American Hunger. By Richard Wright. Harper & Row. $8.95.
Born on Sept. 4, 1908 on a Mississippi plantation some 20 miles from Natchez, Richard Wright was a man plagued by hunger until his death in the Eugene Gibez Clinic (Paris) on Nov. 28, 1960. During his boyhood, his hunger was often physical, especially after his father deserted the family. The absence of a father and of food became interchangeable for the young boy. As a young man reflecting on black childhood and youth in the South, Wright exposed this wound: “As the days slid past the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and whenever I felt hunger I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness.” The damage was permanent. Even after Wright achieved success as a writer, he was subject to the idea and the effects of hunger. Hunger changed in kind but not degree. It became pervasive.
It could not be satisfied by the success of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), the fame and financial security that followed the publication of Native Son (1940), nor the impact of Black Boy (1945), an impact that made Wright spokesman for an entire generation of black Americans. In fact, material success only served to intensify Wright’s awareness that hunger of the spirit is implacable. He could write passionately, eloquently, about the meaning of suffering in the lives of oppressed and exploited people, but he always felt the necessity of expressing that suffering as if it were personal. There is no question that Wright was sincere in his efforts to alert the world to the deepest feelings of people shaped, or mangled, by oppression. Their feelings dovetailed so neatly with his own. What is at issue— especially as we struggle to rid ourselves of the illusion that Wright speaks for masses of people—is how the consciousness of a man who craves the unattainable makes his vision particular.
In the books that followed Black Boy, Wright yearned for the authority and freedom granted only to those whom the gods curse. Like Cross Damon, the hero of The Outsider (1953), Wright longed to be free of responsibility to race, to nation, to anything except the “self” he endeavored to create through the act of writing. If one grants that The Outsider is Wright’s most autobiographical fiction, the novel illuminates the intrusive “self” in his later writings. Whether he was analyzing the independence movement in Africa (Black Power, 1954), reporting on the Bandung Conference (The Color Curtain, 1956), or examining the intricacies of a culture (Pagan Spain, 1957), Wright could never manage the role of the distanced, disciplined observer. He was either brother in suffering or the deliverer of Olympian judgments. The voice of White Man, Listen! (1957) is not that of victimized millions but rather that of the man who feels outrage as he beholds the world’s disorder. And certainly, in The Long Dream (1958), the last book published before his death, Wright sought to create in Rex “Fishbelly” Tucker a childhood and youth that circumstances had made impossible for him. Wright’s work was strongly determined by autobiographical impulses, and the publication of American Hunger permits us to understand why Wright’s life as victim was so powerful a matrix for creative work,
American Hunger, the unused portion of the larger manuscript (“American Hunger”) from which Black Boy was taken, deals with the Northern education of Richard Wright. And Wright’s Northern experiences were but a continuation of what had happened to him in the South. Black Boy documented in vivid and painful detail Wright’s Southern education from the age of four to that day in 1927 when he boarded a northbound train “without a qualm, without a single backward glance.” That document of the relations between a sensitive, intelligent, spiritually hungry native son and a racist social order, that magnificent seizure of consciousness, ended with an affirmation:
With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.
Black Boy, so much in the tradition of the slave narrative, belonged also, as Ralph Ellison discerned, to the tradition of the blues. It was an elegant gesture of testifying to “both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” Yet the continuation of Wright’s autobiography seems to be a lamentation, an extended riff on his hazy notion that wholeness and decency and redemption lay up North.
American Hunger is the story of Wright’s life from his “first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago” to May Day, 1936, when he “suffered a public, physical assault by two white Communists with black Communists looking on.” Race relations in Chicago were perplexing for Wright. They were not as clearly defined as in the South, and the shock initiated what Wright called his second childhood. Searching for the new limits that defined his person as a “Negro,” Wright discovered the psychological distance between blacks and whites. Moreover, he became increasingly aware of the nuances of language as he moved from job to job. And it was, by his own account, this interest in language that led him into a turbulent affair with the Communist Party.
He had yearned to be a writer at least since the publication of his tale “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre” (1924) in the Southern Register (Jackson, Mississippi). His surreptitious discovery of H. L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces while he worked in Memphis transformed the urge into a passion, Five years after his arrival in Chicago, Wright became a member of the John Reed Club, the literary arm of the Communist Party, and later of the Party itself, At first, he was impressed by the absence of racism in the Party, by his acceptance as a promising writer, by the Marxist program and ideal. The Communists “had a program, an ideal, but they had not yet found a language.”
In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner. I would make voyages, discoveries, explorations with words and try to put some of that meaning back. I would address my words to two groups: I would tell Communists how common people felt, ana I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them.
At the heart of American Hunger is Wright’s description of his growth as a writer within the Party, his frustrations, his gnawing sense of individuality (his differentness), his shattering discovery that the internal politics of the Party stripped a man of dignity and violated the sanctity of the human soul. One need only read Wright’s poems during his early days in the Party to sense how dedicated he was, how unquestioningly he believed in the truth of the Marxist vision, Nevertheless, Wright maintained his stubborn bent. He wanted to be his own kind of Communist. He was more interested in giving a voice to voiceless blacks than in sounding the horn for the international proletariat. The Party wanted a disciplined black worker, one willing to subordinate his artistic drives to political ends, Although Wright hungered for a clear purpose in life, and thought he had found it in the Party, he would not buy it at the cost of a second enslavement. Having learned that freedom from oppression was not in the North nor in the embrace of the Communist Party, Wright ended American Hunger with classic resolve:
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
American Hunger is important because it describes the second half of Wright’s social education in America, giving us a more organic view of the complex boy and man that was Richard Wright. But it is not the great discovery and the great autobiography that it has been publicized to be.
First, American Hunger was not “found among the author’s papers” as some reviewers have assumed. By mid-1944, the whole manuscript of Wright’s autobiography had been set in page proofs. “Stories vary as to precisely what happened,” says Nahum Waxman, the Harper editor who is handling the publishing program for unpublished Wright materials, “but apparently either the publisher or the book club suggested that the book would end much more logically with Wright’s departure from the South and that the remaining material might better be held for a further autobiographical work.” A letter from Edward Aswell, Wright’s editor at Harper & Brothers, dated June 28, 1944, leads one to think the suggestion was made by the Book-of-the-Month Club. At any rate, Wright composed a new conclusion for Chapter XIV, then began publishing the unused portion.
“I Tried to be a Communist,” which so enraged Wright’s former comrades, appeared in the August and September 1944 numbers of Atlantic Monthly. “ Early Days in Chicago” (later retitled “The Man Who Went to Chicago”) was published in the anthology Cross Section 1945. A sketch titled “American Hunger” was printed in the September 1945 issue of Mademoiselle. With the exception of approximately 16 pages of new material and some changes in syntax and vocabulary, American Hunger had been in print for 30 years. It was simply not in print as the whole Wright intended it to be. What was “found” among Wright’s papers was the typescript of the autobiography “American Hunger” with corrections in Wright’s hand. And if the Richard Wright Archive Committee at Yale were truly interested in honoring a great American writer, they would have presented a definitive edition of Wright’s autobiography.
Second, the value of American Hunger in 1977 must be considered in the context of literary study, The book is a significant artifact in literary history. But as a book that might have impact on contemporary sensibility, American Hunger is 32 years too late. Unlike Black Boy, which symbolized what it meant to grow up black in the South in the early 20th century, American Hunger tells us only of one black man’s lack of sustenance in the North. As autobiography, American Hunger helps us to understand something of Wright’s ultimate despair and something about Wright’s frantic distrust of all except the “self.” Perhaps what one hungers for most in this book is the greatness of myth that informs Black Boy.