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Richard Nathan Wright was born September 4, 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi (not far from Nachez), the son of Nathan Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher, and the grandson of slaves. In 1911 Ella takes Wright and barely one year old brother Leon Alan to Natchez to live with her family and the father later joins them and finds work in a sawmill. In 1913, the four Wrights moved to Memphis, Tennessee. But within a year, Nathan deserts them for another woman and Ella works as a cook to support the family.
In September 1915, Richard entered school at Howe Institute. However, Ella fell ill early in 1916 and Richard's father Nathan's mother came for a while to care for the family. When she left, Richard and Alan had to live for a brief time in an orphange until Ella could have them live with her parents in Jackson, Mississippi. But again, Richard, Alan, and Ella were moved, this time with Ella's sister Maggieand her husband Silas Hoskins in Elaine, Arkansas. But whites murdered Hoskins, and the family ran to West Helena, Arkansas, and then to Jackson, Mississippi. After a few months, they return to West Helena, where mother and aunt cook and clean for whites. Soon, Aunt Maggie goes north to Detroit with her new lover.
Wright entered school in the fall of 1918, but was forced to leave afer a few months because his mother's poor health forces him to earn money to support the family. Unable to pay their rent, the family moved and Wright gathers excess coal next to the railroad tracks in order to heat the home. When his mother suffers a paralyzing stroke, they return with Ella's Mother to Jackson, and Aunt Maggie takes Leon Alan to Detroit with her.
At the age of 13, Richard entered the fifth grade in Jackson, and he was soon placed in sixth grade. In addition, he delivers newspapers and works briefly with a traveling insurance salesman. The next year, he entered the seventh grade and his grandfather died. He managed to earn enough to buy textbooks, food, and clothes by running errands for whites. In the meantime, Richard read pulp novels, magazines, and anything he can get his hands on. During the winter, he writes his first short story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," which is published in the spring of 1924 in the Jackson Southern Register. In May 1925, Wright graduates valedictorian of his ninth grade. He begins high school, but as Leon Alan has returned from Detroit, quits after only a few weeks so he can earn money. At ties he worked two or even three jobs.
In 1927, Richard read H. L. Mencken, and from Mencken, Wright learned about and read Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Frank Harris, and others. Wright and Aunt Maggie moved to Chicago, while his mother and brother returned to Jackson, where Wright worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy until finding temporary employment with the postal service in Chicago. His mother and brother moved in with Wright and Aunt Maggie, and Aunt Cleopatra joins them. He makes friends, both black and white, in the post office, writes regularly, and attends meetings of black literary groups.
Following the stock market crash, Wright loses his postal job, but began work, in 1930, on a novel, "Cesspool," (published posthumously in 1970's as Lawd Today!) that reflects his experience in the post office. In 1931 Wright publishes a short story, "Superstition," in Abbott's Monthly Magazine, a black journal that fails before Wright collects any money from them. However, he did get an opportunity to write through the Federal Writers' Project. He became a member of the Communist Party and published poetry and short stories in such magazines as Left Front, Anvil, and New Masses.
He went to New York for the American Writers' Congress, where he speaks on "The Isolation of the Negro Writer." He publishes a poem about lynching in Partisan Review and writes an article for New Masses entitled "Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite." After his return, he is hired by the Federal Writers' Project to research the history of Illinois and of the Negro in Chicago. His short story "Big Boy Leaves Home" (1936) appears in The New Caravan anthology, where it attracts mainstream critical attention.
In 1937 Richard Wright went to New York City, where he became Harlem editor of the Communist paper, Daily Worker. He helps to launch the magazine New Challenge , and publishes "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" in American Stuff: WPA Writers' Anthology. "Blueprint for Negro Writing" appears in the first and only issue of New Challenge. A second novel manuscript, "Tarbaby's Dawn," makes the rounds with publishers and receives constant rejection; it is never published, but "Fire and Cloud" wins first prize in a Story Magazine contest.
The next year, Uncle Tom's Children is published in March to wide acclaim. "Bright and Morning Star" appears in New Masses, and Wright soon joins that magazine's editorial board. He works on a new novel and asks Margaret Walker to send him newspaper clippings from the Robert Nixon case in Chicago. In October, he finishes the first draft of this novel, which he calls Native Son. "Fire and Cloud" wins the O. Henry Memorial Award. By February 1939 he has a completed second draft of Native Son. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Wright resigns from the Federal Writers' Project. In June, he finishes Native Son and marries Dhima Rose Meadman, a white modern-dance teacher. Ralph Ellison is his best man. He begins work on a new novel, "Little Sister," which is never published.
Native Son is published 1940 in March and the Book-of-the-Month Club offers it as a main selection. Though the book is banned in Birmingham, Alabama, libraries, Wright becomes internatinally famous. Unhappy with the stage adaptation of Native Son that Paul Green has been working on, Wright and John Houseman revise it with Orson Welles in mind as director. The book is a best-seller and is staged successfully as a play on Broadway (1941) by Orson Welles.
Wright expresses his opposition to the war first by signing onto an anti-war appeal by the League of American Writers, and second by publishing "Not My People's War." Both items appear in New Masses in 1941. He criticizes Roosevelt's racial policies in a 27 June speech to the NAACP, although communist party pressure forces him to lessen his critique. Wright gets involved in music: "Note on Jim Crow Blues" prefaces blues singer Josh White's Southern Exposure album and Paul Robeson, accompanied by the Count Basie orchestra, records Wright's blues song, "King Joe." Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States published in October. Wright becomes interested in psychoanalysis as a result of his reading Fredric Wertham's Dark Legend. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wright signs a petition, which appears in New Masses, supporting America's entry into the war.
Wright is not drafted in 1942 because he is his family's sole support, but he unsuccessfully tries to secure a special commission in the psychological warfare or propoganda services of the army. He publishes "The Man Who Lived Underground" in Accent and "What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You" in Harper's Magazine. He breaks quietly with the Communist party. Wright begins American Hunger. In 1943 the FBI begins interviewing Wright's associates and neighbors, presumably to determine if 12 Million Black Voices constitutes sedition, but while that inquiry concludes during 1943, the FBI's investigations continue until Wright's death.
Book-of-the-Month Club tells Harper that it only wants the first section of American Hunger, which describes Wright's southern experience. Wright agrees to this demand and titles the new volume Black Boy. The second section is not published until 1977 (as American Hunger). "I Tried to Be a Communist" appears in the Atlantic Monthly, causing New Masses and Daily Worker to denounce and disown Wright. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth in March 1945. It remains on the bestseller list from 29 April until 6 June. Theodore Bilbo, a senator from Mississippi, labels the book obscene. That year Wright also helped James Baldwin win a fellowship.
In 1947, a Hollywood producer offers to film Native Son, but wants to change Bigger Thomas to a white man; Wright refuses. Wright's works are being translated into several European languages. Wright decides to move the family to Europe permanently. But in reaction to the continued racism he encountered in America, Wright decided to move to France as a permanent expatriate. While in France, Wright took a growing interest in anti-colonial movements and also travelled extensively. Wright himself played Bigger in a motion-picture version of Native Son made in Argentina in 1951 .
Late in 1952, Wright begins working on a novel about a white psychopathic murderer. The Outsider (1953), was acclaimed as the first American existential novel. Three later novels were not well-received. Among his polemical writings of that period was White Man, Listen! (1957), which was originally a series of lectures given in Europe.
Wright had considerable company as an exile in Paris. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes were just the most notable of the presences. Meetings amongst the individuals are lengendary.
In February 1957, Pagan Spain appears. It fails to sell well, despite favorable reviews. In October, Doubleday publishes a collection of Wright's lectures entitled White Man, Listen!. 1958 Wright finishes The Long Dream, his novel about Mississippi, and begins to work on its sequel, "Island of Hallucinations," which is set in France. When The Long Dream is published by Doubleday in October, it receives poor and sometimes hostile reviews, and it does not sell well.
On 14 January, 1959 , Wright's mother dies. In February, Wright sends Reynolds the manuscript for "Island of Hallucinations." He meets with Martin Luther King, Jr., who is on his way to India. Wright's new editor, Timothy Seldes, asks for substantial revisions on "Island of Hallucinations." Wright shelves the project and never completes it. In the spring, his play Daddy Goodness opens in Paris. Best American Stories of 1958 includes Wright's "Big Black Good Man."
A stage adaptation of The Long Dream opens on Broadway February 17, 1960 to poor reviews and closes within a week. Of his completed Haiku, Wright prepares 811 for publication. He begins a new novel, "A Father's Law," during the summer, but on returning to Paris in September, he falls ill. He prepares Eight Men, a collection of short stories, which World Publishers will publish in 1961. November 28, 1960, Wright dies. The cause of death is listed as heart attack. On the third of December, Wright is cremated along with a copy of Black Boy. His ashes remain at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The autobiographical American Hunger, which narrates Wright's experiences after moving to the North, was published posthumously in 1977.
Some of the more candid passages dealing with race, sex, and politics in Wright's books had been cut or omitted before original publication. Unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy, and his other works were published in 1991, however.
Constance Webb, Richard Wright: A Biography (1968)
John A. Williams, The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970)
Keneth Kinnamon, The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study of Literature and Society (1972)
Addison Gayle, Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (1980)
Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer (eds.), Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (1984)
Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, trans.from French, 2nd ed. (1993)
Harold Bloom (ed.), Richard Wright: Modern Critical Views (1987)
Keneth Kinnamon (ed.), New Essays on Native Son (1990)
Robert Butler, Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero (1991)
Michel Fabre, The World of Richard Wright (1985)
Margaret Walker, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K.A. Appiah (eds.), Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993);
Robert Butler (ed.), The Critical Response to Richard Wright (1995).