This book review was originally published in the May 30, 1977 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
ESCAPE TO LONELINESS
AMERICAN HUNGER by RICHARD WRIGHT 146 pages. Harper & Row. $8.95.
All his life, from his violence-scarred childhood in Mississippi to his self-imposed exile in Paris where he died, aged 52. Black Novelist Richard Wright was an outsider. His existence, in fact, was a series of painful partings as he gave up family, friends, roots, Communism and finally his country. He was at home only in the demonic narrative drive and descriptive intensity that produced Native Son and Black Boy.
In this fragment of an autobiography, written in the early 1940s but withheld from publication until now, Wright tells of his tumultuous, troubled early manhood. In his 20s he left the South for Chicago, where he found relief from the physical brutality of Mississippi. But he was introduced to subtler forms of intimidation. If the whites no longer kicked him, they inevitably stepped on the spot that Wright was mopping in the hospital laboratory and tracked the dirty water around. “If I ever really hotly hated unthinking whites,” he recalls, “it was then. Not once during my entire stay at the institute did a single white person show enough courtesy to avoid a wet step.”
Wright’s first crisis of conscience came when, as a dishwasher, he noticed a white cook spitting into the soup. To tell or not to tell the boss was the question. In the South, such tattling would have led to his being fired. He pondered his dilemma: “I wondered if a Negro who did not smile and grin was as morally loathsome to whites as a cook who spat into the food.” Virtue, in this instance, triumphed.
The cook was dismissed; Wright stayed.
In the 1930s Wright embraced the interracial promise of the Communist Party. With “eyes as round and open and wet as morning-glories,” he made the first real emotional commitment of his life. But it was not, as they say, a two-way street. The party was interested in him only insofar as it could use him. He was promptly elected executive secretary of his unit because the faction supporting him figured that the opposition would not dare vote against a bona fide Negro.
As unit boss, Wright had to deal with a fiery newcomer who, presumably acting on orders from above, denounced a veteran Communist and almost broke up the organization. Suddenly the intruder disappeared, and Wright learned that he had been returned to the mental asylum from which he had escaped. “What kind of club did we run,” thought
Wright, “that a lunatic could step into it and help run it? Were we all so mad that we could not detect a madman when we saw one?”
Though Wright had only a grade-school education and worked at menial jobs, he was constantly under suspicion as an intellectual. “He talks like a book,” a comrade complained. Observed Wright: “That was enough to condemn me forever as bourgeois.” Disregarding warning signals, he tried to interview party members for a series of articles explaining Communism to the Negro masses. Party suspicion became sulfurous. A comrade pointedly reminded him that intellectuals were frequently shot in the Soviet Union. Wright became certain that if his American comrades ever came to power, that would be his fate as well. “I began to feel an emotional isolation that I had not known in the depths of the hate-ridden South.”
Tearful Confession. The book concludes with his recollection of an American version of the Moscow purge trials in which a friend of Wright’s is charged with antiparty activity. Guilty of none of the charges, he tearfully confesses to them all. Wright violates party rules by walking out of the trial. During a May Day parade, he is pummeled out of the ranks by his white comrades while his black comrades look on approvingly.
Wright sums up his party experience:
“Writing had to be done in loneliness and Communism had declared war upon human loneliness.” The author was thus liberated to loneliness, where he earned a lofty niche in American literature.