Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a farm in Natchez, Mississippi. His father, Nathan, was a sharecropper who moved his family to Memphis, Tennessee, before deserting them. As Wright’s biography reveals, his childhood was difficult and unhappy, much of it spent attending to his frail and sickly mother while squeezing in school whenever he had the time. After high school, he returned to Memphis with a forged note to gain entry to the city’s library, where he read the works of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis, all of whom profoundly influenced his developing writing style. He later moved to Chicago and began publishing his stories in left-wing periodicals that reflected his political beliefs as a new member of the Communist Party. Wright eventually moved to New York City in the late 1930s, where he published his most famous novel, Native Son (1940), and memoir Black Boy (1945) and won fame as a rising star in the African American community.
Despite his success, however, Wright grew increasingly frustrated with the racial divide and therefore left New York for Paris around the mid-century. He quickly became part of Paris’s vibrant literary circle, which included notable French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Wright continued to produce novels and nonfiction travelogues, but none had the brilliance of his earlier works. He tried to move to London several years later but failed to obtain status as a permanent resident. He ultimately returned to Paris, where he died on November 28, 1960.
Although Wright’s fame has declined somewhat since his death, his legacy endures. His bold portraits of black Americans’ struggle for recognition and assertion in an indifferent world added a rich new voice to the canon of American literature. Wright’s fiction and memoirs graphically portray the experiences of African Americans in the early twentieth century, the conditions in which they lived, and their tenuous relationship with white society. In dissecting contemporary notions and observing the state of racial relations in the broadest context possible, Wright gravitated more and more to naturalism. Naturalist writers believed that larger, all-encompassing environmental, economic, and psychological forces shaped and controlled the lives of both individuals and groups of people in general. As a result, many characters in naturalist literature, such as Dave Saunders in Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” find themselves caught up in events and circumstances they can’t control and don’t understand. Although Wright primarily wrote about African Americans and their experiences, his work sought to address universal truths and experiences affecting people of all races.
Wright was the first major African American novelist to make his mark in the twentieth century, achieving both commercial and critical success. His success paved the way for other black writers to flourish, including Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. His realistic portrayal of black Americans’ lives injected an otherwise overlooked and silenced viewpoint into the nation’s social and literary consciousness.