[News] Editors Refused to Publish Richard Wright's Most Important Novel—Until Now
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 26 10:33:16 EDT 2021
Refused to Publish Richard Wright's Most Important Novel—Until Now
Leigh Haber - March 25, 2021
With the publication of *Native Son
(1940) and *Black Boy
*(1945), Richard Wright became a bestselling author and cultural icon.
Today, some eight decades later, he remains at the center of the American
literary pantheon. But what we didn't know until now is that despite his
success, he was prevented from publishing *another* book—one that he
considered the most important of all.
On April 20, 2021, 60-plus years after his death, the Library of America
(LOA) will publish Wright's *The Man Who Lived Underground
*This landmark novel, which his daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed at Yale's
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and brought to LOA, tells the
story of Fred Daniels, a Black man framed for a double murder he did not
Daniels is arrested one summer evening while strolling home from work to
his pregnant wife after receiving his weekly salary. He's taken into
custody and tortured by white police officers until he is finally beaten
into submission and confesses. He manages to get away and escapes into the
city's underground sewer system. What he experiences there becomes a
metaphor for a journey into the heart of American darkness; yet it's there
that Daniels ultimately finds a kind of enlightenment. He realizes the
actions he takes are of his own choosing, as harrowing as that outcome
*The Man Who Lived Underground* by Richard Wright
Though Wright himself considered *The Man Who Lived Underground* his finest
work, its depiction of police brutality was so graphic, his publishers
believed that it shouldn't see the light of day. When Wright submitted the
work to his editor, it was turned down.
Eventually, a piece of the book was published as a short story in two
anthologies, with the first part of the novel omitted—the section in which
Daniels finds himself under interrogation, brutalized, hung upside down—to
make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. It wasn't until his
daughter brought the entire manuscript to the LOA editors that they
realized what they had in their hands was not only a previously
undiscovered masterpiece, but perhaps even more importantly, a pernicious
example of the kind of censorship that goes on behind closed doors,
Opening page of an intermediate working draft of *The Man Who Lived
In fact, LOA editors already knew that significant portions of *Native Son*
and *Black Boy* had been redacted at the request of the then-mighty
Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC), to make them more digestible to white
readers. John Kulka, LOA's editorial director who worked closely with the
Wright estate to edit this newly-published novel, tells Oprah Daily that at
the time, BOMC had the ability to "make or break an author," and had issued
"an ultimatum to Richard Wright to make certain changes to *Native
Son* and *Black
Boy,* or they wouldn't offer the books to their subscribers." It was "an
offer Wright couldn't refuse," Kulka says.
Kulka's experience upon first reading *The Man Who Lived Underground* was
one of "amazement." But soon thereafter, he wondered why such a powerful
book had not been published by Harper & Brothers, Wright's publisher.
Research revealed that at least one early reader had found the graphic
depiction of white on Black violence "unbearable" and presumably found the
typescript "too hot to handle."
"How often in the past have other voices been censored so that we can turn
away from issues we really need to talk about?"
Oprah Daily also spoke to Julia's son, Malcolm Wright, who wrote the book's
poignant afterword. His grandfather died 14 years before he was born, but
nevertheless remained a constant presence in his life, a man whose legacy
continues to be a guiding light. The fact that the section of the novel
depicting police violence was censored, he says, "is so telling and
emblematic of the problem our society has with race that I have to question
how many lives might have been saved if we'd begun to have this discussion
decades ago, when my grandfather was already pushing the envelope, trying
to bring this conversation to mainstream consciousness."
"I also think about how often in the past other voices been censored, put
aside, ignored—quietly, with velvet gloves—so that society could turn away
from a discussion it really needed to have."
Richard Wright worked on *The Man Who Lived Underground* for about nine
months, from July, 1941 to the spring of the following year. He shelved the
manuscript after Harper rejected it. Finally, on April 20, this astonishing
novel will be made available to readers, fulfilling a dream Wright wasn't
able to realize in his lifetime.
Read an exclusive excerpt of the novel below. And stay tuned to Oprah Daily
next Wednesday, March 31, at 11 AM Eastern to watch Oprah's virtual
conversation with Malcolm Wright, the iconic author's grandson.
The big white door closed after him. He pulled his ragged cap low over his
eyes, and headed through the summer dusk for the bus line two blocks away.
It was Saturday evening; he had just been paid off. A steady breeze from
the sea dried his sweaty shirt. Above him red and purple clouds hovered
above the edges of apartment buildings. He neared a street intersection,
paused, and looked at the slender roll of green bills clutched in his right
fist; in the deepening gloam he counted his wages:
“Five, ten, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen ...”
He walked again, chuckling: Yeah, she never makes a mistake. Tired and
happy, he liked the feeling of being paid of a Saturday night; during seven
sweltering days he had given his bodily strength in exchange for dollars
with which to buy bread and pay rent for the coming week. He would spend
tomorrow at church; when he returned to work Monday morning, he would feel
renewed. Carefully, so that he would run no risk of losing it, he put the
tight wad of crisp bills securely into his right trouser-pocket and his
arms swung free. Street lamps blazed suddenly and two lines of lazy yellow
gradually converged in the distance before him.
“Mowing that lawn made my hand sore,” he said aloud.
Before him was the white face of a policeman peering over the steering
wheel of a car; two more white faces watched him from the rear seat. For a
seemingly endless moment, in the balmy air of an early summer night, he
stood immobile, his blistered palm uplifted, staring straight into the
blurred face of a policeman who was pointing a blinding spotlight full into
his eyes. He waited for them to question him so that he could give a
satisfactory account of himself. After all, he was a member of the White
Rock Baptist Church; he was employed by Mr. and Mrs. Wooten, two of the
best-known people in all the city.
“Come here, boy.”
“Yes, sir,” he breathed automatically.
He walked stiffly to the running board of the police car. “What you doing
“I work right back there, mister,” he answered. His voice was soft,
“Mrs. Wooten, right back there at 5679, sir,” he said.
The door of the police car swung open quickly and the man behind the
steering wheel stepped out; immediately, as though following in a
prearranged signal, the other two policemen stepped out and the three of
them advanced and confronted him. They patted his clothing from his head to
“He’s clean, Lawson,” one of the policemen said to the one who had driven
“What’s your name?” asked the policeman who had been called Lawson.
“Fred Daniels, sir.”
“Ever been in trouble before, boy?” Lawson said.
“Where you think you’re going now?”
“I’m going home.”
“Where you live?”
“On East Canal, sir.”
“Who you live with?”
Lawson turned to the policeman who stood at his right. “We’d better drag
'im in, Johnson.”
“But, mister!” he protested in a high whine. “I ain’t done nothing...”
“All right, now,” Lawson said. “Don’t get excited.”
“My wife’s having a baby...”
“They all say that. Come on,” said the red-headed man who had been called
A spasm of outrage surged in him and he snatched backward, hurling himself
away from them. Their fingers tightened about his wrists, biting into his
flesh; they pushed him toward the car.
“Want to get tough, hunh?”
“No, sir,” he said quickly.
“Then get in the car, goddammit!”
He stepped into the car and they shoved him into the seat; two of the
policemen sat at either side of him and hooked their arms in his. Lawson
got behind the steering wheel. But, strangely, the car did not start. He
waited, alert but ready to obey.
“Well, boy,” Lawson began in a slow, almost friendly tone, “looks like
you’re in for it, hunh?”
Lawson’s enigmatical voice made hope rise in him. “Mister, I ain’t done
nothing,” he said. “You can ask Mrs. Wooten back there. She just paid me
off and I was on my way home ...” His words sounded futile and he tried
another approach. “Look, mister, I’m a member of the White Rock Baptist
Church. If you don’t believe me, call up Reverend Davis...”
“Got it all figured out, ain’t you, boy?”
“No, sir,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. “I’m telling the
A series of questions made him hopeful again. “What’s your wife’s name?”
“When is this baby going to be born?”
“Any minute now, sir.”
“Who’s with your wife?”
“My cousin, Ruby.”
“Uh hunh,” Lawson said, with slow thoughtfulness.
“I think he’ll do, Lawson,” said the tall, raw-boned policeman who had not
Lawson laughed and started the motor.
“Well, boy, you’ll have to come along with us,” said Lawson, his manner a
strange mixture of compassion and harsh judgment.
“Mister, call Reverend Davis... I teach Sunday School for 'im. I sing in
the choir and I organized the Glee Club...”
“You’d better put the bracelets on ’im, Murphy,” Lawson said.
The tall, raw-boned man clicked handcuffs on his wrists. “Scared, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered, though he had not really understood the question.
He had answered because he wanted to please them. Then he corrected
himself: “Oh, no, sir.”
“Where’s your mother and father, boy?” Lawson asked.
“Sir? Oh, yes, sir. They dead...”
“Any kin folks in the city?”
“No, sir. Just Cousin Ruby.”
“Come on. Let’s take 'im in,” Lawson said.
His eyes blurred with the first tears he had shed since childhood. The car
rolled northward and he noticed that it had grown dark. Yeah, they taking
me to the Hartsdale Station, he thought. He had no fear about all this; he
looked unseeingly before him, confident that he would eventually give an
explanation that would free him. This was a dream, but soon he would awaken
and marvel at how real it had seemed. The car swung and turned onto Court
Street and sped westward over steel trolley tracks. What would Rachel think
when he did not come home on time? She would be worried to death. He was
astonished to learn from a big clock in a store window that it was seven.
His stomach contracted as he pictured his hot supper waiting for him on the
kitchen table. Well, as soon as he identified himself sufficiently at the
police station, they would let him go. And later tonight, at home with
Rachel, sitting in the easy chair by the radio, he would laugh at this
little incident; in telling the story he would hold back the most dramatic
parts and make Rachel eager to ask many questions.
The car rumbled on and a ghost of a smile played across his lips. The car’s
horn sounded and he remembered where he was. Yes, he had to tell these
policemen that he was no thug and that Reverend Davis, his friend, was a
public figure in the Negro community. He would make the policemen know that
they were not dealing with a stray bum who knew nobody, who had no family,
friends, or connections...
“That’s right, boy. Think up a good alibi,” Lawson said.
“No, sir,” he exclaimed guiltily. He felt that Lawson’s eyes were an X-ray
that could look through his skull and read his thoughts.
Then he wailed: “Mister, I ain’t done nothing. Honest to God, I ain’t.”
*The Man Who Lived Underground copyright © 2021 by Julia Wright and Rachel
Wright, published by Library of America. Excerpted by permission of Library
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