Richard Wright and James Baldwin had been drawn collectively as satellites of an American literary world contracted by prejudice. But in addition to variations of heritage and age—one a son of Mississippi, then Chicago; the opposite of Harlem, a era behind—they had been separated by a proper disagreement about life on the web page. Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” first printed in 1949 (later collected in “Notes of a Native Son”) made their aesthetic rift public, iconic. Baldwin wrote that Wright’s “Native Son,” not not like its foremother, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is undermined by its “virtuous rage,” and its protagonist, Bigger Thomas, “controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear.” Among sure jaded readers of the Negro canon (myself included), cultural reminiscence has favored the youthful author’s discernment; his distaste for “Native Son” lingers. Yet the novel stays the work of Wright’s that occludes all others.
Even Baldwin admitted, ultimately, that Wright possessed different registers. A yr after Wright’s sudden loss of life, in 1960, on the age of fifty-two, a posthumous assortment of his fiction, “Eight Men,” was printed. Writing on that quantity within the essay “Alas, Poor Richard,” Baldwin confessed to “feeling that Wright, as he died, was acquiring a new tone, and a less uncertain esthetic distance, and a new depth.” One of the collected works that gave him this impression was “The Man Who Lived Underground,” a brief story that adopted a framed man named Fred Daniels on a journey by the dank underworld of an unnamed metropolis’s sewage system, from which he will get glimpses of the world above. Baldwin wrote that the story exemplified Wright’s “ability to convey inward states by means of externals,” with its “series of brief, sharply cut-off tableaus, seen through chinks and cracks and keyholes.”
Wright initially wrote “The Man Who Lived Underground” as a novel, which has simply been printed, for the primary time, by the Library of America, in collaboration with Wright’s eldest daughter, Julia. Wright wrote the manuscript within the fall of 1941, solely a yr after “Native Son,” partially expurgated on the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club, grew to become a business sensation. Just 100 and fifty-nine pages lengthy, “The Man Who Lived Underground” begins with Daniels being detained and crushed by the police, for a criminal offense nobody genuinely believes he dedicated. He escapes custody and flees underground in a fugitive narrative impressed, partly, by a criminal offense story printed the identical yr, within the journal True Detective. Wright’s writer, Harper & Brothers, rejected the e book. It was trimmed and printed as a brief story, in 1944, with out, amongst different vital chunks of writing, the primary part to clarify what motivated Daniels’s descent.
Publicity for posthumously printed works typically elides the pragmatic decision-making that brings languishing drafts to the fore. Publishers spin tales of yellowed parchment and unbound pages stowed in a crawl area for many years till some enterprising fellow stumbles upon them and—why, take a look at that!—acknowledges them as an intact masterwork. “The Man Who Lived Underground” was not fairly “unearthed,” as has been reported in a lot of the protection to date. Scholars have identified and written of the novel-length typescripts for the reason that seventies, when Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired Wright’s papers from his widow, Ellen. In a current piece within the Times, the Library of America’s editorial director, John Kulka, and others counsel that the unabridged “Man Who Lived Underground” might have remained unpublished as a result of its scenes of police violence had been thought-about too explosive on the time they had been written (although Kulka advised me, by telephone, that it’s doable the slight, surreal story merely wasn’t the follow-up that Harper & Brothers had in thoughts for its superstar race writer).
In 2021, the restored novel tickles audiences’ urge for food for that which feels each well timed and, on the identical time, transhistorical. Reviewing the e book for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee famous that the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the homicide of George Floyd got here on the identical day as “The Man Who Lived Underground” ’s launch. The information “makes a columnist’s work much easier,” McLemee wrote, as if merely noting the topical connection would substitute for the mechanics of studying.
Those acquainted with the short-story model of “The Man Who Lived Underground” will discover elongated paragraphs and drippier, unclipped surroundings within the part of the e book that considerations Daniels’s subterranean journey. Despite his perilous circumstances, Daniels makes an unharried escape from the world above. His preliminary encounter with the manhole that may transport him is glancing, childlike, like Alice along with her wanting glass. It is raining on the night in query, and the movement of water within the streets has jostled the manhole’s cowl, “a crescent that gaped in the pavement like a black slip of moon.” Daniels smokes his first of many cigarettes “chain-fashion” in an odd vestibule. “He wished he were a tiny insect that could crawl into one of those crevices in the brick wall; he would be safe then.” He hears the “thirsty scream” of a siren someplace within the distance. What lastly urges him down is a fearful hallucination that he’s been found—“he saw the car bearing swiftly down upon him.” He regains his senses and takes the plunge, down and down “into the rustling, watery blackness,” the place he finds chilly and slime, vermin and grey water—but in addition singing, cinema, fruit, and positive jewellery.
It could be folly to attempt to map this part of the novel, spatially or racially. Kept from the sight of all however those that work with it, the huge maze of city plumbing unfurls a path for Daniels and Daniels alone. He wanders far and never far in any respect: “It was as though he had traveled a million miles away from the life of the world.” Cut off from daylight, “it seemed that the only sense he had of time was when a match flared and the burning flame measured time by its fleeting duration,” Wright writes. It isn’t that area and time and race don’t matter in “The Man Who Lived Underground,” however the calculus will get bizarre down there in the dead of night. The occasions that pulled Daniels down—a Black man assembly white cops—depart his thoughts nearly as shortly as his nostril grows accustomed to the “fresh rot” of man’s natural waste.
Yet when Daniels stumbles upon what turns into a house base of kinds, a cavern of confounding dimensions, he’s ready, by a crack within the brick partitions, to listen to the sounds of a Black church choir singing, “down in one of them sunken basements.” Peering in on the congregants, Daniels is overcome by an ineffable feeling, which sounds one thing like racial affinity: “black men and women, dressed in black robes, singing, holding tattered song books in their black palms.” But one other a part of him acknowledges that sense of membership as a fiction:
One of my colleagues at Northwestern University, Marquis Bey, has written in regards to the fertile imaginative materials that underground areas have supplied African-American literature, from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” to neo-slave narratives equivalent to Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” “More than a site of secrecy or dormancy,” the underground is “also a liminal, mezzanine space of generative disruption,” Bey writes. But the place Ellison’s “thinker-tinker” communes from his basement lair with predecessors equivalent to Henry Ford and Benjamin Franklin, Daniels’s journey torques Dostoyevsky, of whom each Wright and Ellison had been fond. As Daniels spends extra time within the underground, he loses monitor of modernity’s different weighted symbols. Stolen cash disintegrates into “shimmering silver and copper.” Guilt detaches from the judicial system, and from racial distinction, and mushrooms into one thing extra existential.
Daniels’s journey calls to my thoughts “How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness,” a research by the artwork historian Darby English that begins with a consideration of David Hammons’s set up “Concerto in Black and Blue,” from 2002. The work, which invited viewers to wander by empty darkened galleries, “accounts for blackness only insofar as it is relationally defined and erratically constituted,” English writes, quite than intoning the static symbolism of what’s known as “black experience.”
It’s for these causes that the restored first portion of “The Man Who Lived Underground” can be the least compelling. The novel begins with Daniels leaving the residence of his employers, the Wootens, and counting his pay. He’s heading dwelling to his pregnant spouse. But, unbeknownst to him, the Wootens’ neighbors have been murdered. He is picked up by a trio of cops—Lawson, Johnson, and Murphy—who beat him right into a daze. They extract from Daniels numerous issues—blood, sweat, saliva—together with his signature on a confession. The scenes depict the type of slurried violence for which Wright is thought, with the reader caught among the many blows as if seated between Daniels’s very eyes.
The particulars are brutal and, for some, maybe, “unbearable,” as one editor who learn the unique manuscript wrote within the margins. And but the impact of those scenes is to scrub up a number of the thriller that “The Man Who Lived Underground” possesses in its shortened type. The surrealism of Daniels’s time beneath is tamed by his previous expertise of legislation and injustice. In advertising and marketing the e book’s theme of police violence, the shepherds of the brand new Library of America version could also be inadvertently reinforcing an previous dynamic between readers and Wright, which is a model of the dynamic that plagues readers and Black writers extra broadly—specifically, that any curiosity in model is eclipsed by a preoccupation with gritty truth-telling. This is true of those that elevate their noses at “Native Son” in addition to those that flock to it for classes. We might have taken “Everybody’s Protest Novel” an excessive amount of to coronary heart, discovering one other type of diminished complexity in defining Wright because the didact of race. Wright, in a letter to his agent despatched along with his draft of “The Man Who Lived Underground,” wrote that the novel marked the primary time he had “tried to go beyond stories in black and white.”
Importantly, the Library of America’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” contains one other beforehand unpublished Wright work, an essay known as “Memories of My Grandmother.” In it, Wright explains that what he was attempting to seize, in “The Man Who Lived Underground,” was a mode of residing that he’d noticed in his mom’s mom, Margaret Bolton Wilson. A religious Seventh-day Adventist, Wilson thought-about Earth solely an middleman, even when, possessing a physique, she couldn’t solid earthly considerations apart. Her exacting maternalism drove the younger Wright away from Black religiosity (and, ultimately, from dwelling), as he would depict intimately in his memoir “Black Boy.” Yet in “Memories of My Grandmother,” the writer is as entranced as repelled by the methods of the girl who helped elevate him. He senses that she genuinely existed “in this world but not of this world,” with
As extra of the world impressed itself upon Wright, he seen parts of his grandmother’s “ ‘abstract’ living” in surprising locations—not within the body-quaking drama of the church however within the “strangely familiar” philosophy of Mark Twain, the cadence of Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the phantom materialism of H. G. Wells’s “The Invisible Man” on movie, in addition to in Freud, Dalí, and the blues artists he’s positive Granny would have “detested.” Abstract residing is the way in which of Fred Daniels, too, as he assembles the winking symbols of his subterranean atmosphere into a brand new order that each feeds upon and exorcises the world above. The man down there, and the girl who unknowingly begat him, can’t be decreased to the same old phrases—“Black,” “religious,” “unfree.” They and others like them require the capaciousness of a novel and the vastness of the underground.