“The Man Who Lived Underground” began life not as a short story, but as a novel. Author Richard Wright ran into trouble finding a publisher who could get terribly excited about a novel-length story of a man who lives in the subterranean world of the sewers beneath the surface of a bustling city that did not include phantoms or monsters or other uncanny creatures of the depths, however, and so commenced upon a vigorous act of pruning his tale down to a more management and commercially viable size. When the novel had been whittled into short story form, he finally found interest in publishing the effort.
The story appeared in print for the first time in 1942 in the journal Accent. Two years later a version of “The Man Who Lived Underground” that was longer than the version published in Accent, but still not the length of the appeared the literary anthology Cross Section. That longer version would be republished in the Richard Wright collection titled Eight Men and ever since would continue to show up in literature textbooks and classroom assignments.
The title, narrative and themes of the short story resonate with and connect to other famous works as varied as Phantom of the Opera, “Notes from Underground” and Les Miserables. Just as the writers of those and other words have engaged both literal and figurative meanings of the word “underground” or have utilized subterranean channels to portray an allegorical view of the world above, so does Wright combine the concept of actually living underground with the symbolic meaning of living underground as a means of existing beneath the radar of authorities to present a portrait the darkness of the sewer being a structure that connects everyone together as one. As he navigates the pathways below, Wright’s protagonist finds that far away from the ugliness of disconnected reality exhibited by the light above is the authentic reality below in which the riches of jewels behind locked safes is neighbor to the church services of poor black folk which neighbors the food market which neighbors the undertaker.
Beneath the streets, the darkness ironically illuminates for the man who lives underground the inescapable fact that everyone and everything is intricately and inextricably connected to everything and everyone else. In this way, “The Man Who Lived Underground” becomes one of the great achievements in the subgenre of literature that portrays the difference beneath life above the surface of the streets and life below.