Richard Wright’s recently published The Man Who Who Lived Underground, (2021),was itself  buried for years in the catacombs of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  After the phenomenally, and surprisingly, successful reception to his Native Son in 1940, Wright set to work on what was meant to be his next.  He worked on it from July, 1941 to the spring of 1942 and submitted the manuscript to Harper and Sons, the publisher of Native Son. It was not accepted.  Wright, with much cutting and editing turned it into long short story (85 pp in a 1961 anthology, Eight Men) published in a literary magazine in 1942. He then left it aside to turn to his third novel which would be published in 1945, Black Boy.

It was Wright’s daughter Julia, knowing of the novel and what it had meant to her father, who found the Yale manuscript and brought it to the prestigious Library Of America collection.  Having already published two volumes of Wright’s restored novels, LOA was a natural. 

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The novel opens with Fred Daniels, a Negro yard maintenance and handy-man for a wealthy white family, leaving work and going home to his pregnant wife.  He is picked up by three white policeman and interrogated, without arrest, for a double-murder at the home next-door to his employer.  After hours of brutal “enhanced interrogation” and a “confession” the police, strangely, drive him by his home to see his wife, who enters labor as he enters the room.  Even more strangely, she is bundled into the police car and taken to the hospital.  There, Daniels makes his escape, and the story-telling shifts from brutal naturalism to a fantasy that is still hard to interpret.  

Daniels lowers himself through a man-hole cover in the street into dark rushing water.  He nearly loses his footing.  Groping his way through a slimy tunnel he hears the sound of voices and finding a suitable perch on pipes above the water sees though a crack in the wall a Black choir singing.  Later, through a keyhole, he sees the naked body of a black man, apparently in a mortuary.  Multiple excursions through the slime of the sewers, peering through keyholes and slits in walls, and digging though earth and bricks takes Daniels into a watch shop, a jewelry shop, a movie theater full of mesmerized people, even above ground into a greengrocer’s.  He takes a tool box, a bloody cleaver, a typewriter, a sleeping watchman’s gun, and significantly, after watching a white hand turn the dial of a safe, a sack full of hundred dollar bills — all of which he comes to see as “the toys of the men in the dead world of sunshine above him — the men who had condemned him.” 

With these “toys” he has an epiphany: he papers the walls of his cave with the hundred dollar bills; he drives nails into the walls and hangs watches and glittering rings from them.  He presses diamonds into the dirt floor.  “Between him and the world that had rejected him would stand this mocking symbol … He had triumphed over the world above ground.  He was free.” 

Madness or saintliness, we aren’t sure, but after a few days Daniels leaves the underground and seeks out the very policemen who tortured him.  ‘Come and see what I have found,’ he implores them. They are no longer interested.  The actual killer has been found, an Eye-talian. With insistence he gets them to follow him; perhaps he is a mad-man who should be watched.  As he descends into his manhole passageway, anxious to show them his new, and more real, world, away from all the captives aboveground,  they watch him.  And shoot him, dead.

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Wright thought The Man Who lived Underground was his best work, the novel in which he had most succeeded in fusing his own experiences with the flow and freedom of high creativity. Yet it was refused by his publishers, and will certainly seem peculiar to many readers today.

The refusal was on various grounds.   It was too far from the naturalist style of Native Son, perhaps.  The police beating, and torture, which opens the book is painful and real, along the lines of Native Son, however, Fred Daniels’ several days in the sewer system of a big city, are far from it: there is no mention of the filth accumulating on his body or his clothes; he doesn’t think of his wife whom he had just left at the hospital to give birth; he steals stacks of hundred dollar bills from a safe and uses them to paper the walls of his sewer hideaway; he has out-of-body experiences. Perhaps the juxtaposition was deemed too jarring by the editors. 

Perhaps the description of the police beating was deemed too graphic and more extended than Bigger Thomas’ stuffing a body into a furnace and so, unacceptable.  The most likely is that having white policemen as the perpetrators was just too inconceivable to the white editors guarding their firm’s reputation for predominantly white readers; correspondence found in later years suggests this was so.

Whatever the case, it was precisely the opening three chapters of the novel, as we now can read it, which was cut by Wright for the short story version of the novel. 

Much else was cut, as well, enough to make what was originally even odder than the full novel. Much of the interior monologue is gone, along with his state of mind, and that of the author.

The reduction can be seen here, as Daniels, laid out full length on a bundle of pipes in the city sewers, first hears, and then sees, through a small opening, a Black choir singing.

First, the short story.

“After a long time he grew numb and dropped to the dirt.  Pain throbbed in his legs and a deeper pain, induced by the sight of those black people groveling and begging for something they could never get, churned in him.  A vague conviction made him feel that those people should stand unrepentant and yield no quarter in singing and praying, yet he had run away from the police, had pleaded with them to believe in his innocence.  He shook his head bewildered.”

Here, the same passage in the novel.

…he wanted to leap through the quarter inch of crack straight into the midst of those foolish people, and gather all of them about him, telling then “Don’t do this to yourselves!” His emotions subsided and he came to himself.  What was he saying?  A sense of the life he had left above ground crushed him with a sense of guilt.  Would not God strike him dead for having such thoughts? As he lay upon the bed of pipes, he knew this: his life had somehow snapped in two.  But how? When he had sung and prayed with his brothers and sisters in church he had always felt what they felt, but here in the underground, distantly sundered from them, he saw a defenseless nakedness in their lives that made him disown them, a physical distance had come between them and had conferred upon him a terrifying knowledge.  He felt that these people should stand silent, unrepentant, with simple manly pride, and yield no quarter in whimpering.  He wanted them to assume a heroic attitude, even though he, himself, had run away from his tormentors. Even though he had begged  his accusers to believe in his innocence  His arms grew numb . He swung his legs down, one at a time and dropped lightly to the dirt floor.  Pain throbbed in his calves, and a deeper pain , a pain induced by the naked sight of those groveling Black people whose hearts were hungry for tenderness, whose lives were full of fear and loneliness, whose hands were  reaching outwards to a cold, vast darkness for something that was not there, something that could never be there, churned within him.  “Good God!”  And he mused in the darkness, “Yeah, there’s something that makes folks say God!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.

Severe edits to his work were not new to Wright. According to John Kulka, the editorial director of Library of America, not only had The Man Who Lived Underground been rejected, but Native Son before, and Black Boy following, had had significant cuts made at the insistence of the Book of the Month Club.  Black Boy, was cut nearly in half, and included only the chapters of his youth in the South.  The second part, of his young adulthood and relations with the John Reed Clubs, pressure to join the Communist Party, and exit from it, disappeared entirely.  The income generated by Book of the Month Club sales was a nearly irresistible “enforcer.”  Wright bowed to it for the two, but not for Underground.  Both of these two can now be read in their non-expurgated forms in the Library of America versions.  At the very least, readers who think they have read either, should be aware that have have not, fully.

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Most reviews of The Man Who Lived Underground have concentrated on the opening chapters of the police beatings, naturally, in these years of Black Lives Matter and dozens of widely known instances of police beatings, and killings, reading it as an early part of this narrative: the violence with which the white world pushes Black people into the underground, out of sight, and away from the comforts of the white world.  So it is, on one level. 

Such readings, however, do not encompass the whole of the novel, as Daniels grapples with ideas his own guilt, his familiarity with, yet criticism of, the Black choir, of his fervent wish to show the very policemen who beat him his wonderous revelation. In fact, I would wager that any set of metaphors, analogies and interpretations the reader might make will be totally scrambled after reading the essay that follows the novel, “Memories of My Grandmother.” .

I was, astounded, as I am sure many will be, to read that a major impulse in writing about a man hiding underground was Wright’s grandmother, a severe Jehovah’s Witness, who looked out on the world through the keyholes of her beliefs, much as Fred Daniels does from basements and caves. I was astounded again to read that a small story by Gertrude Stein, Melanctha, gave Wright the sense of the power of Negro dialect in print, and the permission as it were, to use it in his own writing. 

Although Underground was written several years before moving to Paris and becoming friends with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and other Existentialists, his own lived experience and Fred Daniels thoughts showed close affinity to the ideas of  ‘the absurd” and of the necessity of action. The disjointed experiences and ideas of the underground man, Wright tells us, have explicit ties to European Surrealism, to the Blues and to his grandmother’s patchwork of sin and God, the world outside and the world to come.  Passages on the double sense of guilt and innocence, of the pain of being falsely accused, come from never forgotten hurt of Communist comrades accusing Wright of betraying the Party. 

More than any other author I’ve encountered, Wright sets forth the experiences, ideas and images that came together to write the novel he considered the best he had written.