So much has been written about the controversial African-American author Richard Wright, who penned Black Boy and Native Son. There are four biographies, including the adoring 1973 book by Frenchman Michel Fabre and the scathing, no-holds-barred 1988 work by black poet Margaret Walker. Of the books written on Wright to date, the new biography by Hazel Rowley is more informative, comprehensive and insightful than any of the earlier efforts. Scouring the 136 boxes of Wright's memorabilia at Yale University and hunting down letters written by the author to people around the world, Rowley has constructed a more complex, detailed view of Wright than previously seen. She explores his early impoverished beginnings in Mississippi, his time as a struggling writer in Chicago, his flirtation with the Communist Party, his critical and popular successes with his early novels and the later, more complicated works of his European years. His fascination with French philosophy and his harassment by the American government also receive fascinating treatment.
For Rowley, the artistic Wright and the political Wright are one. Always searching for a deeper understanding of himself and a truer writing voice, Wright hated compromise. Whether he was protesting the crushing discrimination of Jim Crow in his brilliant short story collections or speaking out against the global repercussions of colonialism in his later nonfiction books, his was a voice to be reckoned with.
It is to Rowley's credit that she pulls no punches in showing how Wright's work met with intense resistance from editors and publishers, who forced him to rewrite large sections of his narratives because of their frank content about racism. Her disclosures about Wright as a lover, social animal, father and husband are particularly revealing, especially those concerning his interracial marriage a bond that was both unlawful and taboo at the time.
In the closing chapters, Rowley chronicles the decline of Wright's skills and health as he worked even harder to analyze a world in total political and cultural flux. He was a man who never stopped writing, and many of his works remain unpublished. Overall, Rowley's is a definitive, well-written biography of a major author, an African American who helped change how this country discussed issues of race, sex and culture. This is a superb book from start to finish.
Robert Fleming is the author of The African American Writer's Handbook (Ballantine).