Culture Trips

‘It couldn’t be more relevant’: the unseen Richard Wright novel finally getting its due | Books

He was one of most influential African American writers of the 20th century. But Richard Wright found it hard to talk to his daughter about race.

“It’s like soldiers who go to war and then come back,” Julia Wright, who turns 79 this year, says in a phone interview with the Guardian. “They don’t always find the way to share what they did at war with their family. My father didn’t really know how to share the pain about race with me.

“So he had other ways of doing it. He would leave the doors of his office open so that I could have free range of his books and read everything I wanted to read, and that’s how I picked up some clues on what he was going through as a black man.”

Julia’s long engagement with and championing of her father’s work has led to a remarkable event this week: the release of an unseen Wright novel some 80 years after it was rejected by publishers.

The Man Who Lived Underground could hardly be more current in the America of 2021, given its focus on race and police violence. Its belated publication happens to coincide with the end of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, an African American man.

The novel follows Fred Daniels, an African American man framed by police for a double murder he did not commit. He is beaten and tortured until he confesses but escapes into the city’s sewer system, beginning a journey into a modern underworld.

Richard Wright book cover
Photograph: Random House

Wright, who had established his reputation with Native Son in 1940, considered The Man Who Lived Underground his best work yet, commenting: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration.” But publishers turned it down. Its uncompromising portrayal of police brutality may have rendered it untouchable.

Julia, who was in her mother’s womb when Wright was writing the book and considers it her “twin”, reflects: “The publishers of the day were discounting black readership and they didn’t want to unsettle white readership. Discomfort is too gentle a word. I think they were afraid of what they read in those pages. It was too close to the truth.

“The George Floyd video that little girl, Darnella Frazier, made on her cell phone also is too close to the truth. It has the same symbolic value that those pages on police brutality my father wrote so many years ago still have. People don’t want to see it.”

A truncated part of the novel was later released as a short story, but the original manuscript’s existence was known only to a handful of scholars. Then, in 2010 Julia, a journalist, poet and advocate for death row inmates, unearthed the novel among her father’s papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Lo and behold, I discovered those pages on police brutality which to me were goose pimples because they were like they were an exact replica of what happened to Amadou Diallo [an unarmed West African man shot dead by police in New York in 1999], what happened to Abner Louima in New York who was sodomised with a broomstick [in 1997], what happened to Tyisha Miller, who was sitting in her car overcome by a diabetic coma and was shot by the police because she ‘looked threatening’ [in California in 1998].

“So it was a no brainer. This had to come out.”

She approached Library of America, which had previously published restored versions of her father’s works, Black Boy and American Hunger, but fell ill for several years and was unable to follow through. “Then when I resurfaced, I found out that Eric Garner [killed by a police chokehold in New York 2014] had happened.

“Then when George Floyd happened, I knocked at their door again and said, ‘Look here, let’s do it, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it’. And they said yes, we’ll do it.”

The volume published this week includes an essay by Wright, Memories of My Grandmother, and an afterword by his grandson, Malcolm Wright, who notes that the author left America for France to embrace “a different otherness … beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”.

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Photograph: Photos 12/Alamy Stock Photo

Speaking from Portugal, though she usually lives in France, Julia says of the completed book: “I am very fulfilled. This has been a 10-year uphill wait for it to come to light and out of the darkness, out of the underground, literally, of those unpublished papers.

“I think it’s going to change a lot for his reputation. People tend to to think of Wright as a bit naturalistic disaster or a simple writer of protest novels but he’s so much more complex and people are going to have to reassess him with this book.”

John Kulka, the editorial director of Library of America, agrees that The Man Who Lived Underground will change the way readers see Wright and his influence on Ralph Ellison, a fellow African American novelist who wrote Invisible Man.

“I prefer it to Native Son,” Kulka says. “I think that the way the above ground and underground sections work together is very powerful. I don’t think you need to to be a literary critic to get it. There are two worlds: there’s an above ground world of white truth and white justice and then there’s an underground world inhabited by Fred Daniels and other Black Americans living in fear and anxiety under Jim Crow. And those two worlds are very different.”

He adds: “Typically when these posthumous publications of great authors happen, it’s second rate at best and this is not that. This is a powerful, powerful novel and obviously it couldn’t be more relevant.”

Wright died in 1960, aged 52, after a heart attack in Paris. Julia, his elder daughter, was just 17 at the time, working as an au pair for a French family. Six decades on, what would her father make of America today – a country that elected a black president, Barack Obama, but continues to kill unarmed black people routinely and without respite?

“He would have been very bittersweet about it,” she muses. “My father was so much in advance of his times that sometimes what he wrote was not recognised or was denied because it was too far ahead. So he wouldn’t say, ‘I told you so,’ because he was too kind a person to do that, but he would sort of chuckle and take his pipe and smoke placidly and say, ‘Well’. Almost what Malcolm X said: ‘Chickens come home to roost, don’t they?’”

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