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The Critical Response to Richard Wright.

Robert J. Butler, ed. The Critical Response to Richard Wright. Westport: Greenwood, 1995. 199 pp. $55.00.

In 1991 the Library of America published two volumes of Richard Wright's work and prompted a Richard Wright renaissance. The early and late volumes include all of Wright's best known texts, with the important additions of the re-integrated Black Boy/American Hunger and Native Son. In the following three years Harper's, the University of Mississippi Press, and Northeastern University Press brought back into print all of Wright's work. So for the first time in recent years it is possible to buy copies of Black Power, Pagan Spain, White Man, Listen!, The Color Curtain, and Savage Holiday. In addition, a previously unpublished novella, Rite of Passage, appeared in 1994. Richard Wright's oeuvre has never been more intact. Other instances of this renaissance include conferences on Wright's work and fiftieth anniversary symposia on Native Son and Black Boy at Northeastern University, Tougaloo College, and Washington University. Northeastern University initiated the Richard Wright Newsletter, the Richard Wright Circle met in 1993 at Tougaloo College to discuss Pagan Spain; and on September 4, 1995, Black Boy, the PBS-sponsored documentary of Wright's life, aired nationwide on what would have been Wright's eighty-seventh birthday. It is remarkable that so little of the recent interest in and so few of the recent contributions to Wright scholarship are reflected in The Critical Response to Richard Wright, edited by Robert J. Butler.

This collection is a selected history of Wright criticism which focuses on Native Son, Black Boy, The Outsider, and Eight Men, along with a section devoted to more recent criticism--James Tuttleton, Keneth Kinnamon, and Yoshinobu Hakutani consider the Library of America volumes, and Butler contributes an article on Rite of Passage. This deep-focus approach supposes a fresh perspective which it does not achieve. With few exceptions, The Critical Response to Richard Wright is new packaging of familiar material which adds nothing to our understanding of Wright's work. The book remains firmly rooted in the orthodox tradition of Wright criticism which ignores more than half of his life's work.

Many of the collection's best essays have appeared in earlier, more complete collections of criticism. In Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), editors H. L. Gates and K. A. Appiah included Carla Cappetti's "Sociology of an Existence: Wright and the Chicago School"; and Critical Essays on Richard Wright (1982), edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani, includes Keneth Kinnamon's "Native Son: The Personal, Social and Political Background," Blyden Jackson's "Richard Wright: Black Boy from America's Black Belt and Urban Ghettos," and Michel Fabre's "Richard Wright and the French Existentialists." Despite its age, the Hakutani collection remains more useful to scholars because it omits the sound-bite reviews which are easily found in Kinnamon's astonishingly comprehensive A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary and includes essays on the non-fiction and the poetry. It is also much easier to read; the Butler collection is marred by extremely small print.

The Critical Response to Richard Wright does include three pieces on The Library of America volumes which give us a sense of the animated discussion the re-integrated texts have provoked. The essays by Kinnamon, Hakutani, and Tuttleton review the Library of America volumes of Native Son and The Outsider in pieces that are thoughtful and informative, and Butler's essay "The Invisible Woman in Wright's Rite of Passage" makes an important contribution to Wright scholarship. But the collection as a whole suffers from a narrowness in scope which, ironically, the Library of America volumes ought to have discouraged. The canonization of Richard Wright prompted the reprinting of all his work and the publication of new work. This and the fact that the non-fiction has received little serious critical attention over the past four decades demands that a new collection of criticism consider Wright's entire oeuvre.

If Wright scholars ignore most of his work in exile, we will fail to know the depth and breadth of his vision and talent. The non-fiction travel narratives document Wright's insatiable curiosity about the origins of modernity, of which the African Diaspora and slavery were pivotal events; Black Power explores the origins of Bigger Thomas and Richard Wright. And Wright was not simply interested in history; he was among a few African Americans to attend the Bandung Conference in 1955 to witness the first international meeting of peoples of color where the future of the former African colonies was discussed. Black Power, Pagan Spain, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen! revisit the sites of conflict in Uncle Tom's Children, Black Boy, and Native Son and do so in ways which illuminate and enrich our reading of the earlier texts.

A small example of this is Wright's use of movie audiences in Native Son and Black Power. In Native Son, Bigger and Jack go to the movies and become engrossed not in the film about an African community, but about the life of a white socialite whose Communist boyfriend plots to kill her husband. Despite color and class differences, the South Side audience more readily identifies with the white woman's story than that of African tribal life. In Black Power, Richard Wright goes to the movies to experience this Western phenomenon with a Ghanaian audience composed chiefly of people Bigger's age. Wright soon realizes that the audience is not interested in the plot (it is a Western) but focuses instead on the discrete moments of action. This comparison reveals important differences between this West African society and African Americans vis-a-vis the West.

In his overview of Richard Wright's career, Butler offers as evidence of Wright's diminished reputation the fact that Savage Holiday (1954) was rejected by Harper's and World and was not reviewed in the United States. Butler's assessment never questions this orthodox reading of Richard Wright, which assumes that his creative powers dimmed when he quit the United States. Are there other reasons that critics ignored Savage Holiday? Were the contemporary critics too busy reviewing The Outsider or Black Power, both of which appeared just months before Savage Holiday? Or does the absence of black characters condemn it to critical obscurity? Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Sewanee and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room share this feature with Savage Holiday, but critics have been more attentive to these texts.

Once an orthodox interpretation has been established, it is difficult to recall that it is, after all, opinion. And it is opinion grounded in the specifics of its time and place. At the close of the twentieth century, we owe one of its greatest writers the respect he is due. This is not possible if we continue to ask the same questions, if we refuse to explore his writing in exile, if we refuse to let the Black Boy from Mississippi be the international writer--a la Joyce, Hemingway, or Camus--he indeed became. To do this, we must move Richard Wright (borrowing a phrase from Salman Rushdie) from "the little room of literature" to the busy crossroads of cultural history. This after all is where Richard Wright belongs, for his meditations on the self, race, poetics, and politics are among the most subtle we have.
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Author:Weiss, M. Lynn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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