Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Arnold Rampersad, biographer of Langston Hughes and editor of the two-volume Library of America edition of the works of Richard Wright, has added another dimension to Richard Wright scholarship with the publication of Richard Wright: A Critical Collection. It is a valuable repository of information for the seasoned or novice Wright scholar. The collection consists of an introduction, fifteen essays, a chronology of important dates, notes on contributors, and a bibliography. Basically, the articles are reprints dating from 1981 to 1991, and three have no footnotes or works cited, a lack which may alarm some readers. However, the "Introduction" is newly generated material for the collection. In it, Rampersad observes that "Richard Wright's reputation as a writer has risen and fallen over the more than six decades since he began publishing his works in 1931, when he was twenty-three" (1). The fifteen reprints reflect the critics' assessments of Wright's works that led to his rise and fall in critical acclaim. Four of the articles are by top Wright scholars--Keneth Kinnamon, Jack B. Moore, Yoshinobu Hakutani, and John M. Reilly. Given the delay most publications encounter, these articles reflect the 1980s critical temperament in Wright studies as well as the handicaps faced by scholar/critics.
A major hardship for Wright scholars was the tight control Wright's executors exerted over his unpublished papers and manuscripts. Sherley Anne Williams remarks in a footnote to her 1982 essay that she did "not have access" to Wright's unpublished manuscripts of "Little Sister" and "Maud" (66). But her travail of being denied access to Wright's "sealed" manuscripts was the plight of Wright scholars until very recently. Critics have had to rely upon second-hand information and the publications of Michel Fabre, especially his definitive biography The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973), in order to construct, reconstruct, or deconstruct Wright's life or his works. Seven of the fifteen essays cite Fabre's biography. And Wright's letters still have not been released by the Wright estate. As a result of these "dark holes" of (mis)information, we find conflicting data being proffered by critics on common matters. Rampersad considers Wright's essay "Literature of the United States" as the "most interesting" of the four lecture-essays in White Man, Listen! (1957), while Keneth Kinnamon corrects another critic's assumption that Wright produced this essay while an exile in France (98).
Another contradiction among the critical voices pertains to available resources. The unrestricted files of Harper and Row, Wright's publishers, and the letters of Edward Aswell, his editor, were available at Princeton University in the 1980s. Timothy Dow Adams would have benefitted from these files for his essay, since the publisher's letters reveal the legal counsel given to Wright to change the names of real persons cited in Black Boy in order to avoid a libel suit. Sherley Anne Williams's article stands as the seminal essay labeling Richard Wright as a misogynist and anti-black-feminist writer. We hear echoing voices of Williams's premise in the articles by Kinnamon, Hakutani, Rampersad, and Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr. (although Hakutani cites the 1969 remarks of Edward Margolies, who had condemned Wright for his unfavorable portrayal of black women).
Rampersad wisely starts the collection with critiques of Wright's most famous novel, Native Son (1940). Jerry H. Bryant in "The Violence of Native Son" (1981) asserts that Bigger Thomas is a "black victim of white racism" (12). Barred from participating in American culture, he breaks the rules of civilized society. Louis Tremaine (1986) contends that Bigger Thomas has a "dissociated sensibility" which accounts for his "split consciousness," itself exacerbated by Bigger's inability to articulate his vacillating emotions, ranging from indifferent expressions to violent responses.
In "From St. Petersburg to Chicago" (1986), Tony Magistrale traces Wright's attraction to Dostoevski. He illustrates how constrictive urban environments contribute to the anti-social behaviors of Raskolnikov and Bigger Thomas. Magistrale portrays Bigger as a victim of his environment, whereas Raskolnikov is a prisoner of his self-will. Bryant links Bigger's likeness to Albert Camus's existentialist hero Meursault in The Stranger, pointing out that both heroes commit violent murders that move them toward the self submerged under many masks. Readers here should turn to Yoshinobu Hakutani's excellent essay (1989) for a fuller explication of the Wright-Camus link. However, Hakutani concentrates more on the distinctions between Meursault and Cross Damon as radically different characters on matters of ideology and action. Wright's hero is not only an embodiment of a "half-baked philosophy" but a "genuine product of the African American experience" (163). The twins of naturalism--heredity and environment--are more evident in The Stranger than in The Outsider. For Camus, crime is not the center but a consequence; for Wright, crime occasions the creation of a new self and a new life for the hero.
In "Composing Bigger" (1988), Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., rejects the usual reading of naturalism and Marxism in the novel. Like Bryant, Magistrale, and Tremaine, Skerrett notes the criminal element but fails to consider Bigger's violent and chaotic formative years in Mississippi and his youth in Chicago that destine him to be a recidivist. The value of Skerrett's article is its attention to the theme of authorial self-referentiality prevalent in Wright's fiction and nonfiction. He ties in Wright's personal history of working at the Chicago South Side Youth Club as an inspiration for the creation of Bigger. Writing the novel exorcised Wright of the "forces, black and white, that attempted to censure" his feelings. Ultimately Bigger's "search is for identity" (35).
In "Richard Wright and the Art of Nonfiction" (1986), John M. Reilly focuses on Wright's critical writing as a representation of biography, and his personal experience as a rhetorical framework in a text. Focusing on The Color Curtain (1956) and White Man, Listen! (1957), he contends that Wright's nonfiction of the 1950s represents his resolution of the professional crisis caused by his exile. The Outsider shows Wright's "crisis of exile and disillusionment with politics"; The Color Curtain and White Man, Listen! show Wright's resolution to a "crisis of despair": He creates the identity of an intellectual through whom he could speak, as in 12 Million Black Voices (175).
Kwame Anthony Appiah disagrees with Reilly in "Wright in the Gold Coast" (1987). He refutes Reilly's claim that Wright attempts a "self-fashioning" by "building a bridge of words between his self and the world"; rather, the "failure of that `bridge of words' ... is precisely what the success of that 'prerequisite to create his self' demands" (191). Appiah contends that Wright in Black Power (1954) has no attachment to or interest in Africa; as a result, the reader witnesses Wright's mood swings as they vacillate between condescension and paranoia. Appiah authenticates his claims that Wright's "book is the record of a mind closed to the world which he travelled" (194) from the personal experience of one who grew up in the Ghana of 1953 that Wright condemns.
The personal voice of authority in Wright's nonfiction continues to receive attention in Jack B. Moore's essay on "The Voice in 12 Million Black Voices" (1989). This groundbreaking essay is now somewhat dated. Moore, too, builds upon Reilly's work to argue the importance of oral language in the work's structure. He links Wright's text to the 1930s genre of "documentary film" and its intertwining of "kinetic visual images," sound, and narrated text (141). Wright's narrative "voice," Moore says, oscillates between that of minister and orator. While Moore identifies "montage" and other cinematic techniques used by Wright for his "telescoping of black history" in the text (142-43), he cites William Stott as an authority on the documentary, but Stott actually misread the major collaborative efforts between Wright and Rosskam in the selecting, cropping, and placing of the FSA pictures in the photographic text.
Three essays examine Wright's autobiography Black Boy (1945) and its purpose of self-representation. Timothy Dow Adams in "I Do Believe Him Though I Know He Lies" (1985) asserts that Wright's "inability to tell the truth is Wright's metaphor for the self" (83). Adams notes instances of Wright's changing of an idea or event between one text and another or his switching of real names to fiction and fictional names to nonfiction. In "Call and Response" (1986), Keneth Kinnamon appropriates Robert Stepto's theory of the pregeneric myth and the African American's "quest for literacy and freedom" as expressed in the slave narrative and its recursion in autobiography and fiction. There is an intertextual tradition among writers of African American literature which Stepto divides into "The Call" and "The Response." Stepto includes Black Bo), among the texts which "call," and Kinnamon pairs it with Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as "the response." Considering gender differences, Kinnamon then provides paradigms of similarities with differences between the two autobiographies as narratives of childhood to youth spanning fourteen years. Their love of literature enables both Wright and Angelou to transcend obstacles of oppression in their quests for literacy and freedom.
The most profound essay in Rampersad's collection is Abdul JanMohammed's "The Construction of Richard Wright as Subject" (1987). Building upon Stepto's contention of Wright's quest for literacy and freedom, JanMohammed argues that Black Boy is a "testament to the struggle over formation of black subjectivity in a racist society" (107). He uses ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to argue that minorities cannot participate in the dominant culture until their hegemonic negation is itself negated. Then he shows how Richard Wright resisted construction into a collective representation. JanMohammed turns to the theory of social death by Orlando Patterson to show how the controlling mechanisms of white dominant culture intentionally negated the slave's mind and thus power and identity (producing social death). Wright resisted social construction into a collective black boy to rise as an individual self, and Black Boy is an account of the dialectics between this phylogenic and ontogenic construction of the black boy.
Roman mythology is also a link to Wright's fiction according to Michael Atkinson in "`Big Boy Leaves Home' and a Tale from Ovid" (1987). The value of his essay concerns the trope of the "gaze" as a symbol of power and of death for the black male voyeur who either "sees" or is "seen" by the archetypal white woman. Ultimately, Big Boy gets trapped in a "crime of vision rather than sex" (133).
Violence toward black males is also a topic in Lawd Today!. Arnold Rampersad's 1991 essay reads like an "Introduction," which he wrote for the edition reissued by Northeastern University Press. Linking Wright's 1930s novel to influences of James Joyce and Henry James, Rampersad illustrates that the work traces a day in the life of postal employee Jake Jackson over the urban landscape of Chicago.
The essay by Patricia D. Watkins on "The Paradoxical Structure of `The Man Who Lived Underground'" (1989) synthesizes the naturalistic/existentialist philosophies which critics traditionally have read in isolation. Watkins provides a thorough explication of these dual philosophies informing the life and actions of Fred Daniels. In particular, she examines Wright's use of language, and specifically oxymorons such as "living dead" to describe the people above ground, and "dark sunshine" to illustrate inversion of dark-light symbols. But strangely, Watkins completely ignores how these oxymorons prevail in Wright's other works, such as "Almos' A Man" (1940), Native Son (1940), and 12 Million Black Voices (1941). She concludes that Richard Wright was a born naturalistic/existentialist philosopher who must have seen the paradox "inherent in man's essence and existence" (160).
Finally, Sherley Anne Williams cuts through all of Wright's paradoxes with her straightforward essay on "Women in the Fiction of Richard Wright" (1982). She provides a sweeping review of the image of black women as castrators and white women as saviors of black men in Wright's published canon to 1982, giving credit to Wright's "deft and moving renderings of a black woman's experience" in "Bright and Morning Star." Citing the mute characterization of Lulu Mann in "Down by the Riverside," Williams casts her as Wright's prototypical speechless or invisible black woman whom Wright blames as the handicap to his black male heroes. She charges Wright with fathering the "denigration of black women" and "glorifying ... the symbolic white woman" that was to "flower in the fiction of black writers in the late sixties and seventies" (66).
Arnold Rampersad's collection of essays provides an important and insightful overview of the critical temperament of Wright studies during the 1980s. Let us hope that, since the Wright archives at Yale University are now open for viewing and xeroxing of materials, Wright's critics in the mid-1990s will avail themselves of these invaluable firsthand resources.