A Personal Appreciation of Richard Wright's Universality

By Moore, Jack B. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

A Personal Appreciation of Richard Wright's Universality


Moore, Jack B., The Mississippi Quarterly


UNIVERSALITY, ONCE AN ADMIRED ACHIEVEMENT IN AN ARTIST, has been in disrepute lately, or to be more accurate the claim of universality has often been severely questioned or even attacked, primarily because it is alleged that what has been presented as universal actually masks the privileged and parochial. What the observer puts forth as a theme or perception or behavior true, its depiction valued all over the world, is merely a reification of personal or class or gender specific or regional interests. That charge is often so. But the narcissistic vision of people who mistake the hole of a tunnel for a slice of the horizon, who favor presentation of concerns and conditions that are merely immediate or trendy and announce them as images of world-wide significance, should not lead viewers away from appreciating artists who strike beyond what appeals to (or profoundly troubles, for that matter) the cherished interests of bounded, exclusive groups of people.

Richard Wright's works and the critical literature his works have elicited demonstrate his universality, the fact that he is not only a powerful writer in the liberal-radical, black, male, American tradition, but that his artistic territory ranges far more extensively, that he is a writer of great, general, human importance. He may not be a writer who speaks to everyone, everywhere, at every time. He is certainly a writer who illustrates his liberal-radicalness, his blackness, his maleness, his Americanness in nearly all that he has written. My claim for him is not the old claim of universality that would have ignored how rooted he was (and, paradoxically, how rooted humanity is, universally) in the highly personal and to an unknown extent inescapable biologic, environmental, and cultural conditions of individual identity. My claim is simpler, that he was a writer--a human being--who in his life and works traveled beyond the worlds of his roots, and showed many fellow humans that the strands of existence he dramatized in his person and literature were tangled with their own strands in fascinating patterns. In many ways his life and the lives he depicted were their lives and the lives we see around us: our lives, and finally, I suppose, my life, your life, though of course, not everybody's life.

That is rhetoric, so I will provide a story to illustrate what I mean. During the Second World War my stepfather, who was a German national but who had lived and worked loyally in America since just before the First World War, was interned with some other German nationals and perhaps a few German-American citizens, out west in a camp they could not leave without permission, or apparently, without guardianship. Many Americans think only people of Japanese origins and their families were interned, but this is not so. My stepfather was taken from the bakery he owned in New York City and moved with his family at that time (I only knew him later) to the Southwest. His bakery from that point did not exist. He said he and his family were fairly well treated--the government provided him with the special shoes he needed to compensate for a foot problem, for instance--but they lived always behind a large fence of some kind, possibly a wire fence or something like a wooden cyclone fence. One day the family was strolling the grounds of their incarceration, and his young son saw a few workers behind the fence, and asked him, "Who are those people with guns inside the fence?" And my step-father had to tell his son that the people were soldiers outside the fence, and that he and his sister and their mother lived inside.

To a small boy, the world inside the fence was big enough to seem outside, and for a small boy with short legs the world inside gave him ample scope for movement and varied observation of others. But someone like Wright would have known who was inside and who was outside the fence, and that the first step getting outside was knowing you were inside, and could get out. …

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