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American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 694-715

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"I Could Never Really Leave the South": Regionalism and the Transformation of Richard Wright’s American Hunger

Jeff Karem

A personal history by one of our most important writers, lying in some drawer for over 30 years—how was this possible? How could it have been "lost" or "forgotten"? . . . why we have had to wait so long for the second part we are not told.

Irving Howe, review of American Hunger

When published in 1945, Black Boy constituted a cannily truncated version of Richard Wright’s original autobiography, American Hunger (1993). In the year leading up to the publication of this text, Wright was called upon to revise his narrative to satisfy not only his publisher, but also the Book-of-the-Month Club, which wanted to make his work a selection. In exchange, Wright was led to alter his conclusion and even to delete the section describing his experiences in the North after leaving the South. These changes effectively blunted Wright’s broader critique of American race relations and confined Black Boy to a regional narrative of childhood and adolescence. This publishing experience may provide a literary corollary for his personal speculation at the end of Black Boy that "deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South" (284). It was not until 1977, after Wright’s death, that the missing portion of his autobiography would appear in print.

Reexamining the publication history of American Hunger is in order because the scholarship on this subject is inconclusive and lacking in detail. Neither Wright’s biographer, Michel Fabre, nor the editors of the Library of America edition of Black Boy, [End Page 694] Jerry Ward Jr. and Arnold Rampersad, present a well-documented explanation for how the comprehensive critique that was American Hunger became the tale of triumph that was Black Boy. Moreover, no one has tried to place these editorial decisions and critical reception in the context of trends in publishing and political life during wartime America in the 1940s. From this broader perspective, the history of Black Boy affords an ideal opportunity to investigate the complex relationship among authorship, the marketplace, and politics, as well as to observe how regional narratives have formed a crucial way for America to construct its national self-image.

In his major writings leading up to American Hunger, Wright struggled to impress his total vision of American race relations upon his audience and to avoid writing protest fiction evoking easy sympathy. Reader-response mattered to Wright because a key purpose of his art, as he described it in "The Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), was "to lift the level of consciousness higher" (49), and to "deepen people’s perceptions" and to "quicken their thoughts," as he explained in an interview ("This" 67). Consequently, Wright was disappointed to discover after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) that many reviewers had changed the inflammatory content of the work into sentimental, even reactionary responses. A reviewer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote that, "Written by a negro . . . the book still does not rankle in the mind of the white reader. On the other hand, it provokes only his sympathy. And this is saving grace for a Southerner" (Tyus). The reviewer went on to say this "sympathetic" quality of the work ensures that it will not "inflame" people to action against the South, as did Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Jacksonville Sunday Times-Union provided a similar reading of Wright’s characters—one that would seem at home in old plantation days: "These accounts of negro life sing with a plaintive melody, haunting our souls, in telling of the few simple things necessary for the happiness of the negro . . . they plead for sympathetic understanding and a chance to be left alone" (Hendry). No doubt because of such "sympathetic" reviews, which managed to harness Wright’s regional fiction for distinctly sectionalist ends, Wright found himself quite troubled by the reception of this work, as he explained in...


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