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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
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Authors: Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Portrait of Richard Wright
[4013] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Richard Wright (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42502 DLC].

Richard Wright Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Richard Wright grew up during some of the darkest days of racial segregation in the American South, and the horrors that he experienced and witnessed during that time became the material on which he built his reputation as one of the most important voices in American literature in the first half of the twentieth century. The son of black sharecroppers Nathan and Ella Wright, Richard was born in rural Mississippi. Wright's father abandoned his family when Richard was only five, and after that Wright moved around the South every few years before finally settling in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of eleven. Forced by poverty to drop out of school, Wright went to work, first as a helper in an optical company and later as a porter in a clothing store and a "hall-boy" in a hotel. As he details in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," each job taught Wright new lessons about the tenuousness of life for an African American in the segregated South.

Although his first story was published in an African American newspaper in Mississippi when Wright was in the eighth grade, Wright claimed to have awakened as a reader and writer during the mid-1920s, when he read H. L. Mencken's withering attacks on the South's social, racial, and intellectual failings. Yet it was to be more than ten years before Wright was able to find the voice that would gain him international fame, first with Uncle Tom's Children (a collection of short stories published in 1938), followed by Native Son in 1940, and finally the autobiographical Black Boy in 1945.

With Native Son, Wright said he was determined to create a book (and character) that was difficult to face. This determination sprang from the positive reception of Uncle Tom's Children, which did not have the effect on its readers for which Wright had hoped. "When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naíve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest." Wright's effort paid off; he is now known for his unflinching, realistic, and purposely anti-romantic portraits of the racial prejudice, oppression, and hypocrisy he experienced and witnessed during much of his life.

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