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. …