Critics have wondered what to do about Wright ever since his death, when Baldwin published a devastating memorial article under the title “Alas, Poor Richard”, one of the most influential obituaries in post-war literary history. The pertinent passage concerns Wright’s ignorance of the civil rights movement, which had gained momentum over the course of the 1950s. The “young Negroes” who crossed the ocean and beat a path to his door, Baldwin wrote, “discovered that Richard did not really know much about the present dimensions and complexity of the Negro problem” in the United States, “and, profoundly, did not want to know”. More than four decades on from that, Wright’s reputation remains largely the product of two books written before he reached the age of forty (three, if you include the short stories contained in Uncle Tom’s Children, 1938), in which he drew unique pictures of black life during the segregation era: in the Deep South, where his “days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension and anxiety”; and later in the Chicago slums. (Wright moved north with his mother and aunt in the late 1920s.) Between 1953 and 1960, he published roughly a book a year, and wrote a good deal more besides, but little of it was welcomed by the literary press or the reading public, or by his agent and editor, in the way of Native Son and Black Boy.
A variety of motives has been put forward to explain the neglect – the inevitable imputation of racism, the suggestion of a too-shocking subject matter, the glimpse of a conspirator at every neighbouring café table – but the likeliest explanation is the usual mundane one. Wright was never much of a stylist, and when his subject matter ceases to be topical, there are few reasons for the disinterested reader to open his books.