Notes on Richard Wright.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960): This note will be rather brief, given James Baldwin’s relative fullness at the end of the interview. See also the note for Chester Himes, about the Paris get together at Les Deux Magots with Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin.
Richard Wright achieved fame early in his career as a black American writer, thanks to his novel Native Son: The Biography of a Young American (1940), which was selected by the Book of the Month Club, the first such novel by a black writer. It was preceded by a story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938); and followed Black Boy (1945), a portrait of his childhood. His works, both fiction, non-fiction—and poetry—are many.
He is also one of the six writers included in the well-known collection, The God That Failed (Harper and Brothers, 1949), the “god” being Communism; the other writers: André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Ignazio Silone, and Louis Fischer.
He was born in Mississippi at Rucker’s Plantation near Natchez. His parents were born free, but his grandparents were born into slavery. His first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” written at the age of fifteen, was published in the local black newspaper Southern Register (no copies survive). At the age of seventeen he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and shortly after joined the migration of blacks to Chicago (1927). That journey is told first in the short story “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1938) and carried forward with considerable variation in Native Son. His play Native Son (a collaboration with Paul Green) opened on Broadway in March, 1941. In 1946 Wright moved to Paris, and became a French citizen in 1947. It’s not long after that James Baldwin, at the age of twenty-four, also moves to Paris, and then Chester Himes in 1953, which brings us to the three exiles sitting together at Les Deux Magots.
I strongly recommend the Library of America’s two volumes of Richard Wright’s work: #55 & 56: Richard Wright: Early Work, and Richard Wright: Later Works. The Library of America is a non-profit press with an astonishing array of writers. Note that it includes three Baldwin volumes: #97, 98, & 272: James Baldwin: Early Novels and Stories, James Baldwin: Collected Essays, and James Baldwin: Later Novels. For more up-to-date information, check out the Library of America website. (The catalogue is free; the volumes number in the hundreds. It’s an amazing project, founded in 1979.)