Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Contributing Editor: John M. Reilly
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Among sympathetic readers, there is an assumption that Wright is documentary, that his works can be read as elementary sociology. If these readers are familiar with literary movements, they also assume he can be classed as a naturalistic author displaying the experience of victims. Readers of a negative disposition are inclined to class Wright as an exponent of hate, an unreasonable writer who is not sensitive to the complexities of moral experience.
For all of these readers, a useful approach is to focus on the narrative point of view, the third-person narration (or what is technically labeled free, indirect discourse or narrated monologue) that places us within the consciousness of the protagonist. This introduces a complexity of mind, an experience of identification (but not identity) that can illustrate how we and the protagonist are "inside" of statistics or documentary, how we experience life as though we had choice and cannot be victims.
I would recommend for study of "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" some consideration of how Wright revised his work to make it less and less "realistic," more and more symbolic. This approach allows for treatment of the issue of universality. Student discussion often centers around guilt and freedom. The most commonly asked questions have to do with a tendency to allegorize the underground journey. While exploring what Wright might intend by some of his choices of settings that the character enters, it is possible to suggest that they are categorical and take him into dominant institutions while exposing the workings of the social values.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The focus on point of view is also helpful for drawing attention to the interest Wright has in social psychology, which dramatizes in narrative the consciousness of a character at the crossroads of social forces (race, class) and personal impulses and self-creation. Wright is dedicated to study of the production of personality and the arousal of a self-directive being. This, after all, is the substance of African-American history: how oppressed people create a world, a culture, and remake personalities the dominant group seeks to eradicate.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The challenge is to describe "protest" literature as a repudiation of the dominant discourse on race without allowing readers to believe that rejection of the dominant literary styles is to become nonliterary. Wright should be seen as a major voice of African-American modernism (see the emphasis on the black self, the effort in his work to found a subjectivity). That's his literary period. His school may well be called protest. But the selection in the anthology requires attention to the language of symbolism--the charged objects and language of racial discourse.
The audience in the 1940s and 1950s may have been less receptive to the symbolic element, less attuned to the existentialist outlook of a black writer. The greatest distinction of audiences, however, lies in the historical experiences of white and black readers. The protagonist is, like Bigger Thomas, a Stagger Lee, a "baadd man"; and in his story he "signifies" on white culture by use of the elements of black culture. Obviously, different people will see these differently. (See Claudia Mitchel-Kernan, "Signifying," Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel, ed. Alan Dundes, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 310-28.)
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare with Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, for the use of perception imagery as well as the subterranean symbolism; Albert Camus, The Stranger, for the experience of a protagonist who finds the assumptions of normality collapsing.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What is the meaning of Dave's final remark?
(b) Compare this work to a crime story. Who is Wright's criminal?
2. (a) Discuss the creativity of the protagonist.
(b) Suggest why Wright chose not to indicate the name or "vital statistics" of his protagonist.
Bakish, Davis, "Underground in an Ambiguous Dreamworld." Studies in Black Literature 2 (Autumn 1971): 18-23.
Davis, Charles T. and Michel Fabre. Richard Wright: A Primary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Information on revisions and evolving form of story.
Everette, Mildred. "The Death of Richard Wright's American Dream: 'The Man Who Lived Underground.' " CLA Journal 17 (1974): 318-26.
Fabre, Michel. "From Tabloid to Myth: 'The Man Who Lived Underground.' " The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1985. 93-107.
Gelfant, Blanche. "Residence Underground: Recent Fictions of the Subterranean City." Sewanee Review 83 (1975): 406-38.
Goed, William. "On Lower Frequencies: The Buried Men in Wright and Ellison." Modern Fiction Studies 15 (1970): 483-501.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. "Richard Wright Reappraised." The Atlantic 225 (March 1970): 127-32. Addresses critically the protest versus sym-bolism in Wright's work with "The Man . . ." as an example of his finest writing.
Reilly, John. "Self-Portraits by Richard Wright." Colorado Quarterly 20 (Summer 1971): 31-45. On revisions and the author's personal investment in "The Man . . .".