The Life and Times
By Hazel Rowley
Henry Holt -- 626pp -- $35
In memoirs of successful people, a rise from humble origins is all but required--even if it must be invented. To get an idea of what a dizzying ascent in status is really like, read the engrossing Richard Wright: The Life and Times by literary biographer Hazel Rowley.
The grandson of slaves, Wright began life amid appalling Mississippi poverty and went on to become a world-renowned writer. His sharecropper father deserted his mother when Wright was 4. He and his brother spent time in an orphanage. Richard never got beyond the eighth grade. Ultimately, his family migrated to Memphis and then to Chicago's South Side. There, he might easily have succumbed to urban poverty, but instead Wright became ambitious in a way his family found odd: He turned into a voracious reader. Wright smuggled books by Dreiser, Crane, Dostoyevsky, and others out of segregated libraries, and decided that he should try to write like these realist masters.
Somehow he did. In 1938, Wright published his first book, Uncle Tom's Children. In 1940 came his shocking novel Native Son, in which a black hooligan accidentally murders a white woman. Even though, as Rowley says, it featured "the angriest, most violent antihero ever to have appeared in black American literature," it was a huge critical and commercial success. Wright's picture appeared on the cover of the prestigious Saturday Review, and the book sold 215,000 copies after just three weeks. While still in his 30s, Wright become an important literary figure in Chicago and in New York. After World War II, he emigrated to France, where he fell in with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Gertrude Stein.
How did he do it? Hard work and talent aside, one answer lies in his involvement with the Communist Party, its publications, and its John Reed Club of artists and writers, which became "Wright's university," says Rowley. But it wasn't long before the Stalinist cadres came to regard the independent Wright with suspicion. By 1942, Wright was out of the party, and within a few years he had made a very public disavowal.
Another key to Wright's success was the Book-of-the-Month Club. Rowley describes how this "most important book-marketing scheme in the nation" chose both Native Son and Wright's 1945 memoir Black Boy for their members, producing huge sales. But the opportunity came at a price. The Club insisted on substantive changes in the latter book, a move that Rowley characterizes as part censorship, part insightful editing, and part gross interference.
Wright's emigration was a response to American racism. Rowley offers a detailed account of his life in Paris, including his relationships with women and his interactions with French and American intellectuals. But out of his native element, his writing suffered. Unable to get a visa to live in England, where his family had moved, Wright contracted a mysterious illness and died alone in 1960, at 52.
Wright's work is part of the literary canon. In spite of Rowley's penetrating investigation, however, the question posed to him by sociologist Robert E. Park still hangs in the air: "How in hell did you happen?"
By Hardy Green