Exiles

In the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell studies Richard Wright‘s life after his glory days of 1940’s Native Son and 1945’s Black Boy. Leaving the United States for Paris in 1947, Wright largely flailed as a writer, producing unfinished novels and (in Campbell’s assessment) clunky travel books. Hazel Rowley‘s new biography of Wright attempts to make a case for his writing on Africa and Indonesia, but Campbell isn’t having it:

Wright was never much of a stylist, and when his subject matter ceases to be topical, there are few reasons for the disinterested reader to open his books. In her mostly judicious account of Wright’s valiant progress, Rowley attempts to persuade us that the method of travel books … was “decades ahead of its time”…. But even if the reader is willing to overlook the travel books of Graham Greene, Peter Fleming, the early Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and others, Wright’s facile, notetaking method and the long-winded conversations in which interviewer frequently upstages interviewee, are apt to become wearying.

If, as James Baldwin suggested, Wright abdicated his role as a writer about black America, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina isn’t interested in revisiting Baldwin either, or any of his well-known colleagues. As part of NPR’s “You Must Read This” series, she makes a case for a lesser-known book, Ann Petry‘s 1946 novel, The Street:

The Street creates a lot of discussion, often uncomfortable, in my literature classes. It makes us confront difficult questions about race and class. Who has access to the American Dream? Why do some characters make it but Lutie doesn’t? Petry wants her readers to see the two sides of America: the gleaming and moneyed suburbs, where she herself was raised, and the struggles of black women in Harlem, where she moved after her marriage.

2 responses to “Exiles

  1. Michael J. West

    Hi, Mark. First time here.

    I’m aware that I speak from an ignorant position, never having read Wright’s travel books (or anything but Native Son and Black Boy, for that matter), but I take issue with Campbell saying that “Wright was never much of a stylist.”

    I always thought he had a superior prose style, straightforward and elegant, particularly in contrast to his protege Ellison’s overrated, sub-Faulknerian ramblings.

    I’m going to English-major Hell for that one.

  2. I confess that I’ve never heard of The Street or Ann Petry. But I’m going to check it out.

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