"Philip Quarles" is a novelist who lives and works in New York City.
Richard Wright's Love Letter to Paris
Monday, January 28, 2013 - 01:00 PM
In this brief monologue, the novelist Richard Wright sends home the most glowing postcard of France one could possibly imagine.
Saying that once he arrived, "I've never felt a moment of sorrow," Wright extolls his adopted city of Paris, raving first about the landscape, the architecture, and vistas, noting how even the poorer parts of the city have beautiful trees, unlike New York, where "Spanish Harlem is left to rot in dirt and garbage."
There is also "no terrifying bigness" in Paris. The city is planned, unlike New York, which at times reminded him of a frontier town. Again in contrast to the United States, French artists are versatile, not grimly toiling away at one genre but extending their talent over many. He cites Cocteau -- who writes poetry, novels, journalism, and theater -- as well as Jacques Prévert, and Sartre. The French people themselves have "no illusions, life is accepted for what it is, the grim along with the beautiful." He has found in France "no race-tension or conflict…no social snobbery." In all this rapturous description one can hear an implicit (when not explicit) critique of the United States Wright had left behind, nowhere more so than when he pointedly states, "The spirit of the mob is the very opposite of French life."
Wright was born in 1908. His talent for writing was recognized early, as was his stubbornly independent nature that refused to allow him to settle for the limited opportunities afforded a young black artist at that time. In the Communist party Wright found at least a partial acceptance and recognition, which had been completely lacking in more mainstream institutions of the white community. But Wright was not one to be confined by the rigid orthodoxies of any ideology, and certainly not those of Marxism-Leninism. With the publication of the short story collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and then with the spectacular critical and commercial success of Native Son (1940), Wright presented a stark contrast to the earnest, pleading African-American literature of the past that seemed to address itself more to the white community than its own people. As the critic Irving Howe wrote:
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.
After publishing the autobiographical Black Boy (1945), Wright was invited by the French government to visit France. The instant love affair he commenced with the country and its people is movingly described in this talk. There was a backlash among his American supporters, though, some of whom accused him of abandoning the fight for equal rights back home. Addressing this, his biographer Constance Webb suggested Wright was looking to place the problem of race-relations in a more global context:
Wright was a man bursting with curiosity, enthusiasm, and ideas. He was interested in everyone and everything. His eagerness in quest of ideas, new emotions, new ways of looking at and understanding the world made him forever incompatible with any radical group. He was not a spirit which could be caged. He received, and still receives, criticism from Americans for going to France to live. Surely, the argument goes, he should have stayed with the struggle driving his people, not only for the sake of the freedom to be won but for the sake of his own writing. But…Dick never abandoned the struggle for freedom. His The Color Curtain anticipates much of what is happening today and his Black Power, though limited in certain respects, bursts with enthusiasm for the new world which only now, in the last 1960 U.N. meeting, makes irrevocably clear the third force separate from the barbarism of either East or West.
Whatever his intentions, Wright's work fell off badly during his time in France. He was accused of being out of touch with his audience. His renunciation of Communism in the widely read collection The God That Failed (1950) led some to suspect that he was being pressured by the U.S. State Department, whose permission he needed in order to remain abroad. Wright was a considerable "prize," sought after by both the West and the Soviet Union. But his final importance is more literary than political. As the Oxford Companion to African-American Literature points out:
Richard Wright changed the landscape of possibility for African-American writers. Wright's defiance, his refusal to give the reading public what it had hitherto demanded of the African-American writer, his insistence on the expression of an African-American voice, allowed later writers to do the same, allowed Toni Morrison, for example, to write as she would — without concern for explaining her sometimes obscure meanings (e.g., her references to news events from long ago or words or phrases from African-American vernacular speech) to a mainstream reading public. For other African-American writers, positioning themselves against Wright allowed them to write about African-American culture in a more positive way, to assume a posture not requiring that the subject of the fiction, the African-American, be seen as victim.
Richard Wright died in Paris in 1960, at age 52.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.