Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review of the Day: Black Boy (American Hunger)

Richard Wright is famous for his novel, Native Son, which is a classic of American realism, made it to the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and was the first Book of the Month Club title by an African-American author. His autobiography – at least part of it – is an acclaimed account of life in the Jim Crow South.

Only the first part of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, was published contemporaneously with his finishing it in 1945. The second part, American Hunger, was not published until 1977.

Understandably. The Black Boy section of his autobiography tells the story of Wright's childhood in the Deep South in the early part of the 1900s. Born on a plantation, abandoned by his father, and raised by a passel of relatives, his was as racist, poverty-stricken, and generally grim a childhood as could be imagined. But American Hunger, the second part of his autobiography is all about Wright’s life as a Communist. Not a sympathetic, leftist intellectual of the 1930s, but a full-fledged, card-carrying Party member and true believer. No wonder he could not get this part of his story published in the 1950s. It would have been scandalous.

Now, after the horrors of Stalin are known and the Soviet Union has disappeared, his story is historically notable, but borderline ludicrous. What is worse is that Wright does not delve into the ideas that made him a Communist, which might have been interesting. He provides only one glowing summary of his fervent belief that Communism was the only solution for mankind, that the world would be in awe of the success of this system based on self-sacrifice, and that Europe would be unable to stand up to the military might of the Soviet Union. He offered this as an introduction to his description of the “glory” of the Soviet-style show trial of one of his Comrades. The rest focuses on the in-fighting among Party members.

Wright's whole point seems to prove that he was the better Communist than the hacks running the Party.  He recounts the maneuverings among factions that led to his election as the Party Secretary of his division, detailed conversations with Party sub-officials questioning his loyalty, and his ultimate break with the Party – not over ideology, he insists, but tactics. All this is as tedious as listening to the office receptionist relate the details of her long-standing feud with the HR department.

The Black Boy section of Wright’s autobiography is a must-read. The American Hunger section belongs, like the bankrupt ideology that inspired it, in the dustbin of literary history.


  1. Hmm - it's interesting how different the two halves of the autobiography are. Thanks for the review.

  2. I had either a first or second edition (not sure which) of Black Boy, and it accidently got tossed in with a donation bag of books. I realized it too late and have been kicking myself ever since. :(

  3. Interesting. I haven't read "Native Son" yet but I'd like to. And obviously I'd now like to read "Black Boy", as it sounds very interesting. You're right that there seems to be a lot less literary value to "American Hunger", but I'm curious to see what Wright writes about his Communist views (if anything). I've encountered so few purely Communist books that it could be fascinating, though indeed as you describe it, it sounds fairly disappointing...

  4. I haven't read it in a LONG time, but Wright was one of several notable writers -- Stephen Spender, Ignazio Silone, Andre Gide and Arthur Koestler were others -- who wrote essays about how they became disillusioned with communism in a book called "The God That Failed," published in 1949. So by the time "American Hunger" was published, Wright had long since repudiated what it had to say. I haven't read AH, but I imagine it has some interest as a historical document?

  5. "in the dustbin of literary history." What a great way to say "don't bother."

    I read Black Boy when I was in school. I should find Native Son.

  6. Nice Review...looks like an interesting book!

  7. Thanks for all the comments. I've been mulling over this book ever since I finished it and posted my review. It really got into my brain.

    Native Son is very good. Black Boy shares the same realist style and is excellent, even though you can anticipate that his childhood is going to be bleak. (Although the Seventh Day Adventist stuff was unexpected.)

    But the American Hunger section really is only interesting as a historical document. Now, after books like Darkness at Noon and The Haunted Land, Wright's book reads like parody.

    I am very interested to read The God that Failed. I am curious to learn if Wright repudiated the Communist doctrine, or just the Party.


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