Richard Wright's Long Journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky

By Peterson, Dale E. | African American Review, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Richard Wright's Long Journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky

Peterson, Dale E., African American Review

Ours is an age, in Russia as in the United States, which revels in ethnic revivals and romanticizes cultural difference. In such a time of enthusiastic and sometimes euphoric reconstruction of a usable national identity, Richard Wright, like Maxim Gorky, appears to be a toppled idol of proletarian internationalism, a massive remnant from a discredited humanism. Yet monuments, especially literary monuments, pile up high ruins--all those uncirculating books--and leave a large absence that never quite disappears from cultural memory. Even in a time of relative neglect, Richard Wright continues to occupy a distinctive and disturbing position in African-American letters that is comparable to Gorky's place in the evolution of Russian literary history.

Gorky and Wright are the two modern writers who most inconvenience the cultural separatists and sentimental populists among their own people. No two major writers were raised closer to the folk who had recently risen from bondage, and yet both Gorky and Wright rejected the vestiges of the traditional peasant cultures of survival that had spawned them.(1) Both writers carried the large psychic burden of the inside outsider, ever seeking to account for the source of the rage and removal that made them so different. Ultimately the pressure of Gorky's "bitter" knowledge forced him to imagine and then to help canonize the positive hero of socialist realism, the universal proletarian who would replace the ex-peasant has-beens (byvshie liudi) of his early fiction. But Richard Wright's black-and-blue sensibility, the pain of his profoundly alienated and wounded individuality, eventually led him away from Gorky's faith in collectivist culture and social engineering. Sometime around 1942 Richard Wright began to risk a desperate transcendentalism, an absurd Dostoevskian faith in solitary leaps of consciousness that prefigured the later existential humanism of his expatriate years in France.

First, though, the young Richard Wright experienced a powerful identification with the life and writing of Maxim Gorky, and with good reason. Coming to social consciousness in Depression-era Chicago's John Reed Club, at the height of the Popular Front campaign to unite the intellectual proletariat of the world, Wright could not help but be aware of Gorky's legendary life and inspirational example, as promoted in pamphlets, newsprint, and in the world-famous autobiography in its translated and even filmed representation.(2) Indeed, Richard Wright came into literary prominence as the beau ideal of the proletarian revolutionary artist. His early prose and pronouncements emulated Gorky's call for the dialectical transformation of suffering peasant souls into militant socialist masses. By 1937, Wright had fully emerged as the American Communist Party's most illustrious recruit to the newly established literary standards of proletarian realism.(3)

In his first important manifesto, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Wright took issue with what he considered the black chauvinism of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting that one could not responsibly advance the race by "conspicuous ornamentation" of the institutions imposed by segregation:

Negro writers must accept this nationalism, but only in order to understand it, possess it, and transcend it.... a deep, informed, and complex consciousness is necessary; a consciousness which draws for its strength upon the fluid lore of a great people, and moulds this lore with the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today.... To borrow a phrase from the Russians, it should have a complex simplicity. (58-60)

Very much resembling Gorky's 1934 address to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, Wright was calling for a selective integration of the "progressive" aspects of folk culture and religion into a consciously

refashioned collective myth that would promote a revolutionary attitude toward reality. Not surprisingly, an activist reconception of Negro spirituals and black Christianity is precisely what distinguished the plotting of Wright's first collection of stories, Uncle Tom's Children.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Richard Wright's Long Journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.