Editors Refused to Publish Richard Wright's Most Important Novel—Until NowBreaking News
tags: literature, censorship, Richard Wright, African American Literature
With the publication of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), Richard Wright became a bestselling author and cultural icon. Today, some eight decades later, he remains at the center of the American literary pantheon. But what we didn't know until now is that despite his success, he was prevented from publishing another book—one that he considered the most important of all.
On April 20, 2021, 60-plus years after his death, the Library of America (LOA) will publish Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground. This landmark novel, which his daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and brought to LOA, tells the story of Fred Daniels, a Black man framed for a double murder he did not commit.
Daniels is arrested one summer evening while strolling home from work to his pregnant wife after receiving his weekly salary. He's taken into custody and tortured by white police officers until he is finally beaten into submission and confesses. He manages to get away and escapes into the city's underground sewer system. What he experiences there becomes a metaphor for a journey into the heart of American darkness; yet it's there that Daniels ultimately finds a kind of enlightenment. He realizes the actions he takes are of his own choosing, as harrowing as that outcome might be.
Though Wright himself considered The Man Who Lived Underground his finest work, its depiction of police brutality was so graphic, his publishers believed that it shouldn't see the light of day. When Wright submitted the work to his editor, it was turned down.
Eventually, a piece of the book was published as a short story in two anthologies, with the first part of the novel omitted—the section in which Daniels finds himself under interrogation, brutalized, hung upside down—to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. It wasn't until his daughter brought the entire manuscript to the LOA editors that they realized what they had in their hands was not only a previously undiscovered masterpiece, but perhaps even more importantly, a pernicious example of the kind of censorship that goes on behind closed doors, undetected.
In fact, LOA editors already knew that significant portions of Native Son and Black Boy had been redacted at the request of the then-mighty Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC), to make them more digestible to white readers. John Kulka, LOA's editorial director who worked closely with the Wright estate to edit this newly-published novel, tells Oprah Daily that at the time, BOMC had the ability to "make or break an author," and had issued "an ultimatum to Richard Wright to make certain changes to Native Son and Black Boy, or they wouldn't offer the books to their subscribers." It was "an offer Wright couldn't refuse," Kulka says.
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