Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen

Overview

Upon meeting thirty-three-year-old Richard Wright in 1941, the renowned sociologist Robert Park famously demanded, "How in hell did you happen?" Having been born into poverty in a sharecropper's cabin in 1908, Wright managed to complete only an eighth-grade education. Yet by the time he met Park he was the best-selling author of Native Son (1940), a searing indictment of racism that is a classic of American literature. Although Wright died prematurely at the age of fifty-two, he published nearly a dozen books and...

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Overview

Upon meeting thirty-three-year-old Richard Wright in 1941, the renowned sociologist Robert Park famously demanded, "How in hell did you happen?" Having been born into poverty in a sharecropper's cabin in 1908, Wright managed to complete only an eighth-grade education. Yet by the time he met Park he was the best-selling author of Native Son (1940), a searing indictment of racism that is a classic of American literature. Although Wright died prematurely at the age of fifty-two, he published nearly a dozen books and left behind hundreds of unpublished manuscript pages.

Jennifer Jensen Wallach's biography—which we will publish on the fiftieth anniversary of his mysterious death—traces Wright from his obscure origins to international fame, from the cotton fields of Mississippi to his expatriate home of Paris. She highlights Wright's various attempts to answer the driving question of his life: "How can I live freely?"

Seeking answers, Wright traveled widely and became involved with many of the most important intellectual and political movements of his day, including Marxism, existentialism, and Pan-Africanism. Along the way he struggled to balance his own fierce sense of individualism with a desire to be a spokesperson for oppressed people throughout the globe. His ardent prose infuriated, bewildered, and inspired a generation of African-American writers and activists. It also attracted the attention of American intelligence agencies, which placed Wright under surveillance for most of his adult life.

To both his critics and admirers, Wright proved the truth of his claim that words are among the most powerful of weapons.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wallach’s biography of Richard Wright, to be published on the 50th anniversary of his death, gracefully traces and celebrates the writer’s rise from his hardscrabble Mississippi roots (unforgettably portrayed in Black Boy), his development of and dedication to his craft, and his physical and political peregrinations--to New York and left-wing circles, and later to Paris and the existentialists. Wallach’s book is thorough and almost pedagogical in its purposes; she excels at the lively anecdote and doesn’t shy away from her subject’s less savory aspects--his affairs and homophobia. But what’s absent is any trace of Wright’s voice as well as more perspective from his peers, readers, or critics to round out and provide depth and analysis to this study. This able biography summarizes where it should probe, and skates too smoothly over the conflicts and controversies that surrounded the man, who in his pursuit of freedom and unvarnished truth crossed racial lines, went into self-exile, and embraced the harshest social realism. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A brief introduction to the pioneering, cantankerous and oft-frustrated author. This book, part of the publisher's series of short biographies of prominent African-Americans, isn't intended to deliver new information or surprising insights into the life and work of Richard Wright (1908-60). But given that the two major biographies of Wright surpass 600 pages, Wallach (African-American History/Univ. of North Texas) fills a gap, and it's no rush job. Though she speeds through the major touchstones of her subject's life, she takes time to make considered observations about the author's psyche. Wright's motivations were simple during his childhood. As a teenager his chief interest was escaping the grinding poverty of rural Mississippi, and his growing frustration with Southern racism pushed him to Memphis and later Chicago. Inspired by the ferocity he discovered in the writings of H.L. Mencken, Wright began working on poetry, essays and fiction, gaining a supportive community among Communist Party members during the 1920s and '30s. In Harlem he wrote Native Son, his career-making 1940 novel about the struggles of a young black man in Chicago-though he made compromises in its tone and plot to win the approval of the Book-of-the-Month Club (and the bestseller status that came with it). Tellingly, Wallach's biography is more than half finished by the time Native Son makes Wright an international success, and what follows shows the author as increasingly combative and rudderless. He publicly broke with the Communist Party, saw his marriage fail thanks to his infidelities and bypassed the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to settle in France and speak out on racial injustice globally. Wallach efficiently captures this complicated period of Wright's life, setting his public statements of outrage against his private refusals to let more than a handful of people into his personal life, alienating even intimate proteges like Ralph Ellison. By the time of his death, Wright had spent years struggling to synthesize his thinking into a work as potent as Native Son, and though Wallach gives reasons to admire his later career, she convincingly argues that more affecting works might've been produced by a more compassionate man. An emotionally astute study that belies its length.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Jennifer Jensen Wallach holds a Ph.D. in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts and now teaches history at the University of North Texas. She lives in Denton, Texas.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

1 Black Boy 9

2 Refugee 33

3 Breakthrough 60

4 Marriage 80

5 Fame 103

6 Expatriate 127

7 Sojourner 153

Acknowledgments 181

A Note on Sources 183

Index 191

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