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Richard Wright: The Life and Times Paperback – February 15, 2008


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Born in Mississippi in 1908, the grandson of former slaves, Richard Wright spent his teenage years chopping wood, carrying coal, scrubbing floors, and enduring a thousand indignities. Later, in novels such as Native Son and The Outsider as well as works of journalism and autobiography, he raised profoundly disturbing questions about the "nightmarish jungle" of race relations in contemporary America, offering profoundly pessimistic answers in return.

For his troubles, literary historian Hazel Rowley shows in this sweeping biography, Wright earned a large readership--even, for a time, a place on the bestseller lists and the top income-tax bracket. But, because he had joined the Communist Party as a young man, he was also denounced from the floor of the United States Senate--accused of anti-Americanism and even suspected of spying for Moscow--and his books were banned in several states and cities. Wright protested that he had repudiated Marxism years before, bitterly remarking, "The Western world must make up its mind as to whether it hates colored people more than it hates Communists." Eventually, a prophet without honor, he left his native country and lived out the rest of his years in France, where he is buried.

Rowley draws on a wealth of archival material (as she notes, "Wright kept everything--drafts of manuscripts, letters, photographs, hotel bills, newspaper cuttings") and his body of work to portray the justly angry writer. The result is a welcome contribution to literary and historical studies. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Born into crushing poverty in rural Mississippi, Richard Wright (1908-1960) became one of the most celebrated African-American writers of his time, best known for the controversial Native Son and his autobiographical Black Boy. Wright spent his writing career bearing witness to American racism; in Native Son's unforgettable Bigger Thomas, he created a character too furious, uncompromising and vivid for mainstream white society to ignore. But Wright's literary success was not easily won. His Communist Party connections disbarred him from the establishment; his later renunciation of those same connections made him a pariah on the left, accused of pandering to white expectations. At this point, says Rowley, Wright was so embattled that he "could no longer see degrees of subtleties." Rowley (Christina Stead: A Biography) explores the roots of Wright's simmering fury and his conflicted drive toward social commentary. She renders accessible the facts of Wright's life and earnestly attempts to reconstruct his milieu. The narrative, however, is marred by its own sincerity: Rowley often succumbs to a biographer's rapt psychologizing ("five-year-old Richard had to help with the shopping... he felt proud to be so grown up"), and her efforts to enliven the story by resorting to present tense tableaux are ill-fated at best ("The big city is frightening. The traffic is chaotic.... What a din!"). These misguided stylistic choices make it difficult to consider Rowley's work with the gravity her research deserves; still, her competent treatment of Wright's life should satisfy those seeking to know more about the man behind the seminal work. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug. 14)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 638 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (February 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226730387
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226730387
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,169,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Hazel Rowley, brought up in England and Australia, lives in New York City. Her new book, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: An Extraordinary Marriage, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was named among the 2010 TEN BEST BOOKS (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, NPR).

Rowley moved to Paris for two years to write Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (Harper Collins, 2005). A Washington Post Best Book for 2005, the book has been translated into thirteen languages. In Brazil it was a bestseller, and in France the prestigious literary magazine Lire named it "the best literary biography of 2006."

Rowley wrote Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Henry Holt, 2001) while she was affiliated with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro American Studies at Harvard. The book had cover reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post and was listed among the 2001 Washington Post Book World Raves. It was re-issued by Chicago University Press in 2008.

Christina Stead: A Biography (Heinemann, 1993) won Australia's most prestigious prize, the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Published in the US by Henry Holt and in the UK by Secker & Warburg, it received glowing reviews from the likes of Doris Lessing, James Wood, and Lorna Sage (TLS),and was named as a New York Times Notable Book. It was re-issued in 2007 by Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Hazel Rowley has appeared four times in The Best Australian Essays. She has published articles in Partisan Review, Mississippi Quarterly, Antioch Review, Contemporary Literature, Prose Studies, Auto/Biography Studies, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Southerly and Westerly, and reviews books for The Times Literary Supplement, The London Times Higher Education Supplement, Boston Globe, Washington Post, The Nation, and L.A. Times.

A passionate speaker, she has appeared at numerous book festivals and literary events in the US, Canada, UK, France, and Australia.

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Bill Fleck on September 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Richard Wright is a major American author and, as such, deserves a major biography. Up until now, this has not happened.
Sure, there have been previous attempts. Friends (Constance Webb), enemies (Margaret Walker), and scholars (Michel Fabre) have all had their turn, but only Hazel Rowley's account, RICHARD WRIGHT: THE LIFE AND TIMES, can be considered definitive.
The fact that Wright is the subject of a major book in the 21st century is in itself marvelous. Too often, Wright has been dismissed since his death in 1960 by critics, readers, and other writers. That a major publishing house (Henry Holt and Company) would even put out Rowley's work is a testament to the revival of Wright in literary circles.
And Rowley has provided us with a wonderfully balanced account. She recaps the triumphs (NATIVE SON, BLACK BOY), and is not afraid to include the faults (Wright's weakness for casual affairs and his indulgence in psychological babble in later works). What emerges is a portrait of a gifted outsider who managed success in spite of an almost crippling self-doubt.
In chapter after chapter, Rowley describes not only Wright's experience; she manages to incorporate the context of the experience as well. This journalistic tactic is especially rewarding in the passages describing Wright's travels to Spain and Africa in later life (his reactions *to* those travels make sense in the narrative as well). In fact, the book's only flaw is the quick wrap-up; I would have liked to read a summary of Wright's influence, and a few lines about his family today, in the closing.
But this is a small problem compared to what Rowley has achieved. Here, at last, is a clean, readable account of a neglected but nevertheless important figure in American literature. It is to be hoped that the book spurs renewed interest in the actual works of its subject.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Christopher A. Smith on November 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Wright undoubtedly is one of the most interesting figures in American literature. He was among the second generation of post-slavery African Americans and received only the most rudimentary education in the segregated South, but went on to be one of the most celebrated literary figures of his time, trading wits with Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre at the height of the French existentialist movement in Paris. In 1941 the eminent sociologist Robert Park summed it up upon meeting Wright, asking simply "how in hell did you happen?"
Rowley's biography is well written and thoroughly researched, and the subject matter is a fascinating one. Wright is probably more interesting as a personality and sociological phenomenon than he was as a writer (it's been argued that Native Son was his one and only true work of genius) but the story of his life makes for riveting reading. Wright's life is a study of contrasts and ironies. He grew up in the injustice and grinding poverty of Jim Crow Mississippi, spent time as a Communist immersed in Marxist doctrine, and after achieving fame and fortune went on to live in bourgeoisie luxury in post-war Paris surrounded by impoverished White Europeans.
This is an excellent biography: thorough, well referenced, and compelling. I give it four stars instead of five simply because it is somehow missing that element that is present in the best of biographies which allows the reader to look into the motives and inspirations of the subject. Rowley includes a lot of facts about Wright's early life (his influences, who gave him his first books, etc.) but I never felt like I understood the reason that this particular Black youth from the Deep South ended up reading Mencken, Chekhov, and Maupassant in his spare time and dreaming of fame as an author.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bonita L. Davis on January 11, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Many biographies have been written about Richard Wright but this remarkable book gives you a fresh perspective on this man who turned the publishing world upside down with his book Native Son. Unlike the other books written about him, The Life and Times focuses on the personal life of Wright and how over the years he developed as a writer.
Rowley takes us to his home state of Mississippi where we meet Richard Wright as a boy. Raised in a fundamentalist religious family in the midst of poverty, Wright was a true outsider who was not understood by his family or friends. His migration to the north (Chicago) unfolds a new world for him where his writing abilities are recognized and nurtured.
You see a Richard Wright who embraces individualism and won't allow the Communist Party or any other organization to dictate to him how to write. As time goes on Wright takes the step of permanently leaving the United States by going to France. It is there that he finds a freedom never felt before in America.
I enjoyed this book and was surprised about many facts concerning his personal life and writing career. Wright's psychological development and philosophical stances are intriguing. At times he is an outspoken voice against racism but ends up making compromises in his work and personal life. Towards the end of his life, Wright becomes suspicious of those around him. He alienates himself from his family and friends.
Rowley shows us the complexities and humanity of a man who went from poverty to fame and then on a downward spiral into spiritual poverty. What was it that made this man tick? The author does an outstanding job in answering that question and putting him in perspective of his day and time. This is an outstanding book that deserves to be in the libraries of every reader.
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