- Richard Wright:The Man Who Lived Underground
Always interested in new ideas and conscious of his responsibilities as a black intellectual, 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. One constantly finds traces in him of the poor black child who owes his spiritual survival in racist Mississippi and, in part, his vocation as a writer to detective stories, popular fiction and dime novels. Indeed, he was always drawn towards stories in which truth is stranger than fiction; and after bringing unlikely events into his novels, he took a sly pleasure in disclosing the authenticity of episodes which his bewildered readers had taken for wild fabrications.
We can easily imagine his delight when he came across, in the August 1941 issue of True Detective, "The Crime Hollywood Couldn't Believe," written by Hal Fletcher from the account given by Lt. C. W. Gains of the Los Angeles Police. One night in November 1931, the sub-manager of the local branch of the Owl Drug Company had deposited eleven thousand dollars in the safe of his store; and, on opening the intact safe the following morning, the director had not found a trace of the money in it. As the two men were above all suspicion, and there was no sign of burglary, the mystery remained unsolved. Two weeks later, the safe of a clothing store—to which only the owner possessed the key—was emptied in the same way. Then there was an epidemic of thefts; linen, jewelry, typewriters, food, blankets, books, etc., disappeared by magic always in the same neighborhood. In the spring of the following year, the field of these mysterious thefts was transferred a few streets. Incredibly enough, the manager of the Baker Shoe Company, who had left two thousand dollars and twenty-six cents in his safe one fine night, found the two thousand dollars there, but no sign of the twenty-six cents. Police rounds and surveillance produced no results until the following year, when, at the end of nine consecutive nights of [End Page 10] watching in a store, a policeman saw an arm coming up out of the floor to turn the lock on a trapdoor. The arm disappeared when he tried to grab it, but this time a search of the basements revealed a hideout which was well furnished with blankets, canned goods, and alcohol. At last in February 1933 the police arrested Herbert C. Wright, white, thirty-three years old, and from a good family. He had seen sewermen at work and had decided to solve his problem of unemployment by building his world from their underground universe. He did not harbor any particular grudge against society, the magazine specified, and was perfectly sane.
Intrigued, the novelist immediately became interested in the motives of his strange namesake, who was still serving a ten-year sentence in the penitentiary. On October 27, 1941, he asked the governor of California for the record of prisoner number 55836, the details of which did not make the situation any clearer. The thief claimed to have been guided at times by his dead mother's voice when undertaking his burglaries and was seemingly proud of the names given to him by the press ("the human mole," "the tunnel burglar"). But he had done his best to help in returning the stolen objects and had not incurred any punishments in the penitentiary.
With these facts in hand, Richard Wright set to work, using as his guide the account in True Detective, which stressed the ingenuity of the burglar and the fact that he was perhaps motivated more by challenge than by gain, and which delighted in using images of dripping, dark labyrinths. In the autumn of 1941, he rapidly wrote 150 pages of a novel—since it was then a brief novel and not a short story—which he immediately turned over to his agent and friend, Paul Reynolds. On December 13 he wrote thanking him for having looked through the manuscript and emphasized the fact that it...