Charles S. Wright
(1932–2008), novelist, columnist, short fiction writer, and black humorist.
Charles Stevenson Wright was born and raised west of Columbia, Missouri, in the small town of New Franklin. Upon his release from the army in 1954, he wrote “No Regrets,” an unpublished novel about an affair between a black beatnik from New York City's East Village and an upper-class white girl. Not until the 1960s would Wright begin publishing the blackly humorous, passionately idiosyncratic books that add tragic clarity to the nightmare of contemporary African American existence.
In The Messenger (1963), Wright drew so extensively upon his life that fact and fiction often blur. Realistically narrated in the first person by a fair-skinned black Manhattanite named Charles Stevenson, the novel dramatizes the isolation and alienation of persons who fall prey to America's social, economic, and racial caste systems. Stevenson, a New York City messenger, constantly finds himself on the edges of power, yet is utterly devoid of any. A man perceived as neither black nor white, “a minority within a minority,” he is cast adrift in the naturalistic city of New York, where victory and defeat are accepted “with the same marvelous indifference.”
The Messenger brought Wright recognition and modest commercial success, but initially his 1966 novel The Wig was not well-received. Today, however, many people would agree with Ishmael Reed's 1973 assertion that The Wig is “one of the most underrated novels by a black person in this century” (John O'Brien, Interviews with Black Writers, 1973).
Wright's use of fantasy and hyperbole distinguishes The Wig from most African American fiction of the mid-1960s.Set” in an America of tomorrow,” the novel depicts the desperately failed efforts of a twenty-one-year-old black Harlemite named Lester Jefferson to live the American dream. The book ends with his literal (and willed) emasculation, after Jefferson learns that the money he has earned parading around the streets in New York in an electrified chicken suit will prove useless to his successfully courting the black prostitute he has idealized as his “all-American girl.”
The years between 1966 and 1973 found Wright in various foreign and domestic locales. But his literary psyche remained firmly planted in New York City, the setting of the nonfictional pieces he began writing for the Village Voice, Collected, amended, and supplemented, these columns came to comprise Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About (1973), a book filled with the same drug users, male and female prostitutes, abusive policemen, and underinquisitive detectives one finds in his novels. These, plus America's unstinting racism, have rid Wright of his optimism as surely as Mr. Fishback rids Lester Jefferson of his masculinity at the end of The Wig.
In 1993, Wright's novels were collected in a publication again titled Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About: Complete Novels. Reading this collection makes it clear that Charles Wright was an innovator who in breaking with traditional fictional modes during the 1960s helped to negotiate space for Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, and other African American avantgardists.
Frances S. Foster, “Charles Wright: Black Black Humorist,” CLA Journal 15 (1971): 44–53. John O'Brien “Charles Wright,” in Interviews with Black Writers, 1973, pp. 245–257.Eberhard Kreutzer, “Dark Ghetto Fantasy and the Great Society: Charles Wright's The Wig,” in The Afro-American Novel since 1960, eds. Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer, 1982, pp. 145–166.Frank Campenni “Charles (Stevenson) Wright” In Contemporary Novelists, ed., Susan Windisch Brown, 1996, pp. 1072–73.