Wright
and the French Existentialists

IF Richard Wright's interest in existentialism was genrally interpreted by American reviewers during his lifetime as a regrettable concession to literary fashion or an incongruous "roll in the hay" with "a philosophy little made to account for Negro life," 1 critics and scholars have by now recognized and seriously examined the place and nature of the existentialist world view in Wright's novels, if not in his entire body of writings. For a time, there even existed a tendency to overemphasize the influence of the French school of existentialism, as opposed to the German school or preexistentialist writers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Partly with the aim of restoring a proper balance, I have already attempted to document the actual contacts and collaboration -- mostly political -- between Wright and such leading French existentialist thinkers and writers as Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, while providing a more precise, if more sobering, view of possible literary influences. 2 In this article, I will reconsider this relationship, focusing upon the convergence of philosophical views and their possible impact on the shaping of Wright's only existentialist novel. I will touch as well upon the emotional and ideological coloring that the discovery of French existentialism imparted to Wright's "metaphysical decade," as we might call the years of meditation, pessimism, questioning, and self-examination that resulted in the writing and publication of The Outsider.

Wright's encounter with French existentialism took place in the mid- 1940s at a crucial time in his career, when, having rejected Communism, if not Marxist perspectives and explanatory principles, he was for the first time without the sustenance and burden of an ideology. Also, in contemplating the possibilities left open for human values in the industrialized West at the close of World War II, he had become utterly disillusioned. His correspondence with Gertrude Stein, among others, documents his rejection of the consumerism and materialistic goals of American life --

-158-

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The World of Richard Wright
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 3
  • Wright's First Hundred Books 12
  • Black Cat and White Cat: Wright's Gothic and the Influence of Poe 27
  • From Revolutionary Poetry to Haiku 34
  • Beyond Naturalism? 56
  • Wright's South 77
  • From Tabloid to Myth: "The Man Who Lived Underground" 93
  • "The Man Who Killed a Shadow": A Study in Compulsion 108
  • Fantasies and Style in Wright's Fiction 122
  • Wright's Image of France 144
  • Wright and the French Existentialists 158
  • Wright's Exile 176
  • Wright, Negritude, and African Writing 192
  • Appendixes 215
  • Index 263
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