Sunday, April 18, 2021

Books: The Full Experience Of "The Man Who Lived Underground" By Richard Wright


The Man Who Lived Underground

By Richard Wright

Library of America; hardcover, $22.95 and the audibook from Caedmon Audiobook, an imprint of HarperAudio, narrated by Ethan Herisse; $20.99 - both are available this Tuesday, April 20th

Richard Wright, one of the most influential African-American writers of the last century, made it a point to center his stories on the issue of race in America. Born in 1908 in Mississippi, he won international renown for his powerful and visceral depictions of the black experience. Two of his most influential works, the novel Native Son, released in 1940, and his memoir, Black Boy, from 1945, are required reading in high schools and colleges, and The Man Who Lived Underground was written around the same period 80 years ago.

Previously unreleased, The Man Who Lived Underground is an incendiary novel about race and violence in America that will be published in the original form that Wright intended. Library of America will publish the hardcover edition of the book, and Caedmon, an imprint of HarperAudio, will simultaneously release the audiobook, narrated by actor Ethan Herisse, and Harper Perennial will publish the e-book edition. Herisse is best known for his portrayal of Yusuf Salaam in the Netflix series When They See Us, for which he was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a miniseries. 

The Man Who Lived Underground was originally a short story in the anthology Cross-Section: A Collection of New American Writing in 1944, Wright's posthumous collection, Eight Men, in 1960. 

Before it was a story, it was a longer work, in which Wright tells the story of Feed Daniels, a Black man framed by police for a double murder he did not commit. Beaten and tortured until he gives a confession, Daniels then escapes, disappearing into the city's sewer system on an underworld journey in the dark heart of American culture, and shapes him into a modern-day Odysseus.

Wright considered it his finest work, but its graphic portrayal of police brutality may have made it untouchable for American publishers in the 1940s. 

"I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom, or expressed myself in a way that flowed more naturally from my own personal background, reading, experiences, and feeling than The Man Who Lived Underground," he wrote in the unpublished essay, "Memories of My Grandmother," which is part of the audobook, along with an afterword by Wright's grandson, Malcolm Wright.

The Library of America began its exploration into Wright's archives three decades ago, and the publication of The Man Who Lived Underground continues that mission. In 1990, while preparing a two-volume edition of Richard Wright's works, editors at Library of America discovered that significant portions of the novel Native Son and the memoir Black Boy had been censored at the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club. A half-century after their original publication, readers were at last able to encounter Wright's books as he had written the,. in the two-volume unexpurgated edition, which established the now standard texts for Wright's classic works.

Wright's eldest daughter, Julia Wright, recognized the significance of the excised pages on police brutality and the novel's artistic merits, and she reached out to the editors at Library of America to see whether it might be published in full. 

Julia Wright indicated that the publication of The Man Who Lived Underground should be accompanied by the essay "Memories of My Grandmother," pointing out that the latter resembled "How Bigger Was Born," written to explain the genesis of Native Son, and that it was her father's wish to see the two works published together. Library of America presents this authoritative text of Wright's novel based on extensive study of original typescripts and letters.

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