“Fire and Cloud” in Uncle Tom’s Children is perhaps the best representative of Richard Wright’s early short fiction. It won first prize in the 1938 Story magazine contest which had more than four hundred entries, marking Wright’s first triumph with American publishers. Charles K. O’Neill made a radio adaptation of the story after it appeared in American Scenes.
Fire and Cloud
Unlike the later works concerning black ghetto experience, “Fire and Cloud” has a pastoral quality, recognizing the strong bond of the southern black to the soil and the support he has drawn from religion. Wright reproduces faithfully the southern black dialect in both conversation and internal meditations. This use of dialect emphasizes the relative lack of sophistication of rural blacks. His protagonist, Reverend Taylor, is representative of the “old Negro,” who has withstood centuries of oppression, sustained by hard work on the land and humble faith in a merciful God.
Wright’s attitude toward religion, however, is ambivalent. Although he recognizes it as contributing to the quiet nobility of the hero, it also prevents Taylor from taking effective social action when his people are literally starving. The final triumph of Reverend Taylor is that he puts aside the conciliatory attitude which was part of his religious training and becomes a social activist. Instead of turning the other cheek after being humiliated and beaten by white men, he embraces the methods of his Marxist supporters, meeting oppression with mass demonstration. Strength of numbers proves more effective and appropriate for getting relief from the bigoted white establishment than all his piety and loving kindness. Early in the story Taylor exclaims “The good Lawds gonna clean up this ol worl some day! Hes gonna make a new Heaven n a new Earth!” His last words, however, are “Freedom belongs t the strong!”
The situation of the story no doubt reflects Wright’s early experience when his sharecropper father was driven off the plantation. Taylor’s people are starving because the white people, who own all the land, have prohibited the blacks from raising food on it. No matter how Taylor pleads for relief, the local white officials tell him to wait and see if federal aid may be forthcoming. When two communist agitators begin pushing Taylor to lead a mass demonstration against the local government, white officials have Taylor kidnapped and beaten, along with several deacons of his church. Instead of intimidating them, this suffering converts them to open confrontation. As the communists promised, the poor whites join the blacks in the march, which forces the white authorities to release food to those facing starvation.
The story’s strength lies in revealing through three dialogues the psychological dilemma of the protagonist as opposing groups demand his support. He resists the communists initially because their methods employ threat of open war on the whites—“N tha ain Gawds way!” The agitators say he will be responsible if their demonstration fails through lack of numbers and participants are slaughtered. On the other hand, the mayor and chief of police threaten Taylor that they will hold him personally responsible if any of his church members join the march. After a humiliating and futile exchange with these men, Taylor faces his own church deacons, who are themselves divided and look to him for leadership. He knows that one of their number, who is just waiting for a chance to oust him from his church, will run to the mayor and police with any evidence of Taylor’s insubordination. In a pathetic attempt to shift the burden of responsibility that threatens to destroy him no matter what he does, he reiterates the stubborn stand he has maintained with all three groups: He will not order the demonstration, but he will march with his people if they choose to demonstrate. The brutal horse-whipping that Taylor endures as a result of this moderate stand convinces him of the futility of trying to placate everybody. The Uncle Tom becomes a rebel.
Critics sometimes deplore the episodes of raw brutality described in graphic detail in Wright’s fiction, but violence is the clue here to his message. Behind the white man’s paternalistic talk is the persuasion of whip and gun. Only superior force can cope with such an antagonist.
The Man Who Lived Underground
Wright’s best piece of short fiction is “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Although undoubtedly influenced by Dostoevski’s underground man and by Franz Kafka’s “K,” the situation was based on a prisoner’s story from True Detective magazine. The first version appeared in 1942 in Accent magazine under the subtitle “Two Excerpts from a Novel.” This version began with a description of the life of a black servant, but Wright later discarded this opening in favor of the dramatic scene in which an unnamed fugitive hides from the police by descending into a sewer. This approach allowed the story to assume a more universal, symbolic quality. Although racist issues are still significant, the protagonist represents that larger class of all those alienated from their society. Eventually the fugitive’s name is revealed as Fred Daniels, but so completely is he absorbed into his Everyman role that he cannot remember his name when he returns to the upper world. His progress through sewers and basements becomes a quest for the meaning of life, parodying classic descents into the underworld and ironically reversing Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Although Plato’s philosopher attains wisdom by climbing out of the cave where men respond to shadows on the cave wall, Wright’s protagonist gains enlightenment because of his underground perspective. What he sees there speaks not to his rational understanding, however, but to his emotions. He moves among symbolic visions which arouse terror and pity—a dead baby floating on the slimy water whose “mouth gaped black in a soundless cry.” In a black church service spied on through a crevice in the wall, the devout are singing “Jesus, take me to your home above.” He is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and intuits that there is something obscene about their “singing with the air of the sewer blowing in on them.” In a meat locker with carcasses hanging from the ceiling, a butcher is hacking off a piece of meat with a bloody cleaver. When the store proprietor goes home, Fred emerges from the locker and gorges on fresh fruit, but he takes back with him into the sewer the bloody cleaver— why he does not know.
When Fred breaks through a wall into the basement of a movie house, the analogy to Plato’s myth of the cave becomes explicit. He comes up a back stair and sees jerking shadows of a silver screen. The Platonic urge to enlighten the people in the theater, who are bound to a shadow world, merges with messianic images. In a dream he walks on water and saves a baby held up by a drowning woman, but the dream ends in terror and doubt as he loses the baby and his ability to emulate Christ. All is lost and he himself begins to drown.
Terror and pity are not the only emotions that enlarge his sensibilities in this underground odyssey. As he learns the peculiar advantages of his invisibility, he realizes that he can help himself to all kinds of gadgets valued by that shadow world above ground. He collects them like toys or symbols of an absurd world. He acquires a radio, a light bulb with an extension cord, a typewriter, a gun, and finally, through a chance observation of a safe being opened by combination, rolls of hundred dollar bills, containers of diamonds, watches, and rings. His motivation for stealing these articles is not greed but sheer hilarious fun at acquiring objects so long denied to persons of his class.
In one of the most striking, surrealist scenes in modern literature, Fred delightedly decorates his cave walls and floor with these tokens of a society which has rejected him. “They were the serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him, branded him guilty.” He glues hundred dollar bills on his walls. He winds up all the watches but disdains to set them (for he is beyond time, freed from its tyranny). The watches hang on nails along with the diamond rings. He hangs up the bloody cleaver, too, and the gun. The loose diamonds he dumps in a glittering pile on the muddy floor. Then as he gaily tramps around, he accidentally/on purpose, stomps on the pile, scattering the pretty baubles over the floor. Here, indeed, is society’s cave of shadows, and only he realizes how absurd it all is.
When the euphoria of these games begins to pall, Fred becomes more philosophical, perceiving the nihilistic implications of his experience. “Maybe anything’s right, he mumbled. Yes, if the world as men had made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture.” In his unlettered, blundering way, he is groping toward Ivan Karamazov’s dark meditation: “If there is no God, then all things are permissible.” Fred becomes convinced of the reality of human guilt, however, when he witnesses the suicide of the jewelry store’s night watchman, who has been blamed for the theft he himself committed. At first, the scene in which police torture the bewildered man to force a confession strikes Fred as hilariously funny, duplicating his own experience. When the wretched man shoots himself before Fred can offer him a means of escape, however, Fred is shocked into a realization of his own guilt.
The protagonist ultimately transcends his nihilism, and like Platonic realism’s philosopher who returns to the cave out of compassion for those trapped there, Fred returns to the “dead world of sunshine and rain” to bear witness to the Truth. Like the philosopher who is blinded coming out of the light into cave darkness, Fred seems confused and stupid in the social world above ground. When he is thrown out of the black church, he tries inarticulately to explain his revelation at the police station where he had been tortured and condemned. The police think he is crazy, but because they now know they accused him unjustly, they find his return embarrassing. Fred euphorically insists that they accompany him into the sewer so that they, too, can experience the visions that enlightened him. When he shows them his entrance to the world underground, one of the policemen calmly shoots him and the murky waters of the sewer sweep him away.
This ironic story of symbolic death and resurrection is unparalleled in its unique treatment of existential themes. Guilt and alienation lead paradoxically to a tragic sense of human brotherhood, which seems unintelligible to “normal” people. The man who kills Fred Daniels is perhaps the only person who perceives even dimly what Daniels wants to do. “You’ve got to shoot this kind,” he says. “They’d wreck things.”
Play: Native Son: The Biography of a Young American, pr. 1941 (with Paul Green).
Novels: Native Son, 1940; The Outsider, 1953; Savage Holiday, 1954; The Long Dream, 1958; Lawd Today, 1963.
Miscellaneous: Works, 1991 (2 volumes).
Nonfiction: Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 1941 (photographs by Edwin Rosskam); Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, 1945; Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, 1954; The Color Curtain, 1956; Pagan Spain, 1957; White Man, Listen!, 1957; American Hunger, 1977; Richard Wright Reader, 1978 (Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, editors); Conversations with Richard Wright, 1993 (Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre, editors).
Poetry: Haiku: This Other World, 1998 (Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, editors).
Butler, Robert. “Native Son”: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
____________. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Kinnamon, Kenneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
____________. A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary: 1933-1982.
____________, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” New York: Twayne, 1997.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Rand, William E. “The Structure of the Outsider in the Short Fiction of Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” CLA Journal 40 (December, 1996): 230-245.
lker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York:Warner, 1988.