Review Of American Hunger,by Richard Wright
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 6/19/09
Imagine reading a great classic novel like Betty Smith’s 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 Wright’s 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. Wright’s 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 they’re 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 odds:
“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 Wright’s 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 into cliché:
“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 human.”
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 you’ve read Black Boy, American Hunger will no doubt pique your interest, but don’t be expecting the same power as that of the original. Alongside Loren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours, Black Boy is one of the greatest memoirs ever. Read that first. The rest can wait.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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