A Study in Compulsion
THROUGHOUT his career, Richard Wright appears to have been fascinated by psychology as well as the cultural determinants of violent criminal behavior. From the accidental shooting of the white cracker in "Big Boy Leaves Home" to the beheading of John Franklin by Babu, the African who wanted to see a white man rise from the dead, in "Man, God Ain't Like That," his fiction may be approached as an effort to explore man's homicidal impulse. As a consequence of his association with two psychiatrists, Dr. Fredrick Wertham and Dr. Benjamin Karpman, Wright's interest grew into a sort of passion in the 1940s. He spent days poring over case studies and gained enough knowledge about specific forms of deviance among blacks to anticipate present -- day ethnopsychiatry, at least in the form practiced by Frantz Fanon who was, incidentally, an eager reader of Wright at the time he completed Black Skin, White Masks.
Written in 1946, "The Man Who Killed a Shadow" appeared in the Spring, 1949, issue of Zero Magazine, 1 which places it chronologically between "The Man Who Lived Underground" and Savage Holiday, two other stories based on criminal cases. "The Man Who Lived Underground" included many details from the Herbert C. Wright burglaries, using them as a springboard towards a superb surrealistic and existentialist fable. 2 Savage Holiday was inspired in part by the story of Clinton Brewer, a black jazz musician whom Wright had helped parole out of the Tombs prison where he had already spent decades for the murder of a woman. 3 It was attorney Charles H. Houston who drew the novelist's attention to the Julius Fisher case -- on which "The Man Who Killed a Shadow" is based -- in 1945. Fisher, a black janitor, had killed a white librarian, Miss Catherine Cooper Reardon, on March 1, 1944, in Washington, D.C. Indicted on six counts, he was found guilty of first-degree