Richard Wright, who died in 1960, is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His books “Native Son” (1940) and “Black Boy” (1945) made him a best-selling author and towering figure in literature. But another novel he wrote in the 1940s was initially rejected by his editors and published only as a short story.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” has since been restored and published in its entirety — and it’s entirely different from Wright’s other works.
The book’s protagonist, a young Black man named Fred Daniels, is railroaded by police for a double murder and beaten into signing a false confession. He escapes from custody through an underground sewer, where the novel takes a surrealistic turn.
Wright’s grandson Malcolm Wright said it’s a “terrific feeling” for the family to finally have the book published.
“It has been silently our favorite story of Richard’s even in its shorter form before we knew the longer version,” Malcolm Wright said. “So now that it’s out in the open and part of the public discussion were really hopeful that it’s going to help that discussion move forwards. It could be an incredible tool for teaching empathy to kids in school.”
Wright recalls how the manuscript was rediscovered by his mother in the author’s archives, which are stored at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in Connecticut.
“My mother was there researching the archives. She came across it and immediately realized that this is absolutely a story that we need to have among our public conversations now,” Wright said. “So she set about trying to get it published, and it took a while, but here we are. The Library of America were really fantastic throughout that collaboration.”
Wright speculates that the book’s initial rejection was the result of a clash between the prevailing mores of the time regarding racism and police brutality and the book’s frank depictions of violent, racist behavior.
“When you see what the first, maybe quarter of the novel is composed of the brutal torture of a Black man at the hands of the police, you know, that’s a conversation that we are only just becoming somewhat comfortable with today,” Wright said. “In the 1940s, it wasn’t a conversation at all. And so I don’t think that that was going to pass muster for the gatekeepers at the time.”
Wright contributed an afterword to the new publication in which he likens the plot of “Underground” to Plato’s allegory of the cave.
“The interesting thing is that it’s the allegory in reverse, because Plato wrote this as someone leaving a cave and discovering the world above ground where the sun shines and they’re not being able to explain that to the people who stay back in the cave,” he said. “But Fred Daniels actually learns about a broader reality underground and then can’t explain that to the people above ground.”
Wright thinks his grandfather’s take on the state of race relations and policing in America would align with many modern sentiments.
“I think that his take would not be so uncommon,” Wright said. “A lot of us feel like we’re making progress, but it’s not enough. … I’m really getting tired of talk of reform because we know what the disparities are. We have something called big data today and … yet we’re not allowing that to come into the process of our legal decisions. So confront the judges with their biases … It will change behavior if we’re serious about it.”