Academic journal article MELUS

Black Orpheus: Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground"

Academic journal article MELUS

Black Orpheus: Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground"

Article excerpt

"Leaving, then, the white world, I stepped within the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses."

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 1903

"The Man Who Lived Underground" (1945) by Richard Wright tells the story of an epic journey that classical and modern, European and American writers have told numerous times. (1) A fugitive escapes to the underground sewer of an unnamed city. In the footsteps of Orpheus and Odysseus, Virgil and Dante, Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck and Jim, he begins to explore the underworld, the world of darkness, nature, and death. (2) It is a modern version of the fugitive slave narrative, a literary form whose most famous representative, Frederick Douglass, is honored through the initials of Fred Daniels, the novella's African American protagonist. (3) As he escapes from corrupt history and corrupting society into ostensibly free and liberating nature, Fred Daniels is suddenly transformed from privileged house servant to underground criminal-discoverer-explorer.

The discoveries that Fred Daniels makes in the course of his underground journey are significant and multiple. They concern the racist society aboveground, his own status as an exile and an invisible man, and the language available to modern art and to the African American artist in that society. As s/he accompanies Fred Daniels through the underground sewer, the reader also undertakes a journey to discover the view from "behind the veil" that marks the protagonist's experience as an African American servant and artist in a racist and class society. (4)

In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground (1864) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), the novella also tells the story of a metaphorical journey into the aesthetic underground of modern art. In the course of this journey, Fred Daniels revisits the romantic conflicts dramatized by Ishmael and Ahab, Huck and Tom, on the one hand, and the post-romantic ones voiced by Dostoyevsky's narrator and Conrad's sailor, on the other. Like these literary predecessors, Fred Daniels confronts reason and unreason, rationality and sensuality, society and nature. Unlike them, he encounters these aesthetic dilemmas through the specific perspective of the African American experience in a world where reason and rationality have become synonymous with racism. (5)

While familiar to and valued by Richard Wright specialists, The Man is not known as a classic of American modernism, despite the numerous scholars who have recognized the great artistic merit of the novella. (6) In the estimation of these scholars, "The Man Who Lived Underground" is "Wright's most accomplished piece of short fiction (Bryant 378)," one "woven of the same exacting perfection as a poem" (Fabre, "Richard Wright's" 220). (7)

Recognition of "The Man" as a modernist classic of American literature has been hindered by obstacles that have restricted Wright's recognition within the American and African American modernist canons. (8) First, Wright is frequently classified as a Southern author, his significance limited to having witnessed and survived the lynching, terror, and violent segregation of the pre-modern Jim Crow South. (9) Secondly, literary critics have voiced ambivalent praise for Wright's work and for the modern realist poetics he represents. (10) Thirdly, critics routinely ignore what they classify as Wright's "European" writings, the larger part of Wright's output. Lastly, "The Man," which was written before but published after Wright went into exile in 1947, tends to be read as an expression of Wright's encounter with French existentialism rather than his ongoing reflection on alienation and racism in the United States. (11)

These misguided views notwithstanding, literary critics have produced a substantial body of scholarship on "The Man." Critics have especially examined its themes and motifs, its style and ideas, its biblical, classical, and modern themes, and its poetic, aesthetic, and philosophical concerns. …

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