[ By: Morgan McComb ]
Last fall, during HBW’s 2020 Black Literary Suite “Black Writing in Reel Time,” we received the news from Julia Wright, regarding the forthcoming publication of unpublished novel by her father Richard Wright (1908-1960). A portion of that novel had first appeared in 1942, but most readers first learned of it in Wright’s short story collection, “Eight Men” (1960). We are pleased to conclude Black History Month 2021 with a review of The Man Who Lived Underground by HBW alum, Morgan McComb. The official release date for The Library of America edition is April 4, 2021.
The phrase “previously unpublished” in the literary world invokes instantaneous anticipation, and when that phrase is paired with a writer as illustrious as Richard Wright, people mark their calendars. Written between July 1941 and the spring of 1942, The Man Who Lived Underground (TMWLU) was crafted between Wright’s most famous novels, Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Although it was rejected in its original novel form, two short excerpts were published in 1942 and a severely edited and condensed version of the novel was later published as a short story under the same name in 1944. Considering that Wright’s novel was written during what many consider his most productive years, an obvious question arises: why was the novel never published? A literary cynic will jump to an immediate conclusion: the novel is not as good as the author’s other works and the decision to publish is influenced by capitalism and not simply a genuine expansion of an artist’s oeuvre. TMWLU would disappoint this cynic, for Wright’s previously unpublished novel is Wright and his work at perhaps their most ambitious.
A marked departure from the literary naturalism of Wright’s Native Son, TMWLU is instead an existential allegory exploring topics as seemingly disparate as religion, racism, capitalism, war, police surveillance and brutality. The only simple thing about Wright’s novel is its title. The protagonist, Fred Daniels, does literally live in the sewers after he escapes from being arrested and brutally beaten by the police for a murder he did not commit. Wright’s prose, however, layered with inverted images of darkness and light and saturated in language that deliberately confuses the senses, demands more of his narrative and us as readers than an overly-simplified understanding of the novel as a literary meditation on Daniels’s plight as a Black man escaping a violently racist society (though it is certainly that, too). While racism and racial violence at the hands of the police is undoubtedly the impetus for Daniels’s flight, Daniels’ time spent underground thrusts him into encounters that expand the thematic scope of the novel, ultimately creating what his grandson Malcolm Wright describes in the text’s afterword as an inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Divided into three acts, Wright’s previously unpublished novel begins with Daniels as a character steeped in naiveté as he tries to defend himself against false accusations of murder. Daniels summons a proliferation of defenses for himself while questioned at the police station: his sterling employment record, his active membership and participation in the local church, and finally his wife, who is pregnant and due to give birth at quite literally any moment. Capitalism, religion, and family, all supposedly indicators of a person’s contributions to society, of a life well-lived within the boundaries of societal mores, are rendered useless. Daniels’s attempts are futile: the police officers, both actors within and symbols of the violent white supremacist system of American policing, are convinced of his guilt simply because of his race and his relative proximity to the crime. This first act is cut from all shorter published versions of the text and, as we learn in the volume’s later note on the text, perhaps a key factor in why it was rejected for publication. Kerker Quinn, an early reader of the manuscript and then a faculty member at the University of Illinois and editor of the literary magazine Accent (where the first two excerpts of the novel are eventually published in 1942), found the first act’s extensive focus on descriptions of the police brutality Daniels suffers untenable, uncomfortable, and unreadable. White publishers at the time Wright composed TMWLU were desperate for a different manuscript, his still-unpublished Black Hope that centers on Black domestic workers. When TMWLU was delivered to them instead, his white editors’ and readers’ receptions to the manuscript were cool. Quinn’s objections to the racial violence of the first act and the demonstrably white field of publishing’s eagerness for a novel about Black domestic workers both demonstrate their primary concerns for white comfort and profits rather than Black artistic expression. Now, less than a year after thousands of Americans flooded the streets to protest the continued murder of Black people by the police, it is clear that the white discomfort that Quinn voiced after reading fictional representations of police brutality remains a primary concern in discussions of the violent legacies of enslavement that we find in American institutions, judicial and literary alike.
After Daniels retreats to the sewers, we begin to witness a transformation, one that is incited by Daniels’s sensory experiences of life underground. His first encounter is familiar to us, paralleling an iconic moment from the early pages of Wright’s Native Son. Shortly after entering the sewer system, Daniels lights a match and sees a mouse holding on for dear life as the rushing sewer water threatens to take them both under highlighting the precarious condition of all living things, ultimately becoming an internal existential refrain for Daniels as the novel continues. As Daniels navigates the sewer, he is drawn to sound: the voices of a church choir, the tapping of an embalmer’s tools, the lunch musings of men who work at a jewelry store, the heated arguments between real estate brokers. Guilt and fear are almost constantly invoked, but not in the ways we might expect from a narrative that follows a man running from the police. Instead, Daniels repeats that we are all guilty—of what is left purposefully ambiguous—and that we are all fearful; it is these conditions that create an interconnectedness of all people, and it is our refusal to see them, in Daniels’s estimation, that causes us to create barriers to meaningful understandings of our own existence. These are the same barriers that Daniels originally uses in his defense: an unquestioned investment in oppressive, racist capitalism, a reliance on religious fervor in the face of existential uncertainty, and the necessary upkeep of appearances through what Adrienne Rich has famously coined compulsory heterosexuality. Wright still constructs his narrative through the specific experiences of one Black man, and so race is never absent from the text; however, Wright crafts a novel that puts the often overwhelming and multifarious concerns of capitalism and religion, among others, in a relational conversation with race, thus expanding more philosophically on the conditions and concerns that are also imbued in Native Son and Black Boy, marking both as compelling narratives on Black existence(s) and experience(s) in America.
Wright’s novel is a valuable addition to an understanding of his overall artistic legacy for its distinctive and dynamic allegorical rendering of Black thought alone; but its timely commentary on institutionalized racism and the psychological toll of white supremacy makes its narrative even more powerful and urgent to us in our contemporary moment.
In addition to the unpublished full text of the novel, the Library of America’s edition also includes a previously unpublished essay by Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother,” in which he cites his grandmother’s intense and restrictive religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist as a foremost influence in the thematic and artistic impetuses that shaped the novel alongside surrealist art, jazz and blues music, and psychoanalytical theory. An extended meditation on both the craft and personal philosophy that led to TMWLU’s creation, Wright begins the essay with an emphatic statement that TMWLU is his favorite piece he has ever written, one in which he felt he had complete freedom of expression and a piece where he pushed himself to move beyond a singular thematic focus on race. Despite the fact that Wright’s novel is layered with images and motifs, Wright is pointed in his assertion that none of these images and motifs are meaningful in and of themselves; for Wright, the concern is the relation of all these images, and he cautions the reader and critic not to over-invest in interpretations focusing on a single image or moment.
Instead, in likening the novel to the free play of jazz, the juxtaposed lyrics of blues, and his grandmother’s fanatical beliefs grounded in her religion, Wright insists the novel must be understood in its complex layering of all of these things, a layering that may not appear as narratively logical or interpretively sound. This complex construction is found in Wright’s narrative style as well: his prose is layered with contradictory imagery, and descriptions of Daniels’s experiences underground are defined by language that focuses on the instability of sensory experience—the light of diamonds laughs, fear feels wet on Daniels’s skin, guilt is described as compacted sediment in the mind. The novel’s incongruous layering, according to Wright, is emblematic of a distinctive kind of Black thought, one that brings seemingly disparate and unrelated parts into a complex interplay of meaning. This mosaic rendering of Black thought is perhaps what kept TMWLU from being published during a time when white publishers were instead looking for an uncomplicated narrative about Black domestic workers that did not discomfit their own whiteness it is (a publishing impetus that today: one only need look at the literary and cultural “success” of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), a novel written by a white woman and focused on Black domestic workers in the South, to recognize this continued reduction of Black identities in the American publishing industry). Wright’s novel is a valuable addition to an understanding of his overall artistic legacy for its distinctive and dynamic allegorical rendering of Black thought alone; but its timely commentary on institutionalized racism and the psychological toll of white supremacy makes the narrative even more powerful and urgent to us in our contemporary moment.
 This—an excision of his wife from the narrative and a lack of attention on aspects of gender—is perhaps the only critique I can offer of the novel. Critical grapplings with Wright’s writing (or lack thereof) on the specific issues faced by Black women implicated in Wright’s narratives are numerous, and it is an issue that Wright addresses directly in reference to TMWLU in his accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.”
More on Richard Wright
Morgan McComb is an English PhD student at the University of Mississippi whose research focuses on understudied Black women poets and Black Feminist Theory. She earned her masters from the University of Kansas where her thesis focused on the work of Naomi Long Madgett. She is currently working on a dissertation that focuses on the legacy of the work of Phillis Wheatley in Black women’s poetry and print culture. McComb has also published reviews in the College Language Association Journal.