Call-and-response: tracing the ideological shifts of Richard Wright through his correspondence with friends and fellow literati.
Why can't I just sit like other people? What is gnawing at my gizzard? Why am I always seeking out new people, new ideas, new points of view? Why can't I rest? God knows that I am a hot and bothered man. Is it because I'm in such a contradictory circumstance, a plantation Negro living in New York, a peasant who is an artist of sorts, a Negro married to a white girl, a Communist who cannot stand being a member of the Communist groups, a writer who does not and cannot and will not write as other writers write? (qtd. in Rowley 320)
In one concise excerpt, Wright emotionally and critically raises a fistful of the major themes of his lifetime's writing: existentialism, the Southern migration and Northern urbanization of mid-century blacks, the hope and failure of Communism, class struggle, black men and white women, and the force of writing itself. At the same time, he reveals his deeply self-critical and persecutory nature, attempting to face the recurring questions that would haunt him throughout his lifetime. Reputed to be a man who, like many of his fictitious characters, appreciates rootlessness and exile, Wright in this entry demonstrates his restlessness, explicitly addressing his need constantly to question not only himself but also the world around him. He brings to light his paradoxical, contradictory nature, the unconventional man in an environment shrouded in convention. He essentially admits to living a life of "double-consciousness," a notion made popular by one of his most outspoken and famous critics, W. E. B. Du Bois. Not only is Wright an African American trying to live as an American in White America, but he is also a "plantation Negro living in New York," "a Negro married to a white girl." Unlike the "other people" who complacently sit, Wright throughout his life does not feel so much uncomfortable in his "skin" as in his "shoes": Wherever his feet have taken him -- from Natchez, Mississippi, to Chicago, to New York City, and even to Paris -- Richard Wright invariably feels "the outsider." This journal and numerous letters to and from friends reveal Wright's his true self, one less publicized and less documented, even by his handful of biographers. The documents chart Wright's consistent disillusionment with the Communist Party and his ongoing quest to write or to aid in writing the great American novel.
Judging from the thickness of his two personal, year-long journals from 1945 and 1947, one may conclude that Wright was a meticulous journal keeper. More than 200 delicate, typewritten pages, double-sided and single-spaced, reveal Wright's musings and journeys, both literal and figurative, in these two years. The year 1945 marked the publication of his autobiography Black Boy, an edition for which Wright actually expurgated sections of his Chicago years and his Communist involvement (per the suggestion of his editor and his agent), whereas 1947 was the year in which Wright decided that he and his family would permanently move to Europe, after a formal invitation by the French government for a visit in 1946. Housed at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, these journals represent only two of the thousands of items kept by Richard Wright and organized posthumously by his wife Ellen and his biographer Michel Fabre. From this collection, Wright appears to be not only a meticulous journal keeper, but a conscientious letter writer, as well. Wright preserved virtually all of his correspondence from friends, business associates, heads of state, entertainers, and intellectuals. Even odd pieces of paper found their way into the collection, noting how much money he spent from day to day -- another piece of evidence suggesting Wright's exacting and painstaking nature. Wright's journals -- which include three to four entries per day, marked off by times of the day -- uncover a deeply personal side of Richard Wright, a side of his life understandably kept guarded and hidden from the public until his death in 1960 (and more accurately until the purchase of his papers by Yale in 1976). Letters from close friends such as sociologist Horace Cayton and author Chester Himes, and especially novelist Ralph Ellison, reveal Wright's more immediate and personal reactions to the world around him.
Particularly in the context of his membership in the Communist Party (which he joined in 1933), Wright displays his private but deeply critical -- almost strident -- take on Communism in America, whereas his public disavowal of the Party was relatively quiet. Wright's biographers and history's reading of Wright come up short on this issue in Wright's life, while his letters tend to reveal more. For example, Constance Webb, wife of Wright's friend C. L. R. James, fails to mention Wright's split with the Party in any explicit terms in her 1968 biography of him. Even Michel Fabre, in his reliable 1973 biography, tends to downplay Wright's private frustration with and bitterness over the Party. Fabre focuses more on the public Wright, noting that, "when [Wright's] friend Horace Cayton disclosed that the Communists would withhold their support from any attempt to combat government discrimination in the courts, Wright withdrew from the Party without a scandal" (Quest 229). Later, Fabre admits that Wright's "stateme nts on this subject are... contradictory" but only offers Wright's letter to Edward Aswell in 1955 as the most accurate (private) proof of Wright's break with the Party in 1942:
As you know I broke with the Communist Party in 1942: I left under my own steam. I had intuitively realized much of what is now in the daily press about the Communist Party, including its infiltration by the FBI, agents, etc. In short, when I was a member of the Communist Party, I took that party seriously, and when I discovered that I was holding a tainted instrument in my hands, I dropped that instrument. (qtd. in Fabre, Quest 230) (1)
Wright then poignantly places an exclamation point on his letter to Aswell, hinting at his persistent concern about the Negro in America, and his eventual obsession about the color line:
There were other things, however, that did bother me. And those things stemmed from the ramifications of the racial question in the United States. As anyone with common sense could easily guess, I was a Communist because I was Negro. Indeed the Communist Party had been the only road out of the Black Belt for me. Hence Communism had not been for me simply a fad, a hobby; it had a deep functional meaning for my life. Therefore when I left the Communist Party, I no longer had a protective barrier, no defenses between me and a hostile racial environment that absorbed all of my time, emotions, and attention. To me the racial situation was a far harder matter than the Communist one and it was one that I could not solve alone. (qtd. in Fabre, Quest 230-31)
For a Marxist who still held tightly to arguments of class, Wright's turning to the sole question of race would prove a difficult one. After all, he not only disliked the "black bourgeoisie," but also despised the rural South, which he considered bereft of civilization. He criticized the former for their self-absorption, and the latter for its reliance on religion. Ten years before the letter to Aswell, Wright considered his dissatisfaction with the Party, as well as with the black bourgeoisie. On March 8, 1945, at 11 a.m., he muses on the review of Black Boy by the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker: Wright had expected and received a negative review, envisioning the paper's editors conspiring with W. E. B. Du Bois in shared mockery of the book. According to Wright, the review scoffed at the notion that anyone besides the Communist Party could truly speak on behalf of the American Negro (see 8 Mar. 1945, Journal, Wright Papers, for actual quote).
In hindsight, his disavowal of the Party should come as no surprise. As mentioned above, Wright desired rootlessness, a quality that would draw him to existentialism. Robert Bone characterizes Wright in this way: "Himself an exile, twice removed from Mississippi soil, he responded by exulting in his fate, by glorifying heroes who are cut off from the past and dependent on the self alone" (12). Wright abjured the provincialism of dwelling solely on race, and the Party had allowed him the forum to cross-pollinate class and race in his critique. Even after his break, he would still clearly use the language and theory of Marxism, but he also convinced himself that no political party in America could truly suit his interests. In the end, as Bone proposes, Wright chose a path that allowed him to be the maverick he had always been. In a sense, he was a party to no one.
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible an (1952), despite being six years younger than Wright, grew to become one of his best friends, and most consistent and prolific correspondents. Beginning in 1937, until Wright's death, Ellison and Wright wrote regularly to one another in long, dense letters. Ellison usually typewrote his letters with occasional, cryptic handwritten missives. In Ellison's letters, usually full of heated discussion and debate, one senses a deep mutual respect between the two authors (Ellison was Wright's best man in his first marriage), as well as a willingness to offer criticism when necessary and usually full of heated discussion and debate. It is also apparent that Ellison considered Wright a mentor, but over time sufficiently gained the respect of Wright to be on level footing with his friend. Early on, in 1937, Ellison would write to his friend, "You must write and tell me of the magazine and if possible I should like for you to send me copies. It might be that I can secure a few subs. I go down to Cincinnati where my aunt lives and I might try there. There is no Daily nor Masses to be had here, and I've only today discovered this old typewriter" (Letter to Wright, 27 Oct. 1937, Wright Papers). Evident is Ellison's interest in Wright's Communist leanings, as he solicits Party material and newspapers. A month later, on November 8, he asks: "Where in hell is the revolution? What is going on, all I have here is the NEW Republic and the radio. The village rag carries all the tripe by Tin drawers, pegler [sic], Boake Carter, and Dorothy Thompson, but very little international news." Later in the letter, he exclaims: "Workers of the World Must Write!!!!" (Wright Papers). With an obvious nod to the Marxist slogan that "Workers of the World Must Unite," Ellison highlights not only his own interest in the Communist Party, but also reflects Wright's (still) active embrace of its tenets. Ellison, as will be seen below, would grow with Wright in his disillusionment of the Party and its effectiveness. In late 1937, however, the two still remained in the clutches of the Party's potential.
In the same month of April 1940, Ralph Ellison re sumes his correspondence with Richard Wright, taking on the topic of Wright's latest novel and commenting sporadically about the Communist Party. Keeping in mind that Wright does not make a formal break with the Party until 1942, one might find Ellison's critical remarks on the Communists prescient or perhaps even catalyzing for Wright. He tells Wright, "Natsive Son [sic] shook the Harlem section to its foundation and some of the rot it has brought up is painful to smell.... It is very amusing to hear them state that your Blue Print for Negro Writing [sic] is an excellent piece of work, very correct, but that you didn't follow its plan in NS [Native Son]." Serving the role of Wright's eyes and ears in New York City, Ellison elaborates on the reception of the novel:
Sixteen months later, in March 1939, Wright corresponds with his old friend Joe C. Brown in Jackson, Mississippi. Once again, one witnesses Wright's fervor over the Party and his activism in trying to recruit other African Americans to its cause. Wright states: "I'm very glad that the woman I met at the Communist Party convention actually looked you up when she returned home. All of the people I met in New York from Mississippi seem so pathetically humble and honest. It made me feel very good though to know that such people, in spite of their timidity, are actually joining the Communist Party and struggling for Negro freedom in the very midst of the blackbelt" (Knipp 8). At this point, Wright still chooses to equate the Party with "Negro freedom," while he underscores his disgust with the rural South, still considering it devoid of civilization. A year later, from Cuernavaca, Mexico, he asks Brown, "How is your class consciousness coming along? How close are you to the labor movement, Joe? You ought to get cl ose, boy. Big things are coming along in this world" (Knipp 10 [Letter of 29 Apr. 1940]). Wright's enthusiasm pervades his writing to his friend, while Brown, for his part, seems to reciprocate ever so slightly, albeit with some ambiguity, hesitating to commit fully to the class struggle. (2) Having only dabbled briefly with the Party, Brown actually sent many manuscripts to Wright, hoping that his poetry would help him out of the South. At one point, Brown even conferred with fellow Mississippian William Faulkner through Wright's help, but to no avail. While most of his letters to Wright dwell on the issue of publishing, he began to relent and finally focused more on mutual friends from back home; in April 1940, he writes with a healthy envy of Wright's recently published novel and its modest impact on the local "subjects." (3) And it is the very subject of Wright's Native Son (published on March 1 of that year) that becomes the focus of many others' letters.
As I write, opinion on the book seems sharply, violently divided.... This, I think[,] is good; the assumptions of many CP members have been challenged. It is interesting to note that many reject the humanist implications of your choice of a character like Bigger, which means that they reject -- or do not understand -- the humanist implications of Marxism. Reddic tells me Herndon was horrified by the murder of Mary! This and other reactions on [the) part of cp leaders makes me question to what extent they are emancipated from bourgeois taboos .... (Letter to Wright, 14 Apr. 1940, Wright Papers)
Ellison never seemed so enamored of the Party as Wright did, and it can safely be assumed that some of Ellison's sentiment eventually made its way into Wright's way of thinking about the Party. Twelve years later, with the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison would allude to his good friend Richard Wright and his uneasy relationship to the Party when placing his nameless protagonist in the midst of the confusing Brotherhood. At first, very much like Wright, the young protagonist notes, "I was dominated by the all-embracing idea of Brotherhood. The organization had given the world a new shape, and me a vital role. We recognized no loose ends, everything could be controlled by our science. Life was all pattern and discipline; and the beauty of discipline is when it works. And it was working very well" (382; my emphasis). This excerpt not only echoes Wright's sentiments expressed in his 1955 letter to Aswell, but it also uncannily sounds like Wright's retrospective commentary on his Communist days in The God Th at Failed (1944). Seemingly, Wright sets the blueprint for the Invisible Man:
It was not the economics of Communism, nor the great power of trade unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed me; my attention was caught by the similarity of experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole. It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home, a functioning value and role. (106; my emphasis)
Surrounded by men aptly named Brother Tobitt ('Two-bit') and Wrestrum ('Restroom'), Ellison's protagonist's stint with the Communists proves as troublesome as Wright's own experience. At a committee meeting, the Invisible Man thinks: Yessuh, yessuh! Though invisible I would be their assuring voice of denial; I'd out-Tobitt Tobitt, and as for that outhouse Wrestrum -- well. As I sat there one of them was inflating my faked memberships into meanings of national significance. An illusion was creating a counter-illusion. Where would it end? Did they believe their own propaganda? (515)
As if the two texts were speaking to one another, as their authors actually did, Wright again foreshadows the Invisible Man's words when describing his reluctance to join a Party congress of American writers in the summer of 1935:
I was lukewarm to the proposal and tried to make up my mind to stand alone, write alone. I was already afraid that the stories I had written would not fit into the new, official mood. Must I discard my plot-ideas and seek new ones? No. I could not. My writing was my way of seeing, my way of living, my way of feeling; and who could change his sight, his direction, his senses? ("God" 123; my emphasis)
Wright uses Ellisonian imagery at the end of this excerpt, wherein he establishes his writing as taking precedence over his ideology. Wright fully knew at this point that the Party could be his only platform from which to publicize his writing. In a sense, he had to wear the mask, use his double-consciousness, and trade on his invisibility to achieve his ultimate goal. By 1940, with the sale of 215,000 copies of Native Son in its first three weeks of publication, Wright, to a certain degree, no longer needed the Party as his agent for more writing.
As Ellison hinted above, backlash and criticism by the Communist Party accompanied the public's embrace and critical success of Native Son. Wright appeared somewhat miffed, but not completely surprised by their reaction. He already knew that he might not be the correct "type" for the Party. As he mentions in "The God That Failed," "I wanted to be a Communist, but my kind of Communist. I wanted to shape people's feelings, awaken their hearts" (131). The Party, on the other hand, frowned upon too much individualism, too much humanism practiced by any of its members. If anything, a member acted only in the best interest of the Party; beyond that, the Party could not extend itself. Wright addresses the limiting nature of the Party in a letter to writer Mike Gold, presumably sometime in 1940 after Native Son's debut. Many Party members took issue with Wright's portrayal of Max, Bigger Thomas's lawyer, a Communist who cannot fully understand Bigger's contention that " 'I didn't want to kill! But what I killed for I am!'" (501). Max only views Bigger through the prism of class struggle and mere social science. In a sense, Wright was criticizing the Communist Party for not fully understanding the Negro problem. He wrote to his friend Gold that white Party members could attempt to address the Negro problem but that they could not truly fathom the motivations of a black man to write a book like Native Son. (4) He proceeds to enumerate criticisms of the Party to his fellow writer, Party member, and friend, calling into question the Party theory that a Communist must be portrayed as a hero at all times, disallowing any complexity, if not contradiction, in characters. Wright thought this sensibility to be false and disloyal to his own artistic and political project.
Instead of being a meek follower and puppet for the Party, Wright earnestly wanted to make a difference in bringing the plight of the American Negro to the fore of the Communists' agenda. Wright concedes to Gold that his portrayal of Max making a mistake in Native Son reminds his audience that a considerable gap between Communists and the Negro still remained, one rent largely by capitalism. True to the word of his February 12, 1945, journal entry, Wright seemingly grew "restless" with the Party.
Ellison's letters during this period echo Wright's sentiment that the Communists do not understand the Negro problem, while he also harps on the inadequacy of Black Communist leaders: "I know now that we don't have to worry overmuch about the stupiditics of black CP leaders. Some morning they will be awakened from their 'Marxist' fog by the people who think they are carrying out God's wishes when they fight for freedom, telling them, 'Comrades, us don't want to disturb you all, but us thought you all would like to know that us got the revolution going like you all been talking about'" (Letter to Wright, 11 May 1940, Wright Papers). It is the publication of Wright's Twelve Million Black Voices in 1941, however, that elicits Ellison's most poignant reply of all his letters to Wright. Published in the same year as James Agee and Walker Evans's famed documentary of Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Wright's follow-up to Native Son interweaves his written text with photographic direction by Edwi n Rosskam. Focusing on Depression-era Blacks in America, the compilation proved a worthy complement of nonfiction to the fiction of his 1940 novel. In a November 3, 1941, letter, Ellison can hardly contain his passionate reaction to the tome:" ... the book makes me feel a bitter pride; a pride which springs from the realization that after all the brutalization, starvation, and suffering, we have begun to embrace the experience and master it. And we shall make of it a weapon more subtle than a machine gun, more effective than a fighter plane! ... I think it significant that I can feel pride of this kind in a Negro book." Ellison goes on at length, freely associating emotions and thoughts prompted by Wright's latest work. In an incredibly moving but controlled passage, Ellison confides to his friend in a tone that foreshadows the sentiment of his Invisible Man eleven years later:
Part of my life, Dick, has been a lacerating experience and I have my share of bitterness, but I have learned to keep the bitterness submerged so that my vision might be kept clear; so that those passions which could so easily be criminal might be socially useful. I know those emotions which tear the insides to be free and memories which must be kept underground, caged by rigid discipline lest they destroy, but which yet are precious to me because they are mine and I am proud of that which is myself.... You write of the numbness which our experience has produced in most of us, and I must say that while I was never completely numbed myself, I have had to rigidly control my thawing, allowing the liquid emotion to escape drop by drop through the trap doors of the things I write, lest I lose control; lest I be rendered incapable of warming our frozen brothers -- which all good writing must do. (Wright Papers) (5)
At this point, Ellison makes no mention of the Communist Party, choosing to focus on the Negro experience, and the promise of Negro writing. His disillusionment with the Party and his growing interest in concentrating almost solely on the Negro in America both seem to mirror Wright's own leanings at this time. Coupled with Wright's letter to Mike Gold, this letter from Ellison helps to distinguish Wright's shifting emphasis from the Party to the Negro experience and great Negro writing. Fittingly, Ellison declares in this letter: "... I am sure now more than ever: that you and I are brothers."
By the mid-'40s, Wright himself espouses this philosophy of Negro writing first, Marxism (notably not Communism) second. In a missive to Joe C. Brown, dated June 4, 1945, Wright no longer tries to recruit Brown into the ranks of the Communists. Instead, he speaks of the future and his imminent obsession: "There is a great novel yet to be written about the Negro in the South; just a simple, straight, easy, great novel, telling how they live and how they die, what they see and how they feel each day; what they do in the winter, spring, summer, and fall. Just a novel telling of the quiet ritual of their lives. Such a book is really needed" (Knipp 13). Meanwhile, in his own personal journal, on March 8, he speaks of the same theme. Wright harps on the fact that American readers and intellectuals cannot see his "vision" in a global, near universal, context, one that he claims French refugees see quite clearly. He believes that too many American readers simply view his work in moral terms, just as the Dalton family does in Native Son. They simply ask, "What can we do?" and blindly attempt to throw money at the problem. To Wright, a more meaningful reception of his work would require readers' acknowledgment that his fiction truly represents meaningful, modern living, reflective of the true human condition. The Communists advocated against Wright's vehemence and preoccupation about the struggle of the Negro, and constantly called for his couching the struggle more in terms of a class conflict than a racial one. At another point in the March journal entry mentioned above, he plainly states that he had created his own sense of time, one out of step with the Party's notion of time and possible revolution. Even those who no longer stepped in time with the "mainstream" Communists could not escape Wright's angry swath. On April 6, he notes that the Trotskyite paper The Militant offered a favorable review of Black Boy. Yet, Wright had not provided a complete economic analysis of the Negro. (6) It is at this point that the autho r begins to make his turn away from even Marxist ideology, enticed by the lure of existentialism.
Additional correspondence with friends did not help Wright to regain his faith in Communism. In a letter dated July 31. 1945, Dorothy Norman, publisher and editor of Twice a Year -- sub titled "A Book of Literature, the Arts and Civil Liberties" -- and a friend of Wright's, brings some discouraging news to his attention. In an uncomfortable encounter, Norman listens to an allegedly Communist critic savage Wright's work and the author himself, going so far as to accuse Wright of anti-Semitism and genocide (Wright Papers). (7) The Party's aggressive discrediting of Wright turned off more than one writer. Once again, Ellison's letters to Wright most accurately reflect Wright's own thoughts at the time. In July of 1945, he conscientiously writes:
I'm beginning to truly understand the greatest joke, the most absurd paradox, in American history: that simply by striving consciously to be Negroes we are becoming and are destined to become Americans, and the first truly mature Americans at that. Just as the biggest joke I know on you, is that after all the struggle to become a responsible Communist writer and spokesman, you became instead something much more important: an artist and articulator of the most vital possibilities of American life. For God sake don't show, or repeat, this to an American Communist, he'll say I have become a mystic!
At another point, he muses similarly, "The unquestionable authority of the left-wing politicians is tottering like a punch drunk prize fighter; now people are looking for someone who can answer questions and they are looking in our direction. Your prestige should rise by leaps and bounds now. And the wonderful thing is, I feel, that this will be because you dared to be simply what you are, an artist" (Letter to Wright, 22 July 1945, Wright Papers). Here one begins to notice an undressing of the Communist cloak, as the art is what truly motivates not only Ellison, but Wright, as well.
Michel Fabre, in his biography, recounts a conversation he had with Frederic Wertham in 1964: "According to Wertham, who was analyzing Wright at the time, Wright was more concerned with his art than with communism or anti-communism.... According to other ... non-Communist radicals, the rupture [with the Party] was most significant to Wright in that he felt alone, in relation not only to the Communists, but to the entire Left" (571n36). On August 18, 1945, Ellison once again speaks for his "brother" and the "art" of the blues, when he writes,
I suppose the explosion of the new atomic bomb has had repercussions in Canada. It has set my imagination awhirl. We've got to do something, to offset the C.P. sell-out of our people; and I mean by this, both Negroes and labor. With such power in the world there is no answer for Negroes certainly except some sort of classless society. Cheese-cake optimism is allright [sic] for frightened non-men; give me the naked, cold realism of the blues, it's the basic bed-rock of any clearheaded approach to such events. (Letter to Wright, Wright Papers)
As Arnold Rampersad notes, "Almost cynically driven by Wright's desire to co-opt religious faith into radical socialism, his work expresses contempt for men and women of religion, and even for religion itself" ("Demonic"). Not ironically, then, Wright had felt a near-religious reverence for the Party, but after his break, he looked to other holy grails. In a sense, after 1942, his quest would become twofold: one, for the great Negro novel yet to be written and, two, for a greater understanding of existentialism. The God that had failed him must somehow take form and shape in another sphere. In a journal entry from July 30, 1947, written, ironically, aboard the U.S.S. America on its way to Paris, Wright demonstrates his newfound quest. Hazel Rowley accurately captures the mood of the author in the following passage from her biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times:
"I hope to remain away from American this time as long as possible," he wrote. "Maybe not in France, but certainly away from America."
Both the portholes were open. Wright felt calmed by the quiet swish of the ocean. It had been a long, hot day.... They had done so much in the final days. They had a car in the hold and a cat in the ship's kennel. In his briefcase was half a novel in first draft. In the last week or so, he had never let it out of his sight. His hand was sore from clutching the briefcase. He told himself he must make sure to work on his manuscript every day of the voyage. If only they could settle into a Paris apartment quickly. He did not want to lose momentum. Not again. (Rowley 356)
Wright expresses both his anxiety about his travels and an earnest desire to work on the "great book," which at this chronological point would have been The Outsider, published in 1953. As Robert Bone suggests above, Wright remains as "rootless" and restless as ever in this passage of writing and in his passage across the ocean. Wright constantly seeks meaning for his life, as well as for the life of the American Negro. Certainly, on some level, Wright considered himself a synecdoche for his people: What he sought for himself he sought for them. On July 31, he bandies about such a question, asking of himself the true meaning of freedom but asserting that his current work-in-progress would answer the mystery. Twelve days later, he raises the same issue in his journal, this time certain that his novel will address the people's need, their desire, for freedom (see 31 July and 11 Aug. 1947 entries, Journal). Once more, however, friends' influences, as evidenced by their letters, also served to catalyze Wright's t hinking. A few years earlier, Wright's good friend and sociologist Horace Cayton wrote to him about the potential of future work:
The book that I am thinking that we should do would be a courageous, daring new way of thinking on the part of the Negro for himself. I think we should break with the conventional way of thinking like the French modern painters did; like Joyce did, but not in a decadent and defeatist fashion; like Marx did.
There are other chapters that should be in the book; for example, what the psychoanalysts have discovered about the Negro. Here's what a chap said to me the other day. He was looking at a "sissy" on the street, and he commented to me, "That fellow had to give up the struggle," and I didn't get it at first. Then he explained. He said, "That Negro came to the point where he could no longer maintain his manhood in this culture, so he completely gave up and became a sissy. It's a way to solve his problem. Negroes are biologically men; the culture describes how a man should behave; but a Negro can't behave that way. Some become so frustrated that the only thing they can do is retreat and say, 'I'm not a man; I'm a woman, a sissy, or something, but I'm not a man. So I'll marcel my hair and flaunt it in people's face that I'm not a man, because I can't carry the emotional load.'" That's what's happening to Negro personality.
You could lead this thing, Dick -- I don't mean a formal movement or anything like that, but you could nurture it, encourage it....
A book like that would startle and convulse and shock to its moral depths white American society -- and Negro society, for that matter. I hope you really want to do it. (Letter to Wright, 22 Oct. 1944, Wright Papers; my emphasis)
Judging from the 188 letters Cayton sent to Wright, one may consider Cayton a reliable source, as well as a trusted friend of Wright's. In the early part of the decade, Cayton first introduced Wright to information and sociological concepts that Wright would use in Twelve Million Black Voices. Needless to say, then, Cayton's word was "good" with Wright -- his speaking of a great and "shocking" novel must have appealed to Wright tremendously.
Future correspondences expressed Cayton's desire to work collaboratively with Wright. Although Wright did not explicitly work with Cayton on such projects (he did, however, pen the introduction to Cayton and St. Clair Drake's 1945 sociological study Black Metropolis), Cayton's constant querying must have prompted Wright to be thinking in the direction of that important novel. On April 2, 1945, Cayton writes: "I have in mind writing this summer a book of essays on the Negro and would like to talk it over with you. Perhaps you and I could do it together if you're interested.... What I have in mind now is an expansion of this piece 'Frightened Children of Frightened Parents' into a literary-scientific discussion of the whole question of psychoanalysis and the Negro." Later in the letter, he asks once again for collaboration: "About the whole problem of psychoanalysis I would like to talk to you at length. Especially would I like to discuss the question of what constitutes the rock bottom of the Negro's existence & personality structure -- his earlier psychological conditioning in the family or his reaction to his subjugation.... It is not in the literature and we could make a real contribution if we could express it" (Wright Papers).
As Cayton alludes to in the first of his letters above, Wright was seen as the preeminent leader and forerunner in issues and writings of the American Negro. Hence, Cayton wanted desperately to collaborate with Wright to bolster his own work. Wright had already helped a young James Baldwin secure a Saxton Fellowship in 1945, had attempted to help his childhood buddy Joe Brown with his poetry, and had taken Ralph Ellison under his wing. At this point in the 1940s, many writers looked to Wright for leadership and for instruction. Chester Himes once writes to him: "It is really warming to a new novelist to learn that the petty jealousies, snipings, bickerings, and animosities that have plagued Negro writers are being put aside in this new school which it has fallen your responsibility to head" (qtd. in Rowley 317). In another letter, dated October 10, 1946, Dorothy Norman equally privileges Wright (Wright Papers). (8)
Ellison, for his part, was in the midst of working on Invisible Man. He kept Wright abreast of much of his progress, much like a proud son, or a brother, as Ellison claimed. In February of 1948, before the novel's publication of 1952, Ellison tells Wright, "I'm getting some of the same reactions produced by Native Son, people look at me differently now, and an undertone of reservation comes into their voices. God, but how they fear one who can name a situation, who attempts to capture significance!" (Letter to Wright, 1 Feb. 1948, Wright Papers).
Four years later, with the imminent successful reception of the novel, Ellison writes to Ellen Wright, once again like a humbled child or sibling. His respect for Wright remains blatantly obvious: "And what is worse, publication day is the 14th of April and my tension is building up at supersonic speed. Watch your mail, for in a few I days you should receive Invisible Man. Tell Dick that I hope that I haven't let him down since it is the best I could do (aside for some cuts made necessary by publishing costs) up to now" (Letter to Ellen Wright, 26 Mar. 1952, Wright Papers; my emphasis).
As if in answer to Wright's 1945 letter to Joe C. Brown, regarding the great novel yet to be written about the Negro in the South," Ellis on submits his offering, once more in deference to his "brother." Perhaps, it could be argued, Ellison fulfilled Wright's ultimate quest of writing the great Negro novel. In his last collected letter, dated January 21, 1953, Ellison only casually mentions his winning The National Book Award for 1952, penning in the news at the end of a typewritten letter, almost as if he could not bear to start a sibling rivalry.
Truly, however, Wright's own journey continued, as his restless nature grudgingly allowed him to consider the possibilities of his major quests. The last few entries in his journal fittingly allow a more private and emotional glimpse into Wright's thoughts at the time -- again, as opposed to the public and more diplomatic Wright that his biographers and history have painted. On August 6, 1947, Wright remains on board his ship to France. Some of the working men on the ship ask him to speak with them about Communism and what could be done. Undoubtedly, however, his sights extend beyond his Party days, as even in his acquiescence to speak with them, he tires of their conversation. He admits that the seamen's whining grates on him as much as do their working conditions. While he concedes a great deal of sympathy toward the men, he hopes that they, like he, will follow a path of transcendent life (see 6 Aug. 1947, Journal, Wright Papers). Only three clays later, already in Paris, Wright muses: "I live alone. My de epest thoughts are communicated to no one. No one around me. I just think them and try to write them. How can I live free, freely? That is the question of my life" (Rowley 359).
Ten days later, no longer on the ship but clearly still on a journey, he echoes this existentialist sentiment: "How odd and strange life is, it is like something that we ride and do not know what it is, yet we ride it each and every day. We live, live in some vast mystery, and it is not ours to say how it started or how it must end" (Rowley 360). Almost three weeks later, Wright casually mentions his dining with existential luminaries Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre and he agree that it remains up to the individual to sustain the notion of what it means to be human, and Wright charmingly notes how intimately he feels toward the two philosophers (see 7 Sep. 1947, Journal, Wright Papers).
At this point, Wright had begun to synthesize many of his varying ideologies and newfound themes: Marxism, the American Negro, existentialism, and, of course, naturalism. In fact, his work took on more of a universal gloss, as he turned his attention to the suffering underclasses of various colors around the world in years to come (Black Power [Africa, 19541. The Color Curtain [Indonesia, 1956), and Pagan Spain [Spain, 1957]). On September 16, 1947, Wright steadfastly holds onto an optimistic enthusiasm about his future work, envisioning not only a trip to Africa but also a novel to definitively capture that experience.
During this time, Wright grappled with his manuscript of The Outsider, but after September 17, his journal falls silent, a hint that novel writing was proving less of a struggle. Nonetheless, until his early death in 1960 at the age of fifty-two, Richard Wright would never be able completely to shake his restlessness and his "contradictory circumstance" (Journal, 12 Feb. 1945, Wright Papers). Hazel Rowley reminds us of the uncanny similarity between Wright and his protagonist from Island of Hallucination, his unpublished novel set in Paris. Fishbelly, an expatriate from Mississippi, "had not an iota of homesickness, but deep down, he had to admit that he was not truly in or of France; he knew that he could never be French even if he lived in France a million years. He loved France and the French, yet France was always psychologically distant in his mind" (Rowley 481-82). Likewise, regardless of geography -- physical or intellectual -- Richard Wright never quite seemed at rest.
(1.) On August 3, 1944, Margaret Bradley used similar imagery when writing to Horace Cayton regarding 'The Man Who Lived Underground": "I think I begin to see why Richard broke with Communism. He never learned to use it; he let it use him. He conceived it as something from without, something to be accepted or rejected. But within him is some inner need to formulate his own way out. As soon, then, as he began to feel Communism as an external force, it became one with external society, and he very properly rejected it" (Wright Papers).
(2.) On March 30, 1938, Brown wrote to Wright: "I've made up my mind that I'm going to do something for my people here in these sections, so I'm willing to wait for my change as you have done. I believe that my rewards will come in sundry ways. After all life isn't very much to one's self and if I never do another thing worthwhile in this life, I'll always feel that I have led a portion of people to the light of a new dawn" (Wright Papers).
(3.) See the Apr. 1940 letter to Richard Wright, in which Brown muses: "Say, why don't you drop down in the uncivilized sections and really see the native sons in action. I think it would do you good. I am still in the hills of ole Mississippi digging out a sheer existence in the teaching profession trying to mold me a native son after your own heart. But I am playing hell finding your type" (Wright Papers).
(4.) See Wright's letter to Mike Gold, dated "1940" (Wright Papers). Given the novel's commercial success, Wright also allowed himself to enjoy the fervor over Native Son. Understandably, he looked to the opinions of friends to see how far he had truly come. To Joe C. Brown, he writes: "What do the whites say of old Bigger? Did he scare them? I hope he did!" Three months later, in December 1940, he asks Brown again, "How is the South taking the war? Do you ever see any of our old friends? And what do they say of 'Bigger'?" (Knipp 11-12).
(5.) Note the similarity of this passage to the protagonist's words in Invisible Man (1952): "I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere ... and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit. But that bit, that fraction, was irrevocable. Coming to New York had perhaps been an unconscious attempt to keep the old freezing unit going, but it hadn't worked; hot water had gotten into its coils. Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge" (259).
(6.) See Wright's 8 Mar., 6 Apr., and 8 Apr. 1945 entries (Journal, Wright Papers).
(7.) Specifically, she reports: "Was in New York briefly. Ran into Richard Watts, the drama critic. He must be CP. He ranted against you, and went so far as to tell me that the new editions of your book included three chapters heretofore not included. He became very vague when I pressed him for details. He even went so far as to say that there were long passages of anti-Semitic drivel in your book. I checked with Harper's and found that nothing had been added to the latest edition. I think that the man is somewhat mad, but he reaches thousands of people everyday.... He told me also that you would willingly kill the entire Negro race if only you could be white. He said that you wouldn't lift a finger to do a damn thing for the Negroes anyway. I defended you vigorously, I also felt that he had no ears. So much for drama and the 'Herald Tribune.'"
(8.) She deferentially asks of Wright, "I was interested in what you had to say about the writing of today by Negroes in comparison to what was done in the '20's. I think there is not only more vision but I think the very fact that people have had more and more opportunity to be printed may also have contributed to the 'maturing.'"
Bone, Robert. Richard Wright. U of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1969.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Fabre, Michel, and Kenneth Kinnamon, eds. Conversations with Richard Wright. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1993.
Fabre, Michel, and Ellen Wright, eds. Richard Wright Reader. New York: Harper, 1978.
Knipp, Thomas, ed. Letters to Joe C. Brown. Kent: Kent State UP, 1968.
Rampersad, Arnold. "Demonic Visions." W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures. Audiocassette. W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard U, 1998.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Holt, 2001.
Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Putnam's, 1968.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
-----. "The God That Failed" ("I Tried to be a Communist"). The God That Failed. Ed. Richard Crossman. New York: Bantam, 1949.
-----. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
-----. Twelve Million Black Voices. 1941. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1988.
Wright, Richard, et al. Richard Wright Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT.
Matthew M. Briones is a fifth-year graduate student in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. His dissertation seeks to chart the historical and literary intersections of African Americans and Asian Americans. The author would like to thank Professors Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Werner Sollors, Cornel West, John F. Callahan, Michel Fabre, and especially Hazel Rowley for their comments and suggestions. He would also like to acknowledge the literary executors who granted permission to publish the respective authors' letters and papers: Professor John F. Callahan (Ralph Ellison) and Mr. Richard S. Hobbs (Horace Cayton).
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|Author:||Briones, Matthew M.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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