Black Orpheus: Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” – Critical Essay
“Leaving, then, the white world, I stepped within the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 1903
“The Man Who Lived Underground” (1945) by Richard Wright tells the story of an epic journey that classical and modern, European and American writers have told numerous times. (1) A fugitive escapes to the underground sewer of an unnamed city. In the footsteps of Orpheus and Odysseus, Virgil and Dante, Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck and Jim, he begins to explore the underworld, the world of darkness, nature, and death. (2) It is a modern version of the fugitive slave narrative, a literary form whose most famous representative, Frederick Douglass, is honored through the initials of Fred Daniels, the novella’s African American protagonist. (3) As he escapes from corrupt history and corrupting society into ostensibly free and liberating nature, Fred Daniels is suddenly transformed from privileged house servant to underground criminal-discoverer-explorer.
The discoveries that Fred Daniels makes in the course of his underground journey are significant and multiple. They concern the racist society aboveground, his own status as an exile and an invisible man, and the language available to modern art and to the African American artist in that society. As s/he accompanies Fred Daniels through the underground sewer, the reader also undertakes a journey to discover the view from “behind the veil” that marks the protagonist’s experience as an African American servant and artist in a racist and class society. (4)
In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), the novella also tells the story of a metaphorical journey into the aesthetic underground of modern art. In the course of this journey, Fred Daniels revisits the romantic conflicts dramatized by Ishmael and Ahab, Huck and Tom, on the one hand, and the post-romantic ones voiced by Dostoyevsky’s narrator and Conrad’s sailor, on the other. Like these literary predecessors, Fred Daniels confronts reason and unreason, rationality and sensuality, society and nature. Unlike them, he encounters these aesthetic dilemmas through the specific perspective of the African American experience in a world where reason and rationality have become synonymous with racism. (5)
While familiar to and valued by Richard Wright specialists, The Man is not known as a classic of American modernism, despite the numerous scholars who have recognized the great artistic merit of the novella. (6) In the estimation of these scholars, “The Man Who Lived Underground” is “Wright’s most accomplished piece of short fiction (Bryant 378),” one “woven of the same exacting perfection as a poem” (Fabre, “Richard Wright’s” 220). (7)
Recognition of “The Man” as a modernist classic of American literature has been hindered by obstacles that have restricted Wright’s recognition within the American and African American modernist canons. (8) First, Wright is frequently classified as a Southern author, his significance limited to having witnessed and survived the lynching, terror, and violent segregation of the pre-modern Jim Crow South. (9) Secondly, literary critics have voiced ambivalent praise for Wright’s work and for the modern realist poetics he represents. (10) Thirdly, critics routinely ignore what they classify as Wright’s “European” writings, the larger part of Wright’s output. Lastly, “The Man,” which was written before but published after Wright went into exile in 1947, tends to be read as an expression of Wright’s encounter with French existentialism rather than his ongoing reflection on alienation and racism in the United States. (11)
These misguided views notwithstanding, literary critics have produced a substantial body of scholarship on “The Man.” Critics have especially examined its themes and motifs, its style and ideas, its biblical, classical, and modern themes, and its poetic, aesthetic, and philosophical concerns. (12) They have debated whether the novella expresses despair or hope; whether realism and naturalism or fantasy and anti-realism characterize its style; and whether its theme is race and racism or the human condition. More recently, critics have focused on poetics and aesthetics in “The Man” and in Wright’s oeuvre, and have firmly dismissed the patronizing assumption that Wright did not have a philosophy of art. (13)
The present discussion shares Paul Gilroy’s view of Richard Wright as author and intellectual of “modernity.” In his important The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Gilroy presents Wright as a chronically misunderstood figure of “black modernity” whose work, especially “The Man,” “presents a philosophically informed reflection on the character of western civilization and the place of racism within it.” Gilroy also denounces the essentialism of critics who treat Wright’s exile and engagement with “philosophical traditions supposedly outside his narrow ethnic compass … [as] a betrayal of his authenticity.” (14)
In agreement with several critics, the essay disputes the assertion that Wright only wrote `from the gut’ and from his personal experience in the South; it argues that philosophy and aesthetics were not beyond his reach; and it questions critics’ predilection for Wright as a southern rather than a modern American author, and for works in which he documented the violent racism and segregation of the pre-modern Jim Crow South rather than the less physical yet equally dehumanizing racism of the modern North.
This essay argues that “The Man Who Lived Underground” wrestles with the important philosophical and aesthetic questions of modernity, racism, and alienation that preoccupied Wright in all of his fiction and non-fiction, pre- and post-exile. (15) “The Man” is Wright’s bold excavation through the buried archaeological layers of American modernity, specifically “Black modernity.” (16) Adopting Walter Benjamin’s critique of progress and modernity, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), I argue that Wright’s powerful novella brings to light modernity’s deep and dark fear of history, and its even darker fears of primitivism, aestheticism, and anti-modernity. (17)
“The Man,” I argue, is at once an intensely self-conscious modernist work and a powerful critique of the alienating and racist modern ‘society that chases Fred Daniels underground. Instead of choosing race or the human condition, the essay suggests that The Man speaks of race and class and modern art and alienation in modern society. Specifically, “The Man” expresses the alienation and the double consciousness of the oppressed in a world where race and class alienation are magnified and compounded by the alienation of modernity. It is precisely by speaking of race that The Man speaks of the alienation that modern art and humanity share.
I. Outcasts of Modernity
“For knowledge is only the raising of a veil.” Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel
The novella opens in an unidentified modern city presented through the senses of a fugitive from the police. It is rainy, windy, becoming dark, and the man is “crouching in a dark corner,” in the “vestibule” literally of a building, metaphorically of hell. The sound of a police car siren comes and goes. The man waits and, after the “wailing” of the siren fades, he finds refuge in the underground sewer: “He went to the center of the street and stooped and peered into the hole, but could see nothing. Water rustled in the black depths”(28). This aboveground city, the reader realizes, belongs to the twentieth century and to modern society. Strangely, this modern world seems dominated by primitive instincts and brutal violence, the chaos of nature rather than the order of culture.
An even stranger view of that world opens up when the man descends into the underground sewer and begins a three-day journey through the bowels of the earth. The journey begins with the man’s escape and descent into the underground; it stretches over the course of his journey of exploration through sewers and basements, and comes to a close with the protagonist’s irrational compulsion to return aboveground. In the second and shorter leg of the journey, the protagonist briefly returns to the city aboveground; he attempts but fails to communicate what he has discovered in the underground; he is finally murdered by the police and consigned once and for all to the world of the sewer and of the dead. (18)
Set firmly in space, the space of the city above and its underground sewer below, the journey also concerns time and the past, memory and history, and the man’s sudden fall outside history. “The Man’s” preoccupation with history, the history of mankind and of civilization and the historical paths that have brought modernity and racism together, underlies the novella’s complex rendering of time, its protagonist’s loss of memory and language, and his eventual inability to tell his story; it also impedes the reader’s effort to understand the story logically and chronologically, even as the protagonist journeys further and further away from the world of history.
Neither the circumstances that led to the chase nor the identity of the man are conventionally introduced in the preparatory section. The reader must reconstruct these circumstances through scattered flashes of the protagonist’s memory. Out of these fragments the reader recreates what Vladimir Propp might have called the “initial situation.” (19) The protagonist, a black house servant, was on his way home to his family on Friday evening with his wages in his pocket. Suddenly he was arrested; accused of the murder of Mrs. Peabody, a neighbor of his employer; brought to the police station; and beaten and tortured until he signed a confession. Somehow he managed to escape. (20)
The fragments of the man’s memory are presented neither in a linear nor a logical way. Out of the flashes of the man’s fading memory the reader must reconstruct the past in order to understand how he fell from Eden to Hell, from privileged house servant to underground criminal:
He had to leave this foul place, but leaving meant facing those policemen
who had wrongly accused him. No, he could not go back aboveground. He
remembered the beating they had given him and how he had signed his name to
a confession, a confession which he had not even read. He had been too
tired when they had shouted at him, demanding that he sign his name; he had
signed it to end his pain. (35)
In the effort to understand the past, the reader finds herself engaged in a process that is the opposite of the process that engages Fred Daniels. In his quest for truth, freedom, and humanity, the man’s escape from the world of history, racism, and alienation plunges him into the world of nature, where memory, logic, coherence, and rationality gradually disappear. By contrast, in order to read the story at all, the reader is forced to move against the narrative current in the effort to grasp the fragments of the man’s dissolving memory.
Wright’s novella expresses artistically a preoccupation with history that Walter Benjamin, in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” expresses philosophically and aphoristically (253-64). Benjamin reflects on the philosophy of history of traditional Judaism and of historical materialism in terms that illuminate Wright’s novella:
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an
image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is
never seen again…. To articulate the past historically … means to seize
hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical
materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly
appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. (255)
Benjamin’s words capture the predicament of the reader of “The Man” who, “singled out by history,” is engaged in a quest to recapture the past “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Pointing to Klee’s famous Angelus Novus as the visual counterpart of the messianic philosophy of history of traditional Judaism, Benjamin also urges us to acknowledge the unpredictable power of history and to reclaim for the historical class its role as the messiah of society.
In his unpublished “Memories of My Grandmother,” Wright reflects on the messianic vision of history of his Seventh-Day Adventist grandmother, and, more broadly, on the philosophy of history of black Christianity:
A man who worships in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church lives,
psychologically, in a burning and continuous moment that never ends: the
present is ever-lasting; the past is telescoped into the now; there is no
future and at any moment Christ may come again and then the anxious tension
of time will be no more…. [My grandmother] lived with all of us, yet,
psychologically, she hovered somewhere off in space…. Always she seemed
to be peeping out of Heaven into the world while living in the world. (21)
Within a journey that is characterized by the protagonist’s fall into a condition not unlike that of Wright’s grandmother, the man’s fall out of history and time is punctuated by flashes of memory evoked at “moment[s] of danger.” Only well into the journey do we become come aware of the racial identity of the man; it is even later when are we told, and then only once, that his name is Fred Daniels (55). (22)
“The Man Who Lived Underground,” like Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” asks how we will remember the past in the world of Nazism and Fascism, the Holocaust and World War II, in a world that, like Fred Daniels, seemed to have fallen out of history altogether. Richard Wright and Walter Benjamin, writing in one of the darkest moments of this century, sought the answer in the philosophy of history and time, immanence and transcendence, the eternal present and the messianic future of the subaltern classes. Fred Daniels found that the answer lies in the consciousness of the world of poor African Americans who live permanently as outcasts of modernity, as exiles of modern history and modern society.
II. The Belly of the Beast
“Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole.”
Bigger Thomas, Native Son
Fred Daniels’s journey underground begins in a watery darkness of a womb-like or primeval quality, a world that evokes the beginning of time and the beginning of life. Dominated by death, fear, and the instinct to survive, Fred Daniels falls not just underground but into what feels like the deepest and farthest reaches of space and time. This primeval world is suggested by his encounter with “a huge rat, wet with slime, blinking beady eyes and baring tiny fangs” (30), which he fights and chases with a metal pole. It is also the world of primitive Christianity and of a humanity dominated by guilt, as exemplified by the congregation of the poor black church he observes through a crack. Finally, it is a watery world that recalls the beginning and the end of life, of human life in particular, as symbolized by a dead baby he sees floating in the water.
Reversing Marlow’s movement, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), from the heart of “modern” Europe to the heart of “primeval” Africa, Fred Daniels sets out in the prehistorical beginning of time, both in the aboveground, where he is chased like a beast by “hooting” sirens, and in the underground, where the primeval and primitive ages of mankind are represented in several encounters. Gradually, he reaches modern history, modern society, the modern city, our time. The modern world is marked by Fred Daniels’s acquisition of tools and food and cigarettes. He encounters the modern world through a funeral home and through a human body that, laid upon a table, is in the process of being embalmed. He encounters it through a movie theater and through its shadow-staring audience. Strangely, it is the modern world and yet it is still, and even more, filled with shadows and death.
In a crescendo of death-in-life scenes, the journey reaches a new stage in the history of civilization with the discovery of a jewelry store, a radio store, and a butcher store. Fred Daniels, who started out as a passive, reactive, instinctive, less-than-human fugitive, begins now to have ideas and to become creative. Taking on more actively and explicitly the role and function of the alienated modern artist, he steals a radio and electric wires to use in his cave and realizes that he can steal the secret code of a safe.
His creativity coincides with the onset of a new estranged perception of the world aboveground. This alienated perception, which is theorized in the aesthetic of Russian formalism and forms the common denominator of modern art, and the consequences of this perception provide the unifying theme of the remaining portion of the journey. In the process of exploring the basements surrounding the jewelry store, Fred Daniels emerges into the back room of a butcher shop at closing time. He is so emboldened by his cleverness that he steps into the store to observe the street and society outside:
He watched a patch of sky turn red, then purple; night fell and he lit
another cigarette, brooding. Some part of him was trying to remember the
world he had left, and another part of him did not want to remember it.
Sprawling before him in his mind was his wife, Mrs. Wooten for whom he
worked, the three policemen who had picked him up…. He possessed them now
more completely than he had ever possessed them when he had lived
aboveground. How this had come about he could not say, but he had no desire
to go back to them. (48)
Standing between the underworld and the upperworld, between darkness and light, inside and outside, Fred Daniels feels so empowered by the distance that now separates him from the world and by the special vision this distance has given him that he boldly steps into the street. He is mistaken for an employee of the greengrocer by a white couple who, oblivious to the situation, hand him a dime in exchange for some grapes. Exhilarated by the mistake, Fred Daniels throws the “dime to the pavement with a gesture of contempt” (49), signaling with this gesture how removed he has become from the social values of the world aboveground that are epitomized in the coin. It is a magical moment, when terror turns to laughter and contempt at the dime, a piece of metal that represents the absurd values of the world aboveground.
This moment of intense alienation from the world aboveground and from its absurd values is one among several of increasing intensity that signal the transformation of Fred Daniels, a once diligent servant, husband, citizen, and Christian, into a relativist, a skeptic, and a nihilist. Just as suddenly, however, laughter turns back into terror as he notices the headline of the evening newspaper: “HUNT NEGRO FOR MURDER” (49). This is another, just as arbitrary, sign that expresses the values of the aboveground. His distanced and alienated consciousness notwithstanding, Fred Daniels is still, in the world aboveground, not a human being. It is also the first, not the last, time that the reader is invited to consider whether modern art, and its alienated aesthetics, has the power to defy the alienated and inhuman world that falsely accused Fred Daniels of murder.
After stealing money, gems, and jewelry from the safe, and a typewriter from an office, not for their value, which he has rejected, but as a way to express contempt for those values, Fred Daniels himself begins explicitly to reflect on the relationship between the world above and the world below:
He did not feel that he was stealing, for the cleaver, the radio, the
money, and the typewriter were all on the same level of value, all meant
the same thing to him. They were the serious toys of the men who lived in
the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had
condemned him, branded him guilty. (55)
Philosophically, Fred Daniels has fallen out of naive innocence. Before the fall, he lived in a world that he assumed to be regulated by reason and by God. He gradually discovers the essence of that reason to be wealth, and the face of that God to be the white man’s face.
In one of several scenes that have explicit and intense aesthetic underpinnings, Fred Daniels visually expresses his alienation by covering the walls of his underground cave with the dead objects of the city aboveground:
He took the towel with which he had tied the sack and balled it into a swab
and dipped it into the can of glue and dabbed glue onto the wall; then he
pasted one green bill by the side of another. He stepped back and cocked
his head. Jesus! That’s funny…. He slapped his thighs and guffawed. He
had triumphed over the world aboveground! He was free! … He had not
stolen the money; he had simply picked it up, just as a man would pick up
firewood in a forest. And that was how the world aboveground now seemed to
him, a wild forest filled with death. (62)
Having escaped from the alienating objectivity of the racist society above into the irrational subjectivity of the world below, Fred Daniels creates a new version of the Platonic cave of deception and darkness. Earlier in the journey, Fred Daniels had expressed contempt for the congregation of the black church and for the audience of the movie theater, whom he despised for being enchained by fears, guilt, and shadows, for being prisoners of a Platonic cave of deception, the deception of religion and of mass culture. The collage expresses that contempt through the self-conscious artistic language of modernism and avant-garde art. (23)
In the footsteps of the Romantic artists and of their post-Romantic descendants, Fred Daniels comes to rely on his senses rather than on his mind in order to reject the values of the aboveground. In a crescendo of sensations that quickly die and just as quickly must be replaced by new and more intense sensations, he soon reaches the final destination of his quest for freedom:
Maybe anything’s right, he mumbled. Yes, if the world as men had made it
was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy
himself, murder, theft, torture.
He straightened with a start. What was happening to him? … He was
going to do something, but what? Yes, he was afraid of himself, afraid of
doing some nameless thing. (64)
As it turns out, the philosophical rejection and the aesthetic dissolution of the aboveground produces in Fred Daniels a mysterious and intense fear of himself. He attempts to alleviate this fear by turning on the radio, his last contact with the aboveground he has rejected and with the human beings who inhabit that world. The radio broadcast brings to Fred Daniels and to the darkest recesses of his underground hideout yet another estranged vision of the aboveground:
To control himself, he turned on the radio. A melancholy piece of music
rose. Brooding over the diamonds on the floor was like looking up into a
sky full of restless stars; then the illusion turned into its opposite: he
was high up in the air looking down at the twinkling lights of a sprawling
city. The music ended and a man recited the news events. In the same
attitude in which he had contemplated the city, so now, as he heard the
cultivated tone, he looked down upon land and sea as men fought, as cities
were razed, as planes scattered death upon open towns, as long lines of
trenches wavered and broke. He heard the names of generals and the names of
mountains and the names of countries and the names and numbers of divisions
that were in action on different battle fronts. He saw black smoke
billowing from the stacks of warship as they neared each other over wastes
of water and he heard their huge guns thunder as red-hot shells screamed
across the surface of night seas. He saw hundreds of planes wheeling and
droning in the sky and heard the clatter of machine guns as they fought
each other and he saw planes falling in plumes of smoke and blaze of fire.
He saw steel tanks rambling across fields of ripe wheat to meet other tanks
and there was a loud clang of steel as numberless tanks collided. He saw
troops with fixed bayonets and men groaned as steel ripped into their
bodies and they went down to die…. The voice of the radio faded and he
was staring at the diamonds on the floor at his feet. (64-65)
Having denounced the arbitrary rationality of racism through the arbitrary irrationality of aestheticism, Fred Daniels witnesses the carnage of World War II, a concrete embodiment of the idea that “nothing means anything.” A Whitmanesque catalogue filled with futurist horrors, this powerful prose poem visualizes the aboveground as a world where technology and rationality have become tools of violence and destruction on a world scale. Alone in the scintillating cave, Fred Daniels and the reader are compelled to witness the transformation of glittering stars and city lights into blasts of war tearing the world apart. We are also left to consider the possibly close relationship that links the sparkling diamonds on the floor, the underground aesthetics on the wall, and the savage war above. (24)
In the process of retracing his steps backward, Fred Daniels has three reencounters that mark his change from alienated contempt to sympathetic understanding. First, the black church congregation wakes him from a short sleep with a sorrow song. Unlike the previous time, the song speaks of immanence rather than transcendence; it pleads “I got Jesus in my soul” rather than “Jesus, take me to your home above” (67). Fred Daniels is still contemptuous of the congregation. This time, however, he asks questions about their guilt. He then observes a radio-shop boy who is being beaten for the radio theft that Fred Daniels has committed. He responds first with contempt: “it was so funny”; then with compassion: “He felt a sort of distant pity for the boy”; and finally understanding: “perhaps the beating would bring to the boy’s attention, for the first time in his life, the secret of his existence, the guilt that he could never get rid of” (69).
The scene is repeated a third time when he reencounters the night watchman of the jewelry store who is being accused and tortured by the three policemen for a theft that Fred Daniels has committed. Once again he first responds with laughter and contempt. This time, Fred Daniels identifies with the watchman and recognizes that what makes the watchman guilty is what made Fred Daniels guilty: “The watchman was guilty; although he was not guilty of the crime of which he had been accused, he was guilty, had always been guilty” (70). He recognizes that the guilt of the watchman is the guilt of oppressed and powerless people, those who are black, like Fred Daniels, and those who are poor, like the white guard.
After he witnesses the suicide of the watchman, Fred Daniels undergoes one final transformation:
He eased down the rain pipe, crawled back through the holes he had made,
and went back into his cave. A fever burned in his bones. He had to act,
yet he was afraid. His eyes stared in the darkness as though propped open
by invisible hands, as though they had become lidless. His muscles were
rigid and he stood for what seemed to him a thousand years. (72)
The painful and startling images that close this first movement embody the flash of truth that Fred Daniels has just experienced. In the effort to subvert the values of the aboveground, which had chased him into the underground because of his race, Fred Daniels gave up reason for unreason, rationality for irrationality, positivism for nihilism. Having premised his freedom on the absolute rejection of the aboveground, Fred Daniels discovers his freedom in solitude to be more terrifying, if possible, than the terror of the fugitive.
Fred Daniels and the reader have completed the modernist journey from reason to unreason, reaching an inevitable and final destination. Fred Daniels here enters the last leg of his journey. “When he moved again his actions were informed with precision, his muscular system reinforced from a reservoir of energy” (70). Likewise moves the narrative, which proceeds from this point on with relentless logic through the man’s return aboveground to his final murder by the police and consignment, once and for all, to the underground sewer, the world of the dead.
Why and what Fred Daniels escapes by leaving the relative safety of the underground and by returning to the mortally dangerous aboveground are important questions? We know that he escaped to the sewer in order to escape death, and we know that if he returns he will be killed. The newspaper headlines are unequivocal in this regard. The only possible explanation for his return is that Fred Daniels reaches a new level of consciousness and clarity with regard to the aboveground, and with regard to race and class oppression in the aboveground, that preclude his remaining underground and that result in his final murder. Retracing his steps backward to the upper world, Fred Daniels “crawls,” “drops,” “sloshes,” “falls,” “grabs,” the rapid rhythm of the action verbs in the active form marking the distance that Fred Daniels has travelled since the beginning of the journey as a terrified, passive, reactive, less-than-human being haunted by evil forces.
His reemergence into the city and daylight causes Fred Daniels’s as well as the reader’s senses, already disturbed by the experiences of the journey, to be brutally assaulted.
[He] put his shoulder to the cover and moved it an inch. A crack of sound
came to him as he looked into a hot glare of sunshine through which blurred
shapes moved…. Like a frantic cat clutching a rag, he clang to the steel
prongs and heaved his shoulder against the cover and pushed it off halfway.
For a split second his eyes were drowned in the terror of yellow light and
he was in a deeper darkness than he had ever known in the underground. (73)
We are back in the upper world of rationality and modernity, back in the world of modern savagery, and of true darkness. To the aboveground, we now realize, belong chaos, blindness, darkness, untruth, fear, and terror.
In the aboveworld, Fred Daniels is led by the impulse “to tell,” first by seeking the black church. The congregation is invoking “the lamb,” “the voice,” “the story” (75-76). Ironically, they see in Fred Daniels neither the lamb nor the prophet, only a foul and foul-smelling man. Fred Daniels therefore directs himself to the police, the secular counterpart of the church and the institution that administers the laws of society:
He would go there and clear up everything, make a statement. What
statement? He did not know. He was the statement, and since it was all so
clear to him, surely he would be able to make it clear to others. (77)
By seeing the man through the eyes of the police, in this case, through the eyes of the society aboveground, the reader realizes that an insurmountable abyss is separating Fred Daniels and the rest of humanity:
“What do you want, boy?” … His whole being was full of what he wanted to say to them, but he could not say it ….
“I’m looking for the men”….
“What men?” …
“They brought me here”….
“It was a long time ago …. It was a long time…. They beat me… I was scared … I ran away.” (77-8)
At the police station, Fred Daniels has lost his memory, cannot remember his name, cannot tell a story. We see him, as the police do, as a “nut,” even though we know that his insanity is, like that of King Lear, the insanity of the truly and newly sane person.
Over and over he attempts and fails to remember and to put his recollections and visions in some logical order, to tell his story so that the police will believe him. This time the police know that Fred Daniels did not commit the murder of Mrs. Peabody and they tell him so in the hope that he will go away. Ironically, now that the police proclaim him innocent, Fred Daniels insists on declaring himself guilty: “I’m guilty! … all the people I saw was guilty” (80). The black church congregation chased the prophet Fred Daniels because they did not understand his message. The police, on the other hand, eventually come to recognize in the midst of Fred Daniels’s incoherent babble fragments of reality and of their own brutal deeds. Fred Daniels is taken back to the manhole, he thinks, to show the police the cave, the money, the jewels. It is Sunday, the same rainy and windy and dark evening of the opening scene, when he is shot and dumped in the manhole:
“What did you shoot him for, Lawson?”
“I had to.”
“You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things.” (91-92)
It is finally because the policemen come to understand Fred Daniels only too well that they murder him.
III. The Demon of Art
“Alone man is nothing…. I wish I had some way to give the meaning of my life to others…. To make a bridge from man to man…. We must find some way of being good to ourselves…. Man is all we’ve got.”
Cross Damon in The Outsider by Richard Wright
From questioning the values and truths of the city aboveground, which branded an innocent man guilty, to rejecting those values, including language, to questioning whether reality exists at all, to becoming himself “the word,” “the statement,” Fred Daniels travelled a familiar path in the footsteps of the post-Romantic artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. (26) A recognizable modern artist figure, Fred Daniels denounced the logic of the aboveground to the point that he had the greatest truth to tell but no language to tell it. Fred Daniels’s journey had taken him too far from humanity, and from the social values that are the precondition of any kind of telling, art, or meaning. Whose responsibility is it, Wright seems to ask, when art travels so far from humanity, in its conception of language, values, and conventions, that its truth becomes unintelligible?
If the alienation of the modern artist is rooted in his or her inability to speak for and with society, the alienation of Fred Daniels was specifically rooted in the discovery that the values of the society in which he had lived–being a faithful servant, a devoted father, a respectful citizen, an observing Christian, believing in the work ethic, in thrift, respect for the law–were meaningless. Given his color and his class, the secular law could strike him at any time. Fred Daniels therefore rejected the society that had arbitrarily accused him of murder. After renouncing its values as arbitrary, he discovered that arbitrary values continue to control the destiny of human beings, even of his own actions, removed as he might be from those values. Even more terrifying, he discovered that the extreme nihilism he adopted was complicitous with that arbitrariness because both are premised on and have as consequence contempt for human beings. This contempt, on the part of the police and of society, had pushed Fred Daniels into the underground, at first to escape and finally to die. The same contempt had produced slavery, racism, and the Holocaust, and was now leading to the mass destruction of World War II.
When he rejected the idea that “nothing has any meaning” as the source of the worst destruction of our age, Fred Daniels was left with two options. He could choose the Christian law and accept the doctrine that to be human is to be guilty, or he could choose the secular law of his society and its doctrine that to be black and poor is to be guilty. Fred Daniels chose to give up his dogmatic rejection of black Christianity, his contempt for the blind masses of the church and of the movie theater, and his nihilist notion that since God was dead he himself had become that God and could therefore create any and all meaning. Fred Daniels chose to come out of his underground exile to seek human fellowship and to encounter death. Like Dostoyevsky’s underground man–who also reached out of his narcissistic isolation and, if only briefly, made contact with Liza, the prostitute–Fred Daniels reached out for the black folk and the poor folk whose suffering he had seen from his underground hideout. He failed, was killed, and returned to the underground sewer. He failed because he had lost his reason, his language, his memory, and his identity, and also because society was not ready for this modern Daniel.
Critics have interpreted “The Man Who Lived Underground” as a dark and pessimistic assessment on the eve of Richard Wright’s own journey of escape from the United States. Such a reading imposes upon the novella a pessimism that more truly belongs to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) than to Wright’s brilliant retelling of Marlow’s famous journey. Marlow and Fred Daniels have a great deal in common. They respectively escape spiritual and physical death, to Africa and to the underground sewer, and return to Europe and to the aboveground. Early in their respective journeys, Marlow and Fred Daniels discover that deception and hypocrisy have their home in Europe and in the aboveground, in the world of civilization and modernity, capitalism and racism. Marlow’s journey through the Congo and yearning to meet Kurtz on the one hand, and Fred Daniels’s aestheticist exploration of the underground sewer on the other, dramatize their desire once more to find the truth and ideals that “civilized” Europe and modern America betrayed. Both Marlow and Fred Daniels lose their sanity in the course of their harrowing journeys. Marlow is still articulate enough to tell a long yarn. However, judging by his seemingly ongoing and haunted effort to make out the meaning of his experience and of existence altogether, his tales are inconclusive, unintelligible even to himself, and offensive to his audience. Similarly, Fred Daniels cannot tell the story of his journey, nor communicate the truth he had discovered or even remember his name. Both die, one spiritually, the other literally, and it is left to an unnamed narrator to tell their stories.
And this is where significant similarities become significant differences. Marlow returns to Europe to tell a `big lie,’ effectively making peace with “civilized” Europe–with the European lies of idealism and rationalism he had escaped by going to Africa–as the lesser of two evils. Marlow’s lie is the reverse of Fred Daniels’s underground art. It is also the reverse of Conrad’s aesthetics, which is embodied in the program of aestheticism, the most rarefied, civilized, idealized, and rationalized form of sensuality and irrationalism available at the turn of the century.
Conrad’s grandiloquent and old-fashioned first-person narrator tells a story whose meaning escapes him just as it escapes Marlow and, by the author’s premeditated choice, it escapes Conrad’s readers. Heart of Darkness expresses its author’s position of distrust that any meaningful alternative exists to either the European lies of rationalism and the enlightenment, or the romantic primitivism espoused by Kurtz and barely escaped by Marlow. Conrad’s comment to his socialist friend R.B. Cunningham Graham, dated 8 February 1899 and written as he was completing the novella, is revealing: “There are two more installments in which the idea is so wrapped up in secondary notions that you–even you!–may miss it” (qtd. in Glenn, 238). Conrad’s idea continues to elude critics. Hidden behind the narrative screen of two narrators, the anonymous narrator and Marlow, neither of whom represents the author’s view of the world and especially of art, and both of whom represent negative instances of those views, Conrad’s conservative critique of modern primitivism and irrationalism “is so wrapped up” that literary critics–even literary critics!–continue to miss it.
By contrast, Fred Daniels returns to tell the truth, a truth for which he is killed. That Fred Daniels is killed for trying to tell the truth and that the story is nevertheless lucidly told makes Wright’s act of narration an act of hope in sharp contrast to the cynicism of Conrad’s narrative choices. Wright’s radical critique of aestheticism also continues to elude literary critics. His message, however, was not intentionally hidden. It is simply invisible to literary critics who are themselves, possibly, too “wrapped up” in the philosophy of art that Wright here questions.
The difference between these two novellas is the difference between aestheticist despair and messianic hope. Fred Daniels’s physical death was finally a death full of hope in the future. (27) In telling the story of his failure to communicate his vision and truth, the narrator expressed a measure of hope in a better future. This hopeful failure has more in common with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground than with Conrad’s “deracinated” sailor. (28) The failure of both Fred Daniels and Dostoyevsky’s underground man leaves to the novella, and specifically to the reader, the responsibility to tell that truth, and to communicate the vision these two men earned at the price of death and in the darkest underground.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” contains a powerful critique of the irrationalistic, subjectivistic solutions that modern art and philosophy have embraced to escape our alienating society. Like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, in Georg Lukacs’ memorable characterization, it is a novella that attacks both rationalism and irrationalism. (29) Formulated from within the author’s own modernist formation and allegiance, Wright’s critique of aestheticism also reveals his profound commitment to and equally profound ambivalence towards modern art. Wright was committed to the practice of modern realism and radical modernism. The fear that this poetics would become untenable during the Cold War informs both “The Man Who Lived Underground” and Black Boy (1945). In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Fred Daniels is chased away by the black church congregation. In Black Boy, the narrator is chased away from the May-First parade by black and white fellow party members. These are eloquent scenes. They express Richard Wright’s fear, at the end of the 1930s and at the dawn of the Cold War era, that his own art and modern art in general were destined, like Fred Daniels, for the underground.
(1.) According to Fabre, “The Man” was written in the fall of 1941, shortly after the staggering success of Native Son (1940). The idea for the story came to Wright from reading a True Detective story entitled “The Crime Hollywood Couldn’t Believe.” The story was about a series of mysterious thefts all within one neighborhood and, as it was discovered, carried out by the same person. The burglar had tunneled his way through the basements and had created a cave of riches worthy of Ali Baba. Fabre notes that “The short story is therefore situated in the heart of a culminating period in Wright’s production, between the adaptation of Native Son and the composition of the unpublished Black Hope and Twelve Million Black Voices on one hand, and the birth of Black Boy on the other” (“Richard Wright” 210). Also see Fabre, The Unfinished Quest, 238 ff and Bakish, 42 ff.
(2.) While critics have recognized, in passing or at length, the significance of various European writers and philosophers as sources of inspiration for the novella, no one to my knowledge has explored its debt to these classics of American literature.
(3.) The novella was famously rewritten by Ralph Ellison as his well known Invisible Man (1952). Borrowing from “The Man” the metaphor of invisibility and the literary device of the journey, Ellison was doing so, in the early fifties, in the context of a radically altered political and social context. Ellison’s Invisible Man closes on a figure who, for the time being, intends to remain invisible and underground, the radio waves being the only link with humanity he is willing to trust. Compared with Ellison’s Invisible Man, Wright’s tragic novella seems like a happy-ending fairy tale.
(4.) I am borrowing the image of “the veil” from W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a work that is, like “The Man,” the record of a journey, literally to the deep South, figuratively to the invisible underworld of Southem black poverty. I am also borrowing the image from Georg Lukacs’ The Theory of the Novel (1916), a philosophical essay on the conditions of consciousness and alienation in the modern novel that remains unsurpassed. The theme of the journey to the underworld within African American literature is discussed by Thornton and by Dixon.
(5.) Classic and more recent discussions of modernism, aestheticism, and the avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century can be found in Lukacs, Poggioli, Burger, Gaggi, and Larsen.
(6.) The novella is not widely known to literary critics and scholars of American and African American literature; nor is it known to a wider public of American and international readers generally familiar with Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945) and the earlier Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). “The Man” is also not available in a separate text-book edition, and oddly it was left out of The Library of America edition of Richard Wright’s major works.
(7.) See Howe, “Eight Men;” Fabre, “Richard Wright;” Dorothy Lee; Gilyard; Bryant; Gilroy, Black Atlantic; and Weiss.
(8.) Overviews of the critical fortunes of Richard Wright can be found in Fabre, “Richard Wright’s Critical Reception;” Rampersad; Butler; Kinnamon, “Introduction;” Miller; Fabre, The World; Hakutani, Critical Essays; Gayle; Reilly, Critical Reception; Fabre, The Unfinished Quest; Kinnamon, The Emergence; and Bone.
(9.) This ignores the fact that much of Wright’s work is set and addresses racism and social injustice in the “modern” cities of the United States and in the postWorld-War-II social order of first- and third-world countries. Wright’s great significance in the context of the third world is discussed by Dissanayake; Folks; Cobb; Reilly, “Richard Wright’s Discovery;” and Moore.
(10.) For specific interpretations of the critical neglect that Richard Wright has suffered see: Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 146 ff.; Cappetti, 182 ff.; Portelli “Everybody’s; and DeCoste. Portelli suggests that as “salvific transcendence” and “linguistic heroism” have become the favored conceptions of history among literary critics, the inarticulate victims of Wright’s work have become less and less popular. While Portelli points to various forms of “post-modern idealisms” as the cause of Wright’s critical disfavor, DeCoste points to post-structuralism as a new tool that expresses an old disfavor towards realism and referentiality. DeCoste thus sees the declining critical fortune of Richard Wright in conjunction with the critical fortunes and misfortunes of literary realism in the United States.
(11.) Charles Johnson is a rare African American intellectual and artist who praises rather than denigrates Wright for his engagement with “European” philosophy and who places Wright within a branch of African American literature that has produced the “finest work” in the tradition of metaphysical philosophy. For Johnson, Wright is a “novelist of ideas,” and his fiction a form of “concrete philosophy.” Wright’s best work, “including Native Son and his Dostoyevskian parable `The Man Who Lived Underground,'” expresses for Johnson “the most interesting ideas in continental philosophy during the thirties and forties.” Johnson 36, 47-48. On Wright’s exile in France, see Fabre, From Harlem 175 ff.; and Weiss.
(12.) I am indebted to many of these scholars in small and large ways for my reading. The myth of Orpheus and Plato’s allegory of the cave are discussed by Soitos; Nash; McNallie; and Baker, “Reassessing.”
Christianity and the Black Church, the Old and the New Testament are examined by Miller, 95 fi; Baker, “Reassessing,” and Caron.
Race, racism and racial identity are recognized as paramount to the novella in Bryant; Miller, 95 ff.; Watkins; Soitos; Baker, “Reassessing”; McNallie; and Fabre, “Richard Wright.”
Existentialism, nihilism and phenomenology are considered by Peterson; Fabre, “Richard Wright”; Baker, “Reassessing”; Johnson; Watkins; Bryant; Hakutani, “Richard Wright’s’; and Lynch.
Realism, naturalism and surrealism are analyzed in Robert A. Lee; DeCoste; and Elmer.
(13.) The philosophy of art and language of modernism is touched upon by Gilyard; Miller, 95 ff.; Mayberry; Gilroy, The Black Atlantic 146 ff.; McMahon; and Weiss 5 ff.
Miller’s is the most detailed analysis of poetics in “The Man.” Miller argues that “The Man” is about art and aesthetics and that references to art-for-art’s sake are salient. Gilyard claims that “The Man” is about language and specifically the language of art. Lee identifies two poetics in “The Man,” one “outside,” naturalism, and one “inside,” surrealism. Baker’s “Reassessing” proposes that for literary critics “the uninscribed question is `what is art?’ and the answer proposed by bourgeois aesthetics is a response that necessarily finds Wright lacking” (131). DeCoste more broadly claims that Wright’s realist poetics never wavered in its commitment to “critique American class and race relations” (130). This perspective, I would add, finds support in James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name where Baldwin recalls, as part of an ongoing dispute between himself and Wright, both living in Paris at the time, the following words by his mentor: “What do you mean protest! … All literature is protest. You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest” (197). Poetics, in the form of a critical discourse that demands “acceptance, reconciliation, transcendence and healing” (256), preferably in the form of “psychological and linguistic mastery” (256), is the focus of Portelli’s inspiring “Everybody’s Healing Novel.”
(14.) According to Gilroy, Wright’s “anti-essentialist conception of racial identity … has confounded and perplexed many…. [proving] to be an embarrassment for … those who have sought to position him at the head of the official pantheon of twentieth-century African-American letters.” Gilroy also pointedly rejects “the fortifications which critics have placed between the work [Wright] produced in America and the supposedly inferior products of his European exile” (Black Atlantic 155).
(15.) Wright’s philosophical, intellectual, and aesthetic preoccupations were the product of his experience of racism and alienation at home, not, as critics have suggested, of his encounters with existentialism and phenomenology abroad. C.L.R. James’s recollection of a visit with Wright living in France illustrates this point: “One day I went to the country to spend a weekend with him. He had gone to the country to spend the summer. I came into the house and he showed me twenty-five books on a shelf. He said, `Look here, Nello, you see those books there? They are by Kierkegaard.’ I said, `Yes, he’s very popular these days.’ He says, `I am not concerned about his popularity. I want to tell you something. Everything that he writes in those books, I knew before I had them.’ I never spoke to him about it after. I knew what he meant to tell me…. What he was telling me was that he was a black man in the United States” (196). As James recognizes, the philosophical readings encountered by Wright during his French sojourn, not unlike the sociological readings of his earlier Chicago one (discussed in Cappetti), gave him the language for articulating the experience. The experience, however, did not come from books. He lived that experience, encountering it in different forms in Mississippi, in Chicago, and in New York, and carrying it with him to Europe, to Africa and even to Asia.
(16.) I am borrowing the concept of “Black modernity” from Gilroy, Black Atlantic.
(17.) Within Wright’s overall oeuvre, the novella stands out as the logical extension and intensification of elements, both thematic and aesthetic, present in his best-known fiction. Here, as in his other work, is the physical intensity of fear, violence, and escape, and the alienation and estrangement of modern mankind as epitomized by the African American worker in a racist and class society. Here, as in his other work, is also the painful lyricism and the extreme nihilism of the social outcast.
(18.) In a parodic reversal of the Christian ritual of Easter, the protagonist escapes on Friday evening, returns aboveground on Sunday morning, and is killed on Sunday evening. Or, conversely, perhaps the ritual is straightforward but the underground and the aboveground are reversed, so that the final murder is actually a resurrection.
(19.) Propp, 25 ff. No critic has explored the novella’s possible significance as a modern folktale, yet a number of elements suggest that this approach would be a fruitful one.
(20.) According to several critics, the original and never published version of the novella included an additional and long introductory section. See note 1 above
(21.) Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother” 2; courtesy of Julia Wright. Miller’s is the only study that discusses Wright’s important comments on art, the black church and modernism in “Memoirs,” an important manuscript that does for “The Man” what “How `Bigger’ Was Born” does for Native Son.
(22.) The initials of the protagonist’s name are those of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose novella Notes from Underground (1864) inspired Wright. They are also the initials of Frederick Douglass, whose name is synonymous with the quest for freedom of the fugitive-slave narrative tradition Fred Daniels’s name recalls as well the biblical prophet Daniel, whose quest Wright’s protagonist shares. And by way of elision, Freddaniels’ name, and especially his adventures into the aesthetic underground, invoke, ironically perhaps, the quest for freedom and “autonomy” of modern art.
(23.) Plato’s allegory of the cave is discussed by Fabre, who refers to Daniels as an “aesthete” and to the scene of the cave an “epiphany of artistic creation” (“Richard Wright” 218). It is also discussed by McNallie, who reads the Platonic cave as both womb and tomb, as the space of a “primordial self,” and the novella “as an inverted copy of Plato’s parable, a nearly perfect mirror image or negative of this most famous…. quest for ultimate knowledge” (77).
(24.) Passing remarks regarding this important prose poem can be found in Baker, “Reassessing”; McNallie; and Everette.
(25.) Why and what he escapes by leaving the underground and returning to the aboveground have been unclear to literary critics and their tentative and contradictory answers highlight the problem. See Baker “Reassessing,” and McNallie.
(26.) See Poggioli, Bongie, and Bell-Villeda.
(27.) According to Brignano, “The Man Who Lived Underground marks a low and pessimistic point in the philosophical props beneath Wright’s publications” and Wright’s “decision to live in France is a manifest outcome of this process” (153). This is a perspective that I do not share.
(28.) I am borrowing the term from Glenn (239) to whose perceptive reading of Heart of Darkness I am indebted.
(29.) One might say of Richard Wright what Lukacs says of Dostoyevsky at the end of his The Theory of the Novel: “Dostoyevsky did not write novels, and the creative vision revealed in his works has nothing to do, either as affirmation or as rejection, with European Romanticism or with the many, likewise Romantic, reactions against it” (152).
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–. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
–. The Outsider. 1953. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
–. “To French Readers.” 1959. Mississippi Quarterly 42.4 (1989): 359-64.
–. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1938. New York: Harper, 1978.
Carla Cappetti is a professor of English at The City College of New York, CUNY, where she teaches American literature and literary theory. She is the author of Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (1993) as well as articles on Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA, and Natalia Ginzburg. She is currently writing a book on animal figures in American literature, entitled The Beast in the Garden of American Literature.
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