Reference Entry

Wright, Charles S.

Kofi Natambu

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Wright, Charles S.

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novelist and journalist, was born Charles Stevenson Wright in New Franklin, Missouri, the only child of Stevenson Wright, a laborer, and Dorothy Hughes, a homemaker. By the time he was four years old his parents had separated and his mother had died. After her death Wright's maternal grandparents raised him. Influenced by his grandfather's great passion for reading, Wright became a voracious reader of books and what he later called a “newspaper fanatic” (O'Brien). He attended public schools in New Franklin and Sedalia, Missouri, but dropped out of high school in his junior year, in part because of the segregated school's poor facilities and the general unavailability of books for the black students. Among Wright's most vivid teenage memories was reading an issue of Life magazine and being startled to see a feature on Black Boy, the novelist Richard Wright's autobiography. The coincidence of sharing a last name (they were unrelated), coupled with the idea that a black author could receive national recognition, had a major impact on Wright.After leaving school Wright hitchhiked to California but soon returned to Missouri. He attended the Lowney Handy Writers Colony in Marshall, Illinois, for a few summers before being drafted into the army in 1952. He became an army cook and traveled to Korea and Japan. Upon his discharge in 1954 Wright settled for several years in St. Louis, making ends meet with a twenty-six-week armed services stipend and a job as a stock boy. He also returned to the Handy Writers Colony, where he wrote what he later regarded as a “very bad” first novel about the Korean War (O'Brien).In the late 1950s Wright moved to New York, a city he had always dreamed of living in. There he held a variety of jobs, all the while continuing to write. His second novel, No Regrets, a first-person narrative of an affair between an East Village black beatnik and an upper-class white girl whom he impregnated, was rejected by several New York publishers. Wright's copy of the manuscript was later lost. Wright submitted his plan for his next novel, “The Messenger,” a story loosely based on his own experiences as a New York City messenger. Within a week he had a contract with the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Published in 1963, The Messenger garnered praise from both critics and other writers, including James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Kay Boyle. The novel cemented Wright's reputation as a rising young writer of great promise and firmly established his signature literary style—a highly idiosyncratic and dynamic synthesis of naturalistic, surreal, and fantasy-based forms that often alluded to vaguely autobiographical experiences.One of the first African American authors of the 1960s to consciously use postmodern methods and techniques in both his fiction and nonfiction writing, Wright sought to blur and even erase the imposed literary boundaries between realistic and fictional forms. This conscious blending of both vernacular and avant-garde literary techniques was prominent in Wright's next and most famous novel The Wig (1966), a scathing satire of the destructive impact of the pretensions and delusions of the Great Society–American Dream myth during the mid-1960s, and its effect on African Americans' human identity and sanity. Wright's novel, which both he and his publisher felt would be a great success, instead opened to mixed reviews and poor sales. Nevertheless the New York Times literary critic Conrad Knickerbocker wrote in his rave review that The Wig was “a brutal, exciting, and necessary book.” The novelist Ishmael Reed called it “one of the most underrated novels written by a black person in this century” and credited the book with influencing his own prose technique (O'Brien). Many critics later acknowledged The Wig as Wright's most important literary achievement and as one of the 1960's most innovative novels.Deeply discouraged by The Wig's reception, Wright left the United States to live in Paris, Morocco, and Veracruz, Mexico, before finally returning to New York City in 1971. During the next seven years Wright traveled extensively and wrote a regular column, “Wright's World,” for the Village Voice newspaper. These essays—collected, amended, and supplemented by other work including journalistic reportage and lyrical musings, and combining both fiction and social commentary—became a new book. Wright wanted to use the title “Black Studies: A Journal” but the publicity department at Farrar, Straus and Giroux felt the book would, as Wright wrote in his work, “get put on the wrong bookshelves.” Wright's editor suggested its eventual title, Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. Published in 1973, the book vividly records the shattered dreams, hopes, and illusions of the 1960s, and the subsequent social despair that began gripping the country in the early 1970s following the assassinations of political leaders, the horror of the Vietnam War, and the failure of the War on Poverty and other Great Society programs. Rooted in fact yet galvanized by a restless imagination, Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About extended the tradition of mixing fiction with social reality that characterized Wright's earlier work.After 1973 Wright kept a low public profile. While continuing to travel extensively he completed Erotic Landslide, a short-story collection, and an unpublished play, “Madam Is on the Veranda.” After twenty years of virtual obscurity Wright made a triumphant return to mainstream publishing in 1993 with the publication of his three novels in one volume, titled Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About: The Complete Novels of Charles Wright. Wright found a whole new generation of readers and critics for his trilogy. Beside the new critical praise that greeted the re-publication, Wright won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $75,000 cash award, in 1994.

Reference Entry.  967 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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