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Richard Wright : Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger), The Outsider Hardcover – October 1, 1991
The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
Richard Wright (1908-1960) is one of the most influential African American writers of the last century. His major works include the story collection Uncle Tom's Children, the novel Native Son, and the autobiography Black Boy.
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Here at last is *Black Boy* with all its awful impact, a book that makes you feel like weeping and shrieking when you finish it -- not because of some cathartic denouement, but because of the impeccable restraint and dispassion shown by Wright's character, whose holding back can scarcely contain the tragedy. Like a performance by a great actor, Wright's is all the more moving because you can feel him resisting anger, despair and dishonesty and choosing a nobler path. When you finish *Black Boy*, Wright's suffering comes crashing down on you -- and the weight is far greater now that the first two books are one.
*The Outsider*, now the second and last volume, offers a more dispassionate look at many of the same ideas that Wright discovered in *Black Boy*: That people on virtually every level of society are incensed by independent thought, that expectations enslave others, and that allowing for those expectations can afford safe passage to the person who lives in an intolerant society but whose thought is free. This second book, too, now appears for the first time as Wright intended it -- without brutal cuts and unnecessary edits about which the author was never consulted.
Both books comprise Wright's autobiography and it is essential in any form; to have them in one volume is revelatory. To have them exactly as Wright first wrote them is what makes their power especially satisfying: A man who was denied acceptance throughout his life is accepted at last in toto. Here is his whole life as he wrote it -- every form intact, every scene, every sentence, every word.
The second part was meant to be called The Horror and the Glory. It was first published as a book in 1977. Analyzing the reasons for publishing decisions taken at various steps would make a new book again.
Racism and bigotry are the main subjects of this autobiography. Its strength is less in its language or story, than in its reflections and implications.
In part 1, the childhood of a little boy in a family without father, with a sick mother, and with insensitive grandparents, aunts and uncles, is full of essential bleakness. Poverty was bad, hunger was real, and it was aggravated by nearly no formal schooling, by religious rigidity, of a kind that the boy could not buy into. Domestic violence was also part of the mix.
The boy grew up amidst deeply rooted racism. His mind, like that of his friends in the streets, is filled with hatred. Race relations seem beyond repair. It is hard to see any potential for an improvement of the attitudes of both sides. Social interaction is based on contempt, subservience, dishonesty and violence.
He develops intellectual curiosity during puberty and separates himself mentally from his relatives. He becomes a voracious but undiscriminating reader. His reluctance to play along in religious matters and his crazy idea to write stories make him an early outsider. He starts reading serious things and has dreams of becoming a professional man.
Part 1 ends on an optimistic note with Richard on a train leaving Memphis for Chicago, at age 19.
In Chicago, Richard finds it hard to adjust to a different world, to shed the distrust, which was so essential for survival in the south. In a way, humanity is redeemed, as crass racism of the Jim Crow kind is absent, but society condemns itself in other ways. Depression is coming. R finds American emptiness: the national character is too superficially optimistic in his view.
`If the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion.' (Would that be a prophecy of current political divisions?)
A lust for trash blinds the nation, he observes.
R finds various jobs, like postal clerk and insurance agent. He gets by. He gets involved with a leftist cultural organization, the John Reed Club, which pulls him into the Communist Party. These are years of show trials in Moscow, and R finds himself accused as a Trotzky-ist soon enough. He observes a Chicago version of a show trial. The party has no time for independent thought. He realizes that he would be shot if the party were in power.
The book ends with an isolated black intellectual's search for his way.
`I would wait, day and night, until I knew what to say.'
Third part badly needed. Alas, it wasn't written.
Obviously, RW could not fit in. Reactions to the book, had it been published then, would have been divided in four groups: some would condemn him for being a communist (and condemn his pictures of racism as communist propaganda). The communists would condemn him for being their enemy. Some curious readers would have been interested in his predicament, which is so well known from other communist deserters, Koestler foremost. A majority would have been left untouched.
The combined memoirs have in the meantime also been published as a separate book under the title Black Boy. That is the same title as part 1, hence I cannot publish this review at its proper place, but have to use the LoA edition which also includes The Outsider, a later novel. I will review the Outsider, his later novel that is also included here, later.