Monday, 12 November 2012


RICHARD WRIGHT: The Life and Times
University of Chicago Press, 2012 (first published 2008), 626 pages, $38.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon 

Despite being the first best-selling black writer in American literary history (with Native Son in 1940), Richard Wright found that ‘my being a rather well known writer did not help me any’ in lessening the prejudice he faced in the US.  His fame, in fact, so goaded some whites to put him more firmly in his racial place that he fled into voluntary exile to France from 1947.  Hazel Rowley’s masterful biography of Wright recreates the writer whose life and literature was marked by bigotry, violence and disillusion.

Born in 1908 in a wooden shack in Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, Wright had a stormy childhood, trapped by a puritanical Seventh Day Adventist religion, menial jobs working for ‘nigger’-taunting bosses, and the threat of violence.

Books and writing were his intellectual escape, and Chicago his geographical route out of “semi-feudal conditions in the rural south to the steel and stone grind of modern industrial capitalism” with its own special discrimination, magnified by the Great Depression.

Marxism became Wright’s university, through the Communist party-organised John Reed Club of proletarian artists and writers.  Wary at first, Wright found that communists were the only white people who showed sincere interest in black rights.  A member from 1932 to 1944, the Communist party was central to his life, though never an entirely smooth fit.  Although Wright loyally survived numerous twists and turns of Moscow-dominated political and literary policy, he was seen by hard-liners as an untrustworthy “wayward individualist”.

As Harlem correspondent in New York for the party’s Daily Worker,  he resented having to write propaganda and preferred to put his creativity into his novels.  Until now, he said, black writing had been  ‘the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America for justice’, an approach he set out to exorcise through “urban toughness”, “graphic realism” and “emotional power”.  Native Son featured Bigger Thomas, a tough, bullying hoodlum, a rapist and murderer, the “angriest, most violent anti-hero ever to have appeared in black American literature”, says Rowley. 

Not all liberals, black or white, appreciated, or understood, where Bigger Thomas was coming from.  They lamented the novel’s lack of positive characters and absence of sympathetic white people.  Some of Wright’s party comrades were also ill-at-ease with his portrayal of Communists in the novel and they attacked the book with the Stalinist vitriol of the literary ideologue.  Wright lapsed from active membership in response.

His next book, American Hunger, took a bitter biographical tour of racism in the south and north, and also included a scathing attack on the Communist Party for its reaction to Native Son, for its slavish obedience to Moscow and for its hostility to ‘independent-minded individuals’.  There was some justice in his anti-communist broadside but also much unfairness - as Rowley notes, Wright’s “picture of the Communist Party was not balanced.  He wrote with the righteous anger of a betrayed lover”.

Whilst  Moscow was unsubtle about Wright’s defection (calling him a ‘renegade’ whose works display ‘ever-growing signs of the putrefaction common to American decadent literature’), the FBI salivated at the prospect of a Communist apostate who might prove useful for Cold War propaganda and as an informer.  However, given that another major factor for Wright’s break with the party was its downgrading of  the civil rights struggle in favour of the war effort during World War 11, the FBI rapidly cooled towards someone whose disagreement with the Communist Party was that it was ‘not revolutionary enough’, as an agent put it, ‘with respect to the advancement of the negro’.

Wright was never fully assimilated into the rest of the fold of prominent ex-communist intellectuals who contributed to the 1949 Cold War bible, The God That Failed, by British Labour MP, Richard Grossman.  Wright remained concerned about how anti-communism was being used to clamp down on civil liberties and free expression by radicals of any stripe or colour and he declined Grossman’s invitation to contribute to an updated book.

When State Department officials threatened their troublesome new anti-communist ally with a career-damaging show trial before Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Wright vowed never to testify, and when he found out in 1960 that it was the CIA that was behind the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had co-opted Wright by funding and publishing him, he was pained that for years “he had in fact been a propaganda tool for the CIA”.

Wright died in mysterious circumstances in 1960, aged just 52.  Although speculation that the FBI or CIA were involved remains just that, the sudden absence of a talented writer who was a fervent critic of racism in the US was happily to the benefit of the capitalist secret police and their political masters.

Wright’s narrative power as a writer is well served by Rowley’s story-telling rhythm whilst her political assessment of Wright is judicious with only infrequent lapses when Wright’s communist decade is distorted through his unfairly negative, latter-day anti-communism.  In the end, though, even this ideological filter could not screen out the blot of racism from the American capitalist tapestry which Wright had portrayed with force and artistry.

No comments:

Post a Comment