The image that emerges from Richard Wright’s collection of autobiographical short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, is that of a lonely and troubled childhood. Born September 4, 1908, near Natchez, Mississippi, Wright was the unwanted son of sharecroppers. His father deserted the family when Wright was five years old, after his mother suffered a stroke. Wright’s mother became totally paralyzed when he was ten, and his domineering grandmother attempted to force her religious fanaticism on the boy, who rebelled. At fifteen, he left home for Memphis, Tennessee, and at nineteen moved to Chicago, where he began to write seriously. There, in 1931, he published the story “Superstition” in Abbot’s Monthly Magazine and became involved with the John Reed Club and the Communist party. Soon his poetry began to appear in leftist literary magazines such as the Anvil, Left Front, New Masses, and International Literature. While working for the Illinois Federal Writer’s Project, he wrote his first novel, Lawd Today, but did not try to publish it in deference to the potential objections of the Communist party. Some of the stories later collected in Uncle Tom’s Children and Eight Men (1961) did appear at this time: “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936) in the New Caravan, “Silt” (1937) in New Masses, and “Fire and Cloud” (1938) in Story.
Wright moved to New York City in 1937, where he wrote a guidebook to Harlem for the New York Writer’s Project and reported for the Daily Worker. The successful publication of Uncle Tom’s Children and a Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to work on Native Son, which on its publication in 1940 immediately made Wright more widely read than any previous black novelist. Wright’s dramatization of the novel, which he coauthored with Paul Green, soon appeared on Broadway, and within a year Wright published the folk history 12 Million Voices (1941) in collaboration with photographer Edwin Rosskin.
At the suggestion of his publisher, Wright turned to autobiography. Black Boy, an account of the author’s first seventeen years, was another critical success for him; but embittered by the racism and materialism of American society and encouraged by a trip to Europe in 1946, Wright left the United States and established permanent residence in France in 1947. His next novel, The Outsider, grew out of Wright’s involvement with the Temps Modernes group gathered around Jean-Paul Sartre and demonstrated the influence of existential thinking. During the remaining years of his life, Wright published two more novels, Savage Holiday (1954) and The Long Dream (1958); a collection of essays and lectures entitled White Man, Listen! (1957); and three books of travel and sociopolitical commentary, Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), and Pagan Spain (1957). He died of a heart attack in Paris on November 28, 1960. Eight Men (1961), his unpublished first novel Lawd Today (1963), and American Hunger (1977), a continuation of his autobiography, were published posthumously.