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Richard Wright collection

Collection Data

Prominent author. Wright wrote several novels, short stories, and essays dealing with the oppression of black people in the United States and their struggle for freedom. Corrected manuscripts of Wright's works NATIVE SON, THE LONG DREAM, SAVAGE HOLIDAY, and other writings. Also research material gathered by Constance Webb, author of RICHARD WRIGHT: A BIOGRAPHY (G.P. Putnam, 1968). Material consists of copies of correspondence between Wright and friends, family members, and business associates, 1939-1959; and typescripts of Wright's articles and speeches, transcripts of interviews conducted by Webb with Ralph Ellison and Ellen Wright, and reaction to Webb's drafts of the biography and a corrected typescript of the biography.
Wright, Richard, 1908-1960 (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1935 - 1967
Library locations
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
Shelf locator: MssCol 20801
African American authors
American literature -- African American authors
Biographical/historical: Born in 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi, of a family of sharecroppers, Richard Wright was a self-taught intellectual and literary figure whose work influenced an entire generation of black writers, from Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry and James Baldwin in the United States, to George Lamming and Camara Laye in the Caribbean and in Africa. He left the South for Chicago at the age of nineteen, driven by a hunger for learning kindled in part by the books he surreptitiously borrowed from a white-only library, and particularly by the works of H. L. Menken whose ability to use words as weapons impressed him. Wright had begun writing as early as 1924, but "the environment the South creates", he later wrote, was "too small to nourish human beings, especially Negro human beings". In Chicago, Wright held a succession of menial jobs: porter, busboy, day laborer, and substitute worker at the post office where he encountered the radical workers and intellectuals who would help radicalize his thinking and facilitate his writing career. In 1932 he joined the John Reed Club, a Communist Party organization for intellectuals and artists, and soon after, his poems began appearing in radical magazines and newspapers, including Left Front and New Masses. He formally joined the Party in 1932 and worked as a Communist organizer on college campuses in the midwest and as a reporter for the Daily Worker. "The Communist Party had been the only road out of the Black Belt of Chicago for me", he later wrote to a friend. Chicago, during the Great Depression, was a hot bed of radicalism and social activism. It was also a time when black and white workers were organized together in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and when black and white writers and artists discovered and influenced each other's work in the Work Progress Administration and in study circles and radical groups. The author joined the WPA Federal Writers' Project in 1935, and was also active in the South Side Writers' Group, a project of the National Negro Congress. Wright developed his individual voice in the intellectual ferment of the 1930s. As a Marxist, he was reasonably acquainted with the literature of the worldwide socialist movement. It was the possibility of uniting the black experience, he later wrote, with "scattered but kindred people... in the realm of revolutionary experience" which drew him to the communist movement. He wanted to write about the lives of the black masses that the Communists sought to lead. Communist Party orthodoxy disapproved, however, of Wright's naturalist prose, akin in its depiction of powerlessness and grinding oppression to the nineteenth century French naturalists Zola and Balzac and the to twentieth century American naturalists Theodore Dreiser, Menken, and others. His fiction downplayed the role of consciousness which, in the canon of socialist realism, is the transcending moment when the oppressed individual realizes his fate and becomes a conscious historical agent. His refusal to adhere to the Party's outlook in literature and art led to his expulsion from the Chicago Communist Party in 1937. He left Chicago for New York the same year, and was reinstated by the Party in New York. His first book, Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of short stories, was published in 1938. His most influential work, Native Son, was published the following year. He left the Communist Party in 1940, dissatisfied with the Party's abandonment of a militant platform against segregation during World War II. That break was not publicized, however, until publication of his two-part article, "I Tried to Be a Communist", in the Atlantic Monthly in 1942. Wright's next book, Black Boy, published in 1945 was on the bestseller list for the larger part of that year and was a selection for the Book-of-the-Month club. The royalties from its sale would provide him with a yearly income for the next twelve years. Also in 1945, he wrote an extensive introduction to St. Clair Drake's and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis, and a pamphlet for the Wiltwick School on juvenile delinquency. He also lectured extensively and contributed articles to magazines like Mademoiselle, the New Republic and Negro Digest. Meanwhile, ostracized by former comrades and friends, denounced by Senator Bilbo as a liar, and disheartened by persistent discrimination in spite of his growing fame and success, the author spent part of the war years travelling in Mexico and Canada, before settling permanently in Paris in 1947. In an article, "I Choose Exile", commissioned by Ebony magazine in 1949, he wrote that he left the United States in a search for freedom, and that he had found that freedom in France. In Paris, Wright's literary successes made him a celebrity and he found a home in the cultural and intellectual circles of the bohemian left. He withdrew into a comfortable silence of seven years while exploring the new expatriate environment framed by existentialism and the worldwide revolt against colonialism. His three expatriate novels, The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954) and The Long Dream (1958) explored existentialist themes, but were more successful in France than in the United States where they were criticized as out of touch with social conditions. Meanwhile the author travelled extensively from his Parisian base: to Argentina in 1949, and to Haiti the following year, during the making of the movie version of Native Son, in which he played the lead role of Bigger Thomas; to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1953 for a book on colonial oppression and of personal discovery, Black Power; to Spain in 1954 for a travel book, Pagan Spain, exploring the themes of race and religion, politics and tradition in the land of the conquistadors; and to Indonesia in 1955 for a report on the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, The Color Curtain. Other major writings during that period include White Man, Listen, a series of lectures delivered at the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956, and an introduction to George Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism (1956). His last two books, Lawd Today (written in the 1930s) and Eight Men were published posthumously. Richard Wright married Dhinah Meadman in 1939 and Ellen Poplar in 1941, and was the father of two children, Julia and Rachel. Horace Cayton, a close friend from the Chicago days, praised him as a prophetic writer. Of his self-imposed exile, Faith Berry, the Langston Hughes biographer, wrote that he was "chided, misunderstood, accused of abandoning America and its racial problems" and that he had died before any of his predictions could become true.
Content: The Richard Wright Collection is composed of two primary groups of material. The first contains the corrected typescripts of his works Native Son, The Long Dream, and Savage Holiday (originally entitled Monument to Memory.) The second group is actually the research material gathered by Constance Webb Pearlstien, a close friend of Wright's and author of Richard Wright, a biography by Constance Webb (G. P. Putnam, 1968). This group contains copies of correspondence between Wright and a number of friends, members of his family, and business associates during the period 1939-1959. It includes typescripts of a number of Wright's articles and speeches which served as sources for Webb's work, comments by various people on various aspects of Wright's life and personality, and reactions to Webb's drafts of the biography, and, finally, the corrected typescript of the biography itself. The Wright correspondence is arranged alphabetically, the typescripts by title - first books, and then the articles and speeches. The comments about Wright and other general documents follow the typescripts. Finally correspondence to Webb about various aspects of Wright's life and the biography appears along with the corrected typescript of the work itself. Except for the typescripts, most of the material is not in original form, but consists of transcripts, carbons, and photographic copies.
Physical Description
Extent: 1 linear foot
Type of Resource
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b11928495
MSS Unit ID: 20801
Archives collections id: archives_collections_20801
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 1ca45280-cea2-0133-cc9f-00505686d14e
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