Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 July 2021
“I feel that I’m lucky to be alive to write novels today, when the whole world is caught in the pangs of war and change,” proclaimed Richard Wright in the concluding paragraph of his 1940 essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” (EW 881). Modeled on Henry James’s retrospective prefaces, that essay was penned not many years but immediately after the triumphant publication of Native Son and was Wright’s leading advertisement for himself as the latest African American writer – by far the most successful both commercially and critically – to have arrived on the American literary scene. This exuberant note is not one we readily associate with Wright, whose legend conjures up rather the stereotype of an angry, tendentious writer, for whom words were primarily weapons in the battle against the absurd Jim Crow racist regime that made life hell for African Americans, especially sensitive “black boys” like himself. This is not who we are hearing when Wright tells us that writing Native Son was “an exciting, enthralling, and even a romantic experience,” and that “the mere writing of” the big book he was following it with, the ultimately unpublishable “Black Hope,” “will be more fun and a deeper satisfaction than any praise or blame from anybody” (EW 880–81).