Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ is classic protest literature. It ranks alongside great works like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. It is a book with an agenda, but it expresses a deep sympathy for humanity. It is Richard Wright’s most celebrated work (though his autobiography ‘Black Boy’ has also won many readers) because of it’s power and strength.
Richard Wright was not directly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, mainly because he did not live in New York in the 20s and didn’t publish and major works until much later. Born on September 4, 1908, he spent his early years on a plantation with a family stricken by poverty. He lived in Mississippi until the age of 6 when his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. Not long after, Wright’s mother fell ill and they moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with his grandmother. He attended public schools and even spent a few years at a Seventh Day Adventist school. He published his first story in a small local paper in 1924. The story was called ‘The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre’.
After working a series of menial jobs, Richard moved by himself to Chicago to work for the Post Office. The Great Depression rolled along and relieved him of his duties here. The Depression also led to his involvement with the Communist Party, and he soon began to write articles for the Daily Worker and other Communist publications. His first major publication was of his story ‘Superstition’ in Abbot’s Monthly.
Writing for the Daily Worker led him to New York where he became the Harlem Editor. He also worked on a short-lived literary publication that yielded some excellent stories that were collected in a book entitled ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’ in 1938. The next year he received the Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him the ability to complete his novel ‘Native Son’ and publish it in 1940.
‘Native Son’ tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African American who murders a white woman. The crime that Bigger didn’t actually mean to commit leaves him feeling alive for the first time; he has broken free from a meaningless existence and done something that has caused a reaction. The astounding portrayal of Bigger is still shocking. When reading ‘Native Son’ we feel the violence, anger, confusion and feeling of entrapment inside this character. The novel does slip however, under the overbearing Communist propaganda that Wright so enthusiastically wrote into the novel’s courtroom trial section.
In 1941 Richard Wright married another member of the Communist Party, after an unsuccessful marriage to a dancer in 1939. He had two daughters from this marriage, one in 1942 and the second in 1949.
In 1944 Richard Wright grew tired of Communism and broke his ties with the party, moving to Paris and becoming yet another in the long list of American expatriate writers (including James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) He befriended such great existentialist writers and philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and produced a second novel entitled ‘The Outsider’.
Wright took to traveling and found time to publish his autobiography, ‘Black Boy’. He spent much of his time in different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa until he began to succumb to an illness known as aerobic dysentary. During his last years he took to writing Haiku. The poems he produced were gentle and humorous, a stark contrast to the brute strength of ‘Native Son’. These poems have been published, with an introduction by one of Wright’s daughters.
In 1958 he published his last novel, ‘The Long Dream’. He also collected the stories that would end up in his posthumously released ‘Eight Men’. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960. His work was highly influential to the civil rights movement, and to many African American writers who followed him.