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The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright []



In 1940, Richard Wright had a best seller with his first published novel Native Son. Soon after he began work on another novel, The Man Who Lived Underground, of which he wrote “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration”. This novel, which combines elements of realism, surrealism, and allegory (or at least something allegory adjacent), tells the story of a black man falsely accused of a murdering a white couple. He is violently interrogated by a trio of brutish police detectives, forced to sign a confession, and flees through the sewers and becomes “the man who lived underground”, an experience which changes him profoundly.

The Man Who Lived Underground would not be published as a novel in Wright’s lifetime—a much abbreviated version was published as a short story in 1942—but this year, in cooperation with Wright’s estate, Library of America has published the novel in its entirety, and it is well worth reading.

The novel is published together with an essay by the author, “Memories of My Grandmother”, in which he explains his writing process, inspiration, and intent in the novel. It’s fascinating and completely changed how I perceived the text. There’s also a short afterword by Malcolm Wright, the author’s grandson, which provides further context.

Highly recommend for anyone interested in Wright, African-American literature, or race and racism in the United States.

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