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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY (continued)

In May 1937, Wright left Chicago for the nation's literary and publishing capital, New York City, where he became Harlem editor of the Communist Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker. Meanwhile, he was beginning to achieve broader renown. A novella he had submitted to a literary contest won first prize, and that story plus three earlier ones were published as Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Though it was well received and is still highly regarded by many critics, Wright thought the book was too sentimental. He wrote later that he decided to write something "so hard and deep" that readers "would have to face it without the consolation of tears."

That second book was Native Son (1940). An immediate best seller, it was also the major achievement of his career. Though Wright had expected Native Son to be controversial, the response of the white press was immediate, almost unanimous, and wildly enthusiastic. Perhaps the continuing economic crisis and the great popularity of John Steinbeck's social protest novels had created a more positive cultural climate than Wright had realized. Such influential newspapers and magazines as The New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, The New Yorker, the Saturday Review of Literature, The Nation, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Time praised Wright's social analysis and his literary skill. Critics compared him to the famous American novelist Theodore Dreiser, to Steinbeck, and even to the great nineteenth-century novelists Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The response from the black press was also favorable, though tempered with some criticism for his having chosen such a violent protagonist. And the reading public was as excited as the critics. Native Son sold some 200,000 copies in less than three weeks, a record for its publisher. Wright received a huge number of letters, the great majority of them praising the novel. Moreover, the South acclaimed the novel as highly as did the North. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, declared Wright its "adopted son," and after New York and Chicago, sales were best in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas and Houston, Texas. Almost overnight, Richard Wright had become one of the most famous writers in the United States.


A stage adaptation of Native Son played on Broadway in 1941, received enthusiastic reviews, and then toured several states; Wright had collaborated on the script. That same year Wright wrote the text for a photographic folk history of American blacks, Twelve Million Black Voices. In it Wright used the socialist ideas he had learned from his membership in the Communist Party and expressed them in emotional and poetic prose. He then wrote "The Man Who Lived Underground," a fable about a black man who hides in a sewer system. Foreshadowing some of his later work, it deemphasizes race and explores philosophical issues of freedom and social responsibility. Despite his fame, Wright was unable to get it published until 1944 and then only in part.

At odds with the Communist Party since 1942, Wright announced his final break with that organization in a 1944 Atlantic Monthly article, "I Tried to Be a Communist," later reprinted in The God That Failed, a collection of essays by ex-Communist writers. Though Wright's involvement in the Communist Party influenced the ideas that the characters Jan and Max present in Native Son, many readers have also found that novel to contain evidence of Wright's independence from the Communists. Indeed, the Party's reaction to the novel was mixed. When Wright joined the Communist Party, the Communists emphasized the struggle against racism. But especially after America's entry into World War II, they tended to deemphasize racial issues for fear that the fight for racial equality might undermine the unity needed for the war effort. This change in Party policy was one reason for Wright's disenchantment. But he also felt that the Party's insistence on participation in political organizing took time and energy away from writing and that the Party did not sufficiently respect its members' needs to develop as individuals.

Originally, "I Tried to Be a Communist" was to be the concluding section of Wright's autobiography. But Black Boy was published in 1945 without this account of his Chicago experiences. Black Boy became another best seller. Though its calmer prose and factual subject matter make it quite different from Native Son, the two are still regarded as Wright's most important works.

In 1946, Wright went to Paris and became friends with some of France's leading intellectuals, especially the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his followers. Because Wright felt that in France he could live free of the racial discrimination that still plagued him in the United States, in 1947 he settled in Paris permanently. Shortly thereafter, he began working on a movie version of Native Son. Wright wrote the screenplay and starred in the film, but in the United States censors insisted on cutting the picture severely, and it received poor reviews when it opened in 1951.

After this experience, Wright returned to composing novels. Sartre's philosophical emphasis on isolation and on individual freedom, appealed to him, and Sartre's ideas are thought to have influenced his next novel, The Outsider (1953). A philosophical tale plotted like a detective story, The Outsider rejects all forms of social pressure in favor of an extreme individualism. After The Outsider, Wright used a white hero to explore themes of guilt and violence in Savage Holiday (1954).

Wright was also becoming increasingly interested in the colonial world and in Africa especially. He spent the summer of 1953 in the British dependency known as the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and his experience in Africa formed the basis of several nonfiction attacks on colonialism, including Black Power (1954).

In the last years of his life, Wright returned to fiction. The subject matter of The Long Dream (1958), meant to be the first book of a trilogy, recalls Black Boy. It's a fictional account of a child growing up in Mississippi. The next year Wright fell ill with amoebic dysentery and never completely recovered. Nonetheless, he continued to write and lecture, and his health seemed to be improving until on November 28, 1960, he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of fifty-two.

Wright remains one of the most important Afro-American writers. Even black authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, who have found fault with him, nonetheless acknowledge Wright's deep influence on their careers. He helped them personally when they were beginning to write, and his success made theirs easier.

Wright's reputation in the United States declined after the 1940s, but it began to rise again during the political activism of the 1960s. Black political leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael praised Wright, and Eldridge Cleaver, one of the major black writers to emerge from that period, said, "Of all American novelists of any hue, Richard Wright reigns supreme." Both Malcolm X's Autobiography and Cleaver's Soul on Ice pattern themselves after Black Boy's autobiographical journey toward a clearer understanding of the world, and Ellison's Invisible Man shows Black Boy's influence too. Meanwhile, Wright has affected works as diverse as French playwright Jean Genet's The Blacks and Truman Capote's murder story In Cold Blood. And many readers of all colors and political views still find Native Son and Black Boy compelling indictments of racism and penetrating character studies of individuals in revolt.

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