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"...a raging demon, slashing with his pen..."

In Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts how astounded he was, at seventeen years old, to first read H.L. Mencken.

I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he 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 for 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.

Wright was able to read Mencken’s books only by stealth, as the Memphis public library of the 1920s didn’t check out books to black people. But reading Mencken’s literary criticism stokes a sudden passion in Wright to read the fiction of the previously unknown authors cited by Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in particular, and so he manages to check out more books from the library. He tears through the books and develops, if not quite empathy, then an awareness that struggle and inequality are not confined to African-Americans, and that progress and equality could be fought for with the weapon of words.

It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.

It’s interesting to note that the fiction writers revered by the young Wright were all Midwesterners, covering a broad swath from Minnesota to Ohio, while Wright dreams of leaving the racist repression of the South for the (relative) freedom and opportunity of the North, specifically Chicago. Although most of the characters of those novels were white, Wright seemed inspired by the lives they lived in the North, even though those lives themselves were often limited and inhibited. To Wright, even the constrained lives of Carrie Meeber and the common folk of Winesburg must have seemed preferable to what he faced in the South, and prodded him toward Chicago and its greater possibilities.

Black Boy is a lively and often gripping account of Wright's young life, which has given me a better understanding of the obvious rage that permeates the pages of his landmark novel Native Son. No author writes in a creative vacuum; everything they create is flavored by their past life experiences, and Wright is a clear example of that. The first installment of my latest Structured Reading effort is now complete, and I'm moving on to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son.

February 22, 2014 in Books | Permalink