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Review: Censored in the 1940s, 'The Man Who Lived Underground' is Just as Relevant Today

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday May 10, 2021
Review: Censored in the 1940s, 'The Man Who Lived Underground' is Just as Relevant Today

If you didn't know about the author in advance and read the opening chapters of "The Man Who Lived Underground," you might think you were reading headline news from last year, but this remarkable novella was penned in the 1940s, then an unpublished manuscript by iconic African American writer Richard Wright.

The book was rejected by the editors of Harper Brothers Publishing Co. for its explosive story of racial injustice and police brutality against Black men. The book has been restored for the first time by Library of America. Wright's publishers killed it not only for its depiction of racist police brutality, but also for its allegorical style, fused with vivid prose realism.

The rejection was a double slap in the face to Wright, since the company had profited from Wright's critically acclaimed novel "Native Son" (1940) and memoir "Black Boy" (1945), which were both bestsellers.

"Underground" is the allegorical story of Fred Daniels, a Black man who is leaving his job doing yard work in a white neighborhood and anxious to get home to his apartment downtown to take care of his pregnant wife, who is close to giving birth. He is attacked by police who immediately shake him down. They refuse to believe his explanations about what he's doing there, even when he gives them the name of his pastor and his employers who would vouch for him.

Daniels is further brutalized at the police station, where he is repeatedly struck in the head. Half-conscious, he is forced to sign a confession that he's too bloodied to read. He's then charged with the brutal murders of a couple who lived next door to where he worked.

At the hospital, Daniels seized an opportunity to escape, and his surreal journey into the underworld frames a mythic morality tale (and expose) of genocidal racism.

His fantastical quest for survival, truth, and justice underground leads him to a transcendent journey back into the jaws of a morally bankrupt and racist system.

With this novella, Wright mixed short story form with mythic classical allegory. In doing so, he foreshadowed styles of magic realism that emerged in post-WWII fiction. The fact that the story is also a depiction of what was commonplace across the U.S. is a j'accuse to white policing and against Jim Crow laws of the era, which made it ripe for censorship.

Malcolm Wright, Richard's grandson, writes in the book's afterward about the impact the manuscript had on him throughout his life. He also discusses the racial underpinnings that kept Harper's from publishing the book in the first place.

Library of America has published the collected works of Richard Wright, and now they have restored this previously forbidden American classic, whose literary merits - as well as its prescient social relevance - are as vital today as they were in the 1940s.

'Memories of My Grandmother' is Wright's companion piece to the novella and is included in the LOA edition of "Underground." Wright explains in detail the literary devices he uses, writing that he is not a surrealist writer or one who delves into psychological narrative, but both elements are used to tell the specific journey of a man crushed by society..

Wright further explains in the essay, "I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom or expressed myself in a way that flowed more naturally from my own personal background, reading, experiences, and feelings than 'The Man Who Lived Underground.' "

"The Man Who Lived Underground," by Richard Wright, is available now in hardcover from Library of America for $22.95, and is also available as an eBook from Harper Perennial.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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