Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Richard Wright: The Problem of Self-Identification

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Richard Wright: The Problem of Self-Identification

Article excerpt

RICHARD WRIGHT HAS BEEN WELL KNOWN IN RUSSIA since the very beginning of his writing career. Translations (and they were very good translations) of Wright's short stories from his first collection, Uncle Tom's Children, were published in the USSR immediately following their publication in America, first in the journal Internatsional'naja Literatura (1938, N 7, 1940, N 1) and later as a separate edition (Bright and Morning Star). These were followed by Native Son (Internatsional'naja Literatura, 1941, N 1-2). The translations were executed by our finest masters-to-be in this field: V. Toper, N. Daruzes, T. Ozerskaja, M. Zenkievich, E. Kalashnikova. Fiction texts were accompanied with fragments from Wright's essays: excepts from his autobiographical "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" and "How 'Bigger' Was Born" (Internatsional'naja Literatura, 1941, N 5). Many popular periodicals carried reviews of these publications (Literaturnaja Gazeta, Pravda, Novyj mir). Mainly through these translations Wright was established in the USSR as a young, gifted Negro writer who was extremely articulate in voicing racial and social protest. The "Foreword" to "Bright and Morning Star" said: "Richard Wright is a functionary of the United States Communist Party. His stories are fictionalized facts and episodes in revolutionary activities and ... observations of a Party practitioner."

The fact that Wright left the Communist Party and broke with it upon deep consideration was largely overlooked in the USSR--due, I believe, to World War II's breaking out. Moreover, in the late 1940s James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison accused Wright in their "new wave" manifestoes of being a socially engaged writer and of creating, as a result, a simplified and one-dimensional image of the Negro. This, too, served as a confirmation of his reputation here as a social rebel.

For a long time there have been neither repeated printings of Wright's translated works, nor new translations here. In 1962 a small collection of Wright's short stories from his book Eight Men ("The Man Who Saw the Flood," "Man of All Works," "Man, God Ain't Like That") came out as a supplement to Ogoniok, a popular magazine, which meant they appeared in a huge number of copies. They were translated by Dmytry Zhukov and were preceded by a brief and vague biography of the writer, by that time already dead.

In 1978 E. Romanova compiled a volume of Wright's works for the Masters of Modern Fiction series. It included two novels, Black Boy without its second part (translated by A. Martynova) and The LongDream (translated by M. Kan), as well as three short stories. The edition was provided with a lengthy introduction in which no mention was made (which is only too natural) of differences in opinions between the black writer and the Communist Party.

In 1978 A. Zverev compiled a volume of Wright's fiction for the Library of American Literature series, including a translation of Native Son, Black Boy (without its second part again), "The Underground Man" (translated by V. Golyshev), and two short stories, "Bright and Morning Star" and "Big Black Good Man" (translated by R. Oblonskaja). All in all, a "Russian" Wright has been more or less fully represented to readers.

As to his image as a writer offered in the studies devoted to him during the recent decades, it is a far cry from its oversimplified version of the 1940s. L. Bashmakova, who authored a dissertation on Wright (the only one in Russia so far), found a new way of tackling her subject. She strives towards a stereoscopic vision of Wright as black and as an American at once, as a bearer of both racial and generally American psychology. These issues of appropriate psychology run through her book addressing the African-American novel (Problemy razvitiya sovremennogo amerikanskogo romana: R. Wright, R. Ellison, J. Baldwin. Krasnodar, 1979). The same psychological emphasis is highlighted by A. Zverev in his introduction to a book of Wright's selected prose. …

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