Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His father was a black sharecropper; his mother, a school teacher. In 1914, when cotton prices collapsed at the outbreak of the war, Wright's father was one among thousands who traveled North to the industrial centers; he got as far as Memphis, where he found work as a night porter in a drugstore. The pressures of city living led him to desert his family shortly thereafter, and from then on Wright's childhood consisted of moving from one southern town to another, of intermittent schooling and sporadic jobs.
He arrived in Chicago during the Great Depression, worked at odd jobs, and drifted until his association with the American Communist party gave him roots of a kind. Since the age of twelve, Richard Wright had not only dreamed of writing, but had written. He was particularly attracted to the American naturalists Mencken, Dreiser, Lewis, and Anderson and his first publications included articles, short stories, and poetry, mostly printed by the Communist party press.
In 1938, his first book, Uncle Tom's Children, was published. These stories depict the black person in revolt against his environment and reveal the depth of Wright's emotional ties to the South. Each of the stories, in its violence and moral passion, is a preparation for his major publication, Native Son, in 1940. With this book Wright gained national attention, especially after it won the $500 prize awarded by Story magazine.
According to Wright himself, he was a member of the Communist party from 1932 to 1944, and the books he wrote during this period reflect his belief in communism as the only existing agency capable of restoring humanitarian values to the earth. Native Son, incorporating this idea, influenced a whole generation of black novelists. The novel's anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, became the murderer he was, not out of choice, but as a result of environmental influences beyond his control; Wright's autobiography, Black Boy (1945), expresses the same Marxist philosophy. A best seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Native Son was successfully dramatized by Orson Welles and was made into a movie, Wright himself playing Bigger Thomas. The book is an integral part of American literary tradition in its struggle to reconcile the innocence of the rural past with the corruption of the urban present. Dreiser's An American Tragedy contains many of the same ideas and even a similarity of theme. Both Wright and Dreiser viewed society as the guilty instigator of criminality.
Yet naturalism as a literary form was not restricted to America. Throughout Western civilization in the nineteenth century, many writers were attempting to present life in all its detail, free of any preconceived notions of its meaning. Naturalism, closely akin to realism, presented a deterministic view of the universe. The writer's personality was kept in the far distance; the facts he exposed were meant to speak for themselves. Naturalism was, by its very nature, a form of social protest, and the black novelists who made up the so-called Wright School of Literature for the most part dealt with protest. There was Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Ann Petry's The Street (1946), and Willard Savoy's Alien Land (1949); others included Carl Offord's The White Face (1943) and Lloyd Brown's Iron City (1951). The Wright School lasted past World War II. All this time Wright himself was undergoing important changes.
Wright's break with the Communist party involved a slow process of disillusionment. He discovered that even as a cell member, he was just as isolated, just as abused and misunderstood as he had been before. He finally resigned from the John Reed Club so that he could devote more time to writing and less to political action. Subsequently he was director of the Federal Negro Theater and a member of the Federal Writers' Project. Also, it was about this time that Wright became attracted to the existentialist philosophies of Sartre and, especially, Camus. He became an expatriate in 1947, living in France until his death. Although married, with two daughters, he always felt himself to be rootless, a wanderer. In 1953, he published The Outsider, in which the hero, Cross Damon, unlike Bigger Thomas, does not even attempt to become part of Western middle-class society. He turns his back on it completely. He ridicules Communist techniques and lives according to the existentialist principle of free choice. Cross Damon commits murder in a completely different spirit than Bigger Thomas. He acts as an individual who is free to do whatever his habits and desires lead him to do. He is not a victim of social and environmental pressures outside his control. In many ways, Cross Damon, the outsider, resembles Meursault, the hero of Camus' The Stranger. Both men live outside of any involvement with common humanity and pay no attention to social mores.
After The Outsider, Wright wrote two novels, The Long Dream (1958) and Lawd Today (1963), both of which are concerned with race problems. He also wrote short stories, sociological studies, haiku, and numerous essays and reviews. His influence on current black writing is still powerful. He fathered one tradition the black protest novel and helped establish a new one: an exploration of naturalism using the American black as his subject. Black Boy is perhaps his most poignant and artistically successful book. In it, the ethics of living in the Jim Crow South are analyzed to their limits; he exposes all the unresolved issues that still haunt black and white Americans. Wright died abroad in 1960.