Modern America, 1914 -

 
All American 
>Modern America 
 

Major Works

  • Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four novellas including Big Boy Leaves Home
  • Native Son
  • Black Boy
  • The Long Dream

Family

  • father:  Nathanial Wright
  • mother: Ella Wilson Wright
  • brother: Leon Wright
  • wife:  Ellen Poplar
  • daughters: Julia, Rachel

Homes

  • Natchez, Mississippi
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Jackson, Mississippi
  • Elaine, Arkansas
  • West Helena, Arkansas
  • Greenwood, Mississippi
  • Chicago, Ilinois
  • New York, New York
  • Paris, France

Occupations

  • Postal Worker
  • Newspaper Journalist
  • Newpaper Editor
  • Author
  • Essayist

Chronology

1908: bornSeptember 4 on Rucker's Plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. 
1924:  "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," reportedly published in the Jackson Southern Register
1925:  graduates as valedictorian
1931:  "Superstition" published in Abbott's Monthly Magazine
1933:  joins the Chicago John Reed Club and the Communist Party; writes for Left Front
1935:  fails to sell Lawd Today!, his first novel
1937:  "Fire and Cloud" wins Story magazine contest
1938:  Uncle Tom's Children
1939:  marries Dhima Rose Meadman
1940:  Native Son
1941:  marries Ellen Poplar
1942:  withdraws from Communist Party 
1944:  "I Tried to be a Communist" published in The Atlantic Monthly; "The Man Who Lived Underground" published in Cross Section
1945:  Black Boy
1953:  The Outsider 
1958:  The Long Dream
1960:  dies of apparent heart attack Nov 28 
1991:  The Library of America publishes a two-volume edition of Wright's work

Resources

  • African American Writers is a comprehensive reference book that contains biographical and literary articals on  African American writers.
  • www.pbs.org/rwbb This PBS website is an excellennt source for students and teachers.  It has biographical information about Wright and a teaching guide for Black Boy

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Richard Wright, 1908 - 1960

by Caroline Sanchez
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Richard Wright's life reads like the typical American success story.  Wright was born into a Jim Crow South that attempted to place a ceiling on his education and opportunities.  However, Richard Nathaniel Wright became one of the most well-read and politically active writers in American literary history (Joyce 875).

Life

Richard Nathaniel Wright was born the son of a sharecropper in rural Mississippi September 4, 1908.  Childhood for Richard was not playgrounds and picture books.  He, like many African American boys his age, saw a society plagued with injustice and persecution.  Such a turbulent early life developed the lens through which Wright viewed the world - a view he would later describe to his readers. 

Wright's mother, Ella, a religious schoolteacher, met his father, Nathan, an illiterate sharecropper, at a church party and they married in 1907.  Ella's family considered this union as a step down for Ella.  Leon Wright was born in 1910 and in 1911, Nathan abandoned his family to look for work.  Ella and her sons went to live with her mother, Margaret Bolden Wilson, a religious fanatic, and then moved to Memphis to find work.  When Ella became ill and could not take care of her sons, they were moved temporarily into an orphanage.  The family later moved back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her mother and then to Arkansas to live with her sister Maggie, and her brother-in-law Silas. Eventually, Richard moved once more to live with his grandmother in Jackson.  Because of his mother's illness, Richard worked odd jobs to help the family survive.  In Jackson, Wright found that he could not accept his grandmother's religion; to have done so would have meant denouncing all the joys of life.  His grandmother  burned the books he brought home, forbade him to listen to the radio, and refused to permit him to work on Saturday until he threatened to leave home.(Joyce 876-8) 

Tossed from one family member to another, Richard's years with his aunt and grandmother hindered his education and initiated his lifelong struggle with religion; however, this time of struggle would not extinguish his passion for reading.  Wright continued to read mainly encyclopedias and, at an early age, developed a sense of self and a voice that would not allow him to conform to his grandmother's restrictions or any other rules forbidding him to learn.  He was finally able to enter the ninth grade and in 1929, he graduated valedictorian of his class.  Once again, Wright challenged the authority structure in his life in order to do what he felt he must.  The principal wanted Wright to read a speech he had prepared instead of the one Wright had written.  Richard's speech, "The Attributes of Life," addressed how the educational system of the South deprived blacks of intellectual life and human dignity (Joyce, 878).  Wright did not accept the principal's speech; however, he agreed to cut passages that might offend some of the whites and blacks in attendance.  After graduation, Wright left Jackson to find work in Memphis and that is when his interest in literature began to take shape for him. 

In 1924, Wright's work "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre" was published in the Southern Register.  He read whatever encyclopedic articles he could obtain and while in Memphis, he read Harper's Magazine, TheAtlantic Monthly, American Mercury, and whatever books white men who did not wholly agree with the Jim Crow Laws would lend him.  Wright was also in Memphis when he read the book that forever altered his literary path. 

In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright explains how the name H.L. Menken appeared in a heated discussion in some of his reading.  He did not understand how a white man could write anything to make society that angry.  He decided that he must read what H.L. Menken had written.  To subvert the Jim Crow Laws that forbade him to receive books from the public library, Wright wrote the infamous "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H.L. Menken?"  Wright continued to explain that as he read A Book of Prefaces and one volume of Prejudices, he was overwhelmed by the way Menken used words as a weaepon.  He was most amazed not by what Menken said but by the boldness he had to say it. 

Richard Wright left Memphis and moved to Chicago in 1927.  In Chicago, he continued to work odd jobs and became acquainted with leftist organizations.  Wright's passion for the written language continued and at the same time, he mastered the craft of writing fiction, essays, and haiku poetry; he was equally successful at infusing his works with political messages that defied American and international societal conventions (Joyce 878).  In 1933, Wright joined the Communist party and wrote revolutionary poetry for Left Front.  During the next two years, Richard continued to write poetry and expanded his association with the Communist Party.  Wright also joined the Federal Writer's Project.  In 1936, Wright published "Big Boy Leaves Home" in The New Caravan and would later add it to his collection of Novellas for Uncle Toms Children which was published in 1938. 

After first publishing "Big Boy Leaves Home," Wright moved to New York to write for a Communist publication entitled the Daily Worker.  He later became the Harlem editor for the Daily Worker.  Wright was also editor of the short-lived magazine New Challenge.  Wright's journalistic work did not hinder his literature.  He continued to write poetry and began work on Native Son which was published in 1940.  It enjoyed immense popularity as Harper Brothers sold 200,000 copies in just thirty days (Joyce 875).  In 1944, Wright's separation with the Communist party wass made public with the publication of "I Tried to be a Communist" in Atlantic Monthly

In 1939, Richard Wright married Dhima Meadman, a white ballet dancer.  However, their marriage ended in a few years and Wright married Ellen Poplar, a Communist organizer.   They had two daughters, Rachel and Julia. Black Boy, Wright's autobiography was published in 1945 and shortly after, he moved his family to France.  While in France, Wright published The Outsider and The Long Dream.  Wright apparently died of a heart attack in 1960. 

Biographer Joyce Ann Joyce gives this fitting description of Richard Wright:  "Poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright, Communist, agnostic, and existentialist, he is now well known as the father of African American literature" (875). 

Literature and Journalism

At the heart of Richard Wright's literature is a desire to understand humanity and convey this truth in a way that is unmistakably real to the reader.  Out of his childhood grew a "deep yearning to know, the desire to explore the meaning of his experiences, and the boldness to express his knowledge" (Joyce 876).   Wright had to confront his own experiences to develop characters such as Bigger and Big Boy.  The South was designed to ruin Wright; instead it made him a Writer and gave him fuel to ignite his readers. 

It is clear that Wright's novels were never intended to be bedtime stories.  His powerful description conveys a clear sense of  "writing for the cause".  His cause, unlike his Antebellum and even Postbellum predecessors, was not as physically evident.  Wright's cause is what he termed "inexpressibly human."  Wright's literature was meant to stay with his reader's in a way they could not shake or laugh off.  After the publication of Uncle Tom's Children, Wright felt that "he had made an awfully naïve mistake in writing a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good" (Gloster 228).  Referring to this work, Wright wrote, "I swore to myself that if ever I wrote another book, no one 
would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears." 

Because of Wrights involvement and reading of Marxist ideology and existential philosophy, many critics believe that his writing is simply the product of such influence.  They do not view Wright's work as a literary masterpiece; instead, they see his work as a vehicle to explore societal wrongs.  However, they fail "to detect those qualities in his art which are peculiarly American and human (Joyce 875).  His three major novels all explore how the outer, physical, and anti-hero travels through his surroundings in harsh movements reflect the state of his inner self.  Wright's works are all read as separate entities yet they have a similar underlying theme.  Wright ultimately believed that all humans are a product of their environment and when this environment oppresses any member, there is physical and psychological devastation.  Robert Felger adds that such degradation comes at the expense of both the tyrannical and the tyrannized (581). 

Unlike the volumes of work printed about Wright's literature, there is little commentary on his journalism.  Wright wrote mainly for leftist papers and magazines.  The work he did for more popular magazines often involved writing a short story rather than a journalistic article.  Clearly, Wright understood his audience and wrote accordingly.  In his work for the communist magazines, Wright advocated support for the party and encouragement for people to find their own voice.  His focus is international and very political.  Wright viewed politics and international relations as one way of curing an ill society. 

Wright  wrote for a very specific audience in his essays and short stories.  Wright's concentrated audience is black America and the opressors of black America.  On the one hand, he is offering voice to the African American male experience and seeking an echo.  In his "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Wright attacks the African American writing conventions that keep writing separate from the Negro experience and are more entertaining that human.  On the other hand, he is conveying to white America that not only can African American's write but their writing is complex and detailed. 

Literary Journalism

On the surface, Richard Wright's literature and journalism appear quite different; however, at the heart of his writing, they are clearly similar.  It is difficult to note how either literature or journalism influenced how Wright wrote because he was developing his essay and fiction skills at the same time he began writing newspaper articles.  Based on his autobiography, it is clear that H.L. Menkens' writing is what impressed Wright to be a writer.  Nevertheless, it was not Menken's artistic style that influenced Wright; he was impressed by the content in Menkens work.  This is where Wright's literature and journalism come together.  At the heart of his writing is a desire to convey the dark truth about humanity.  The method Wright employed in his literature and journalism are distinctivly different; however, the commitment to truth remains constant. 

In Wright's essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," the language and syntax are clear, precise, and sophisticated.  In fact, the sentence structure is often elaborate to the extent that it appears to be proving how well he can write.  On the other hand, "Big Boy Leaves Home" uses the southern negro dialect to offer the reader a realistic view of the character. The two writings read differently; yet, Wright's underlying theme is the same.  In both writings, Wright is pointing out a truth concerning oppression. 

Richard Wright was a social reformer in the form of a journalist.  In all of Wright's work, his first priority was conveying the facts about the "inexpressibly human" aspect of man.  Although his efforts to convey this information crossed many genres, his dedication to the truth made him a journalist. 

Whether writing for the leftist organizations, creating poetry, or publishing novels, Richard Nathaniel Wright's work was clearly African American and unmistakably human. 
 

Works Cited

  • Amritjit, Singh. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
  • Felgar, Robert. "Richard Wright." A Library of Literary Criticism. Ed. Paul and June Schlueter. New York: Frederick Lengar Publishing Co, 1980.
  • Gloster, Hugh. Negro Voices in American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.
  • Joyce, Joyce Ann.  "Richard Wright."  African American Writers.  Ed. Valerie Smith.  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001. 
  • "Richard Wright" Microsoft Encarta Online 
  • Encyclopedia 2001 <http://encarta.msn.com  1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation.
  • Wright, Richard.  Black Boy

 

Study Questions for "Big Boy Leaves Home"

1.  Based on the title, predict what  you think this story will be about. 
2.  How has Big Boy changed by the end of the story? 
3.  Based on what you know about Richard Wright, why is it significant that Big Boy was in the hole and heard all the actions of the angry mob? 
4.  Big Boy's family and community plays a small but significant role in this story.  Explain their significance to Big Boy and to the overall theme of the story. 
5.  Give examples of Wright's imagery and explain how they create the overall mood.

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