Wright's Image of France

WHEN Richard Wright died in November 1960, many of the Parisian obituaries quoted Wright's statement that "this [ France] is the place where I could die." Having lived in France for some sixteen years, Wright to some degree had become part of the Parisian intellectual setting and was mourned by the French as though he were a compatriot. Conversely, in the United States many saw in Wright's death-in-exile not only a comment on the racial situation in America but a reflection of the writer's personal attitudes. Some, white and black, resented his choice of living elsewhere. Some remembered the dedication of The Outsider -- "To Rachel, my daughter who was born on alien soil" -- and were offended by the dedication of Eight Men: "To my friends, Helene, Michel, and Thierry Maurice-Bokanowski whose kindness has made me feel at home in an alien land."

What is striking in these dedications is the recurrence of the word "alien." Though Wright could consider France a second home, something always prevented him from integrating into French life. He remained largely an outsider. This was due less to cultural differences than to the gap between the dreamed image of a country and the reality of the place. Wright's preconceived image of France as the land of freedom and the cradle of culture was somewhat shattered by his realization that postwar France was an underdeveloped country with strange ways and puzzling politics. Accordingly, he made use of France less as literary material than as a privileged vantage point from which to look back at America and forward to the Third World. France, in turn, lavished upon him all the honors reserved for the great and made him a yardstick by which to measure all black (and sometimes nonblack) literary accomplishments. French anti-American propaganda also used him as a big stick with which to beat the United States. As a result, these discrepancies between myth and reality account for the uneasiness which is to be felt when Wright,

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