François-René de Chateaubriand was born on this day in 1768, and Richard Wright was born on this day in 1908. The two meet at Natchez, Mississippi: Chateaubriand, castle-born and privileged, wrote Les Natchez and two other novels about the American South after traveling there in the early 1790s; Wright was born outside of town, his father a sharecropper.
The South depicted by the “Father of French Romanticism” is an idealized portrait, something that his contemporary and countryman, Eugene Delacroix, might have painted — and did, his “Les Natchez” inspired by a reading of Chateaubriand’s Atala. The novel depicts the local Indians as “happy savages” enjoying a “new Eden” in which “grace is always united to splendor in the eyes of nature.” When Atala and her lover, a Natchez warrior, are forced into exile, she longs for things as they were and should be:
Wonderous stories told around the hearth, tender effusions of the heart, long habits of loving so necessary to life, you have filled the days of those who have not quitted their natal place! Their tombs are in the land of their birth, with the setting sun, the tears of their friends and the charms of religion.
Happy are they who have not seen the smoke of foreign festivals, and who have never been seated elsewhere than at the rejoicings of their fathers!
Thus sang Atala.
As portrayed in Black Boy, Wright’s South is a racial nightmare — only the Jim Crow options, always offered with an insult, slap or drawn pistol — from which he forces himself awake, determined “to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive”:
Somewhere in the dead of the southern night my life had switched onto the wrong track and, without my knowing it, the locomotive of my heart was rushing down a dangerously steep slope, heading for a collision, heedless of the warning red lights that blinked all about me, the sirens and the bells and the screams that filled the air.
Wright’s equivalent Romantic vision was his belief in a liberal and welcoming North; after two frustrating decades in Chicago and New York, he moved to France.