A brief introduction to the pioneering, cantankerous and oft-frustrated author.
This book, part of the publisher's series of short biographies of prominent African-Americans, isn't intended to deliver new information or surprising insights into the life and work of Richard Wright (1908–60). But given that the two major biographies of Wright surpass 600 pages, Wallach (African-American History/Univ. of North Texas) fills a gap, and it's no rush job. Though she speeds through the major touchstones of her subject's life, she takes time to make considered observations about the author's psyche. Wright's motivations were simple during his childhood. As a teenager his chief interest was escaping the grinding poverty of rural Mississippi, and his growing frustration with Southern racism pushed him to Memphis and later Chicago. Inspired by the ferocity he discovered in the writings of H.L. Mencken, Wright began working on poetry, essays and fiction, gaining a supportive community among Communist Party members during the 1920s and ’30s. In Harlem he wrote Native Son, his career-making 1940 novel about the struggles of a young black man in Chicago—though he made compromises in its tone and plot to win the approval of the Book-of-the-Month Club (and the bestseller status that came with it). Tellingly, Wallach's biography is more than half finished by the time Native Son makes Wright an international success, and what follows shows the author as increasingly combative and rudderless. He publicly broke with the Communist Party, saw his marriage fail thanks to his infidelities and bypassed the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to settle in France and speak out on racial injustice globally. Wallach efficiently captures this complicated period of Wright's life, setting his public statements of outrage against his private refusals to let more than a handful of people into his personal life, alienating even intimate protégés like Ralph Ellison. By the time of his death, Wright had spent years struggling to synthesize his thinking into a work as potent as Native Son, and though Wallach gives reasons to admire his later career, she convincingly argues that more affecting works might've been produced by a more compassionate man.
An emotionally astute study that belies its length.