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Friday, February 25, 2022
THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND, decades lost in drawers because white people
THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND
Library of America
$19.95 all editions, available now
Rating: 5* of five
The Publisher Says: A major literary event: an explosive, previously unpublished novel from the 1940s by the legendary author of Native Son and Black Boy.
Fred Daniels, a black man, is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn't commit. After signing a confession, he escapes—or is permitted to escape—from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers below the streets of Chicago.
This is the simple, horrible premise of Richard Wright's scorching novel, The Man Who Lived Underground, a masterpiece written in the same period as his landmark books Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) that he was unable to publish in his lifetime. Only small parts of it have appeared in print, and in a significantly redacted form it would eventually be included in the short story collection Eight Men (1961). Now, for the first time, by special arrangement with the author’s estate, the full text of the work that meant more to Wright than any other (“I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration”) is published in the form that he intended, complete with his companion essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.” Malcolm Wright, the author’s grandson, contributes an afterword.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.
My Review: Richard Wright was one of the twentieth century's crop of Great American Storytellers, a writer whose entire life of creation was a gift to a country that did not deserve his passionate voice calling into the face of its indifference that we can be better, do better, and must in order to survive.
People my age were required to read Native Son in high school English, and I am so very glad we were. I wouldn't have picked up the book any other way. It needed to be shoved on me. And wonder of wonders, the Austin (Texas) Independent School District of the early 1970s did. It was a tough thing to let myself believe, that people simply but sincerely hated for no better reason than someone was a different skin color than they were. I assumed all those yahoos were just performing their snotty, hateful idiocy like they did their fake homophobia; it seemed to me that racism against Black and Hispanic students was the same. Anything to look cool, after all, and these were teenagers whose ideas of Cool were neither self-reflective nor rebellious enough to have progressed from the 1950s their own parents were stuck in.
Then we read the equally astounding true-crime (I call racism a crime and am not likely to stop doing so) Black Like Me, an account of a white man passing as Black in the Jim Crow South. It too was gut-wrenching, but was different in kind than the novel Native Son. A factual report...well, I am quite sure that my own racism got hard, hard knocks that year. (I am fully aware that I'm complicit in racist society, that in no way am I "not a racist" just because I support Black political candidates and so on.) It's a pity we couldn't have read this jaw-dropping, intense, visceral evocation of the Other as refiner and perfecter of his Othering. It is the apotheosis of Otherness and Othering that this intense story tells its readers.
Anyone who's paid me any attention knows that I can be run off from continuing a read by child abuse, by use of the n-word, by cruelty to animals...the list goes on...and not a few unfriendlies are smirking in anticipation of taxing me with this book's abusive, rage-filled, n-word-bombing ethos...how can I give this five stars and still abandon ship with content warnings in other, arguably less offensive cases? Because Richard Wright never does a single thing to make the awfulness of PoV character Fred Daniels's world sensational. The author isn't kidding around, bedizening a story with nastiness to provoke a response. He is telling a story about how Othering a man will, over time, after many small and large blows and much deliberate infliction of every kind of pain, turn him in to the thing that he was not, did not want to be, and could not bear to know that he now was.
It worked, in its honesty and its clarity of purpose. I left the sewer Fred lived in without regret, without revulsion, and with the most horrified, profound acceptance of Fred as he was abused and neglected into being. Acceptance of his re-creation, transformation.
In the inexcusably hate-filled twenty-first century, we are fighting the battle that Fred lost all over again. There are wins...the conviction of Ahmaud Arbery's murderers...there are defeats, the gerrymandering cases standing out to me as disasters to Black people...but the trend is towards, as it ever was, the endless and pointless perpetuation of hate based on stupidity among the haters and truculence among the hated.
Books like this are strong medicine against both ends of the spectrum. Fred, a victim, sees what the System does to people, and ultimately still surrenders to it. Not to fight against the dehumanizing and brutalizing actions and inactions of the system that allows Fred to exist in the literal sewers is to acquiesce in the process of creating more Freds...and that is a moral wrong and a societal tragedy. Author Wright doesn't allow his readers the luxury of redemption. This book remained unpublished for seventy years because it is the most hopeless document of degradation's triumph I've ever read. White people of the 1940s would've been offended by the clear-eyed assertion of police violence as it happened...nowadays that illusion is gone...but they wouldn't have wanted to read about a good man surrendering his humanity regardless of that knee-jerk response. The accusing fingers pointing back at them as they called out Author Wright for his bleak treatment of Fred (theirs was the system he succumbed to, after all) were simply too on-the-nose.
There is an extended essay included with the novel entitled “Memories of My Grandmother” that enables our appalled eyes to see where so much of the story we've just read originated. The fact that Christian religion played such a big role in Wright's formation into a man capable of the kind of wordsmithing he does isn't a big surprise. I'm very grateful that the author's daughter required the essay to be published within the book containing the novel...it's a long piece and, even if you're on the fence about reading the novel, I hope you'll consider procuring it to read the essay alone. It is a marvelous explication of how each generation forms the next, for good and ill.
What Author Wright isn't, in the writing of this story, is subtle. The metaphors defining it simply aren't debatable: Whites own the sunshine and consign the Blacks to the literal sewers to eke out whatever existences they can. A Black man who's innocent of any crime is shoved into the sewer with the rest of the leavings because he's never had a place in the sunshine that was truly his. As he copes increasingly poorly with the sewers, he's not allowed to leave them; he's run away from the white police, deprived them of their fun of torturing and eventually killing him, so they say "stay there and die."
The author doesn't, then, offer Redemption to either side. It's a very uncharitable and un-Christian thing to withhold. But he's got a reason, does Author Wright: "Chickens come home to roost, don’t they?" his daughter quotes him as saying.
They very much do. The perch they roost on is, in this rare and exquisitely painful read, your complicit soul.