Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Richard Wright as a Cold War Literary Journalist

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Richard Wright as a Cold War Literary Journalist

Article excerpt

"Journalists do not write articles. They write stories," quips Allan Bell (147). The converse could also be true. Novelists do not always write fiction: Daniel Defoe, Jack London, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Ishmael Reed, Robert Coover, and many others wrote "pure" journalism, were influenced by journalistic styles, and/or adopted journalistic forms in their fictions. Richard Wright's later, commonly called "creative non-fiction," writings include these three aspects, so much so that some blurbs describe the four nonfictional books that Wright wrote in his last decade--namely, Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), White Man, Listen! (1957), and Pagan Spain (1957)--as journalism. (1) The roots of that "journalism" can be traced back to earlier periods of Wright's life: When he was a child, he used to sell a newspaper--a Ku Klux Klan newspaper, he would later discover--(Black Boy 128-30), and while a member of the "rank and file" of the US Communist Party, he contributed a number of articles to the Daily Worker and The New Masses. (2) Before his self-exile in France, Wright continued to "dabble" in journalism and produced 12 Million Black Voices as he became better known for writing fiction and autobiography, the best known of which are Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy. In France, he mostly (re)turned to nonfiction--in writings that are journalistic in nature--while occasionally writing fiction. It is fitting to suggest that journalistic writing had a strong presence in Wright's career to the extent that his writings came full circle towards the end of his life with a journalistic project on the West African countries which were colonized by France, a project that did not materialize. (3)

How should one then think of Wright's (re)turn to elements of journalism in his later writings? To what extent is that (re)turn enabling or enervating of Wright's post-racial vision; that is, linked to his efforts to rethink race in his later writings? More clearly, do Wright's journalistic forms--which he describes as objective, claiming that, "I'm not partisan. I'm objective" (Black Power 249)--help him to challenge or reproduce the set of beliefs that he purports to call into question (race, tradition, religion, totalitarianism, etc.)? Specifically, how should one read those journalistic forms against the backdrop of the Cold War?

These are the questions that this article aims to address through a close analysis of Wright's last four nonfictional texts. More specifically, I argue that one can better understand and call into question Wright's claim to objectivity by locating it within the Cold War context. While hounded by American government officials for his past communist experience, Wright continued to support Americanism in opposition to Stalinist socialism. For despite his claim that he has a "third ear" (White Man, Listen! 7) and "another and third point of view" (49)--objective and nonpartisan during the Cold War--Wright's attitude towards the "Other" from the "third" world, which manifests itself in an ostensibly objective aesthetic form, resonates with the discourses of American exceptionalism and Orientalism.

Anticipating the "New Journalism" of the 1960s and 1970s (Rowley 476), Wright's ostensibly objective aesthetic combines a conglomeration of styles (journalism and human sciences, especially sociology; all of which are embodied by the feature that would later be called literary journalism). Wright's "objective" aesthetic, I suggest, is predicated upon his retrieval of journalistic forms which he employed during his stint as a contributor to the Daily Worker and New Masses, during which time he exerted his "narrative authority"--to use William Dow's phrase (78)--over his African-American "subjects" or "masses." To enforce that narrative or interpretative authority, Wright employed pronominal strategies, dramatic forms, and the interview--the last of which he used as an interrogating technique. …

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