Crafting a biography of Richard Wright places special demands on a biographer. Wright was a genius, a man who embodied profound intelligence and creative vision, but Mississippi in the early twentieth century wasn’t the place for nurturing his kind of genius.
Gertrude Stein seems to have appreciated the irony that blooms when a native daughter and a native son share the status of exile. There was something surpassing mere hyperbole when, after reading Black Boy, Stein wrote to Wright: “Dear Richard, It is obvious that you and I are the only two geniuses of this era.” Stein’s words constitute a sophisticated joke because genius manifests itself in many forms that cannot be reduced to comedy (Stein’s maximum playfulness) or tragedy (Wright’s maximum seriousness). Margaret Walker, the native daughter who did not choose exile, anatomized the facets of genius in how she wrote about the dreams she and Wright dared to come true.
All of Wright’s major biographers–Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, Addison Gayle, Hazel Rowley, and Walker–have had to deal with his genius, with what his writings (published and unpublished) suggest can be said about the evolving of his innate brilliance and consciousness. Herself a genius, Walker brought first-hand experience and knowledge of language, psychology, and environments to the job of crafting Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (1988).
The keywords in the title of the biography are not arbitrary. There are as many ways of writing biography as there are lives to be written about. The approach Margaret Walker used in her critical study opened Wright’s life, work, and ideas for reflection and reconsideration. To the extent that writing is an act of opening and discovering, Walker also opened herself. Some of Richard Wright’s most orthodox critics are unnerved by Daemonic Genius. They are ill-equipped to grasp or decidedly hostile to the symbiosis Walker made of biographical portrait and autobiographical confession. Even in today’s world where everything and anything is permitted generically, some people cannot endure the awesome fire of genius that smolders in the biography that Walker built. To play a riff on one of the most enigmatic sentences in Native Son–“What I killed for I am”–one might say that what Walker wrote for she was. We shall return to this point shortly in a brief remark about the awesome qualities of daemonic genius.
Walker was aware, as she told us in the biography’s preface, that Wright’s “intellectual development and his Weltanschauung, or worldview, place him in the forefront of twentieth-century life and culture…” The biography sought to break ground in this area. Walker was also aware that Wright’s primary conception of the world began in Mississippi. It is difficult to understand Richard Wright unless one understands the crucial role of his earliest environment in shaping his life and his thinking about the function of writing in the world. The primal role of the South is implicit in Walker’s assertion that the threefold purpose of the biography is “to define Richard Wright, to analyze and assess his work, and to show the correlation between the man and his work.” “Wright is too important,” she added, “to be lost in the confusion of race and politics and racist literary history and criticism so evident in the twentieth century.”
Walker subjected herself to the stern discipline of making an innovative critical biography. Such a book has to be devastatingly honest about the psychology of the subject and all the forces that went into making the subject who he was, including the force of his own creations. Although historically determined gender differences must be accounted for, what was true about Wright as the subject was true about Walker as the biographer.
Walker blended artistry and relevant data into a very readable book. The biography is the kind of text in which one genius portrays another genius by using creative scholarship. When one reads Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius from dedication and epigram all the way through to Walker’s keynote speech for the International Symposium on Richard Wright, held at the University of Mississippi on November 22, 1985, one more deeply appreciates how “the real significance of Richard Wright is in the world of his ideas placed in the context of his times, and his human condition” (Daemonic Genius 404).
Walker divided Wright’s life span into five phases: the Southern years (1908-1927); the Chicago years (1927-1937); the New York years (1937-1947); the Paris years (1947-1957); and the final years (1957-1960). In accounting for what Wright thought, felt, suffered, and wrote about during those 52 years, Walker provided a quite challenging discussion of the essentials in what Michel Fabre called Wright’s “unfinished quest.” The quest was necessitated by Wright’s compulsive intelligence and his anger in the face of the world’s absurd injustices. As Walker brought her own brand of psychoanalysis to the task of writing, she explored Wright’s psychosexual spectrum and unmasked, in a small degree, her own psychosexuality. She imitated in biography what a physicist would do in making a spectrographic analysis; she exposed the quality and quantity of parts. If the portrait of Wright that emerges from the biography is not pretty, it is at least a genuine depiction of what Walker saw of Wright’s life in her own mind.
Walker’s study of Wright rests on an elaborate premise about what is to be accounted for in biography. The beginning is Wright’s suffering:
the psychic wound of racism, that irrational world of race prejudice and class bigotry, of religious fanaticism and sexual confusion, inversion and revulsion….This neurotic anger and fear grew in Wright from a pit to a peak of rage, but it was part of his unconscious, which he could never understand though he constantly sought to express it. Out of these two angers a daemonic genius of great creative strength and power was born, his tremendous creative drive to write and to express himself, his daemonic demi-urges, his deepest and most suffering self. (Daemonic Genius 43-44).
Like earlier studies of Wright, Walker’s biography drew attention to his anger, ambivalence, and alienation, to his complex personality. She provided still-powerful grounds for continuing inquiry about his aesthetics, his relationship to Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and existential philosophy; for continuing inquiry about Wright’s ability to synthesize the great ideas of the twentieth century in his writing and to have an uncanny vision of what human beings are giving birth to in the twenty-first century. Daemonic Genius is truly a foundational work.
Walker had a special advantage over other Wright scholars. She was one of his contemporaries and knew him during some of his most formative years. Second, she grew up in the South and knew from experience the impact of its sociopolitical climate on the sensitive intelligence of the artist. She wrote about Wright with incontrovertible authority, and her writing was fueled by her own daemonic genius.
Walker did provide a clear blueprint for the crafting of Wright’s biography in her keynote address for the 1985 International Wright Symposium, but in a 1982 interview with Claudia Tate, Walker made some decidedly Margaret Walker statements about genius. These are exceptionally important, because Tate caught Walker in unguarded moments. Walker got some ideas about Wright’s anger from Allison Davis in 1971 as he:
talked about the neurotic anger that Wright could neither understand nor control. He said nobody can tell what the wellsprings of any man’s creativity are. You can only guess. The more I thought about it, being a creative person myself, the more I understood. That’s why I selected the title, The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright. There are different kinds of geniuses: demonic, intuitive, brooding, and orphic. Perhaps Faulkner had all four. Wright was definitely demonic. It’s more than an idea of devils. It’s the idea of creativity coming out of anger, madness, out of frustration, rage. Creativity comes out of the madness that borders on lunacy and genius. (Conversations with Margaret Walker 65)
Earlier in this interview, Walker made a comment that psychoanalysis would allow us to connect with a seven-page, single-spaced letter she wrote to Richard Wright on Wednesday, June 7, 1939, now archived in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Walker said to Tate in 1982:
I felt Wright wanted me to write his biography because nobody is going to be more sympathetic and understanding than I. I was in love with him, and he knew it. He could not marry me. I was not what he could marry. That’s the whole truth of that. You can’t say he didn’t love me: I know he did. (Conversations 62).
In 1939, Walker’s love of talking let words fly from her mouth that deeply wounded Wright and led him to terminate their warm and sympathetic friendship. Walker’s June 7 letter to Wright was a poignant apology as well as an explanatory defense of her integrity. Walker sang a sorrow song when she wrote that she had to believe in Wright in order to believe in herself. The letter has many clues about just what kind of love compelled Walker to craft a biography that casts much light on Wright’s genius.
If Richard Wright created out of anger, Margaret Walker created out of frustration. If his genius was daemonic, hers was brooding and orphic. The four kinds of genius Walker mentioned to Tate (and several kinds she didn’t) are embedded in Walker’s crafting of Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius. The biography is a labor of critical love. In the book we find an intellectual unification of biography and autobiography. Walker’s writing of Wright’s biography is an exploration of literary history; Wright’s biography is a discovery moment for reflection on Walker’s unfinished autobiography.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 24, 2015