An influential novelist, poet, and essayist (James Baldwin called him the “greatest black writer in the world for me”), Richard Wright was himself influenced by H.L. Mencken, America's best known journalist in the 1920s. In Chapter 13 of his autobiography Black Boy, Wright recounts how, at age 15, he had to forge the name of a white co-worker in order to borrow Mencken's books from the Memphis Public Library. Shortly after feeding his hunger for books (described in the passage below), Wright moved to Chicago, and in 1940 he published his first novel, Native Son.
A Hunger for Books
from Chapter 13 of Black Boy, by Richard Wright
That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words . . . Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it. . . .
I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and either looked them up in a dictionary or, before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.
As dawn broke I ate my pork and beans, feeling dopey, sleepy. I went to work, but the mood of the book would not die; it lingered, coloring everything I saw, heard, did. I now felt that I knew what the white men were feeling. Merely because I had read a book that had spoken of how they lived and thought, I identified myself with that book, I felt vaguely guilty. Would I, filled with bookish notions, act in a manner that would make the whites dislike me? . . .
Steeped in new moods and ideas, I bought a ream of paper and tried to write; but nothing would come, or what did come was flat beyond telling. I discovered that more than desire and feeling were necessary to write and I dropped the idea. Yet I still wondered how it was possible to know people sufficiently to write about them. Could I ever learn about life and people? To me, with my vast ignorance, my Jim Crow station in life, it seemed a task impossible of achievement. I now knew what being a Negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger.
Selected Works by Richard Wright
- Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (1938)
- Native Son, novel (1940)
- Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, autobiography (1945)
- The Outsider, novel (1953)
- White Man, Listen! essays (1957)
- American Hunger, autobiography (1977)
- A Father's Law, unfinished novel (2008)
Richard Wright's Black Boy: A Record of Youth was first published in 1945 by Harper & Brothers. A new paperback edition was published in 2008 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics.