American author Richard Wright wrote The Man Who Lived Underground in 1942 between the publishing of his two major works, Native Son, (1940) and Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945). The Man Who Lived Underground was never published as a novel as it was thought by the publishers too experimental, surreal, and just too strange for the 1940s reading public who, it was assumed, wanted a more old-fashioned plot-driven story. (And how publishers can misread their readers!) A short version appeared Edwin Seaver’s Cross-Section: An Anthology of New American Writing in 1944; it later appeared in Wright’s collection, Eight Men (1961), but the full work hasn’t been available to readers until now. It’s truly worth the wait, although many will not understand why The Man Who Lived Underground took so long to be published in its entirety. It’s a masterpiece in the tradition of Kakfa, Dostoevsky, and other authors who explore a hero’s journey into the dark recesses of both the mind and physical surroundings.
The plot is simple but not simplistic: Fred Daniels, a black man, is falsely accused of murder. He’s taken to the police station where he tells authorities that is wife is about to give birth. He’s taken to the hospital to see her where he escapes into the streets. He comes to a sewer cover, lifts it off and then descends into the “underground.” The story of his journey through sewers, pipes and ducts brings the outsider, the stranger in a strange land to observe the white world, unseen by others; he dislodges bricks to peer into shops and basements unnoticed. He comes upon and pilfers money and diamonds which become meaningless, watches, which haunt him about time, a gun, which becomes a dead weight and a toolbox, one of the useful things he comes across. Wright’s deeply penetrating narrative brings up psychological, emotional, and physical struggles within the protagonist Daniels that play out in this urban, underground “prison”. The novel is disturbing, surreal and with a dark humor that brings a universality to the work. It is both mythic and realistic, dreamlike (more nightmarelike) and gritty. Written in the mid-1940s, I can think of no other mid-century novel that relates so strongly to today’s reader, caught in our racial, political and environmental crises.
In this Library of America Special Publication, the volume also includes Wright’s nearly 90-page essay, “Memories of My Grandmother”. I assumed that the essay’s title would center on a family memoir. However, Wright’s family, his mother and grandmother, are the starting points for a multi-layered and profound meditation about race, writing, the author’s writing process, and how he shaped the novel. And how the novel shaped him. Read together, the novel and the essay produce a work that illuminates Richard Wright as one of the great American authors and voices of the 20th century. This is a book that needs to be read now.
Here are a few short passages from The Man Who Lived Underground:
“He sat down with his back against a clay wall. Groping with his fingers, he opened the tool box and extracted a crow bar, a hammer, a brace, a bit and a screwdriver and fixed them securely about his body, like a soldier arming himself for battle.”
“And then a strange and new knowledge overwhelmed him: He was all people. In some unutterable fashion he was allpeople and they were he; by the identity of their emotions they were one, and he was one with them…Yet even with this knowledge, this identification with others, this obliteration of self, another knowledge swept through him too, banishing all fear and doubt and loss: He now knew too the inexpressible value and importance of self.”
“He held the watches and heard their awful ticking and he hated them; these watches were measuring time, making men tense and taunt with the sense of passing hours, telling tales of death, crowning time the king of consciousness.”
Laurence Carr (reviewer) is the publisher of Lightwood Press. He has published numerous poems, fiction and non-fiction pieces over the decades.