AT THE BEGINNING of his introduction to Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son, Addison Gayle curiously asserts that it has only been in the past five years that Americans, including American intellectuals, have given Wright the attention he deserves and that they have done so in order to seek "answers as to why and how the civil rights revolution of the sixties went astray" and to "confront his commentary on the debilitating effects of American racism and his death-stilled criticism of the United States Goverment." Two matters stand out in this argument -- it being what W. E. B. DuBois would have called, ever mindful of Booker T. Washington's public rhetoric, a "varnished truth."
One is that Gayle has conveniently suppressed the fact that prior to 1975 Wright -- as novelist, political thinker, and expatriate in France -- was very much before segments of the American public. In part this was the result of the risk of black or Afro-American studies in the late 1960s (can an institution be named where Wright's work didn't appear somewhere in its American or Afro-American studies curriculum?). Widely read essays on Wright were included in James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. There were literary studies and biographies by Michel Fabre, Constance Webb, Harrold Cruse, Keneth Kinnamon and many others; conferences at the University of Iowa and elsewhere devoted exclusively to Wright; and virtual hero-worship of Wright by the "black Aesthetic" writers and critics -- all of which amply documented by Gayle's anthology, The Black Aesthetic, and especially by his contributions to it.
The other matter is that Gayle is as disinterested and doubting as he has been in the past about the efficacy of literary study: Wright is properly attended to when he is received as "a sensitive black intellectual in a racist society" and not when viewed primarily as a writer (hence, Gayle's refusal to acknowledge what the "professors" have produced).
All this suggests that Gayle's biography of the author of Native Son will be one which steadfastly refuses to bind literary and cultural history to that of a given individual -- and that is much the case of the volume he has produced. To be sure, Gayle partially exonerates himself from this charge by making clear that the book was prompted specifically by his gaining access to "previously classified documents on American citizens by various government agencies" (principally the FBI, CIA, and State Department) -- documents which "assume an overwhelming importance" in the last years of Wright's life in exile. No one can question that access to these documents, thanks to the passage of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, can and should lead to a new study of Wright. The issue is whether that book should be yet another full-scale biography, Gayle can only confirm Michel Fabre's view that Wright's death resulted not from assassination but from "the constant pressure and tension-ridden situation induced by the ordeal to which his government subjected him."
In my estimation, Gayle's research would have been better served in a study just of Wright's last years, or a volume providing the chapters on Wright, Langston Hughes and others which are conspicuously missing from Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left, or even in a narrative somewhat along the lines of Illian Hellman's Scoundrel time. Gayle's chapters on Wright's early life are an embarrassment, chiefly because he sees no rhetoric, posturing or fictionalizing in Wright's autobiographies ("Those who read Black Boy confront the man shorn of the writer's mask"), and is confident thereby in reiterating much of what is claimed in those volumes. Occasionally, his paraphrasings are engagingly effective; at other times language such as "The numerous incidents . . . impacted upon his sensibility," and "The bitter-cold winds . . . seemed paradigmatic of the big city [Chicago] itself," hardly improve on Wright's. What stands out most in terms of Gayle's interpretation of Wright's early years is his insistence, albeit indebted to Margaret Walker, on viewing Wright's life in psycho-sexual terms. Certain remarks, such as those about young Richard's encounter with his father and the woman for whom the father left his family, are apt; others, including the suggestion that Richard and his Aunt Addie are up to something else when they have their famous fight in the kitchen ("Across the floor, locked, like two lovers in an embrace . . . they rolled") are farfetched and probably tasteless.
The chapters on the later years are better partly because sharp portraits are offered of Wright's relations with Baldwin, Chester Himes and Ollie Harrington Gayle's research in government documents is on full display. The documents are often quite revealing. "Chilling" aptly describes the letters to the FBI from "good" citizens as well as the reports and counter-reports debating whether a security card should be kept on Wright years after he had left the Communist Party and the United States. What was the FBI's classified opinion of Wright's famous "I Tried to Be a Communist" statement? Is there any truth to the charge that government agencies were attempting to make a case against Wright as late as 1958? Gayle provides evidence from the documents that clarifies both these matters.
What he also provides is evidence that certain documents, particularly those with many names and passages deleted, don't reveal much at all. Gayle is correct to suggest that these omissions indicate "the extreme sensitivity of the contents," but there are instances where his policy of letting the documents "speak for themselves" occasionally stifles his biographical narrative. Eventually, the strategy of exposing ominous silences in the documents runs its course, and the reader just plain wants to know something about what's missing -- even if that something is nothing more than the kind of intelligent guess a researcher often makes after years of immersion in his or her material.
In sum, one comes away from Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son with the impression that the government documents on Wright are at least as full of deletion as they are of information, that Gayle has attempted to make as much of one as the other, and that the resulting material calls for a book but not one devoted to Wright's entire life. The other, better book will come when Gayle and others do more digging -- when information finally breaks the hold that omission now has on Wright's later career.