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Conversations with Richard Wright.

Scanning the title of this book, I mused to myself, "What conversations with Richard Wright?" For unlike African American novelists Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, who were widely interviewed throughout their careers in conversations that became important revelations of their work, Wright had always seemed to me to be a much more reclusive figure, a person less inclined to submit himself to, or reveal himself in, literary interviews. But as this book of interviews edited by two important Wright scholars clearly establishes, such was not the case. Although interviews with Wright have not been widely reprinted or anthologized, they represent a significant body of material which contains invaluable insights into Wright as a man, a political thinker, and an artist. In a very real sense, this book may be seen as an interesting part of the project undertaken in recent years to recover lost dimensions of Wright's voice for contemporary readers. Just as the Library of America editions of Wright's major work and the recently published edition of Rite of Passage now enable us to read texts which were either denatured by editors or ignored by publishers, Conversations with Richard Wright enables us now to encounter Richard Wright's voice directly as he discusses a great variety of important topics over his entire public career.

Kinnamon and Fabre have dug deeply and productively into the Wright archives, collecting a fascinating series of newspaper interviews and transcripts of radio broadcasts which until now have been largely forgotten or known only to a small group of Wright specialists. Taken over a period of twenty-three years, when Wright emerged as a major writer and an internationally respected authority on racial matters, these "conversations" include not only formal interviews but also little-known discussions on radio programs, sometimes in a round-table format and sometimes with a single interlocutor. A kind of self-interview by Wright is also included. Featuring interviews given in places as diverse as Argentina, France, Norway, and Italy, this book is a vivid reminder of Wright's cosmopolitan life and his internationalist world view.

Virtually all of Wright's important concerns are either touched on or explored in depth, including his growing up in the segregated South, his methods of writing, his reading, his assessments of the Cold War, his involvements in leftist politics, his exile in France, and his responses to black nationalism. Unlike many twentieth-century American writers such as Robert Frost and William Faulkner, who sometimes took an almost perverse pleasure in playing games with their interviewers, Wright is refreshingly honest and direct when being questioned. As a result, these conversations have enormous value for all Wright scholars and students of American and modern literature.

The collection is especially valuable in revealing Wright as a person. Usually imagined by his readers as a distant and brooding pessimist who most nearly resembled fellow naturalists Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell, the Wright who can be reconstructed from these interviews is, much to the contrary, a surprisingly buoyant, warm, and engaging personality whom Kinnamon and Fabre rightly characterize as "a pleasure to know" (xiii). Indeed, many interviewers comment on the rather remarkable difference between Wright's actual personality and the authorial persona implied by his works. Michel Gordy, in a 1947 interview, observed that in his two-hour talk with Wright he was "struck by the calm, serene lucidity of the man whose outcries of revolt and protest had been resounding for a decade with increasing vigor" (117). A Brazilian interviewer, likewise, remarked that, although the very serious nature of Wright's literary work had caused him to view the author as a "large black man" who was "sad, rebellious, and aggressive," he was quite taken aback by a person who was exactly the opposite of what he had imagined, a disarmingly "cheerful" (134) person who supplied very balanced, nuanced, and restrained assessments of the racial dilemma in America. Nearly all of the interviewers comment on Wright's softspoken manner and his lively sense of humor. Interviewing Wright for the Daily Worker in 1938, Marcia Minor noticed Wright's "boyish charm" and "mirth" (18). Charles Rolo in 1945 characterized Wright as "affable, poised, quick to smile, almost gay" (71). The first quality which a French reviewer noticed about Wright in 1946 was his "big, resonant laugh" (87). Even toward the end of his life when his spirits were no doubt dampened by his worsening health and his declining literary reputation in the United States, Wright maintained at least a public posture of congeniality and good humor. Maurice Nadeau, interviewing Wright for Les lettres nouveau in 1960, was impressed by his "welcoming warmth," his "gaiety," and "the congenial aura his personality exudes" (196).

The collection also contains several other noteworthy surprises. On two occasions Wright cites fellow Mississippian William Faulkner as one of his favorite writers. Although most of his comments about religion are predictably negative, there are times when he reveals the importance of his religious background. He repeatedly stresses his fascination with the spirituals, and in a 1960 interview he observed, "The religious spirit always endures. Up to now, man has always been a religious animal and secular art is a sublimination of the religious feeling" (210). (Wright's complex use of his religious background has never been adequately explored, and some of his positive remarks about religion could be used as a point of departure for a study of the crucial role which religion played in shaping his art.) Wright's surprising optimism, even when viewing racial problems in America, is also a persistent motif in these interviews and might cause some readers to reevaluate their view of Wright as an absolute determinist or a despairing existentialist. Several months before his death, on November 28, 1960, he stressed that his vision of life was ultimately affirmative: "I believe in the beauty of life, in its infinite richness. One can experience dread and anguish at the idea of being nothing, but then one finds again the multiple potentialities offered by life." In the same interview, he takes a surprisingly hopeful view of his native land: "America is not a conformist country as has been so often said and written. It renews itself constantly" (209).

These interviews clearly establish that, for all of Wright's quarrels with America, he remained, even in his French exile, surprisingly American in outlook and temperament. As he stressed in a 1951 conversation in Paris, "I am an American and will live and die as an American" (151). He regarded living in France as a means by which he could see his own country more clearly rather than as a renunciation of his American identity, stressing at one point that he was "not . . . going in the Henry James direction" (153). At times, Wright's very American impulses made him uncomfortable with practices of the French, such as their customary two-hour lunch break. In a 1950 interview from France-Etats-Unis, he claimed that the French had much to learn from their more pragmatic American counterparts, since American civilization was "new" and "strong" and could teach the French much about "industrial organization" (146). Indeed, one can see a gradual softening of Wright's attitude toward America the longer he stayed in France. In a 1959 interview for a Norwegian newspaper, he remarked, "I have to say the situation is slowly getting better in my native land" (193). Shortly before his death, he revealed to Maurice Nadeau, "I am willing to die for my country but I refuse to lie for it" (197).

Some of the most fascinating interviews focus on Wright's discussions of his craft as a writer. Opposing the conventional view of his work that it was autobiographically "powerful" in content but stylistically crude, he stresses that he used his own lived experiences as raw materials but worked hard as a conscious artist to endow those materials with coherent form. In a 1938 radio conference sponsored by the New York Federal Writers' Project, he emphasized that his "own experience had a significance that went beyond the personal. . . . I used what I lived and read and observed and felt, and I used my imagination to give it a form which would make it appeal to the emotions of other people" (7). He reminded a 1940 New York Sun interviewer, "I sweat over my work. . . . I wish I could say it just flows out, but I can't" (28).

Wright was also careful to point out how much he strove to "attain some sort of balance in [his] books" (203). He therefore consciously resisted the tendency which Baldwin and others accused him of, writing crude propaganda which oversimplified reality by vilifying white people and envisioning black people only in terms of their being victimized by racist systems. But he also makes it clear in several interviews that he rejected the opposite extreme of writing "safe," apolitical novels which refused to encounter honestly the hard facts of racial oppression and conflict. When asked in 1955 why he had become a writer, he responded that writing freed him of all such external pressures and enabled him to become a free man who could envision his world in ways which were fair, complex, and balanced:

Writing is my way of becoming a free man, of expressing my relationship to the world and to the society in which I live. My relation to the society of the western world is dubious because of my color and my race. My writing therefore is charged with the burden of my concern about my relation to that society. The accident of race end color has placed me on both sides: The Western World and its enemies. If my writing has any aim, it is to try to reveal that which is human on both sides, to affirm the essential unity of man on earth. (163)

Centering his work on what Du Bois had earlier described as the "double-consciousness" of the African American intellectual and what Ralph Ellison would later characterize as a "complex double vision" of black American culture, Wright was able to achieve a profound and enduring humanism.

These interviews clearly document that, as Wright matured, he became increasingly more committed to this broadly humanistic view of art. Arguing that imagination is of crucial importance in a modern world of fragmentation and alienation because it allows people "to know what is happening to other people," he insisted that the ultimate purpose of art is to unify people, "to build a bridge between individuals" (234).

Wright's extensive reading put into practice what he preached in theory. His lifelong passion for reading enabled him to build many "bridges" between himself and the world, thus deepening his vision and enriching his art. From the earliest interviews given in the late 1930s to conversations just a few weeks before his death, Wright stresses that his literary foregrounding was an incredibly rich mixture of influences ranging from African American folk art (especially the spirituals and the blues), to American naturalists and realists such as Anderson, Dreiser, and Farrell, to the masters of modern European literature, particularly Dostoevsky, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus. The two most important literary influences are Dreiser, whom he describes as "the greatest writer this country produced" (139), and Dostoevsky, whom he credits with teaching him most about "the psychological state of modern man" (163). Books, which became for Wright "the windows through which [he] looked at the world" (81), enlarged his vision by allowing him to connect his own experiences with a vast range of other experiences. They enabled him to overcome the most crippling effects of American segregation and become a major modern writer.

Conversations with Richard Wright is an important book because it provides us with previously unpublished or difficult to find direct testimony from Wright himself about matters which are of great significance to a fuller understanding of his work. These interviews also provide us with a refreshingly sane, courageous, and honest voice which can help us to see our present cultural situation in clearer, more productive ways. America in the 1990s is beset with a clatter of voices which feed our tendency toward narcissism and divide us as a nation by romanticizing cultural boundaries, stressing our differences, and obscuring those aspects of American life which should allow us to rediscover common goals and unifying values. Wright, who had an understandably intense hatred of boundaries and who saw modern fragmentation as an illness to overcome rather than a condition to be striven for, speaks to us in these conversations with a wise voice which we should not only listen carefully to but engage in a serious and ongoing conversation.
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Author:Butler, Robert J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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