Richard Wright, Outsider


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 8: Richard Wright, Outsider
Nov. 8-15, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of Richard Wright.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of Native Son.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: If you had five minutes alone with Bigger Thomas, what would you say?  How do you think he would respond? 

Presentation: “Richard Wright, Outsider” (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Naturalism: Richard Wright openly acknowledged the influence of naturalism on Native Son.  Citing specific details and passages, identify the novel’s naturalistic qualities.  Do you find them realistic and compelling?  Defend your response.

Politics: Drawing on your knowledge of Wright’s own politics, analyze the treatment of politics in the novel.  In particular, what does it have to say about capitalism and communism?  In your view, does the political material elevate the novel or weigh it down?

Protagonist: Analyze Bigger Thomas as the novel’s protagonist.  What drives him?  Do you find his characterization believable?

Race: Assess the novel’s treatment of racial issues.  Consider its depiction of the relationships between blacks and whites and between blacks and other blacks.

Presentation: Richard Wright (Graeme Little)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: The subject of race has appeared in virtually every novel we have studied this semester.  Drawing on Native Son and at least one other of these novels, make an argument about some aspect of this theme in the American novel.  For instance, you might consider the source of conflict between blacks and whites in America.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following:

  • protagonist
  • antagonist
  • expatriate
  • naturalism


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:


1929-1940s: Great Depression

1940: Wright publishes Native Son


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below: Richard Wright features a biographical sketch, a list of works, and links to related Web sites.


Richard Wright: Black Boy contains a biographical sketch, a chronology, a collection of photographs, study questions, and an extensive bibliography.

Updated November 8, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In this lesson, we will take a look at one of America’s great African-American writers, Richard Wright.  Please remember that you final portfolio is due at 10 a.m. Monday, November 11.  You may post it on the Web, send it to me by e-mail attachment, or give me a hard copy.


Richard Wright, 1908-1960


An African-American and a native of Mississippi, Richard Wright wrote with an insider’s knowledge of the black experience in America.  At the same time, it is difficult to imagine a writer who was more of an outsider than Wright.  After leaving the South and settling in Chicago, he eventually left the country altogether and settled as an expatriate in Paris.  Even before lived physically outside the United States, he lived outside the conventional American culture.  As a young man, he rebelled against orthodox Christianity; he rebelled against capitalism, as well, and became perhaps the most committed communist among American writers.  Of course, Wright’s race—while making him an insider among blacks—made him an outsider in a country dominated by whites.  Wright even entitled one of his novels The Outsider, but this position and stance can also be seen in his best-known works: the novel Native Son (1940) and the autobiography Black Boy (1945).  Known for his treatment of race, Wright is also one of America’s naturalist writers.


An outsider from the start, Wright was born September 4, 1908, in an extremely poor area outside Natchez, Mississippi, to a sharecropper named Nathan Wright and a schoolteacher named Ella Wright.  In 1914, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where things only got worse.  Wright’s father abandoned the family, and Wright’s mother became ill.  In 1916, Wright, his brother, and their mother returned to Mississippi, moving in with Margaret Wilson, Wright’s grandmother.  Later, the family moved in with Wright’s aunt and uncle in Elaine, Arkansas, but left after whites murdered Wright’s uncle.  Over the next decade, Wright experienced more instability, but managed to graduate as valedictorian of Smith-Robertson Public School in 1925 and, with money he had earned from various jobs, to move back to Memphis, arriving in November of the same year.  Wright’s self-education took flight in 1926, as he encountered the works and ideas of leading American and European writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola, and Fyodor Dostoyevski.  Like many other African-Americans of this time period, Wright eventually moved north, taking up residence in Chicago in 1927.  There his reading continued, and he secured a job as a postal clerk, but lost it after the 1929 stock market crash, which was followed by the Great Depression.  Having experienced rural poverty as a child in Mississippi, he got a taste of urban poverty in Chicago, where he lived in a ghetto and, as an employee of the South Side Boys Club, interacted with gang members.  In the early 1930s, he contributed poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to left-wing publications such as New Masses and Left Front.  After joining the Communist Party in 1933, he published “Big Boy Leaves Home” in Negro Caravan in 1936 and began writing Native Son the same year.  The following year, he moved to New York and went to work for the Daily Worker, a Communist publication.  After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a collection of short stories, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 and completed Native Son, which he published the following year.  He married a white woman named Ellen Poplar in 1941 and left the Communist Party the following year.  In 1945, he published  Black Boy, an account of his early years.  In 1946, he became an expatriate, moving to France, where he interacted with the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as American writers such as Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin.  After writing the script for a film adaptation of Native Son and playing the role of Bigger Thomas, Wright published several other books, including Savage Holiday (1954) and White Man, Listen! (1957), before dying of a heart attack on November 28, 1960.


Native Son (1940)

When Richard Wright began writing Native Son in 1936, two important literary movements were in the background.  The first is naturalism, which generally depicted human beings as victims of social, economic, and natural forces.  In Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), and the many other novels with naturalistic features, men and women are heavily influenced, even destroyed by poverty, capitalism, sexual desire, alcoholism, and other forces that exist outside and inside them.  Originating in the late nineteenth century, naturalism reached its peak in America between 1890 and 1910, but continued to appear in the works of later writers, including the playwright Eugene O’Neill.  Between 1910 and 1940, another movement had a dramatic impact on American literature: the rise of numerous African-American writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Arna Bontemps.  Many of these writers were associated with Harlem, an area of Manhattan in New York City, and the literary period came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

In some ways, Wright was an outsider even to these movements.  Naturalism had already peaked when he began publishing work in the 1930s, and his career began in Chicago, not Harlem, although he did move to New York in 1937.  Nevertheless, Wright belongs to both movements in one way or another.  A reader of the Frenchman Emile Zola, one of the leading theorists and practitioners of naturalism, as well as Dreiser and other naturalists, Wright openly acknowledged the importance of this school of writing in his own writing.  A close look at Native Son, in fact, reveals striking connections with naturalism.  As an African-American deeply concerned with the issues of race, furthermore, Wright was perhaps the greatest black writer working outside or inside Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century.


We turn in our next lesson to Truman Capote and a different brand of novel, the “nonfiction novel.”