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Wright’s connection to the postwar Parisian literary-intellectual journal Les Temps Modernes and collaborative friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir helped quickly establish him in France as, in Paul Gilroy’s words, “the first black writer to be put forward as a major figure in world literature.” This essay gives an overview of the various reasons that Wright was a good fit for the journal and its existentialist politics and the journal and its politics a good fit for Wright. But it also looks critically at a certain asymmetry to the relationship rooted in post-war Franco-American relations. It challenges the notion that Wright became a doctrinaire “existentialist” and suggests rather that he gained most from the journal and his friendship with Sartre the versatile, prophetic model of intellectual engagement already imminent in his autobiographical self-portrait. The connection influenced his novel The Outsider less than the non-fiction books of the 1950s.
“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).
Richard Wright was one of the most influential and complex African American writers of the twentieth century. Best known as the trailblazing, bestselling author of Native Son and Black Boy, he established himself as an experimental literary intellectual in France who creatively drew on some of the leading ideas of his time - Marxism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonialism - to explore the sources and meaning of racism both in the United States and worldwide. Richard Wright in Context gathers thirty-three new essays by leading scholars relating Wright's writings to biographical, regional, social, literary, and intellectual contexts essential to understanding them. It explores the places that shaped his life and enabled his literary destiny, the social and cultural contexts he both observed and immersed himself in, and the literary and intellectual contexts that made him one the most famous Black writers in the world at mid-century.
This chapter focuses on the career of Jean Toomer. It looks first at Toomer’s Washington upbringing among the black bourgeoisie, his course of reading in modern literature and the attraction for Toomer of the Greenwich Village literary world he associated with an “aristocracy of culture.” It then examines the way Toomer, following the advice of his friend Waldo Frank, capitalized on his African American identity and experience in the South in writing his first book Cane, which he retrospectively thought of as his “passport” into the literary world. The chapter goes on to demonstrate the extent to which Cane became a burden for Toomer, as it came to define him as a “Negro writer” despite the more ambitious, post-racial works he was writing, none of which could get published. It focuses finally on the reasons why African American anthologists and critics needed to claim Cane for African American literature – in good part, the chapter argues, because it showcased the race’s capacity for modernist experimentation. And it deals finally with Toomer’s reluctant agreement to be anthologized as an African American writer, as this ensured that his writing would endure.