Art Attack August 06, 2021 at 12:01 pm

Why editors turned down the most important novel of iconic writer Richard Wright

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor August 06, 2021 at 12:01 pm

August 06, 2021 at 12:01 pm | Art Attack

1950: American writer Richard Wright (1908 - 1960) holds a cigarette while sitting in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival, Venice, Italy. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal's film, 'Native Son,' which was adapted from his novel and starred the author. He is wearing a pale-colored suit and a bow tie. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of Richard Wright’s most popular books is his memoir Black Boy, which follows his life from 1912 to 1936, but he has more than 15 books to his name, including the Native Son, Uncle Tom’s children, White Man Listen and The Long Dream. Decades after his death, he remains one of the most important voices in African-American literature. But what many may not know is that he was barred from publishing a book, which is said to be the most important of all his novels.

Until recently, editors refused to publish The Man Who Lived Underground in full. In April, more than 60 years after the iconic writer’s death, the landmark novel was published by the Library of America (LOA) after Wright’s daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed the work at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and brought it to LOA.

The Man Who Lived Underground tells the story of Fred Daniels, a Black man framed for a double murder he did not commit. He is arrested one evening and tortured by White police officers into confessing but he manages to escape into the city’s underground sewer system. “What he experiences there becomes a metaphor for a journey into the heart of American darkness,” writes Oprah Daily.

Wright wrote the book not long after Native Son came out. Indeed, Wright viewed The Man Who Lived Underground as his most important work but his publisher, Harper & Brothers, turned it down when he presented it. Apparently, one reader found Wright’s depiction of police violence against Daniels “unbearable.” At the end of the day, a shortened version of the novel, not containing Daniels’ initial encounter with the police, was published in a 1944 story anthology. It appeared in a collection of Wright’s work that came out in 1961, a year after he died.

More than ten years ago, the reintroduction of The Man Who Lived Underground began when Wright’s daughter Julia decided to unearth some of his unpublished work. Having been a prisoners’ rights activist, she had visited death row inmates and listened to stories of police shootings of people of color including the horrible death of James Byrd by white supremacists, AP reported.

In 2010, while seated at the Beinecke Archives where his father’s manuscripts are housed at Yale University, Julia told the AP that she “came across a long version of the short story I knew so well but augmented by the 50 pages on police brutality.”

She said “bringing the whole work to light was not only timely, it was a cure against the physical dismemberment suffered by the James Byrds of our dark history.”

The Man Who Lived Underground, released by the LOA, includes the Wright essay Memories of My Grandmother and an afterword from Wright’s grandson Malcolm Wright. Malcolm, who is Julia’s son and also a writer, told Oprah Daily it is worrying that his grandfather’s depiction of police violence was taken out of the novel in the 1940s.

He said that decision “is so telling and emblematic of the problem our society has with race that I have to question how many lives might have been saved if we’d begun to have this discussion decades ago, when my grandfather was already pushing the envelope, trying to bring this conversation to mainstream consciousness.”

In May, AP reported that the novel has reached the bestseller lists of The New York Times and the independent booksellers’ Indiebound among others. The novel has also sparked renewed interest in Wright’s work.

Wright, born free on September 4, 1908, on Rucker’s plantation, wrote his first short story The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre at the age of 15. The short story appeared in the local Black newspaper, Southern Register. This encouraged him to do more writing. Wright’s literature shares the reality of the African-American experience through colorful writing.

He is known as one of the very first African-American writers to protest White treatment of Blacks and is said to be the father of protest writing who gave other Black writers the confidence to write about their realities and protest. He was part of the Civil Rights movement and later after World War II settled in Paris where he died in 1960.

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