Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 July 2021
As Richard Wright was establishing his career in the 1940s, he maintained profitable but uneasy relationships with white audiences, especially those approaching his works within the political liberalism that held sway over much of American culture in this period. While Wright’s works struck a powerful chord in redirecting American culture to acknowledge the costs of race-based exclusion, the extent of that change was only ever partial, and often depended on Wright’s narratives being disseminated and received along the lines of established, white cultural parameters. At the same time, the commercial and critical successes of Native Son and Black Boy established the foundation for Wright’s career, and his interactions with white writers, living and dead, provided influential models and connections. This essay explores this tension while situating Wright’s work and publishing history in relation to civil rights activism and cultural liberalism in the 1940s, and its (sometimes distorted) reflection in the images of Wright circulated by his publishers and the mainstream press, by tracing the paratextual materials attached to Wright’s books and the wide range of publication venues in which his stories and essays appeared.
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