The C.L.R. James Institute

December 24, 1960

A Few Words About Richard Wright

By Constance Webb

Richard Wright has died at an early 52 years of age from an unexpected heart attack. Wright had entered a Paris hospital with an apparent stomach virus; a day later he was dead.

It is always a source of amazement that in deepest grief one's head is often filled with the most ordinary expressions. That a heart is heavy, that one's throat hurts with unexpressed tears, sounds trite when read in a novel; but in this crisis, the loss of a friend of fifteen years, these are the only phrases which even partially express the shock and loss that I feel.

On the train home, when I saw his face and the headline, "Wright, Novelist, Dies " I was filled with the dread, nausea, and sense of forboding that brought the French existentialists to Mississippi-born Wright's feet. I am filled with pain that just before be died he had read of the barbarism in New Orleans and I am glad that he finished his last novel, Fish Belly, which is the story of the effect of persecution on Negro personality.

Wright was a man bursting with curiosity, enthusiasm and ideas. He was interested in everyone and everything. His eagerness in quest of ideas. new emotions, new ways of looking at and understanding the world made him forever incompatible with any radical group. He was not a spirit which could be caged. He received, and still receives, criticism from Americans for going to France to live. Surely, the argument goes, he should have stayed with the struggle driving his people, not only for the sake of the freedom to be won but for the sake of his own writing. But this kind of criticism is meaningless. Dick never abandoned the struggle for freedom. His The Color Curtain anticipates much of what is happening today and his Black Power, though limited in certain respects, bursts with enthusiasm for the new world which only now, in the last 1960 UN meeting, makes irrevocably clear the third force separate from the barbarism of either East or West.

I spent a good deal of time with Ellen and Dick Wright and Julia (Rachel, his youngest daughter, had not been born) one summer at Wading River, Long Island. We had long evenings when Dick literally talked us all to bed. He spoke like a writer. As they came from his mouth, his sentences could have gone down on paper unedited, so vivid in imagination, so nearly poetic were they. Dick was also a good friend to many young writers, helping them get their start, among them the immensely-talented James Baldwin who is raising such controversy among the Negro intelligentsia with his articles about the Harlem ghetto.

Wright, to the end, (and I saw Ellen and Dick in Paris a short while ago) laughed at those who aligned themselves with either Russia or the United States. Apparently the U.S. never gave up hoping to woo him into speech-making that there is democracy in the U.S. for the Negro. The Russians, somewhat more realistic, simply hired an apartment adjoining Wright's in Paris, and spent days boring holes in the wall and hammering. "Probably putting the bugs in," Wright laughed. "Well, anything I say here, I would say on the street or on a platform so let them bore their holes." Neither East nor West could claim him. He was intransigent to the last and one of the earliest neutralists when everyone else felt this was sheer idiocy.

He was a handsome man, not in the classical sense, tending to gain weight because he loved food. One of his favorite dishes was a "mish-mash" of leftover ham, lima beans, corn, string beans, potatoes, all cooked together. He loved this dish but apologized if it was served, and only his closest friends ate it.

He was devoted to his family, indulgent to his daughters in a nervous, nearly mock-disciplinarian way, although quite serious about it. It was Ellen who had to be firm because the children seemed to know that he half-sided with whatever was untamed in their souls. Wright's death is a great loss. It is impossible to say more at the moment.

SOURCE: Webb, Constance. "A Few Words About Richard Wright" [obituary], Correspondence [Detroit], December 24, 1960.

(c) 1960, 2002 Constance Webb Pearlstien. All rights reserved.

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