Review: The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

The opening pages of this book by one of America’s greatest writers were a shock both to Richard Wright’s agent and publisher. They were so violent and painful to read that the book could not be published when first written in the early 1940s. It has taken some 80 years before the full text can finally appear. And what was the shocking bit? The book opens with the arrest of a Black man accused of a murder he did not commit, and the brutal beatings and abuse he suffers at the hands of white policemen. No wonder the book is being hailed as relevant to our time.

But anyone expecting a realistic story will be disappointed, because Wright has ambitions far beyond telling a story of racial injustice, which he had done before so successfully. As he explains in a long essay at the end of the book, this novella is an attempt to get inside the head of the author’s grandmother who raised him. A deeply religious woman, she lived in a world of her own making as does the main character in this book when he literally goes underground.

An unusual book, painful to read in parts, but intelligent and gripping as well.