Biography of Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Biography of Richard Wright

"Words can be weapons against injustice," wrote Richard Wright. These words are evidenced by Wright?s own career as a successful black writer emerging during a period of racial oppression and economic hardship. Born September 4, 1908 on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, Wright came into a family embedded in the Southern tradition. His grandfather had been a slave, and his father was an illiterate sharecropper and mill worker. At the age of six, Wright?s father abandoned the family, leaving Wright and his younger brother by two years, Leon, under the sole care of his mother Ella who was a schoolteacher at the time.

Moving to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ella took a job as a cook, Wright and his family lived in extreme poverty. His mother felt it necessary to move from community to community; Wright thus attended school sporadically. In the meantime, he also stayed at the homes of various relatives in Arkansas and Mississippi, working various small part-time jobs. With his meager earnings, he managed to buy magazines, dime novels, old schoolbooks ? despite his lack of formal education, Wright read voraciously.

In 1920, Wright was sent to his grandmother?s house in Jackson where he enrolled in high school. As a naturally gifted child and fast learner, he graduated from high school as the valedictorian. After graduation, he worked in Memphis for a short time before moving to Chicago in 1927, where Wright was subjected to the Jim Crow segregation laws in his jobs as a postal worker and a hospital orderly. But Wright found escape through the Communist Party. In 1933, Wright was invited to attend a meeting of the John Reed Club ? a club that served as one of the "cultural instruments" of the Party. Intrigued by what he called "an organized search for the truth of the lives of the oppressed and the isolated," Wright began to compose poetry as a form of propaganda, attempting to humanize Communism. He was soon promoted to Executive Secretary of the John Reed Club and surrounded himself with a group of leftist writers. When the Communist party dissolved the club, Wright was among the first to sign up for the American Writers? Congress, a literary organization that was controlled by the Communist Party. It was also around this time that he married Rose Dimah Meadman.

In 1935, Wright completed his first novel, Cesspool (published post-posthumously under the title Lawd Today). He also began to publish other works of poetry and short stories. Wright moved to Harlem, New York, in 1937 where he kept himself busy writing articles for various journals and publication as well as his first published book, Uncle Tom?s Children. The novel was finished in 1938 and consisted of a collection of novellas about racial oppression in the South. After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, Wright moved to Brooklyn where he was able to finish what is considered one of the most defining works of his career: Native Son.

Native Son sold over 200,000 in less than a month and put Wright on the map of twentieth century literati. With its vivid portrayal of slum conditions in the South as well as an intense sociological study, Wright became considered a master of the psychological suspense narrative. The novel was soon adapted into a stage drama with the collaboration of Paul Green. Under the direction of the infamous Orson Welles, Native Son ran successfully on Broadway for three years. By this time, Wright had divorced Rose and married Ellen Poplar - a descendant of Polish Jewish immigrants and a fellow leftist - with whom he had two daughters.

His second book, Black Boy, became an instant success when it was published in 1945, making his first two books his most successful. By now, Wright had fallen out with the Communist Party, becoming disillusioned with their ideological rigidity. With the money from his literary career, Wright began to travel around Europe, finally moving with his family to France in 1947. There he became interested in the anti-colonialist movement and associated himself with several other successful thinkers, including Jean-Paul Satre, Simone Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, George Plimpton, and Leopold Senghor. But after completing several other works, Wright began to distance himself from his associates due to his poor health and financial difficulties. During his last years, he composed several works of poetry in the haiku form. On November 28, 1961, Richard Wright died of a heart attack at the age of 52 and was buried in Paris.

Other works by Richard Wright include:

The Negro and Parkway Community House (1941)

The Outsider (1955)

Savage Holiday (1954)

White Man, Listen! (1957)

The Long Dream (1958)

The Eight Men (1961)


Study Guides on Works by Richard Wright

Recently named among the top 25 non-fiction works of the century, Richard Wright's Black Boy has made a strong impact on American literature with its strong commentary on the cultural, political, racial, religious, and social issues of 20th...

Native Son's publication history is one of its most revelatory aspects. After several novel-projects had failed, Wright sold Native Son to Harper Publishers, netting a $400 advance. Published in 1940, Native Son became a selection of the...