CHICAGO — Richard Wright, in the winter of 1941, was the most successful Black author in America. Only 14 years earlier, he had made the Great Migration, moving from Memphis to Chicago. He had enrolled in the 10th grade in Hyde Park but quickly dropped out and went to work. He sorted mail for the Chicago post office, and he cared for medical-research animals at what was then Michael Reese Hospital, and he sold insurance policies door-to-door on the South Side. Also, he started to write books, and in 1940, his novel “Native Son” was a sensation. As one critic famously presumed, after reading the novel’s blunt force approach to race and poverty, American culture would be changed forever. Wright was a star, and the bestselling author at Harper & Brothers (later HarperCollins), the fabled New York publishing house that claimed the “Little House on the Prairie” series and Thornton Wilder, among others.
Wright’s agent and editors wanted to capitalize on his acclaim.
A year later, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Wright delivered the slender book he had been writing for months in a frenzy. It was titled “The Man Who Lived Underground,” and it was not the novel his editors expected. They anticipated a book titled “Black Hope,” about domestic workers. Wright gave them a novel devoid of hope, about a Black man pulled off the street by police and falsely accused of murder, then beaten and tortured, only to escape into the sewer system where he is transformed by an epiphany that life aboveground was impossible.
Wright saw the book as a creative leap forward, as existentialist as his prose had been realist.
But it didn’t go over well at Harper.
Despite Wright being one of the hottest young authors in the country, the publisher rejected the novel, for vague reasons. About half of the book was later published as a short story — albeit stripped now of its long, harrowing scenes in which white police officers brutalize a Black man.
Wright moved on.
Or so it seemed.
To read “The Man Who Lived Underground” today — intact for the first time, published by the posterity-minded Library of America — is to recognize an author who knew his work could be shelved for decades without depreciation. Because this is America. Because police misconduct, to use the genteel 2021 term, is ageless. Check the copyright page, read the production notes: Yes, this was written in 1941. Yes, it’s 80 years later. Yes, Wright died in 1960, at 52, having never scaled again the commercial heights of “Native Son.” Yet somehow “The Man Who Lived Underground” found its way into bookstores at the right time.
“It hit a little too close to home in 1941,” said Julia Wright, his daughter, “and to read it today, I would guess that ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ lands a little too close to home — still.
“But it needed to come out,” she continued. “That it’s coming out during the Derek Chauvin trial (in which the Minneapolis police officer is accused of killing George Floyd), wow. Goose pimples. Hearing testimony of Darnella Frazier (the Minneapolis teenager who recorded video of Floyd’s death), I thought: OK now this is exactly what my father was writing all those years ago. She felt guilty for not being able to stop Floyd’s death. She felt guilty of a crime she hadn’t committed, and that’s how my father felt. To an extent, my father wrote this book from his memories of being accused of things, and not being able to convince anyone that he was really innocent.”
Add Chicago’s history with police torture — and the more than $100 million in settlement payments to families of Black men who were tortured — there’s nothing 1941 about the book.
That said, unlike “Native Son,” this book is not set explicitly in Chicago; the city is unnamed, Wright was in Brooklyn at the time and an early draft in his papers suggest an East Coast setting. But Malcolm Wright, his grandson, said: “No, reading it, I’m convinced, it’s Chicago.”
Then he indulges a bit of, what if?
“But what if someone had the courage in 1941 not to remove those police scenes from my grandfather’s book? What if someone had decided just to publish — I read the book and wonder if our conversation on race might have been further along by now. I know it’s not like one book would have fixed everything, but I also know my grandfather’s book was far from the only work of art edited to maintain some accepted narrative about race. So who knows what might have been? I mean, if you could pick a book to come along to help our dialogue, this sounds like it.”
Here’s what we know for sure about why the novel was rejected:
Richard Wright submitted it to his agent, Paul Reynolds, who then passed it to editor Edward Aswell at Harper. No one was excited. When Julia Wright found the manuscript a decade ago among her father’s papers at Yale University, she also found dozens of notes jotted into the margins. The readers (all white) who read the manuscript found it an unsettling clash of realism (police abuse) and surrealism (life inside a sewer). Kerker Quinn, an assistant English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, marked on the manuscript that the scenes of police torturing Fred Daniels (the protagonist) were “unbearable”; as the editor of the prestigious U. of I.-based literary journal Accent, he later ran a version minus police brutality.
To be fair, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” complete, does read like two different books — one brutal, one ethereal. But without the violence that sends him fleeing, Fred Daniels’ descent into the underground would be vague. You never know what he is escaping. Or how stark his break from reality becomes. He starts as an Everyman, and by the end, he’s not merely broken, he’s delusional. He plans to proselytize to police about “the death-like quality of their lives.”
“It’s worth noting the violence in ‘Native Son’ had already caused problems for Wright,” said John Kulka, the editorial director at Library of America, “but that graphic violence was Black-on-Black violence and Black-on-white violence, and here Wright was writing about white-on-Black violence, and from what we know about the rejection, doing that appeared to be unacceptable.”
What was cut, though, was more than 50 pages.
What was cut amounts to “a missing link,” said Kulka, between the naturalism of Wright’s early novels and the more adventurous existentialism of later work, such as “The Outsider” (1953), in which a Black man assumed to have been killed in a train crash adopts a fresh identity and proceeds to kill anyone who threatens to reveal the truth. “The Man Who Lived Underground” gives Wright’s career a clearer shape. Unlike the disappointing history of posthumous novels, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” as intended, is a true lost gem, with echoes of Camus, Dostoyevsky, Poe. “It changes what we thought we knew about Wright,” Kulka said. It also suggests just how indebted Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic “Invisible Man” — about a Black man coming to moments of self-realization and epiphany in an underground bunker — was to the work of his close friend.
It was a complicated friendship.
Ellison and James Baldwin, both of whom were mentored by Wright, would later call him out for taking a sledgehammer simplicity to race and class, for painting Black Americans in broad, clunky strokes and suggesting that Black America had two only options: conformity or violence.
“The tough thing about Wright is always that his color palette — metaphorically, at times literally — is primary, whereas Baldwin and Ellison use sepia tones,” said Irvin Joseph Hunt, an assistant professor of English, African-American studies and interpretive theory at U. of I. Urbana-Champaign. “He works in blacks and whites. (In “Native Son”) a Black man walks into snow with his hand out, which is eventually covered in snow. That kind of thing. It can be hard for students now to negotiate nuance in Wright and get beyond the idea that Blackness in his books is only associated with pain.”
And yet, he’s been loving the posthumous releases of Wright’s work, particularly how much they reveal about Wright’s more expansive takes on Black life, his history with the Communist Party (which he joined in Chicago and later quit) and Wright’s understanding of how hard it is for Black Americans to find space for themselves, inside or outside of the United States. “The timing is good for this new book. There is a narrowness we put on Richard Wright that needs exploding.”
Indeed, the details of “The Man Who Lived Underground” feel so resonant in 2021 that when Nambi E. Kelley heard about the plot, “I immediately called someone in a production company to ask, ‘Can we get rights to this now? Has someone already grabbed an option on it?’”
Kelley, a fixture of Chicago stages, adapted “Native Son” into a beloved 2014 show at Court Theatre. She said she understands his history of being rejected and poorly edited; in fact, she’s run into issues of theaters that were skittish about staging “Native Son” out of fear that its Black subscribers wouldn’t accept the blunt, strident didacticism of Wright even now. “Being Black,” she said, “whenever I’m reading something from an earlier period, knowing the history of this country, I tend to already assume a lot of those works are not what was intended.”
The late Hazel Rowley, Wright’s most recent biographer, wrote that the rejection of “Man Who Lived Underground” “portrayed all too clearly the arbitrary ‘justice’ of the world” during wartime, when a publisher was likely to shy from a less than rousing portrait of American life. But then again, Wright had already toned down “Native Son” at the insistence of white editors at the Book-of-the-Month Club; and he would do so again with his 1945 memoir, “Black Boy,” excising most of the material about moving to Chicago and sympathizing with Communist ideals.
By the time he died in 1960, the shape of Wright’s literary legacy was somewhat choppier than many authors of comparable success. His first novel, “Lawd Today!” — initially titled “Cesspool,” about a very bad day in the life of a Chicago postal worker — wasn’t released until three years after Wright’s death. The complete “Black Boy” didn’t come out until 1977.
Julia Wright said some of her father’s biographers have written that he was so eager to be published, he rarely minded when work was diced and softened to appease more progressive, self-congratulatory views of race. “But the truth is, he minded a great deal. It was a double bind for a Black writer — to stay visible at all, you had to accept even the worse edits. Being cut like that, it was a symbolic lynching for him. I use that word deliberately, because that’s how he felt.”
Richard Wright once wrote that he had never created anything that “stemmed more from sheer inspiration” than “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Of his novels, he often said it was his favorite. In an essay included with the new edition, he explains how his grandmother in Chicago was the book’s main inspiration: She was a woman whose religion (Seventh-day Adventist) and fixture on holy artifacts became her reality. He also drew from “The Invisible Man” thrillers, which he said were also centered on belief in the “evidence of things unseen.” For the plot, he used a real-life incident he read about in the pulp pages of “True Detective”: A white man in Los Angeles burrowed beneath the city and lived there, from which he committed a string of crimes.
But also, by 1941, Richard Wright wanted to leave the United States entirely.
Like Fred Daniels in “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Wright’s wife was pregnant (with Julia). Like characters in many of his novels, there was an inevitable drift toward becoming an outsider. Julia told me: “I remember one day, a friend of my father’s, the writer Constance Webb, she took me to a chic department store on Fifth Avenue. I had to go to the bathroom. Constance asked a sales girl, who gave directions but the counter was high and I was a child, so when she saw me: ‘Oh, but it’s not for her.’ So Constance took me outside and I wet myself on the sidewalk. When my father found out, he went into such a rage. But he didn’t go to the store.”
Instead, by 1947, he moved the family to Paris.
“I think of ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’ as a dress rehearsal for his exile,” Julia said. “When Daniels jumps out a window and escapes, that’s my father, jumping out of a country.”
To this day, other than a handful of relatives in the South, much of the extended family of Richard Wright still reside overseas. Julia and her son Malcolm live today in Portugal.
“It’s become a part of my family lore,” said Malcolm, a documentarian and special effects artist who worked on Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies and “Avatar,” among others. “Richard Wright fled America for Europe and now the Wrights live there, too. When my mother was born, he just decided that he didn’t want to raise a child in the U.S. I knew about all of that. But reading ‘The Man Who Lived Underground,’ I suddenly had an inkling that he felt his personal freedom was at stake, too. His character breaks with the world, and explores novel ideas. And not everything goes well, of course. But the act itself is liberating. He recognizes the world for what it is. I never knew my grandfather but I’m grateful he did this. He saw broader horizons.”