.com). “They were courageous people, who all, in some way, felt ‘outsiders’ in society. Above all, they were passionate people who cared about the world and felt angry about its injustices.”  (NYT obituary, 19/3/2011) The portrait of Richard Wright in Rowley’s bio tells that story in fascinating detail.  I haven’t read Wright yet, though I have a copy of his memoir Black Boy on the TBR. Wright is a significant figure in American literature, transcending the trauma of his grandparents’ slavery, a dysfunctional hyper-religious childhood, and limited education to become internationally famous and influential in changing attitudes.  His writing made people realise the extent of racism in America and the damage that it caused to individuals and society. Native Son, 1940 Book of the Month edition He is most famous for his novel Native Son which was chosen as a Book of the Month in 1940 and became a best seller.  Rowley tells the story of the passion which drove the portrayal of Bigger Thomas, a hoodlum from the black ghetto in Chicago, an unlikeable, tough bully who was full of fear and hate.  Wright felt he had been naïve in his bestselling first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, and had decided to write a book “so hard and so deep that they [Americans] would have to face it [racism] without the consolation of tears”.  So there is no idealism or sentimentality in Native Son.  It features the angriest, most violent antihero ever to appear in black American literature. Wright wanted to show that youths like Bigger were not inherently bad, that their intense frustration, hatred, and their crimes were a result of being shut out of American society.  (p.151) Native Son was, and still is a controversial book, despite the cuts and revisions demanded by the influential Book of the Month Club.  They insisted, for example, that Mary Dalton, who is killed by Bigger Thomas, be represented as entirely passive because they found it unacceptable that a white woman could feel desire for him. Interracial sex was the biggest taboo in American fiction.  Etched into the American psyche is a scene in which a black man makes his way into the bedroom of a white woman and rapes her.  Where Wright came from, black men were lynched for doing nothing more than stirring the embers of this scene in the white imagination. (p.183) (Harper Lee confronted this same taboo in To Kill a Mockingbird twenty years later in 1960.) As Wright had predicted even before he wrote Native Son, responses ranged from racists who relished the way Bigger Thomas confirmed their prejudices to those who were concerned or offended that it portrayed the worst of their race rather than the best of it.  Wright knew it was a risk to his reputation, but he had the courage of his convictions and did not flinch from his goal to make people see what life was like in the Jim Crow era. American Guide Week poster One of the casualties of the pandemic in Australia has been the arts industry, which received little or no support from the previous federal government.  So it was very interesting to read about President Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Writers Project, which during the Depression provided paid work for unemployed writers.  It was especially valuable for Wright because jobs that were open to white writers — work in publishing houses, magazines and newspapers; publicity firms, and radio and film — were not open to him.  He was never encouraged by his family, not even to attend school (and for religious reasons his grandmother even used to burn the school text books that he’d earned the money to buy).  So the Illinois Writers’ Project, one of the few that were racially integrated, was a lifeline.  Of its 200 writers, nine were black, more than any other state, and their contribution was to show for the first time that black life was an integral part of the American experience.  Wright was employed as a supervisor, the most prestigious job

Richard Wright, the Life and Times, by Hazel Rowley

How does a desperately poor, half-educated black man in 20th century America transcend the brutality and racism of his childhood to become one of the most notable writers of his era?  The Australian biographer Hazel Rowley (1951-2011) set out to unravel this story forty years after the death of Richard Wright (1908-1960) and this biography is the result.

Richard Wright, The Life and Times (2001) was Hazel Rowley’s second biography after her award-winning biography of Christina Stead (1994, see my review).  She went on to write Tête-à-tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre (2005) and Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (2010, see my review) before her untimely death in 2011.  In the obituary by Margalit Fox for the New York Times, her attraction to writing the lives of charismatic outsiders is explained:

Ms. Rowley was often asked what united the seemingly diverse subjects of her books. “For those who have read all four, the thread is clear,” she wrote in an introductory passage on her Web site, (hazelrowley.com). “They were courageous people, who all, in some way, felt ‘outsiders’ in society. Above all, they were passionate people who cared about the world and felt angry about its injustices.”  (NYT obituary, 19/3/2011)

The portrait of Richard Wright in Rowley’s bio tells that story in fascinating detail.  I haven’t read Wright yet, though I have a copy of his memoir Black Boy on the TBR. Wright is a significant figure in American literature, transcending the trauma of his grandparents’ slavery, a dysfunctional hyper-religious childhood, and limited education to become internationally famous and influential in changing attitudes.  His writing made people realise the extent of racism in America and the damage that it caused to individuals and society.

Native Son, 1940 Book of the Month edition

He is most famous for his novel Native Son which was chosen as a Book of the Month in 1940 and became a best seller.  Rowley tells the story of the passion which drove the portrayal of Bigger Thomas, a hoodlum from the black ghetto in Chicago, an unlikeable, tough bully who was full of fear and hate.  Wright felt he had been naïve in his bestselling first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, and had decided to write a book “so hard and so deep that they [Americans] would have to face it [racism] without the consolation of tears”.  So there is no idealism or sentimentality in Native Son.  It features the angriest, most violent antihero ever to appear in black American literature.

Wright wanted to show that youths like Bigger were not inherently bad, that their intense frustration, hatred, and their crimes were a result of being shut out of American society.  (p.151)

Native Son was, and still is a controversial book, despite the cuts and revisions demanded by the influential Book of the Month Club.  They insisted, for example, that Mary Dalton, who is killed by Bigger Thomas, be represented as entirely passive because they found it unacceptable that a white woman could feel desire for him.

Interracial sex was the biggest taboo in American fiction.  Etched into the American psyche is a scene in which a black man makes his way into the bedroom of a white woman and rapes her.  Where Wright came from, black men were lynched for doing nothing more than stirring the embers of this scene in the white imagination. (p.183)

(Harper Lee confronted this same taboo in To Kill a Mockingbird twenty years later in 1960.)

As Wright had predicted even before he wrote Native Son, responses ranged from racists who relished the way Bigger Thomas confirmed their prejudices to those who were concerned or offended that it portrayed the worst of their race rather than the best of it.  Wright knew it was a risk to his reputation, but he had the courage of his convictions and did not flinch from his goal to make people see what life was like in the Jim Crow era.

American Guide Week poster

One of the casualties of the pandemic in Australia has been the arts industry, which received little or no support from the previous federal government.  So it was very interesting to read about President Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Writers Project, which during the Depression provided paid work for unemployed writers.  It was especially valuable for Wright because jobs that were open to white writers — work in publishing houses, magazines and newspapers; publicity firms, and radio and film — were not open to him.  He was never encouraged by his family, not even to attend school (and for religious reasons his grandmother even used to burn the school text books that he’d earned the money to buy).  So the Illinois Writers’ Project, one of the few that were racially integrated, was a lifeline.  Of its 200 writers, nine were black, more than any other state, and their contribution was to show for the first time that black life was an integral part of the American experience.  Wright was employed as a supervisor, the most prestigious job for a black man in the whole of Chicago,

The thirty-hour-week job provided the opportunity to meet other writers, as well as people from all walks of life.  The writers went out to research a region, a club, a building, or a social event and produced weekly assignments, four or five pages long.  Best of all, the job left them time for their own writing. (p.109)

Just imagine if the Australian government had funded something similar during the pandemic?  In the digital age it could have defied lockdowns to produce a superb record of a significant period in our history…

Anyway…

Richard Wright also had valuable support from the Communist Party through the American Writers’ Congress.  In later years this association caused all kinds of problems for him, but in his early years it offered camaraderie and mentorship.  Things soured when there were demands that he become an activist when what he wanted to do was write, and he did not want to write party ideology either.  However in the era of McCarthyism his friendships with Communists and his delayed departure from the party meant that he was under surveillance… and to protect himself from blacklisting and losing the passport that enabled him to live an expat life, this led him to betrayals of friends and colleagues.  Late in life he made the awful discovery that he had not been independent but in fact his anti-communist stance had been used as a propaganda tool for the CIA.

Rowley acknowledges that Wright was a flawed man.  He was disloyal to his Communist colleagues; he was unfaithful to his wife over and over again; and during his years in France he was in league with the FBI and CIA against those with differing views about Algerian independence.  And his distaste for aspects of African and Asian culture led him to make remarks that seem extraordinary to us now.  On the one hand, he was forward-thinking about the role of women, and on the other he seemed like an apologist for colonialism.  At the first international congress of Black writers and artists at the Sorbonne in 1956, he was the only speaker to mention the absence of women…

“I don’t know how many of you have noticed it – there have been no women functioning vitally and responsibly upon this platform helping to mould and mobilize our thoughts. This is not a criticism of the conference, it is not a criticism of anyone, it is a criticism that I heap upon ourselves collectively… In our struggle for freedom, against great odds, we cannot afford to ignore one half of our manpower, that is, the force of women and their active collaboration. Black men will not be free until their women are free.” (p.479)

but…

Wright argued that the ideas of the West had to some extent freed the Africans and Asians from their “stultifying traditions and customs”.  He wished only that Europe had not introduced these ideas by means of colonisation, murder and slavery.”

James Baldwin thought this was wrongheaded and insensitive.  

The Nigerian journal Black Orpheus would express incredulity that Wright virtually thanked European powers for the destruction of African cultures. (p.479)

Well, yes…

Richard Wright, The Life and Times is not only a fascinating biography of a complex man, it’s also a window onto the five decades of Wright’s life in America, in postwar France and the UK, and in the era of  independence movements in Africa and Asia.  There is much more to it than I have space to outline here.  You may have to hunt around to find a copy, but it’s worth the effort.

Highly recommended.

Picture Credits: American Guide Week poster, By Work Projects Administration Poster Collection – Library of CongressCatalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/92500637Image download: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3b40000/3b48000/3b48900/3b48998r.jpgOriginal url: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f03733, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31796935

Author: Hazel Rowley
Title: Richard Wright, The Life and Times
Publisher: a John Macrae / Owl Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2001
Cover design by Raquel Jaramillo
ISBN: 9780805070880, pbk., 626 pages including 98 pages of Notes, Bibliography, a Note on Primary Sources, Acknowledgments and an Index
Source: on loan, with thanks to Hazel Rowley’s sister Della Rowley.