Theodore Dreiser

Full Name: Richard Nathaniel Wright

Date and Location of Birth
      September 4, 1908
      Roxie, Mississippi

Date of Location Death
      November 28, 1960
      Paris, France

      Nathaniel Wright
      Ella Wilson

      Dhimah Rose Meadman (Divorced)
      Ellen Poplar

Richard Wright was born on Rucker's Plantation (around Roxie, Mississippi), to an illiterate sharecropper named Nathaniel Wright and his schoolteacher wife, Ella Wilson. Around the time that Wright was five or six-years-old, his father left the family for another woman and forced Wright's mother to take a number of small dead-end jobs away from the house in order to keep the family afloat. Eventually Wright and his brother had to spend a bit of time in an orphanage, until him and the rest of the family (sans Wright's father) moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While they lived in Memphis, Wright's mother became paralyzed, forcing the family to move back to Jackson to live in the case of Wright's strict Seventh-day Adventist maternal grandparents.

Wright's grandmother quickly enrolled him in a local Seventh-day Adventist school near Jackson when he was twelve-years-old; he had also attended a public school for a few years before. In early 1924 a black newspaper, the Southern Register, printed Wright's first story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre." Wright graduated as valedictorian in his ninth-grade class in June 1925. After grade school, Wright went on to Lanier High School, though dropped out after a few weeks in order to work a number of small jobs so that he could save up enough money to leave Jackson and move back to Memphis-he did at seventeen.

During his early time in Memphis, Wright continued to work-as a dishwasher, a delivery boy, and also worked for an optical company-but it was here where he began to get more interested in American literature. He was particularly interested in the writings of H. L. Mencken, who was a famous newspaperman, book reviewer, and political commentator of the day (he lived from 1880-1956). In Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, he tells the story of how he borrowed a library card from an Irish co-worker and forged a note to his local librarian so he could read more of H. L. Mencken: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?" [14]. Soon after this, Wright took a train to Chicago in 1927, "before he would irretrievably overstep the bounds of Jim Crow restrictions" [14].

In Chicago, Wright worked more random jobs, this time at a post office, taking care of lab animals at the Michael Reese Hospital, as an insurance agent, and more. Though in 1932, he got involved with the John Reed Club, an "intellectual arm" of the Communist party, which he joined in March a year later [14]. In 1935, Wright found a job with the Federal Negro Theater under the Federal Writer's Project, part of the four Works Progress Administration arts components that were created to help ease the country into President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. [15]

Wright's career as a writer really blasted off when a collection of short stories he had written, Uncle Tom's Children, which he wrote in 1938, won first place in a contest sponsored by Story magazine open to authors under the Federal Writer's Project for "best book-length manuscript." Harper's published a semi-abridged copy of the manuscript, though later added the rest of the stories to the mix as time went on. Shortly after, in 1939, Wright married Dhimah Rose Meadman, a Russian-Jewish ballet dancer; a few months later he realized that the marriage was anything but a success, and divorced her.

In 1940, Wright published Native Son, which was the first bestselling novel ever written by a black American writer at the time; it was also the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American writer [14]. Native Son sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks of its publication, and made Wright into the most respected and wealthiest black author in America. Wright was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 1941. Also in 1941, Wright married a white woman named Ellen Poplar, a fellow member of the Communist party who he worked with for a while, and had fallen in love with even before he had married Meadman. In 1942, the couple's first daughter was born, and seven years later their second daughter was born in Paris in 1949.

Tired of the racism that he had witnessed in the United States, such as still being unable to buy an apartment, Wright moved to Paris, France in 1947. He continued to live there until his death, never visiting the United States again. Wright suffered from an amoebic dysentery that he caught during his travels to Africa or Asia roughly a year and a half before his death, and he died of what appeared to be a heart attack while recuperating at the Clinique Eugène Gibez in Paris.

Native Son
Native Son, written by Richard Wright, is the story of Bigger Thomas, a troubled black twenty-year-old who almost seems destined for jail right from the start of the book. He tries to come across as a really "hard" and "tough" guy to every one who he comes in contact with, but the reader is consistently reminded that he is anything but these traits. The reader is shown a side of Bigger than no one, other than one character towards the end of the book, ever sees: a scared, timid boy who has dreams of doing great things, but knows that he could never accomplish these dreams due to his skin color.

Bigger gets a job driving around members of a wealthy family, the Daltons, due to their inclination to help out black people whenever they can, but when Bigger comes home one night with their drunk daughter, and tries to lead her to her room, things go awry, and he accidentally kills little Mary Dalton. Later in the book, Bigger rapes and kills his own girlfriend, and in the final section of the book, Bigger is brought to court to face the repercussions for his actions, but finds himself in an odd position when his case is supported by Jan and a lawyer named Mr. Max, on behalf of the "communist party." Max does not try to prove Bigger's innocence, but instead tries to get Bigger life in jail, instead of the death sentence. The case, predictably, ends up with the judge ruling that Bigger should suffer the death penalty for his actions. In the last moments of the book, Bigger finally talks honestly about himself to Max, showing himself to be the timid man he actually is, shortly before he is to be executed.

In Native Son, Wright uses the story of Bigger Thomas to explore the effects that racism has on the psychology of someone who may have turned out to be a normal person under different circumstances. Wright, through Bigger's lawyer Mr. Max in the book's climactic scene where Bigger is put on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Bessie, and Mary Dalton, details the negative effects that racism has had on society and uses Bigger Thomas as a catalyst of sorts for his portrayal. Bigger was never really a "bad' boy, and he did not kill out of cold blood, nor did he ever plan to murder anyone; rather, Wright shows readers that everything Bigger did was a result of fear. Had it not been for society, Bigger would have never been afraid for his life if he was found in the room of a white girl (even though he really was acting innocently enough), but instead he had the idea that he would be killed for his mere presence in a white girl's room, so he acted entirely out of fear.

Wright's primary focus with Native Son was to open the world's eyes to racism and the effects it has, and in this respect, his ideas were far ahead of his time.