Richard Wright’s Last Literary Efforts and Last Days on Earth in Exile in Paris

Richard Wright moved to Paris in 1946, with his wife and a 4 year old daughter. He met among others Gertrude Stein, Andre Gide Simone de Beavoir, Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor. He even assists Senghor, Cesaire and Alioune Diop in founding the Presence Africaine magazine. He returned to the United States only briefly. He then returned to Paris and became a permanent American expatriate befriending existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus while going through an Existentialist phase in his second novel, The Outsider (1953) which describes an African American character’s involvement with the Communist Party in New York. Acclaimed as the first American existential novel, he warned that the black man had awakened in a disintegrating society not ready to include him.

Wright travelled through Europe, Asia, and Africa, experiences which led to many non-fiction works like Black Power (1954), a commentary on the emerging nations of Africa.

In 1949, Wright contributed to the anti-communist anthology The God That Failed his essay which had been published in the Atlantic Monthly three years earlier and was derived from the unpublished portion of Black Boy. This led to an invitation to become involved with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which he rejected, suspecting that it had connections with the CIA which with the FBI, had Wright under surveillance from 1943.

In 1955, he visited Indonesia for the Bandung Conference and recorded his observations on it in his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Wright was optimistic about the immense possibilities posed by this meeting and the resulting alliance between recently-oppressed but now independent nations which became known as non-aligned states..

Other works including White Man, Listen! (1957), and another novel, The Long Dream (1958) as well as a collection of short stories, Eight Men, were published only after his death in 1961.

His works primarily deal with the poverty, anger, and the protests of northern and southern urban black Americans.

Despite overwhelming negative criticism from his agent, Paul Reynolds, of his four-hundred page “Island of Hallucinations” manuscript in February 1959, Wright, in March, outlined this third novel in which Fish was finally to be liberated from his racial conditioning and would become a dominating character.

By May 1959 Wright had developed a desire to leave Paris to live in London for he felt French politics had become increasingly submissive to American pressure, and the peaceful Parisian atmosphere he had once enjoyed had been shattered by quarrels and attacks instigated by enemies of the expatriate black writers.

On June 26, 1959, after a party which marked the French publication of White Man, Listen!, Wright became ill,as a result of a severe attack of amoebic dysentery which he had probably contracted during his stay in Ghana. He was so ill that even when in November 1959 Ellen secured a London apartment, he decided “to abandon any desire to live in England. By this decision he also abridged his protracted hassles with British immigration officials.

On February 19, 1960 Wright learned from Reynolds that the New York premiere of the stage adaptation of The Long Dream received such bad reviews that the adapter, Ketti Frings, had decided to cancel other performances. Meanwhile, Wright was running into additional problems trying to get The Long Dream published in France. These setbacks prevented his finishing revisions of “Island of Hallucinations,” which he needed to get a commitment from Doubleday.

In June 1960 Wright recorded a series of discussions for French radio dealing primarily with his books and literary career but also with the racial situation in the United States and the world, specifically denouncing American policy in Africa.

In late September, to cover extra expenses brought on by his daughter Julia’s move from London to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, Wright wrote blurbs for record jackets for Nicole Barclay, director of the largest record company in Paris.

In spite of his being in financial difficulties Wright refused to compromise his principles. He declined to participate in a series of programs for Canadian radio because he suspected American control over the programs, and he rejected the proposal of the Congress for Cultural Freedom that he goes to India to speak at a conference in memory of Leo Tolstoy for the same reason.

Still interested in literature, Wright offered to help Kyle Onstott get Mandingo (1957) published in France. His last display of explosive energy occurred on November 8, 1960 in his polemical lecture, “The Situation of the Black Artist and Intellectual in the United States,” delivered to students and members of the American Church in Paris. Wright argued that American society reduced the most militant members of the black community to slaves whenever they wanted to question the racial status quo. He offered as proof the subversive attacks of the Communists against Native Son and the quarrels which James Baldwin and other authors sought with him.

On 26 November 1960 Wright talked enthusiastically about Daddy Goodness with Langston Hughes and gave him the manuscript. Since Wright contracted Amoebic dysentery, his health became unstable despite various treatments. His health deteriorated over the next three years until he died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 52.and was interred there in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. Claims have been made that he was murdered.

Wright became enchanted with the haiku a Japanese poetry form which wrote over 4,000 of. In 1998 a book was published (“Haiku: This Other World” with 817 of his most preferred ones.

Upon his death, Wright left behind an unfinished book A Father’s Law. which looks at a black policeman and the son he suspects of murder. Clearly influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses, it presents one day in the life of Jake Jackson a violent man from Chicago, who has not much hope in his mean environment. Wright had finished this manuscript in 1934, titled it Cesspool, after repeatedly being rejected by publishers before Native Son was released. Wright’s daughter, Julia published it in January 2008. His travel writings, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, had appeared in 2001, published by the Mississippi University Press.

Some of the more candid passages dealing with race, sex, and politics in Wright’s books had been cut or omitted before original publication. But in 1991, unexpurgated versions of Native Son, Black Boy, and his other works were published. In addition, a previously unpublished novella, Rite of Passage, appeared in 1994.

Wright’s books published during the 1950s disappointed some critics, as they felt that his move to Europe had cut him off from his social, emotional and psychological roots.

During the 1970s and 1980s increasing interest is being shown in Richard Wright. with ceaseless flows of critical essays written about his writing in prestigious journals, conferences held on him on university campuses, a new film version of Native Son, with a screenplay by Richard Wesley, released in December 1986 and selected Wright novels becoming required reading in a growing number of international universities and colleges.



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