- Michel Fabre's Capacious Intelligence
Introducing Michel Fabre's "Richard Wright: The Man Who Lived Underground," first published in Studies in the Novel Vol. 3, No. 2 (special number: "American Negro Novelists"), summer 1971, pp. 165-79.
Late in his 1971 essay, "Richard Wright: The Man Who Lived Underground," Michel Fabre contends that our critiques of Wright's works might strengthen should we address the author's aesthetic prowess, his narratological strategies, with the same close regard we usually give to what his books signify about black American experience or radical intellectual analysis. With the Black Arts Movement still in full flower, Fabre's interpretation of Wright's famous and influential novella itself is radical: "Richard Wright must nevertheless be considered, when one delves into his fiction, primarily as a storyteller for whom a good narrative is valid for what it relates as much as for what it signifies" (165). In other words, Wright's native artistic gifts—how he fashioned and related good narrative—allowed him to produce meaningful literary works riven through with philosophical and political claims beautifully rendered.
Fabre's essay ran in Studies in the Novel eleven years after Wright's death. Like many writers and scholars, especially young black ones, Fabre recognizes Wright as a commanding Western cultural figure. But the French scholar's argument for attending to Wright's artistry challenged the critical status quo on his oeuvre. In the late '60s/early '70s, Wright's artistic reputation was taking a beating. For instance, the poet Etheridge Knight, responding to a 1968 Negro Digest survey on the political import of the Black Aesthetic in literature, argues that Wright, pained by the process of dissolving his individual self to the necessities of a unified black literary political agenda, exiled himself in Paris. "He left Bigger on the South Side of Chicago," Knight writes, "and journeyed to Paris, seeking the opiate of Universalism; and thus narcotized, his voice and vision became weak, vague, misdirected" (38). In Knight's appraisal, [End Page 6] Wright is insufficiently political, not radical enough to escape the margin, gain true black consciousness, and write to overthrow the Western intellectual and colonial ethos.
Though Knight's analysis arose from Black Arts Movement (BAM) ideology, he was also extending the practice of downgrading Wright's output from the generation of black male writers preceding his. Take, for example, Albert Murray's The Omni-Americans (1970) and his decidedly anti-BAM argument that Wright subordinated aesthetic acuity to "political conjecture" in his fictional works. Even Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, writers who were both once in Wright's orbit and gained literary entrée based on his largesse, took the author to task. In his essay "Remembering Richard Wright," Ellison points out that Wright's art suffered because he didn't have a complete grasp of black American experience and black art as intrinsically, indelibly universal and human. And Baldwin cemented his literary bona fides arguing in "Many Thousands Gone" and "Everybody's Protest Novel," his two infamous, brilliant takedowns of Native Son, that Wright forwarded dehumanizing stereotypes of black life in the name of political protest, but at art's expense. According to these four writers, Wright was either insufficiently political or he was overdetermined politically. Whichever position one accepts, these readings present Wright as having failed his artistic promise.1 Fabre's essay turns away from these negative analyses in order to examine Wright's artistry in detail.
This study develops a context that opens in 1941, when Wright, looking to advance upon Native Son's auspicious success (after the opening eight weeks of sales in spring 1940, "Wright had sold 250,000 total copies of his book"),2 "rapidly wrote 150 pages of a novel" that would become "The Man Who Lived Underground" (Fabre 166). Demonstrating his meticulous investigation of Wright's archive, Fabre notes that the novella is
situated in the heart of a culminating period in Wright's production, between the adaptation of Native Son [as stage play and, eventually, feature film] and the composition of the unpublished novel Black Hope, and Twelve Million Black Voices on one hand, and the birth of Black Boy on the...