Charles (Stevenson) Wright Biography
Charles Wright comments:
Nationality: American. Born: New Franklin, Missouri, 1932. Educated in public schools in New Franklin and Sedalia, Missouri. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, in Korea, 1952-54. Career: Stockboy in St. Louis, late 1950s; then freelance writer: columnist ("Wright's World"), Village Voice, New York. Lives in New York City.
The Messenger. New York, Farrar Straus, 1963; London, Souvenir Press, 1964.
The Wig: A Mirror Image. New York, Farrar Straus, 1966; London, Souvenir Press, 1967.
Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. New York, Farrar Straus, 1973.
Uncollected Short Stories
"A New Day," in The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes. Boston, Little Brown, 1967.
"Sonny and the Sailor," in Negro Digest (Chicago), August 1968.
"Mr. Stein," in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Summer 1989.
(1972) Numbers. One number has always walked through the front door of my mind. But when I was writing my first book, The Messenger, I did not think of numbers. I was very bitter at the time. The Messenger was simply a money roof. I was amused at its success. Mini-popular first published thing. A pleasant dream with the frame of reality.
The Wig was my life. And as I write this on a night of the last week in April of 1971—I have no regrets. Let me explain: A year after the publication of The Messenger I was thinking of that folkloric, second novel, and began a rough draft of a novel about a group of Black men, very much like the Black Panthers. But, in 1963, America was not ready for that type of novel, nor were they ready for The Wig. Ah! That is the first horror hors d'oeuvre. My agent, Candida Donadio, said: "This is a novel. Write it." I will tell you quite simply … that I was afraid that I could not sustain the thing for say … fifty pages.
Now it was another year, another country (Morocco). Frightened, I returned to the states and rewrote The Wig in twenty-nine days … the best days of my life. The basic plot was the same but most of it was new. Thinking, working, like seven and, yes, sometimes fourteen hours a day. It took me less than three hours to make the final changes before the publishers accepted. I was hot … hot for National Desire … a short N. West-type of novel very much like The Wig, although Race would not have been the theme.
And. Many things have happened to me and to my country since then. The country has always been like this, I suppose. I only know that something left me. As a result … I haven't written a novel in six years. I remember Langston Hughes saying: "Write another nice, little book like The Messenger. White folks don't like to know that Negros can write books like that." Ah, yes … dear, dead Friend. Then. Yes. Another Messenger. And, what follows? Something that I've always wanted to do, something different … say an action packed Hemingway novel and then say … a Sackville-West novel. All I've ever wanted was a home by the sea and to be a good writer.
* * *
The literary output of Charles Wright has been slight in volume and promising, but not always effective, in practice. Wright's three small "novels" are each the size of Nathanael West novels, and they reflect the same mordant wit, yearning despair, and surrealistic lunacy of vintage West. Wright's world, however, is essentially a race-twisted society of black grotesques, of crippled lovers and dishwasher poets whose lives of wine, whores, and junkie-songs spell slow murder in white America.
The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About portray an Inferno-world of sexual deviates: prostitutes (male and female), pimps, transvestites, poseurs, flower-children, sadistic cops. We meet not only lovers but pretenders, false black friends who set you up, genteel female perverts, white liberals whose children suddenly snarl "nigger," beloved black musicians who betray their heritage to gain white favor. Each novel centers around the efforts of a young protagonist ("Charles Stevenson" in the first and "Charles Wright" in the third novel) to cope with city life, where literally and metaphorically the protagonists prostitute themselves to survive. Each must dissemble, disguise, and sell himself; each finds the gimmicks and the humbling tricks to hustle an existence.
In The Messenger, which is heavily autobiographical, a young writer, Charles Stevenson (Wright's full name is Charles Stevenson Wright), stumbles to find himself, moving from the South to the army to New York. As a writer, he knows he must feel and record; his literal job as messenger is unimportant compared to his literary obligation to spread the word about life. As a black, however, he is torn between his compassion for outcast blacks and his emotional shield compounded of numbness, indifference, and cynicism. Although the writing occasionally slips into clichés or strained metaphor, style is the novel's chief attraction and is marvelously wedded to content. The writing is terse, the narrator-hero's manner laconic and usually guarded. Most episodes are deliberately inconclusive and undeveloped, sketchy vignettes that affect the narrator more than he acknowledges. Deeply touching are the few pages in which the spiritually exhausted young veteran is united with his warm, righteous grandmother, while his athletic command performance in a southern police station is outrageously comic and brilliantly symbolic of racial debasement.
If The Messenger seems like a patch-quilt of styles and moods, The Wig is more consistent in tone and mood, but regrettably so. For Wright's second novel goes all-out as black comedy, but despite its wildness it is more black, or malicious, than comic. There is a similar gallery of transvestites and other disguise-wearing freaks in quest of identity without guilt, failure, or self-hatred, but they are portrayed without hope or compassion. The hero, Lester Jefferson, is, like all the other blacks, on the make: he has conked and curled his Afro hair into a beautiful white "wig" that will open the doors to the Great (White) Society. Alas, he doesn't make it but we are not even sorry, for neither he nor the author reaches Ellison's solution that "visibility" begins with confronting and accepting one's truly created self. There are two or three successful comic achievements: Jimmy Wishbone, who once "kept 100 million colored people contented for years" as a Stepin Fetchit type in movies and who now wants to sue white society and redeem his lost fleet of Cadillacs; and Lester himself, crawling the streets in a feathery chicken-suit as employee of the Southern Fried Chicken King.
The last exchange of dialogue in The Messenger goes: "'Charles, what's wrong?' 'Nothing,' I said. 'Absolutely nothing."' Wright's latest novelistic autobiography, Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, picks up from its predecessor's conclusion, although the locale has moved from mid-Manhattan to the Lower East Side. The mood if more uniformly despairing, with only a few attempts at the pathos and yearning of The Messenger or the caustic hilarity of The Wig. In place of the homosexual-junkie nightmare world of The Messenger, Wright's metaphor of our foundering American culture is here the yellow-black-white world of the Bowery. Appropriate to their original publication in New York's Village Voice, many chapters echo the vivid tone and the felt immediacy of "new journalism" prose.
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