Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Richard Wright wrote Native Son

It is the birthday of writer Richard Wright (1908), who is best known for his short story collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938) and his novels Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Wright wrote on racial relations in America. Much of his work is marked by incidents of anger and violence.

Wright grew up Mississippi, raised by his maternal grandmother and his aunt, who insisted that he pray and find God. Instead, he rebelled and held a lifelong aversion to organized religion. He moved to Chicago when he was 19 and fell in with Communists, later joining the Communist Party.

He wrote poems and short stories, and eventually found work writing and editing Communist Party publications. By 1936, though, he had fallen out with the Communists and was accused of being a Trotskyite.

He moved to New York the following year and worked on the WPA Writers' Project guide book for the city. He wrote the essay on Harlem for New York Panorama (1938). He was an editor at the Daily Worker, and wrote for various publications. His collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), gained him national attention. The stories are full of tales of brutality and mob violence.

Native Son (1940) tells the story of a 20-year-old poverty stricken black man who commits violent crimes in order to make a living in the slums of Chicago. The novel drew both praise (as an effort to explain racial divides in America) and criticism. Friend James Baldwin's dismissal of the book as protest fiction led to a falling out with Wright.

Black Boy (1945) was based on Wright's childhood experiences growing up in the South and his eventual move to Chicago as a young man.

Wright moved to Paris in 1946 and never returned to the United States. He came to know existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as black expatriates James Baldwin and Chester Himes. He wrote The Outsider (1953) about a black Communist in New York and the racism he experiences among fellow travelers. It appeared at the beginning of the Cold War and the height McCarthyism and the Red Scare, factors that helped make it successful.

Wright died from a heart attack in Paris in 1960. He was 52.

Among his literary influences were Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, H.L. Mencken, Marcel Proust, and Gertrude Stein.

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