Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration
February 24, 2012
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Richard Wright’s Spinning of Tales
Spiders and writers intrigue us with their spinning of artful designs. The spiders, of course, often get more immediate rewards than writers or storytellers for their labors. What they may happily catch can be consumed and transformed into more material for spinning. Storytellers and writers , no matter how great the attention they capture, must often wait much longer for rewards to come. The spider’s delicate art is easily destroyed; the storyteller’s or writer’s, gets preserved in memory, in print, or in this new century on disks and websites. The question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design?
The wording and syntax of that question is slightly askew, because the ambiguity is necessary to keep in motion a long-range project on the mind of Richard Wright, an extensive inspection of the ebb and flow of his imagination as it spun tales (his fictions) and negations or razor-sharp critiques of realities in the twentieth century (his non-fictions). My work and meditations on the continuing significance of his stories have benefited greatly from the pioneering work of E. Eugene Miller in Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990) and from thousands of pages devoted to the life and artistry of Mississippi’s native son. Nevertheless, I am quite some distance from hitting the target, and the reason is not far to seek. To some extent, Wright was amazingly transparent about his aesthetic and his poetics. The Marxist parameters of his 1937 “Blueprint for Negro Writing” are indeed useful frames of reference for the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and for “The Man Who Was Almos’ A Man” and “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” two stories included in Eight Men (1961). The “Blueprint” is a defiant manifesto akin to the famous 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, but Wright brought to his essay a remarkable clarity and discipline regarding the craft of writing and the choices a writer must make about mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling). It was very clear to Wright that the cultural consciousness that informs the spinning of the black tale emerges from the black church and its “archaic morphology of Christian salvation” and from the folklore of black people (blues, spirituals, and folk tales). For him, folklore was as much a process as a product, involving as it does racial wisdom and “the fluid state of daily speech.” The storyteller must have perspective, “that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to the view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.” In a nice turn of phrase with reference to theme, Wright claimed “the social units in which [storytellers] are bound have a story, a record.” And he certainly thought that craft or artistic skill had “functional autonomy.” The rhetorical transparency of Wright’s ideas does conceal something, because Wright had a wicked sense of humor and his powerful webs might catch and entrap us.
Giving notice to the oddity of Wright’s including “The Man Who Went to Chicago” in Eight Men, which one initially assumes is a collection of fiction, makes one aware that in the spinning of tales the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is not stable; it shifts in relation to the teller’s purposes. Reading the delightful, unpublished short story “The Colored Angel,” which begins
“Once upon a time there lived in the heart of the deep South a poor black Negro. All his life he had had a hard time. He had worked under hot suns and in cold rains. Always he could never get enough to eat. And the whites held a high hand over him which he feared. So this poor black Negro served God and prayed that he might go to Heaven when he died. If he could not get the good things of life in this world, then he would concentrate all of his energies upon getting them in the next.”
One knows from the very beginning that Wright is using a stock convention of the fairytale to elaborate a very familiar item from the barrel of African American folklore : “Lady, when I was flying, I was one more flying fool.” But it is the very ending of this tale which betrays Wright’s indebtedness to something beyond the humor of folklore, something that is identifiable as an item of highbrow culture.
“And to this day, on a snowwhite stone in a shaded corner of Heaven, sits a poor black angel with his hand on his jaw, speaking to no one, and dreaming of his past glory.”
Wright is indebted here to Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker (1879-1889).” He has spun an amusing tale out of what he has heard in oral tradition and has seen as part of his aesthetic education. What is not especially amusing about “The Colored Angel” is that the “poor black Negro” suffers eternally in Heaven as much as he suffered temporarily on earth. This, of course, is vintage Richard Wright, the satisfaction of his materialist penchant for depicting the shortcomings of “archaic morphology of Christian salvation.” Ultimately, his readers get the impression that the morphology is both archaic and malicious, reiterating as it does a punishment for being black and wrong. Thus, noticing the oddity of Wright’s recycling segments of Chapters 15 and 16 from his autobiography Black Boy (1945) under the title “The Man Who Went to Chicago” and presenting them as a short story sends up a red flag. There is more to this spinning than greets the ear or the eye.
The more that is crucial for understanding what drives the storyteller’s imagination and creates the design is wonderfully revealed in Wright’s undated and unpublished 26 page typescript “Memories of My Grandmother” [Beinecke Library, JWJ MSS 3: Box 6, folder 119], an elaborate explanation of what enflamed his imagination as he wrote “The Man Who Lived Underground.” That story had its germ in Wright’s reading of a story in the pulp magazine True Detective in 1941, and we know it best from the version published in 1944 in Cross Section and later in Eight Men. The story is a stunning tale of Fred Daniel’s bringing truth from the underground, the perspective of the sewers in an urban setting; his reward, the reward of the messenger , is being shot to death by a policeman who coldly remarks “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things” (EM 84) Yes, they’d wreck things like the colored angel who had his wings clipped for causing exuberant havoc in Heaven with his two left-wings.
The version we read now is not the one Wright had in mind as he wrote “Memories of My Grandmother.” He was thinking of a much longer manuscript entitled “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the one that served as a structural prototype for how Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator spun his own tale in that classic novel Invisible Man. “Memories of My Grandmother” is as important for understanding Wright’s storytelling imagination as his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is for understanding the complex simplicity of Native Son. This seminal essay about the creative origins of Fred Daniels’ story has been noted so frequently by Wright scholars that it begs for publication and sharing with Wright’s readers.
E. Eugene Miller’s situating the essay in his commentary on Wright’s poetics warrants specialized quoting.
Most critics might agree that Wright came as close as he ever would to achieving [ a marriage between modernism and traditional African American folk expression] in his three most acclaimed works: Native Son, Black Boy, and some of the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, but Wright, at least at one time, felt that the original manuscript of his eventually much abused novella, The Man Who Lived Underground, best captured this “something” ---the quintessential element in Afro-Americans that so characterized their sense of what is real ---and best expressed in the story’s “contour” his most successful rendering of his own blueprint. In addition to Stein’s prose and Surrealism, other experiences ----his discovery of Freudian dream theory (closely connected in time as well as in content with his discovery of Surrealism), of Twain’s iconoclastic “What is Man?”, and childhood viewings of movies based on Wells’s The Invisible Man ----also have bearing on the novella’s construction and content. Wright’s own special emphasis on the story as symbolic enactment of the action of his grandmother’s and all Afro-American folks’ psychosis (Kenneth Burke’s sense of the word, not exactly meaning a disease) focuses primary attention on the center and shape of his novella. Looking at it in Wright’s own terms, it furthers an understanding and appreciation of Wright’s abiding interest in the problems of literary creation. (Voice of a Native Son 95-96).
In the space of less than a single paragraph (albeit a lengthy one), Miller leads us into the vortex of spinning, the spiraling adoption of influences and techniques, “the result of nonmystical yet mysterious unconscious dynamisms moving the writer to produce inexplicable, wondrous combinations of personally and objectively derived phenomena into what come to be seen as ‘story.’ “(Voice of Native Son 97)
As I said at the beginning the question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design? The provisional answer can only be achieved by exploring the territory of “Memories of My Grandmother” with Wright serving as the Virgil for our Dante and then reexploring the territory from which we all come ----the memories of our grandparents who spun the tales. Ah, the magic of spiders, the magic of story, the magic of our ancestors.
Note: This is the short version of the longer lecture.