Richard Wright’s Underground Novel

July 22, 2021   •   By Michael Harris

The Man Who Lived Underground

Richard Wright

THE QUESTION SLAPS us upside the head: why was this novel by one of America’s greatest Black writers never published as a novel before now? Richard Wright wrote The Man Who Lived Underground in 1941–’42, just after Native Son (1940) and before Black Boy/American Hunger (1945), the two works he is best known for today. He was at the peak of his powers — a hot literary commodity, we might think. Wright himself said of this short, intense book, “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. […] For the first time in my life, I reacted as a whole to the material before me.”

Yet his publisher, Harper, rejected The Man Who Lived Underground, and it appeared only in truncated form, as a short story, in an anthology in 1944 and finally in a posthumous collection of Wright’s work, Eight Men, in 1961. It’s not hard to guess the reasons. First, the surprise: Harper was expecting Wright to submit a very different story, to be called Black Hope. Second, the date: America was entering World War II and sought more than ever to project a positive image of itself. Instead, Wright had written an account of police brutality in a nameless American city so graphic and damning that one of Harper’s readers considered it “unbearable.” These are the scenes — when a young Black man, Fred Daniels, is tortured until he confesses to a double murder he didn’t commit — that are missing from the shorter version.

“I think he’ll do,” says one of the three burly white police officers who arrest Daniels on his way home from work. The words have an ominous ring. “Do” for what? For someone to pin the rap on if no other suspects are available. Daniels just happens to be handy — in fact, he’s the handyman at the house next door to that of the murder victims, in a well-to-do white neighborhood. He isn’t likely to give the cops any trouble. He’s only five-foot-seven and 130 pounds — nothing like Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, in which Wright dared white readers to find the humanity in a big bad Black man out of their collective nightmares.

In vain, Daniels pleads his innocence. He’s law-abiding, a churchgoer, newly married. His wife, Rachel, is about to have a baby. (One of the cops shrugs: “They all say that.”) All his life he has followed the rules in the hopes they would keep him safe from just such a confrontation, only to find that the rules don’t apply. The cops take him to the precinct house and “sweat” him — beat him with saps, hang him upside down. They are experts at it, almost bored by the routine. Finally, a prosecutor shows up and shoves a pre-typed confession before Daniels’s blurry eyes. He signs, in return for a promise that he can see his pregnant wife again and say goodbye.

Negligently, as if on a whim, the police keep their promise. They drive him home, where his appearance shocks Rachel so much that she goes into labor. They have to rush her to a hospital, with Daniels along for the ride. He seems so feeble and demoralized by then that the cop escorting him thinks it’s safe to step into a men’s room for a minute, leaving him slumped on a bench in a corridor.

The cop is wrong. Daniels seizes the chance to escape. Outside, he pries up a manhole and disappears into the sewers, where he experiences a remarkable transformation.

Underground, his small stature turns into an advantage. His timid personality falls away; he becomes bold, active, ingenious. He tunnels into basements and steals tools, food, money, jewelry, even a pistol. He doesn’t feel guilty for this; rather, he seems to stand outside ordinary life and its rules and to perceive a universal guilt (and innocence) that he shares with everyone else. He eavesdrops on church choir practice and concludes that religion, which once comforted him, is contemptible servility — Black people’s hapless response to a world fragmented and made senseless by centuries of oppression. So far does Daniels travel within his own mind — and we follow him, except when he sleeps, minute by minute, just as we stayed with him throughout his torture — that he almost forgets he has a wife and child.

It’s a situation rich in symbolism. In an afterword to this edition, Wright’s grandson Malcolm speculates that Wright was familiar with Plato’s parable of the cave and reversed it. In Plato’s view, human beings can perceive only a reflection of reality — the play of shadows on the walls of the cave they’re confined in. Those who somehow escape the cave will be dazzled and disoriented by the sunlit real world, yet if they have to return, they will function poorly in the darkness they used to accept as normal. People who never left the cave will consider them crazy and want to kill them.

In The Man Who Lived Underground, the bright outer world is one of injustice and lies, and only in the stinking darkness of the sewers can Daniels see the truth of things. He longs to communicate this truth, even to the cops who tormented him. And when he overhears the police at the scenes of his thefts interrogating innocent people, guilt returns; his dreamlike interval of freedom and agency has its price after all, and others are paying it. He has to climb out of his cave, even though he’s no longer suited for life on the surface — for family, job, church, rules-obeying, any of it.

Daniels spends three days underground, and the parallel with Christ’s three days in the tomb seems inescapable, despite Wright’s antipathy to religion. As with Plato’s parable, it’s a reversal, with the Crucifixion following rather than preceding the Resurrection.

Back at the police station, Daniels finds that the real murderers have been caught. “We don’t want you. You are free, free as air. Go home […] and forget about it,” one of the cops tells him. But how can he forget? He offers to take them down into the sewers and show them his loot, share his insights. They don’t care about any of that, but they come to worry that he won’t keep his mouth shut about the treatment he endured. Daniels isn’t just “psycho,” they decide; he’s dangerous and must be gotten rid of.

Wright got the idea for this story from a Depression-era police report out of Los Angeles, in which an unemployed man had lived underground and committed burglaries for more than a year. As for the meaning of the story, the Library of America volume includes “Memories of My Grandmother,” a long essay by Wright (similar to “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” the essay he wrote to accompany Native Son), in which he reveals the wide-ranging intellectual concerns behind the novel’s hard-boiled surface.

Surrealism in particular interested Wright. To him, it wasn’t an arty European thing but a way of understanding Black art and experience in the long shadows of slavery and Jim Crow. He compares jazz, with its strong beat and free improvisation, and blues lyrics, linked by feeling rather than narrative logic, to how his Southern grandmother, a religious fanatic, thought and acted in schizophrenic ways despite being essentially sane. She raised nine children and kept them alive and out of jail, a stupendous feat at that time and place,

without ever really understanding the world in which she lived. I’m quite certain that she did not know the relationship of one thing in her environment to another, that is, in an objective sense. The only relationships they had were wholly in terms of her attitude, an attitude borrowed from the pages of the Old Testament. She brought her meaning to the world, but the world never gave her any meanings that she could accept.

Daniels’s arrest shatters the meanings the world has given him, and when he believes he has found better meanings underground, he can’t articulate them and the world won’t listen.

For a novel that was all but buried for two generations, and never went through a publisher’s final edit, The Man Who Lived Underground lives on in more ways than one. Readers will recall the beginning and ending of Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel Invisible Man, in which the narrator lives in a subterranean hideout lit by power stolen from the electric grid. Wright was a friend and mentor to Ellison; though they later had a falling-out, the influence is obvious. And as for the contemporary relevance of Wright’s vision — well, my copy of this book arrived in the mail on the day of ex-cop Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, a coincidence worth noting only because too little has changed over the last 80 years.


Michael Harris reviewed books for The Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. His latest novel, White Poison: A Tale of the Gold Rush, is available on Amazon.