The volume discusses the critical reception of Wright’s work at the time of publication and examines its enduring appeal. The volume also explores Wright’s relationships with other literary and creative forces such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, his attraction to Communism in the 1950s, and his self-imposed exile in France.
Wright produced an incredible variety of work in various genres and media: journalism and cultural criticism, poetry, short and long fiction, essays and articles, and pieces for the theater, radio, and film. This volume covers the highlights of that output from the fiction and autobiography of Uncle Tom’s Children, his earliest success, to his unpublished novel A Father’s Law, found by his daughter Julia, his literary executor, shortly after his death.
The chapters here discuss critical views presented by a variety of Wright scholars as well as original archival research by the volume’s authors. They also give a sense of continuity to a man who was characterized during his career both by the abject poverty and the traumatic violence he and his characters endured and by the sophisticated philosophical and rhetorical genius of that same work.
The volume starts out with an introductory essay by Editor Kimberly Drake, and introduces readers to Wright's early life and work.
The first section of essays consists of four critical context essays. "The Biographical and Historical Contexts of Richard Wright’s ‘I Tried to Be a Communist,’” by Robert C. Evans, discusses an essay of Wright’s published in 1944 that explains his association with the Communist Party. Kimberly Drake’s “The Meaning of Rape in Richard Wright’s Native Son” uses a revised psychoanalytic lens combined with a feminist lens to examine Wright’s portrayal of rape in that novel.
The chapter entitled “Richard Wright’s Readers,” written by Konstantina Karageorgos, introduces readers to an important genealogy of criticism on Richard Wright’s Native Son, which influences how Wright is read today. Hue Woodson’s “Heidegger and The Outsider, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream” is designed to complicate the critical understanding of existentialism in the three novels Wright wrote after his move to Paris.
Next, the volume shifts to a series of critical readings chapters, the first of these is "A Child's Eye View: Humanizing Naturalism's Horros in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children," by Jericho Williams, which reconsiders the title in light of Wright's engagement with literacy naturalism. In “Revisiting Richard Wright’s Native Son as Protest Novel,” Lisa Tomlinson examines the novel as a literary protest project, contextualizing the unjust circumstances around Bigger’s actions and portraying Bigger’s murder of a white woman as an outcry of a black man’s need to be heard in a society where he is marginalized. Julie Prebel’s chapter, “Richard Wright’s Black Boy: Black Consciousness, Artistic Expression, and Social Justice,” focuses on how Wright's narrative highlights the effects of white supremacy experienced by blacks. In “Richard Wright’s ‘I Tried To Be a Communist’: Its Literary Effectiveness,” Robert C. Evans delivers another view of Wright’s 1944 essay and examines the essay less as a political document than as an effective writing piece.
The remaining chapters in the volume study Wright's work after her left the United States. In “Of Maids and Men: Racial Mythologies and Gender Revelations in Richard Wright’s ‘Man of All Work,’” Shana A. Russell considers one of Wright’s last short fictional works, a radio play entitled “Man of All Work” (1957). Beth Bennett’s chapter, “A First Look at Native Son: Richard Wright’s Uncensored Film,” closely reads the uncut Native Son (NS) film, showing how the roles Wright assigned to his African American actors surprisingly, and seemingly counter intuitively, initially mirrored some features of blackened American entertainers. Kimberly Drake closes out the volume with “Richard Wright’s Rage: Figures of Disability in A Father’s Law.” She takes as her theme the association of Wright’s work and indeed of black men in general at the time, with violent and dangerous rage, noting that James Baldwin’s discussion of his own rage at Jim Crow racism provides a connection between himself and Wright that critics have endeavored to ignore.
Readers will find this volume as a useful introduction to Richard Wright's best-known works (and some lesser known) and to the life of an intellectual whose work changed the course of race relations and American literature in the early and mid-twentieth century.