When the ‘Native Son’ Became ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’
On December 12, 1941, the literary agent Paul Reynolds contacted Edward Asner, one of the top editors at the publishing house Harper & Brothers, with what should have come as welcome news. “Here,” Reynolds announced, “is the new novel by Richard Wright.”
A year earlier, Harper & Brothers had published Native Son, Wright’s searing novel of racism and violence, and watched as the book ascended the bestseller lists and launched its author into literary stardom. “Few other recent novels have been preceded by more advanced critical acclamation, or lived up to the expectations they aroused so well,” gushed The New York Times. Expectations were running even higher for Wright’s next fictional outing.
Yet Asner was aghast at what his star author had just submitted. The Man Who Lived Underground told the story of Fred Daniels, a black laborer thrust into a Kafkaesque waking nightmare after he is falsely accused of murdering the white couple that employs him and then tortured by the police until he signs a confession. Able to briefly evade his captors, Daniels escapes into the sewer system of his unnamed city, from which he tunnels into various basements and cellars to secretly observe “the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him.” The book begins as a gritty work of realism before taking an unexpected turn toward the weird and surrealistic.
Asner and his colleagues disliked the manuscript and refused to publish it. Wright’s lengthy depiction of police brutality was “unbearable,” declared one internal reviewer. Though parts of the tale did eventually see print in short-story form, the full novel would remain unpublished during Wright’s lifetime. In the words of biographer Hazel Rowley, “Wright’s novel portrayed all too clearly the madness and arbitrary ‘justice’ of the world at a time when publishers were looking for more rousing stories.”
It would not be the last time that Wright butted heads with the literary powers that be. In 1944, he reluctantly agreed to make substantial cuts to his forthcoming autobiography in order to appease left-wing objectors. Black Boy, as the work came to be titled, would hit the shelves in 1945 minus the original manuscript’s lengthy account of Wright’s dismaying experiences as a fledgling Communist Party member in Chicago during the 1930s. His unflattering portrait of the Windy City’s wannabe Stalins had simply ruffled too many feathers in publishing circles. It was not until 1977—a full 17 years after Wright’s untimely death at the age of 52—that the Chicago section was released in book form under the title American Hunger. Wright’s complete autobiography (anti-Communist warts and all) was not published as a single volume until 1991.
The Man Who Lived Underground finally emerged from the darkness earlier this year. In April, the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher “dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing,” released the previously unseen novel in a handsome hardcover edition, complete with an illuminating accompanying essay written by Wright in 1941 about the work’s genesis and meaning. Critics are already calling it one of his best books.
Today, Wright is remembered as one of the great literary voices of 20th century America. What is more, his influence has reverberated across the ideological spectrum. Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most celebrated progressive writer at work today, borrowed the title for his 2015 bestseller, Between the World and Me, from a 1935 Wright poem of the same name. To say the least, it was a high-profile tip of the hat.
And then there is Clarence Thomas. In 1987, the conservative justice-to-be told Reason that Wright was the “No. 1, numero uno” writer who had influenced him. “Both Native Son and Black Boy really woke me up,” Thomas declared. “He captured a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to suppress.” Furthermore, reading Wright’s “autobiographical flirtation with communism was really good for me, because when I got to college, you had a lot of radical groups that were trying to attract black students who were upset—and I was really upset—and that…sort of prepared me to not be swept away by this kind of recruitment.”
Any writer who can count both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Clarence Thomas among his biggest fans is surely worth reading.
‘Words as a Weapon’
Richard Wright was born on a farm near Roxie, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. His mot
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