To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
The category of Civil War literature is not bounded by historical designation or lived experience; instead, this genre encompasses a broad range of reflections and reconstructions concerning the legacy imparted by the war. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, contemporary evaluations of the civil rights movement mobilize competing logics of Civil War memory. These versions of Civil War memory take shape in both personal and political registers, the subjective nature of which simultaneously confounds and perpetually renews understandings of the past. Three developments occurred in the 1950s and 1960s that brought such contradictory remembrance to light: the desegregation of public schools via Brown v. Board of Education, the commemoration of the Civil War’s centennial anniversary, and the deaths of the last remaining Civil War veterans. This final event characterizes the relevant work produced in both the civil rights movement and our contemporary moment, as writers continuously work to preserve, alter, or resist their ancestors’ history in ways informed by the interests and conflicts of the present.
The Federal Writers’ Project’s experiment in documentary modes points to the wealth of African American documentary texts offering responses to the welfare state and its attendant ideologies. These texts – neither properly belonging to a single decade nor fitting conveniently with forms of literary production we usually study – challenge the way we periodize and categorize African American literature. This chapter explores several of these intertexts: Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941), Roi Ottley’s New World A-Coming (1943), Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy’s They Seek a City (1945), and Henry Lee Moon’s Balance of Power: The Negro Vote (1948). It illuminates their dialogue with the New Deal cultural projects and how Black writers reoriented how they engaged with history, urban space, and culture between the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era.
Without a Messiah expected, and if one’s current pain or trial is meaningless, why not commit suicide? In the Modernist canon, suicide is typically putting an end to one’s misery because there’s no reason not to do so, or because one is in any event a machine caused to do so by necessary causes and effects. Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus is an essay on how to live without hope or suicide; his novel The Plague starts with an averted suicide and ends with limited hope – or a hope for limits. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins and ends with the central duo’s wish, both times deferred, to hang themselves. Modernist responses to the question of meaning, and the attendant problem of suicide, include: persisting in hope or waiting despite the minimal probability of hope’s fulfillment (Franz Kafka, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Beckett); the epiphanies of the everyday, getting what it seemed you hoped for even without exactly having hoped for it (Virginia Woolf); affirmation of the repetitions, recurrences, and accidents of natural and human life, overcoming their sameness through an act of will (Camus).
Ellison came to New York City with a musical education from Tuskegee and an interest in pursuing sculpture. But owing to his new friendships with young writers, including Richard Wright, and his job working for the Federal Writer’s Project collecting “Negro Lore,” his focus soon shifted to writing. This chapter explores the influence that Ellison’s early New York encounters had on inspiring his first attempts at writing fiction and in shaping the thematic and aesthetic concerns that would endure throughout his life’s work.
Shortly after the publication of Native Son, literary critics began to assume that Richard Wright was the head of a group of authors who emulated his literary style. Critics of the 1940s and 1950s included in this group, which they dubbed “The Blues School” or “The Wright School of Postwar Negro Fiction,” authors like Chester Himes, Ann Petry, and, prior to the publication of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. This chapter will throw a new perspective on the relationship between Ellison and Wright, by investigating how Ellison positioned himself vis-à-vis the critical claim that he was a member of “The Wright School.”
In his 1945 essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ralph Ellison defines the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” “Ralph Ellison and the Blues” will examine the ways in which Ellison frames the blues as a quintessentially American form in which its makers tell individual stories that resonate for the collective, while simultaneously creating improvised, self-fashioned American identities. This chapter will consider Ellison’s engagement with the blues through his character Jim Trueblood in Invisible Man; his incisive recollections about Jimmy Rushing, and other blues people; and his own cohered identity created out of (American) cultural chaos.
As Richard Wright rose to literary prominence in the 1940s, his became an authoritative voice for a white American audience minimally exposed to Black Chicago specifically and Black urban life more generally. In works like Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices, written after he left Chicago, Wright presents a consistently grim picture of the South Side as a place of suffering and of its residents as impoverished victims of ecological forces. Grounded in the theories of the Chicago School of Sociology, Wright’s prose creates an imaginative geography of “the ghetto” as a blighted, dangerous space that holds sway over the American cultural landscape for decades. With photographic evidence from the files of the Farm Security Administration, Nash illustrates both what Wright omitted from his representation of the South Side and how he manipulated images that he did include. He also discusses the presentation of Chicago in Wright’s posthumously published first novel, Lawd Today!, arguing that the picture Wright created of the South Side while he still resided there was both more nuanced and balanced than those he penned from a distance.
Most scholarship on Richard Wright places him as one of the key representatives of atheism and secularism in the history of 20th century African American letters. This representation consequently reduces and overlooks much of the nuances Wright’s thoughts on religion. This chapter highlights that Wright recognized two contrasting thoughts that serve as the foundation of his thinking about religion: the significance of religion for poor Black adherents and the insufficiency of any religion for Black devotees in the context of a white supremacist world. Since this complication reappears throughout his oeuvre, this chapter seeks to provide a general portrait of Wright’s overlooked thoughts on religion—while also limiting my judgments of those thoughts—in order to contextualize how his work fits in mid-twentieth-century Black religious discourse.
Richard Wright’s was truly a life defined by struggle, and by his death at age fifty-two in 1962, he had acquired a massive amount of political baggage that was bursting with a contradictory array of statements and actions. Among other things, Wright stands alone among African American authors of fiction, poetry, and drama in his providing a detailed, autobiographical memoir of life in the Communist Party (CP-USA), which lasted about ten years. Moreover, Wright scholars have long been aware that there was always something elliptical if not cryptic about the articulation of Wright’s political views in the years after his departure from that movement and the United States. This essay begins by demonstrating that much of the present-day confusion regarding Wright’s brand of Marxist politics toward the mid-1940s and after can be traced back to interpretations of what he resolved when he wrote the memoir “I Tried to Be a Communist.” It concludes by querying the extent to which his political evolution was representative--or uncharacteristic--of the experience of the dozens of African American imaginative writers with CP-USA affiliations, every last one of whom drew back from the organization at some point.
This essay contests the prevalent view of Richard Wright as a proponent of violent black masculinity. Beginning with Uncle Tom’s Children, I argue, Wright provides a radical critique of the very ‘macho’ violent wish-fulfillment he has been accused of endorsing. Stories such as "Big Boy Leaves Home," "Down by the Riverside," "Long Black Song" and "Ethics of Living Jim Crow" underscore the cruel ironic bind of black masculinity under Jim Crow: Black male children can be punished as “men” for the slightest perceived misstep, even while grown Black men are forced to assume the permanent position of “boys,” forever deferential to white authority. Wright confronts us with the trauma of black male vulnerability, while also interrogating the complex and contradictory psychological reactions and socio-political responses such vulnerability gives rise to. His work grasps the impulse to black masculinism as an understandable response to the particular historical circumstances of Jim Crow, while at the same time underscoring the strategic liability of such violent and individualist reactions. Ultimately, Wright suggests that it is only the concerted response of the larger black community that offers black boys and men alike a chance of meaningful resistance.
Richard Wright’s relationship with African American music was fundamentally paradoxical: he was both thoroughly immersed in and profoundly detached from such genres as blues and jazz. While he listened to black music avidly, its presence in his fiction is minimal, and—like other progressives and literary figures of his time—he tended to see blues and jazz not as art in themselves, but as vital and raw folk material out of which the literati might create art. What is more, Wright emerged as an author and produced his most canonical works during a relative hiatus in blues history, as well as at a moment when jazz existed primarily as mainstream entertainment in the form of big-band swing. Although critics conventionally focus upon the few fleeting references to African American music in Wright’s fiction, revisionist scholarship might bring the music to bear on the author’s work instead. There are, for example striking parallels of topic, theme, language, and imagery between Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” (1938) and Charley Patton’s song about southern flooding, “High Water Everywhere” (1930). Critics, then, can fill in the blues and jazz gaps in Wright’s work that he was unable to complete himself.
Paris provided Wright with inspiration that could come only from his exiled status there as well as a diversity of contacts, encounters, cultural opportunities and political involvements that could be found nowhere else in the world. From his contacts with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide, and Frantz Fanon to his encounters with Chester Himes, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Wright thrived on a dynamic assortment of collaborations. For Wright, his time in Paris (1947 until his death in 1960) and Ailly, a small farming town in East Normandy where Wright had a summer home (1955-1959) were for him instrumental in dealing with the racial terror he experienced in the United States. Paris and Ailly were places that aided his quest for self-discovery and deepened his relations with the global black diaspora. These locations allowed him to further engage with existentialism, Pan-Africanism, and Marxism while he experimented with such narrative modes as travel writing, literary journalism, and haiku. Perhaps most importantly, though, Paris was where Wright’s lifelong racial consciousness and globalist perspective were developed and confirmed.
This chapter considers how a range of U.S. southern writers with varying political views responded to the Depression and New Deal. It stresses that even when competing visions of and for the South were articulated by different “fronts” in the period’s “cultural wars,” such visions were not always reducible to left versus right, communism versus capitalism, or “Agrarian versus Industrial.” William Faulkner’s short fiction between 1941 and 1943 reveals complex, contradictory attitudes toward the New Deal, especially the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The writing of Zora Neale Hurston, including texts produced for the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, includes a critique of Jim Crow labor exploitation comparable to the work of her supposed antagonist (and fellow FWP author) Richard Wright. Arna Bontemps’s historical novels, especially Black Thunder (1936), approach Depression-era social upheaval allegorically by depicting earlier black laborers revolting against slavery in the U.S. South and the Caribbean.
This chapter examines Richard Wright’s career in terms of the gap between his aspiration to emulate the great, canonized modernists like Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein and his practical recourse to the realist and naturalist novel as still the best means of representing African American experience. It examines as well the gap between his authorial image as an uncompromising black author telling harsh truths and the unprecedented popularity of his novels thanks in good part to compromises he made with his publishers in the interest of securing publication by the Book of the Month Club. Wright’s landmark stature, this chapter demonstrates, stems in good part from his remarkable commercial success, success that ultimately made it possible for him to follow in the footsteps of his American modernist precursors and write as an expatriate in Paris. The chapter deals largely with the expressed desire of the phenomenally successful author of Native Son and Black Boy, well-tutored in what he called “the writing game” by his agent Paul Reynolds and his editor Edward Aswell, to move beyond the expectations attached to the “Negro writer” he had become. It aligns his exile with his desire to write major multi-volume works outlined in private journals and letters, as well as produce the literary equivalent of the non-figurative art whose virtues he describes at some length in the major novel of his French period, The Outsider.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.