Writer and biographer Hazel Rowley published Richard Wright: The Life and Times in August 2001 and it garnered cover reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post book section, as well in the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Enquirer. Her previous book, also a biography of a singular literary figure, was Christina Stead: a Biography (a NY Times notable book).
Rowley has written numerous essays and book reviews, mostly on race issues, for such various publications as Partisan Review, Antioch Review, The London Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Nation and The Los Angeles Times. Hazel Rowley was brought up in England and Australia and was a Rockefeller fellow at the University of Iowa and a Bunting fellow at Radcliffe College and is currently affiliated with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro American Studies at Harvard University. She now makes her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Robert Birnbaum: You are a white woman from Australia. Did you come to the United States to write a biography of Richard Wright?
Hazel Rowley: Yes, I gave up a tenured academic position in Melbourne because I had been offered a fairly good advance, a six-figure advance, and thought, my goodness, if [Henry] Holt thinks I’m worth this much, maybe I really am a writer — which is what I wanted to be. I was also sick of the Australian academy. I had been intending to take two years of unpaid leave. Instead I took a package — as they call it — and left altogether, with a year’s salary to see me on my way.
RB: You had published your Christina Stead biography while you were still in Australia?
HR: While I was still working in the academy. Christina Stead is such an international figure that I was able to find three different publishers and do three different deals. It got exceedingly good reviews, mostly in England, but in America, too. It was on the basis of the Stead book that I was offered a good advance on the Richard Wright book. Although, there’s no doubt that it shocked the people at Holt when I said that I’d like to write about Richard Wright.
RB: You were offered a big advance because the publisher thought the book would sell…
HR: I presume so. That’s the only thing that does motivate publishers to buy books.
RB: So you came to the States and were going to spend two years on this book…
HR: I never intended to take just two years on it. I planned for five, and it took me five years. But my original plan was to take two years of unpaid leave and go back to my safe job in the academy. In fact, I ended up in the last six months of the time in Australia deciding that I was going to take an immense leap in the dark, leave the academy, sign off — I was in my early 40’s — leave Australia, sell my apartment. Leave my friends, leave my country…
RB: Okay then, why did you want to write a book about Richard Wright?
HR: Coming from white Australia — Australia prides itself on its multiculturalism and talks a lot about it. But when you’ve spent time in London, in the big cities of the US, which I had done to write the Stead book, you go back to Australia and you find it monotonously, homogeneously white. With a bit of Asian thrown in. Of course, Australia had a “white Australia” policy until the late ’60s. It had artificially kept out black people. Even the very best American jazz groups on their way to Europe weren’t allowed to stop on Australia’s sacred shores. So consequently they have this country which I don’t find very interesting on the edge of the Pacific.
I came to the US and got wildly excited by this colorful mix. Of course, as an outsider I swallowed the melting-pot myth. And it wasn’t until I was on sabbatical in Austin, Texas — in between books — in 1994 (I was there for six months) that I really saw American apartheid. I really saw that it was very rare for black people and white people to be sitting at the same dinner table. And you know, Austin, Texas is divided in half by the I-35; one side is black and Hispanic and the other is white. I came to see race as the most urgent and the most serious and the most fascinating issue in the US. But why Richard Wright? While I was in Austin I met a young black guy who said to me that Richard Wright had changed his life. I was really struck by that, from a young black man. I had thought that Wright was a bit old fashioned and not interesting to young people. I remember it led me to once again look at Wright’s works. And I reread some that I read in my 20’s. Man, that guy is visceral reading, powerful stuff.
RB: How did you come to read him, as an Australian?
HR: I did my Ph.D. on Simone de Beauvoir. She came to America in 1947 and met Richard Wright. In fact, she liked Richard Wright more than anybody else she met in New York. She dedicated the book she wrote, America Day By Day, to Richard and Ellen Wright. She made Wright sound fascinating. And when I was writing my Christina Stead book, Wright loomed again on the edges of my research because this Australian expatriate writer was in New York with her German-Jewish husband Bill Blake, mixing in Communist literary circles, and Richard Wright used to call on their apartment to discuss politics.
RB: That a young black man exclaims the influence of Richard Wright was sufficient to move you to undertake this biography? You hadn’t previously encountered someone claiming the profound influence of someone else?
HR: That was just serendipity. You know how someone will say something…and the next day I was in a bookstore and the Wright books…the remark itself didn’t make all that much impact on me until I was browsing in a bookstore. I was among the ‘W’s, the Weltys and the Whartons, and the Wright books have very striking covers and I noticed that they had been reissued. One thing led to another. And then, having read some of his books, I looked in the library at the biographies. I always do, I want to know about a writer’s life. And I saw that there were three biographies. Two were 30 years old. One was 10 years old by Margaret Walker — but it wasn’t very good. It was highly subjective.
RB: I counted five Wright biographies. Are they not all by people who have a personal interest in his life?
HR: You mean actually played a part in his life? Constance Webb and Walker did. Michel Fabre did not. Well that’s right, the women who wrote about him were both in love with Wright and wrote from a very subjective position. Michel Fabre is much more of an academic book. I wanted to do both: be scholarly and also write an engaging narrative.
RB: Not taking anything away from your skills, but telling the story of Richard Wright’s life would require a terrible writer to make it dull and uninteresting…it is on the face of it an engaging narrative.
HR: Fabre’s book is very academic. He puts in a lot of details…
RB: Is biography the thing you are most interested in doing?
HR: Nonfiction, generally. I would liked to have written the next book more as a group-biography idea. But biography is fascinating. The challenge to me — and don’t let’s underestimate my anguish, I knew what hubris I had, to take on this subject. But if I wanted to understand race in America it was going to be easiest and most fascinating to do through the eyes of one particular Black American. And that’s why biography is so fascinating. You really are approaching history through one…
RB: Do you have a theory of biography?
HR: Not really.
RB: You let the subject create the structure…
HR: In as far as I have a theory, I want to write a good story and provide the facts. But I like the reader to do the work. I don’t want to tell the reader what to think.
RB: Unless you more subtle than I realized, I was stuck by the absence of an advocacy of Wright’s place in American literature. You just did tell this compelling story…
HR: Maybe I could write shorter biographies if I used analysis. I just wanted to talk about an extraordinary life. And after all, there has been an immense amount of scholarly stuff written about Richard Wright. I didn’t feel that that was my job. I wanted to draw attention to this amazing life.
RB: This is a 500-page book. Had you left your own thoughts and added some literary criticism, how much longer would the book have been?
HR: I think this approach I have to biography, to let the reader see for him or herself what to make of this man, means that I have tended to write rather long books which tell the story in the most immediate way and let the reader think about it. Maybe I could shorten it if I used analysis.
RB: Yeah, sure. You could have compacted the story. Why would you be criticized for not doing everything? In any case, as it stands, I see this as a definitive biography. What could be added, other than exploring the odd circumstances of his death? I have questions about this mysterious doctor who is treating Wright at the end of his life, and I want to know more about him. Is there more to know?
HR: Well, I couldn’t find out more. I did my best. I went to the medical library at the Sorbonne…he really was on the record as a doctor. I found out that he was dead. I couldn’t find anybody who had known him. I quite agree with you. There are many questions in this book that need investigating. I’d like to have somebody look through the African and also the British security files.
RB: Most of the American FBI files are blacked out?
RB: Was Richard Wright’s paranoia justified?
HR: Yes. I don’t know why people use the word ‘paranoia’. He was justifiably wary as a black man in America and…
RB: As a political activist…
HR: …in the Cold War. He was being spied on. There’s just no doubt about that.
RB: Has anyone ventured the theory that he was killed?
HR: Oh yes. Unsubstantiated, unfortunately.
RB: Taken seriously? Would offering this theory affect one’s credibility?
HR: It’s mostly the black people I talk to who emphatically believe he was killed. His black friends and his own daughter. Because black people say it, they are considered to be paranoid. I was very open to the idea, but how are you going to prove that, years down the track?
RB: The answer to that aside, I wonder how much his concerns about being followed and monitored affected his life? And that people didn’t seem to believe him…
HR: It was mostly the last few years of his life, the late ’50s in Paris that people called him paranoid. His best friend Ollie Harrington was one of those people. He kept telling Wright to calm down, to stop imagining things. But when Wright died Harrington was profoundly shaken. He left Paris soon afterwards to live in East Berlin. A German woman whom I talked to in Berlin said he was very shaken by Wright’s death. He wanted to get out of Paris…
RB: Shaken emotionally or fearfully?
HR: Yes, afraid.
RB: Are there models or paradigms of biography that you refer to?
HR: There are biographies that I go back to. There’s one of Sartre by Annie Cohen-Solal which I like. She does a rather cinematic — I don’t know what the word is — but she uses quite cinematic techniques for scene setting. My own idea is, in the future, I’m going to write much shorter books. I have done enough of this big fat book stuff. People don’t like to read them. People don’t buy them. They push the price up. I think I have to learn how to say what I want to say about somebody in books that are half the length.
RB: That’s what you say now?
HR: I’m selling out! I’m interested in sales. I want to be read.
RB: I hope you can do that.
HR: Oddly enough (given the length of my books) I’ve always found cutting and editing to be one of the most exciting and creative aspects of the whole process.
RB: What would you cut out of this book? The Mississippi section? I don’t think so. The Chicago section? I don’t think so. The Africa part…
HR: It’s a very difficult question.
RB: I understand the concerns. You’ve written a terrific book. Sadly, books are commodities, and in the business, the expectation is that they should show signs of saleability in six weeks or forget it. But I think this book will be referred to years hence. Maybe it will take you three or four books before you are recognized for doing good and serious work. Or you should find someone who died at the age of 25 if you need a shorter book.
HR: Wright died at the age of 52. A sadly curtailed life.
RB: But his was a full life. What do you think his place in American letters is?
HR: His place ought to be bigger than it is. It’s huge in Black American literature. There’s no doubt that every black American writer has to grapple with Richard Wright. He’s a model to some and an anti-model to others. Partly because he aired dirty laundry and is very controversial and they want race pride and they don’t see that in his books. But generally in American literature he’s an awkward figure. He is an uncomfortable writer. It’s rather like Christina Stead. Richard Wright was too uncomfortable, too unpatriotic for publishers to embrace. And by the ’50s he was almost deliberately neglected and marginalized. And he’s never entirely recovered from that.
RB: Have you read everything, published and unpublished?
RB: Let’s talk about the later non-fiction…
HR: I love Pagan Spain and Black Power — wonderful writing. In many ways in terms of nonfiction these books were way ahead of their time.
RB: The Outsider and The Long Dream?
HR: These are novels. I don’t much like The Outsider, a rather pretentious book in some ways, but I do like The Long Dream. I think it’s as good as Native Son. But the times had changed and people didn’t want to be reading that stuff anymore. It’s a really interesting question the issue of Wright’s so-called “decline.” There’s the early Richard Wright whom we study on school syllabuses. And there’s the three books he wrote when he was in this country: Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son and Black Boy.
RB: What about 12 Million Voices?
HR: You’re right. That’s an early one — and successful. But it’s less well known. And then 1947 he takes a boat, crosses the Atlantic, seems to be at the peak of his career, nothing is stopping this man. And it was a complete turning point. From then on it was the beginning of his decline.
RB: He still had an agent who stood by him. And a publisher. And in your account they were still supportive…though they were concerned about his works’ commercial potential.
HR: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. There were all sorts of things playing against him. In the ’50s it was still considered, if you were a serious writer, that you wrote novels. You did not write non-fiction. You did not write mere journalism. He was well ahead of his time there. He was doing stuff that was later celebrated by new journalism. He was writing travel books that were autobiographical, deeply personal. He brought in his own ambivalence. People thought that was nonsense. In fact, it was ahead of his time. Non-fiction, he was doing it before it was popular. He was writing about things other than America, which has never been popular for readers in this country. And he was criticizing places and talking about racism. Therefore it wasn’t as neatly packageable and palatable. His earlier works weren’t palatable but they were packageable…indeed they were packaged by the Book-Of-The-Month Club.
RB: He, in fact, edited Native Son to make it work for the BOMC. Why wasn’t the last novel, The Long Dream, celebrated? Because he was an activist?
HR: Well, Wright had written a very critical portrait of a Southern black community. It was a good novel and makes absorbing reading. Simone de Beauvoir thought it his best. I like it, too, but the one I like best is Lawd Today! Wright wrote it in the ’30s, and it wasn’t published until after he died. So much about Richard Wright is what publishers found saleable and palatable at the time.
RB: He had a European audience.
HR: His work was widely translated in Europe, but everyone knows it’s American publishers who have the money. This was one of the problems with the Cold War and why it spread way beyond America. People who went and lived in Europe, like Christina Stead, like Richard Wright, like many left-wing Americans, still wanted to get their work published in the US.
RB: Did he die broke?
HR: He died very worried about money. Actually he died almost broke, yes.
RB: Who is the executor of his estate?
HR: Ellen, his wife. She’s still alive, living in Paris, close to 90.
RB: She didn’t participate in the documentary, Black Boy, that was made about Wright.
HR: Apparently she wanted to have some control over the film’s content and was refused. I’ve enjoyed talking to Dave Madison Lacy, who made the documentary. We laughed when we found out that our experience with interviewees was almost identical. It didn’t seem to make any difference that he’s a black man and I’m a white woman. But Ellen Wright is notoriously difficult…One of my big fears, that hung over me during the writing, was that Ellen Wright would not give me permission to quote from the unpublished material. If there is anything worse than being a white woman writing about Richard Wright, it’s not being able to quote him. I had to be able to work in his voice. It was essential to the book being good. And it would have destroyed the book if she had said, “no.”
RB: Was it dicey?
HR: Oh yes. I had to build up her trust. I was very fortunate. I’m grateful to her.
RB: Did you show her the manuscript?
HR: Luckily, she didn’t ask to see it. If she had I’m sure she would have insisted that some passages be cut. I didn’t tell her I had love letters to another woman. I said, “I have 3800 words from letters I’d like to quote. Would you give me permission?’ She didn’t ask for a breakdown.
RB: Has she seen the book?
HR: She has seen it and hasn’t commented.
RB: How lucid is she?
RB: What’s your sense of how Ellen Wright sees her dead husband?
HR: Rather distant (he died over forty years ago) but idealized. A bit like Coretta Scott King, although, that’s a rather bad comparison because Ellen Wright is much less voracious and much more upright than the King family has proved to be. But she does propagate the myth of the perfect marriage until the end. We never talked about his womanizing or the marriage being broken.
RB: Are all Wright’s books in print?
HR: They keep going out of print…
RB: What’s it like to finish a biography of someone so compelling, after a long time…Is there an afterglow?
HR: ‘Afterglow’ is too exhilarating a word. ‘Aftermath’ would be more appropriate. It is a bit like a love affair ending. You feel rather lost and forlorn. It’s been a long obsession. You spend a lot of time imagining yourself in that person’s shoes. I continue to carry both of them [Stead and Wright] with me just like you do past lovers. Every so often I’ll see fireflies and I’ll get tremendously excited thinking of a passage where Christina Stead describes fireflies, or I’ll be in Paris and I’ll find myself re-walking the Richard Wright trail.
RB: How do you go about writing a biography? You have a large body of material to draw from. In constructing the narrative do you put the chronology down and then fill in with the nuances and shadings that tell the story, the way you see it?
HR: Yes, that’s it. For about a year I just do research. I spend a lot of time in the library. I went for several weeks to Mississippi, Memphis and then Chicago. I spent weeks in New York and Paris. After interviewing people, I type up the interviews and keep them whole in my interview folder, but I also do a cut-and-paste job and slot a section about 1951 in the 1951 folder. I have a manila folder of every year of his life from 1929 when there is any material available. After a year I’m ready to write. I haven’t by any means finished my research. I want to write while it is absolutely and passionately freshly in my head. That’s the good thing about computers. You can go back and add things. I would hate to do all the research and face a wall of material and have to brace myself to start writing.
RB: I’ve been told the story by writers about Wright being offered $50,000 by MGM to turn Bigger Thomas [of Native Son] into a white man. In your book it’s $20,000 and the deal is to have an all white cast. Could you get close to substantiating this story?
HR: I can’t remember exactly. If it hadn’t been substantiated, I wouldn’t have put it in. But I do know the whole episode of Argentina and making that film was one of the most exasperating gaps in the book. Native Son, the film, being made in 1950, when the book had been made in 1940…the times had changed, alarmingly. The Hollywood Ten were in prison. He [Wright] knew that he had to take it outside Hollywood, outside the US. There’s no way that they could get licensed to film anything to do with such an anti-American film in 1950. Hence, Argentina. That was really the reason why Wright was in the film. People love to ridicule him and say how ridiculous that a 40-year-old should act the part of an 18-year-old. Of course it was ridiculous. But he couldn’t get a black actor to do that part. It was too risky to be playing in that film.
RB: What’s next for you?
HR: Probably Simone de Beauvoir. There hasn’t been a good biography [of her] for twelve years. I did my Ph.D on her.
RB: Did you mention a group biography?
HR: I spent five months on a proposal for a book of various black-listed filmmakers — Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Michael Wilson, Jules Dassin. I wanted to write about these highly talented filmmakers who were black-listed. Who went to Paris and went to Mexico… knew each other, supported each other and managed to survive and come out the other side, famous. It was turned down, to my immense chagrin. I was told that too much has been written on the blacklist story. The thing is that anyone of any interest has always been written about a lot. So had Richard Wright. My own feeling is that it’s about the politics of the moment.
RB: There’s no shortage of books about Teddy Roosevelt. That seemed not to have stopped Edmund Morris. Is there more than an academic interest in the Cold War and Red Scare and Joe McCarthy?
HR: You must be right because that’s what I’m being told by people in publishing. I can’t quite see that because when Jules Dassin, a black-listed director, came here for the Dassin Retrospective last October, the Harvard Film Archive was full and the standing ovation lasted 10 minutes. And recently, when there was a rather bad film about the blacklisted director Herbert Biberman at the Jewish Film Festival, similarly the tickets were sold out. There was great interest afterwards in the Q & A time.
RB: With all due respect, if you extrapolate your experience in Brookline and Cambridge…
HR: Okay, you’ve made your point, Jewish Brookline and intellectual Harvard.
RB: How far down the road do you look for what you are going to do?
HR: That’s a important soul-searching question. I’ve learned a lot this past year. I tell myself that never again will I finish a book without knowing what I’m going to do next. I had the idea that I could turn around very quickly and get another proposal accepted and get my income nicely on its way again. It’s been a year since I passed in the Wright manuscript. I am only now getting a new proposal off the ground. However difficult it is when you are writing a book to be thinking about the next book, you better damn well do it if you want to live off writing.
RB: Would you return to the academy? Is it possible to teach and write the way you want to write?
HR: It’s very difficult. I did with the Christina Stead book, but that was the tail end of an era when the academy was very different.
RB: How is that?
HR: The academy has changed in the last ten years. It’s become more corporatized, more bureaucratized. Academics have more work, more students, more committee work, less time for research. It’s all more hectic, more demoralized. Having left the academy, which is after all, an institution, I would find it rather difficult to go back. Of course, what would send me back is money. But I’m not convinced that going back is the answer. Nonfiction takes a lot of research and I disappear to archives for weeks at a time. If you have to wait until summer to go to Paris or Chicago, it slows things up a lot. But the worst is that the academy makes you think like an academic. You know, cautious and scholarly, and all that. Writers have to be daring and imaginative. While academics are sitting in committee meetings I can walk by the Charles River and watch the geese and plan my next chapter. I suppose the price one has to pay for that privilege is poverty!
RB: Well, thanks very much.
HR: Terrific, thank you.