The long overdue publication of Richard Wright’s short novel The Man Who Lived Underground could not be timelier. In the opening section, which he began writing in 1941, Wright (Native Son, Black Boy) constructs a harrowing episode of a falsely accused Black man named Fred Daniels who is beaten near senseless by police officers intent on getting a confession. Sadly, Wright’s brutal realism still resonates 80 years later. When his agent and publisher originally rejected the book, Wright pared down the material into a truncated short story with the same title. This new edition, which languished in manuscript form among his papers, restores Wright’s original vision.
Richard Wright’s forgotten, foreboding allegory has now been published 80 years after his original publisher rejected it.
Triggered by a true story that Wright read of a man who lived underground in Los Angeles for a year, the novel is set in an unidentified city. Once Fred Daniels escapes police custody, he descends through a manhole and encounters a dank, subterranean network of tunnels that leads him to the cellars of a series of businesses—butcher, jewelry store, insurance company with a safe full of money, greengrocer. His thefts from these establishments come to mean nothing, for he now lives in a world where such material possessions are meaningless. He listens to hymns through the walls of a church and begins to view sin and salvation from a new perspective. He becomes alienated from the “normal” world, seemingly forgetting that he has left a wife and infant behind, and his alienation frees him in ways that can be viewed as either liberation or insanity.
While issues of race launch the story, these issues weren’t the impetus for the novel. As Wright explains in an accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother,” The Man Who Lived Underground is an attempt at something far more complicated: an allegory for religion, guilt and alienation. It was inspired by Wright’s deeply religious grandmother, who lived apart from the world even as she lived among people—hating anyone who did not share her beliefs but adhering to society’s rules. It’s informed, too, Wright says, by blues rhythms and surrealistic perceptions, and it borrows, consciously or not, from the hard-boiled urban fiction of the era.
Wright also reveals in his essay a long fascination with stories about invisible men, and The Man Who Lived Underground at times pulses with a certain pulp fiction sensibility, located somewhere between Wright’s usual gritty realism and a more heightened, fabulist realm. “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom,” he writes. Enigmatic and haunting, Wright’s restored novel adds layers to his legacy as one of the leading Black writers in American literary history.