If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative; I strove to master words, to make them disappear, to make them important by making them new, to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional climax that would drench the reader with a sense of a new world. This was the single end of my living.
Writing depends upon the associational magic of passion.
RICHARD WRIGHT, American Hunger ( 1977)
WRITTEN over the last two decades, the following essays on the work and career of Richard Wright were not originally intended as a collection, but their organization as such does underscore Wright's literary and intellectual development in several interesting ways. In Black Boy, he movingly documented the destitution and emotional insecurity to which he was heir from his childhood in Mississippi while his mother's unending illness filled him with an abiding sense of existential anguish. His mother was the one who taught him "to revere the fanciful and the imaginative," and his autobiography also makes clear the part his own vivid imagination played in a youngster who withdrew into himself to compensate and keep painful experiences at a distance. Not only the pleasures of learning at school, of reading and story-telling, but also the exercise of his own creative gifts help explain the early awakening of Wright's literary interests.
While working in Memphis after graduating from the ninth grade, he began stuffing himself on a steady diet of books and magazines. The irreverent criticism of H. L. Mencken may have been an introduction to the muckraking tradition of American naturalism and Wright mentioned, among other discoveries, the naturalistic explanation of culture and character by Theodore Dreiser, and the debunking of middle-class pretence by Sinclair Lewis. But cheap pulp tales, detective stories, and Sunday supplements attracted him as much as the classics he borrowed from the public library by forging notes to circumvent the Jim Crow regulations. And from the evening young Ella told him the tale of