International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year Book Review:
Hunger by Richard Wright
reading a great classic novel like Betty Smiths A Tree
Grows in Brooklyn, and then reading "a follow up story"
about Francie Nolan in later years. How can a writer expect to have
a successful follow up of what already is a great work, and expect
it to match that of the original? Such is the case with Richard
Wrights American Hunger, a slim, 146-page continuation
of his great classic memoir, Black Boy.
Although one cannot
go wrong when reading Wright (no pun intended), American Hunger
is nothing short of a disappointment. It is not that the book lacks
moments of insight, or that it is not well constructed, because it is.
But gone are the terrific childhood scenes Wright distills so well in
Black Boy, (where he holds most of his narrative power) and his
ability to transport the reader into the mind of someone experiencing
racism in the Deep South. American Hunger opens in Chicago, when
Wright, as a young man, arrives there after having left Memphis. The
opening scene is typical Wright, where he is able to hook the reader
both intellectually and emotionally by merely the power of his matter
of fact sentence construction:
"My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed
and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city
whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in
palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into
the dark prairie
The din of the city entered my consciousness,
entered to remain for years to come. The year was 1927."
Wright discusses these fantasies he had for Chicago, and how, despite
individuals not being as cruel to Blacks as they were in the south,
he still was not immune to their racism. People still patronize him,
and do not expect much from him intellectually, simply because he is
black. In one scene, after having gained the job of dishwasher in a
restaurant, co-workers are baffled upon the site of him reading a magazine.
Wrights mixed feelings on the issue (glad at least they knew he
was not dumb but bothered by their condescending tone) force him to
bury these feelings, and cultivate them for a later time. When he hears
the waitresses gossip about their lives, he observes they are
merely people who live in the moment, who lack the ability or drive
to ponder deeper concerns:
"I often wondered what they were trying to get out of life,
but I never stumbled upon any clue, and I doubt if they themselves had
any notion. They lived on the surface of their days; their smiles were
surface smiles, and their tears were surface tears."
What Wright is describing is nothing that is unique to him or to his
era. In fact, many people are like this, yet lack the ability to even
notice it. Then Wright makes the point that: "Negroes lived
a truer and deeper life than they, but I wished that Negroes, too, could
live as thoughtlessly, serenely as they."
This is where I think Wright oversteps the issue. The reason the girls
are shallow is not because they are white, or waitresses, but because
they are average. Wright makes the mistake of associating the idea that
a harder existence, or the pain and suffering that blacks had to undergo
in his day, are somehow akin to "truth" and "depth."
The reason he notices their shallowness and lack of concern for larger
issues is not because he is black and theyre not, but because
he is an artist capable of having insight that allows him to notice
this. His skin color is only a small fraction of this divide, for a
far greater one exists between the creative and non-creative mind, than
it does between skin colors. Above all else, Wright is an artist first.
In a later scene, Wright provides a good contrast between artist and
politician, noting that despite some having similar aims, they are always
"The artist enhances life by his prolonged concentration upon
it, while the politician emphasizes the impersonal aspect of life by
his attempts to fit men into groups."
Though to assume that politics is the only reason for art is silly,
for the ironic thing is that the parts where Wright discusses politics
directly are his weakest. Basically what is responsible for causing
the contrast is, just like with the waitresses, not race nor politics
itself, but the creative versus the un-creative mind.
American Hunger also delves into some of Wrights experience with
joining the Communist Party, and he does not paint them as very open-minded
individuals. In his own way, he is forced to be as secretive and watchful
of what he says among his Communist Party members, as he was when he
lived in the Deep South.
Although the book is short, the section where Wright expounds on politics
reads a bit dryly, and the narrative drags. Yet at the same time the
book feels too short, like he cut the narrative off at the knees, trying
to rush to get it done. The ending is also not as strong, and it treads
"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo,
and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words
to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life
that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly
Here he seems to be relying only on emotion and intent, and contrasting
this to the power in Black Boy, or even his novel Native Son,
well, there simply is no comparison. Though it is odd that the only
copy of American Hunger I could find is a 1977 edition in a used
bookstore. If youve read Black Boy, American Hunger will
no doubt pique your interest, but dont be expecting the same power
as that of the original. Alongside Loren Eiseleys All The Strange
Hours, Black Boy is one of the greatest memoirs ever. Read that
first. The rest can wait.
© Jessica Schneider June 2nd 2009
"Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline."
- James Emanuel, "Sonnet For A Writer"
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