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Wright falls into didactic, essayist dialogue—long, tedious speeches—which is one of the things that simply ruins

a philosophical fiction. That is, the abstract ideas (and lecturing the reader) overwhelm character and event.

The perfect embodiment of ideas in character and situation in the opening 90 pages is lost . . .



   Books by Richard Wright

  Richard Wright: Early Works  / Black Boy  / Native Son  / Uncle Tom's Children / 12 Million Black Voices  / Richard Wright: Later Works

The Outsider  /  Pagan Spain Black Power  /  White Man Listen!  / The Color Curtain Savage Holiday / The Long Dream

Eight Men: Short Stories  / Haiku / American Hunger /  Lawd Today!

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The Outsider 

By Richard Wright

Reviewed by Majorie Crowe Hughes


Mr. Wright’s new book is a novel of ideas which examines life in the light of modern philosophies. It struck this reviewer as a sort of morality play with ideologies acting the vices—and the virtues left out.

The hero of The Outsider, named with rather fuzzy symbolism, Cross Damon, represents twentieth century man in frenzied pursuit of freedom. Cross is an intellectual Negro, the product of a culture which rejects him. He is further alienated by his “habit of incessant reflection,” his feeling that the experiences and actions of his life have so far taken place without his free assent, and a profound conviction that there must be more to life, some meaning and justification which have hitherto eluded him.

When Cross is introduced in the first pages of the novel he is drinking too much, partly in an effort to forget his problems (of which he has many) but mostly to deaden the pain caused by his urgent and frustrated sense of life. There is an accident in which he is reported dead and so he sets out to create his own identity, and thus, he hopes, to discover truth.

This search for the absolute compels him to four murders and ends in his despair and violent death. En route, he encounters totalitarianism in its most-likely-to-succeed form, Communism. Though he agrees with these other “outsiders” that power is the central reality of society and that “man is nothing in particular,” he is outraged by their acceptance and cynical exploitation of these “facts.” “That’s enough,” he screams before he kills a Communist who has just told him that there is no more to life. And in the same conversation he asks, “What’s suffering?”

Having rejected religion, the past and present organization of society, the proposed totalitarianism alternative and the kindred uncontrollable violence of his own behavior as a “free” man, Cross abandons ideas and pins his last hope on love. But his mistress commits suicide when she sees him as he is.

There follows a fascinating chapter in which the law, personified by a hunchbacked district attorney who understands Cross Damon, convicts him of crime and condemns him. But is powerless to give his life significance by punishment. After this Cross is murdered and dies murmuring, “It was horrible.”

In spite of the analytical clarity with which the roots of the modern dilemma are exposed, this is a confusing and unconvincing book intellectually. Rationalism is evil, it seems to say, a road leading nowhere traveled by a monstrous superman; but around the very next bend truth may perhaps be found and superman will then be free and good—perhaps.

Mr. Wright, or at least Mr. Wright’s hero, is so hypnotized by the evil man does individually and socially that he is aware of little else. None of the chief characters is consistently believable as a human being, though this is perhaps inevitable in a novel of ideas. The writing is marred, particularly in the first chapters, by clinical shortcuts, little paragraphs describing character in psychoanalytical terms.

Nevertheless, The Outsider is a work of tremendous emotional power. It elicits the feel of the chaotic twentieth-century—frustration, confusion and paralysis in thought, all the terrible panic of man in a shaken world—with a breadth and accuracy that are almost overwhelming. And the interior life of proud Cross Damon, with its dark descent through doubt and fear to anguish, despair, and emptiness, has a harrowing reality which could be achieved only by an artist of exceptional sincerity and unusual perception.

Source: The Commonweal (April 10, 1953)

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The Outsider by Richard Wright

A Review by Charles Johnson


E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "Might you consider The Outsider by Richard Wright to be overlooked because of the success and attention given to Native Son? Is The Outsider a more challenging book? 

One of the criticisms that Ralph Ellison made of his mentor was that Richard Wright never wrote a story with a protagonist as complex as himself. With The Outsider, Wright corrected this problem (if indeed it was a problem) in his character Cross Damon (that name is just freighted with symbolism; and it's where I got the name for Faith Cross in Faith and the Good Thing). It's my understanding that with this novel Wright hoped to recreate the success he had with Native Son.

 Now, it's been a long time since I read The Outsider, but I will never forget its first 90 to 100 pages because they are a perfect example of a compelling premise or "ground situation," and of "organic story flow," which every writer strives to achieve.

When the story opens Cross, an intellectual who works at the post office in Chicago (a job Wright hated and described often with contempt), is mired in problems that range from being a black man in the racist era of segregation to being married and having a pregnant, teenaged girlfriend he met at a liquor store. He is as alienated as a man could possibly be, and reads dense, canonical works of philosophy secretly because his less educated black coworkers would see him as being strange for doing so. All the black misery of Native Son and Lawd Today! (the original title for which was "Cesspool") is here in Cross's life. But when he is riding on the subway, a freak accident occurs on the train (that symbol of modernity), killing many around him. He escapes the carnage and realizes that he is assumed to be among the dead. In one stroke, he is freed from his former life, is tabula rasa, and can recreate himself as he pleases. (Or so he thinks.)

From a creative writing standpoint, and from that of existentialism (Wright was pals with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris when he wrote the novel, and was studying Husserl's Phenomenology), these first 90 pages are what John Gardner would call "a vivid and continuous dream." Everything one could want in a story is there. Ideas crackle and hum beneath concrete action.

 But when Cross checks into a hotel to ponder his new freedom, he encounters someone who knows him (if memory serves), and he commits the first of many murders, thus inscribing into his new "essence" (the meaning of his life) the worst of all possible actions. It's at this point, I believe, that Wright's novel begins to fall apart. The story and most imaginative possibilities slip away from him with that first murder. Wright cut his teeth as a child in Mississippi on violent stories in the pulps, and nearly all his stories resort to some form of violence to move the plot along, which prompted James Baldwin to remark that in Wright's fiction violence takes the place where sex would normally be.

Worse, as The Outsider progresses, Wright falls into didactic, essayist dialogue—long, tedious speeches—which is one of the things that simply ruins a philosophical fiction. That is, the abstract ideas (and lecturing the reader) overwhelm character and event. The perfect embodiment of ideas in character and situation in the opening 90 pages is lost, giving way to Cross talking for pages and pages about ideas, which Wright fails to imaginatively dramatize. What is the principle here? Ideas must be given flesh, incarnated in character, setting, props, even in the weather and, most important of all, by showing us characters revealed through action.

The old saying about novelists, "heroes in the beginning, cowards at the end," applies, sadly, to The Outsider. It happens often that a writer begins with a powerful premise in Act One of a story, but fails to make the best choices in developing it in Act Two, then toward the end simply wills the story forward in order to finish it (This happens, sad to say, in Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog, which is wonderful until the last third of the story), manipulating his (or her) characters like puppets and putting into their mouths exposition instead of speeches they would naturally make. To a degree we see this problem in Native Son. The first two books are all dramatization, showing not telling. (It's all scene after scene, as in a well-made play.) However, in the third book, much time is taken with explanatory speeches by Bigger's lawyer. Max tells us what we've already powerfully experienced. There, didactic, essayist dialogue is perhaps less offensive than in The Outsider because—well, because lawyers in fiction and film do give windy speeches. But in The Outsider, that approach is less forgivable. 

 I think I understand the problem Wright faced. I wrote a quick, first draft of Middle Passage. Things worked well through the mutiny when the Allmueri take over the ship, the Republic. But after that, I lost control of the story. I had the remaining crew and Africans stop at an island during their wanderings, where they meet an entirely new tribe of people (I was still thinking at that time of Gulliver's Travels since the novel's working title was Rutherford's Travels), and First Mate Peter Cringle stays with these newly introduced people in that version. The others wander on, encounter a ghost ship, and it is the cabin boy Tommy (not cook Josiah Squibb) who returns to New Orleans with Rutherford, where after a year they discover Isadora has married Rutherford's very spiritual brother Jackson (Think about it; he's far better suited for her than Rutherford, and in this version came to New Orleans looking for him), and they have a child they name after Rutherford, who they believe was lost at sea. Rather than let these two people he loves most in the world know he is alive, and thereby disrupt their apparently happy lives, he and Tommy go back to sea. He is, after all, a true sailor by that time.

But that plotting of the second half of the novel, while fun to play around with, was wrong. Just wrong. A mistake. (But one can't really know it's a mistake until one sees it on the page.) The unfolding of events in a story should feel, not arbitrary, but inexorable and relentless and driven by cause and effect. (And an episodic plot, which would be perfectly fine for, say, comedy, would also have been wrong for a rousing sea adventure story.) So I ditched all those pages and decided that after the slave ship leaves Africa, Rutherford would not again set foot on land for the rest of the story. That little excursion to the aforementioned island broke the suspense that comes from knowing at any moment the characters might all wind up at the bottom of the briny. And as I re-plotted the story, I discovered the parallel mutiny against Captain Falcon brewing among the white crew. Furthermore, I decided Rutherford and Isadora had to be reunited by the novel's end, like Odysseus and Penelope, because they deserved that reconciliation.

All of this is simply to point out (I'm wearing my creative writing teacher hat now) that plot, as John Gardner once wrote, is the novelist's equivalent to the philosopher's argument. Plot must have internal coherence. And developing that takes time (time to be surprised by the characters, time to be ambushed by possibilities not in one's original outline for the story) and often several false starts. (For example, Hermann Hesse put Siddhartha aside for a year because he wasn't sure how to end the story.)

The Outsider, in my view, was a promising novel that simply needed more time for creative incubation. It was written too quickly (perhaps because Wright was eager to recreate his success with Native Son) and thus it fails to fully realize its dramatic and imaginative possibilities. But, believe me, those first 90 pages are so pure a novelist would gladly give his first-born child to have imagined them.

Source: E-Channel


The Outsider is absolutely the most powerful and insightful novel I have read by Wright, or any other writer, for that matter. It has something major to offer those in the humanities and the social sciences. I am a student of Africana politics and political philosophy. As philosopher, Lewis Gordon, informs us, Europeans do not have a monopoly on philosophies of existence. Although criticized for it by some reviewers, Wright made significant contributions to radical black existential thought. He also offered a thorough going critique of the US system of (in)justice, exhibited by a hunchback district attorney who is sworn to uphold the laws of society—laws that he fails to respect. Indeed, the DA is aware of this legal hypocrisy in having respect for those who break these laws, yet who think they are innocent. Wright (Damon) holds that laws are constructed by those with criminal intent! Personally, I find this radical insight brilliant and defiant, especially when Wright puts forward this perspective in the early 1950s. Perhaps one also sees similar views in Native Son.—Floyd W. Hayes

Maybe Wright wrote the novel he wanted to write. Why should we assume that time or the lack of literary principles caused the novel to be written the way that it is? Our dislikes about the novel may indeed be just our dislikes.—Rudy

Rudy, Wright wrote the novel he wanted to write. The audience for his work then and now is most likely not those who embrace art for art's sake principles or who, to some degree, may be in denial about the horrors of human life.—Jerry Ward

Aside from some things, what's notable and (sigh) rare about those Miller & Charles Johnson interviews is that we so rarely get to witness "big-time" writers and actually any novelist at all go on at length about a black novel and novelists like Johnson does with The Outsider.

I was in your class, by the way, when I first read The Outsider. Let me tell you...I was really affected by those "first 90 pages" and more.—Howard Rambsy 

Brother Howard, you're right :). The titles are powerful intros to his novels. Most certainly Wright was exploring the metaphor of Blackness as "Otherness" in America. Cross was such an attractive, intelligent character while at the same time being so tormented. I've always loved R. Wright’s novels, despite the fact that I'm a born optimist. The only novel I really didn't like was Native Son. My mom says that Wright's publicist (?) strong armed him into making Bigger more demonic than Wright intended. Another piece of trivia: Wright was offered a movie deal if he made Cross white. He refused of course.Valjeanne Jeffers

I really don't mind the demonic character of some of Wright's protagonists, most especially Bigger Thomas and Cross Damon. The forced transformation of our ancestors, from captured African slaves (from numerous nations and cultures) to their American descendants up to this very moment, has been a traumatic experience. The dehumanizing process of enslavement had to produce some blacks who would become angry, resentful, rebellious, nihilistic, violent, etc. In Black Boy, Wright narrated the impact of enslavement on blacks in the post-slavery era. How could one experience the trauma of living Jim Crow without becoming a revolutionary demon, wickedly seeking to engage in anti-racist struggle against the oppressive and capitalist power structure? Of course, many of our folks also became submissive, obsequious, and reactionary.Floyd W. Hayes

@Brother Floyd: mos def! I remember reading Black Boy as child, and the inhumanity and cruelty that Wright narrated so articulately. I know why Wright created the his characters. And I know what he was doing. I'm responding to my personal ...feelings (like any reader) about them -- as if they were real people. I really liked Cross (perhaps I was able to identify with him). I also liked Fishbelly (The Long Dream). I just never warmed up to Bigger as a person:).Valjeanne Jeffers

Dear Valjeanne, Richard Wright would be profoundly disappointed if you "liked" Bigger Thomas. He did not wish for us to like Bigger; he wanted us to understand how conditions in early twentieth-century America could possibly shape its sons. In Wright's mind, Bigger was a template for how young males of all races and ethnicities in the United States might be shaped. In 2011, Bigger Thomas is something more than a character in a novel; he is now an adolescent who harms himself and others in the streets of the United States.Jerry Ward

Jerry: excellent point. Bigger is definitely an archetype of many youngsters, male and female, that roam our streets today. They are monsters created by our society, our schools and their parents. Raina Leon once wrote a poem (I hope I'm not misquoting her) about children "walking between the teeth of demons." This is just another example of how brilliant and prophetic Richard Wight's work was.Valjeanne Jeffers

Jerry, you have expressed my views much eloquently than I. I must say to Valjeanne, also, that although differently located in time and place from Wright, I am as angry (perhaps more) as his major male characters. My life experiences and my studies have made me so. Perhaps that is why I have identified so with those characters. I just don't think that Wright was concerned about whether folks liked them, or even him. Recall that in White Man Listen! , Wright told us that he was "a rootless man" and that he didn't deal in happiness, but in meaning. Yes, Wright was brilliant and prescient. I run into so many young black men today that seem to embody Bigger or Cross.Floyd W. Hayes

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Perhaps Richard Wright’s novel of ideas, The Outsider (1953), is his most sustained and compelling inquiry into the question of the possibility and quality of Black male freedom in an anti-Black American world.  Wright also is concerned with the issue of power and the knowledge that buttresses its performance.  Ultimately, he constructs the image of a self-possessed Black man, who is fearless, knowledgeable, and courageous.  Untamed by the culture of modern society, he is an intellectually authoritative existential-nihilist—a rebel-criminal who creates and tries to live by his own social rules (Hayes 1997).  Significantly, to counteract prevailing literary notions of the Black man as ignorant and submissive, Wright was engaged in creating a new conception of the Black man.   Finally, The Outsider represents Wright’s disillusionment with the Communist Party and with the possibility of racial justice in America.The Cultural Politics of Paul Robeson and Richard Wright

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Fanon: A Novel by John Edgar Wideman. A philosopher, psychiatrist, and political activist, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) was a fierce, acute critic of racism and oppression. Born of African descent in Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought in defense of France during World War II but later against France in Algeria’s war for independence. His last book, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, inspired leaders of diverse liberation movements: Steve Biko in South Africa, Che Guevara in Latin America, the Black Panthers in the States. Wideman’s novel is disguised as the project of a contemporary African American novelist, Thomas, who undertakes writing a life of Fanon.

The result is an electrifying mix of perspectives, traveling from Manhattan to Paris to Algeria to Pittsburgh. Part whodunit, part screenplay, part love story, Fanon introduces the French film director Jean-Luc Godard to the ailing Mrs. Wideman in Homewood and chases the meaning of Fanon’s legacy through our violent, post-9/11 world, which seems determined to  perpetuate the evils Fanon sought to rectify.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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What This Cruel War Was Over

Soldiers Slavery and the Civil War

By Chandra Manning

For this impressively researched Civil War social history, Georgetown assistant history professor Manning visited more than two dozen states to comb though archives and libraries for primary source material, mostly diaries and letters of men who fought on both sides in the Civil War, along with more than 100 regimental newspapers. The result is an engagingly written, convincingly argued social history with a point—that those who did the fighting in the Union and Confederate armies "plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War." Manning backs up her contention with hundreds of first-person testimonies written at the time, rather than often-unreliable after-the-fact memoirs. While most Civil War narratives lean heavily on officers, Easterners and men who fought in Virginia, Manning casts a much broader net. She includes immigrants, African-Americans and western fighters, in order, she says, "to approximate cross sections of the actual Union and Confederate ranks." Based on the author's dissertation, the book is free of academese and appeals to a general audience, though Manning's harsh condemnation of white Southerners' feelings about slavery and her unstinting praise of Union soldiers' "commitment to emancipation" take a step beyond scholarly objectivity.—Publishers Weekly

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Stewardship: Lessons Learned

from the Lost Culture of Wall Street

By John Taft

John Taft comes from a distinguished political family well known for its commitment to integrity. In Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street, John Taft builds on that legacy and presents an intelligent, thoughtful argument for the importance of establishing service to others as the key to saving ourselves from the ongoing financial crisis, and creating a more stable and more compassionate financial system. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Taft was on the front lines with investors and employees, and experienced their extreme turmoil. Driven by a conviction that purposefulness, accountability, humility, integrity, and foresight are our duty, and that making the world a better place is our calling, he outlines in this book his belief in stewardship's core principles. These principles are the answer not only for minimizing the scale and impact of future financial crises, but also for addressing the major societal challenges facing us today. Wide-ranging in its coverage, the book looks at the ways in which a lack of stewardship contributed to the financial crisis, how to strengthen banking regulation, and much more. Including an in-depth analysis of the ways in which Canadian banks responded to the crisis with integrity and established themselves as models of fiscal responsibility, it looks to the future with optimism.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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