Red leaves of red books (1935)

Richard Wright
The New Masses
(April 30, 1935)
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Turn
….Red leaves of red books

Turn
….In white palms and black palms

Turn
….Slowly in the mute hours of the night

Turn
….In the fingers of women and the fingers of men
….In the fingers of the old and the fingers of the young

Turn
….Under the nervous flickering of candles
….Under yellow gas sputterings
….Under dim incandescent globes

Turn
….In the North and in the South
….…In the East and in the West

Turn
….…Ceaselessly and reveal your printed hope

Turn
….Until your crispness leaves you
….Until you are dog-eared
….…Until the calloused hands that grip you

Are hardened to the steel of unretractable purpose!

.

Note: Credit goes to Clara Everbeck for tracking down this poem and bringing it to my attention. She suggested that I publish it on my blog along with a short bio or introduction to Wright and the issues he was looking to address. My familiarity with his work is unfortunately limited to the recollections featured in The God that Failed, alongside contributions by Arthur Koestler, André Gide, and Ignazio Silone.

His gradual disillusionment with Marxism probably owed as much to the experience of interwar Stalinism as to the incoherence of official revolutionary doctrine in the United States after the failure of revolution in the industrialized West. For instance, he recounts a disturbing episode of ritualized Stalinist denunciation:

At a meeting one night [Comrade] Young asked that his name be placed upon the agenda; when his time came to speak, he rose and launched into one of the most violent and bitter political attacks in the club’s history upon [a young Jewish lad named] Swann, one of our best young artists. We were aghast. Young accused Swann of being a traitor to the workers, an opportunist, a collaborator with the police, and an adherent of Trotsky. Naturally most of the club’s members assumed that Young, a member of the Party, was voicing the ideas of the Party. Surprised and baffled, I moved that Young’s statement be referred to the executive committee for decision. Swann rightfully protested; he declared that he had been attacked in public and would answer in public.

Later, Wright himself fell under suspicion, in an unbelievable exchange:

A quiet black communist came to my home one night and called me out to the street to speak to me in private. He made a prediction about my future that frightened me.
“Intellectuals don’t fit well into the Party, Wright,” he said solemnly.
“But I’m not an intellectual,” I protested. “I sweep the streets for a living.” I had just been assigned by the relief system to sweep the streets for thirteen dollars a week.
“That doesn’t make any difference,” he said. ‘We’ve kept records of the trouble we’ve had with intellectuals in the past. It’s estimated that only 13 per cent of them remain in the Party.”
“Why do they leave, since you insist upon calling me an intellectual?” I asked.
“Most of them drop out of their own accord.”
“Well, I’m not dropping out,” I said.
“Some are expelled,” he hinted gravely.
“For what?”
“General opposition to the Party’s policies,” he said.
“But I’m not opposing anything in the Party.”
“You’ll have to prove your revolutionary loyalty.”
“How?”
“The Party has a way of testing people.”
“Well, talk. What is this?”
“How do you react to police?”
“I don’t react to them,” I said. “I’ve never been bothered by them.”
“Do you know Evans?” he asked, referring to a local militant Negro communist.
“Yes. I’ve seen him; I’ve met him.”
“Did you notice that he was injured?”
“Yes. His head was bandaged.”
“He got that wound from the police in a demonstration,” he explained. “That’s proof of revolutionary loyalty.”
“Do you mean that I must get whacked over the head by cops to prove that I’m sincere?” I asked.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” he said. “I’m explaining.”
“Look. Suppose a cop whacks me over the head and I suffer a brain concussion. Suppose I’m nuts after that. Can I write then? What shall I have proved?”
He shook his head. “The Soviet Union has had to shoot a lot of intellectuals,” he said.
“Good God!” I exclaimed. “Do you know what you’re saying? You’re not in Russia. You’re standing on a sidewalk in Chicago. You talk like a man lost in a fantasy.”

Then, predictably, he was quizzed about Trotsky:

“You’ve heard of Trotsky, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Yes.
“Do you know what happened to him?”
“He was banished from the Soviet Union,” I said.
“Do you know why?”
“Well,” I stammered, trying not to reveal my ignorance of politics, for I had not followed the details of Trotsky’s fight against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “it seems that after a decision had been made, he broke that decision by organizing against the Party.”
“It was for counterrevolutionary activity,” he snapped impatiently; I learned afterward that my answer had not been satisfactory, had not been couched in the acceptable phrases of bitter, anti-Trotsky denunciation.
“I understand,” I said. “But I’ve never read Trotsky. ‘What’s his stand on minorities?”
“Why ask me?” he asked. “I don’t read Trotsky.”
“Look,” I said. “If you found me reading Trotsky, what would that mean to you?”
“Comrade, you don’t understand,” he said in an annoyed tone.
That ended the conversation. But that was not the last time I was to hear the phrase: “Comrade, you don’t understand.” I had not been aware of holding wrong ideas. I had not read any of Trotsky’s works.

Anyway, since I’m not so familiar with Wright outside of this context, an excerpt by Michel Fabre from The World of Wright follows a selection of photos.

It was the discovery of communism during the most terrible winter of the Depression that provided the indispensable catalyst for Wright. Returning home after a meeting of the John Reed Club, he composed several poems which “blended two currents of common experience.” Wright had just discovered an audience eager to hear his message: the great proletarian family. The Marxist demystification of the society which oppressed him racially justified his personal revolt and gave him reasons for persevering. His poetry found its inspiration in this social crusade and received its political orientation. However, as his quarrels with some leaders soon proved, Wright did not docilely conform to the party orthodoxy; his work joined the stream of proletarian literature only because it was guided there by his sense of mission.

Was Wright influenced by the numerous examples around him? As editor of Left Front, he read the works of Sam Gaspar or Norman McLeod; in the pages of New Masses, he discovered the earlier generation: Kenneth Fearing, Langston Hughes, Archibald MacLeish. At the meetings of the John Reed Club, the members criticized the works of William Carlos Williams, discussed those of T. S. Eliot and analyzed the revolutionary message of Walt Whitman. They read aloud John Reed’s “America 1918.” Wright’s poems, however, generally do not show signs of evident imitation. On the contrary, he seems original in comparison with the secondary writers of the left. His political engagement never made him lose sight of his art nor of his desire to be linked to that rebirth of Negro poetry which is associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

From 1935 to 1937 a group of black writers met every Sunday at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago. The members of this “South Side Club” criticized each other’s latest works and discussed the relationship between literature and the racial situation. Fenton Johnson and Frank Marshall Davis were considered the “deans” while Margaret Walker, Russell Marshall and, of course, Richard Wright were among the promising young writers. Wright attended the meetings as assiduously as those of the John Reed Club, often giving talks on the authors of the previous generation like Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. His belonging to a dual movement — black nationalist and revolutionary — led him to merge the two major themes of his poetry, just as the Negro’s fate and the class struggle were in fact intertwined. Published side by side in the February 1935 issue of Midland Left, the poems “Obsession” and “Rise and Live” seem to symbolize in their juxtaposition the coexistence within Wright of an obsessional terror of lynching and a vital impatience for revolt.

The first of these two major themes is that of the suffering of the black American. One of Wright’s most beautiful pieces, “Between the World and Me” ends with a cry of pain from the author who identifies with the Negro who has been lynched, and through a miracle of poetic sympathy, the reader is led to share this pain:

Panting, begging, I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of death,
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun…

Wright does not give in to the temptation of facile pathos; he quickly links the fate of the Negro to that of the white proletarian, his comrade in alienation. In “Red Leaves of Red Books” he asks the pages which bear the Marxist gospel to “turn under white fingers and black fingers.” The sharecropper of “Red Clay Blues” who has migrated to the hard, sidewalked city, wants to return to Georgia as much from a desire to see his former landlord overturned by the agrarian revolution as from a feeling of nostalgia for the soft clay beneath his toes. The tramp of “Ah Feels It in Mah Bones” has a coenesthesiac awareness of the social upheaval and becomes the barometer for it. The more successful “I Have Seen Black Hands” traces, in long lines of free verse, the evolution of the black community; the baby reaching with chubby hands for his mother’s breast, the child with sticky and ink-spotted fingers, the adolescent able to throw dice and wield the billiard cue. In terms which foreshadow the finale of Twelve Million Black Voices, Wright then describes the calloused hands of the worker producing objects whose poor sales will bring on the War, while for himself there will only be poverty, street fighting, and repression.

In opposition to “Between the World and Me,” here there is hope in the solidarity of those who are oppressed:

I am black and I have seen black hands
Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white workers,
And some day — and it is only this which sustains me —
Some day there shall be millions and millions of them
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!

Thus the theme of black suffering, in its celebration of an interracial unity, joins that of the triumph of socialism.

Out of some twenty poems written between 1933 and 1939, a dozen, in fact, sing of this triumph while others exalt the virtues of the workers. “Hearst Headlines Blues” provides us with a convenient summary of the themes of these poems. Its stanzas quote headlines taken from the pages of the Hearst press and show the decomposition of American society. Immorality and senseless violence reign; social problems are treated ineffectively or brutally. Counterpointing the famine which is decimating America, the Soviet Union suppresses rationing. This propaganda piece brings us back to the unprecedented atmosphere of the Depression years which, thanks to the editorship of the Harlem Bureau of the Daily Worker, provided Wright with a good opportunity to chronicle. The other poems systematically probe the failure of capitalism: “Rest for the Weary,” on a note of false pity, condescendingly addresses the financiers ruined by the 1929 panic. It is also the failure of liberal Christianity incapable of pacifying “the bitter and irreconcilable waters of class struggle” in “Child of the Dead and Forgotten Gods.” “A Red Love Note,” using the analogy between a love letter and an eviction notice, is an artistic failure. But the choice of its imagery is inspired by the daily scenes of eviction, the furniture spread out on the sidewalk and the neighbors’ demonstrations of solidarity; with tender words the poet takes his leave of capitalism whose lease on American society has long run out.

If the poems which sing of the fall of the old order can be seen at the first panel of the revolutionary diptych, those which celebrate the unity of the workers and the rise of socialism can be said to form the second. The education and unity of the masses are set down by the poet as the essential prerequisites: “Red Leaves of Red Books” praises those who devote their hours of leisure to deciphering the volumes of new theories. “Strength” opposes mass action to solitary protest, the latter seen as destined for defeat. The unity of the oppressed (which, as we learn in “I am a Red Slogan,” it is the poet’s mission to accelerate) will be realized through demonstrations, for the slogans chanted during a political march do not only express particular demands, they also serve to guide the masses, “lingering as a duty after my command is shouted.” This theme of the mass demonstration, part of the traditional May First (“working class”) literature, offers little that is original. However Wright treats the end of “We of the Streets” in an interesting way, focusing on the exhilarating sense of strength which comes from a crowd, and this treatment is reminiscent of the ending of his novella “Fire and Cloud.” The street thus becomes the organic milieu in which the worker grows conscious of his belonging to History and of his own immortality.

Enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution inspired Wright to compose “Spread your Sunrise” and “Transcontinental.” In the first of these odes, he hails the arrival of a young Communist giant, applauding the liberties taken with the established order and urging him to paint the Statue of Liberty red and to frighten the millionaires cowering in their mansions. A long fresco dedicated to Louis Aragon in praise of “Red Front,” the poem “Transcontinental,” published early in 1936 by International Literature, sings of the coming of better days in America. This six page symphony blends various themes: a criticism of the American dream, the rehabilitation of the exploited minorities, the wealth of the New World that will appear with the institution of the Soviets. These themes, evoked by a profusion of images, are carried forward by an epic inspiration. In addition to such propaganda pieces, Wright’s poetry at this time, and especially after 1937, centered on a description of the world of the workers and the poor. “We of the Streets” exalts the dignity and generosity which lie hidden in the slums; in “Old Habit and New Love” the worker is the salvation of humanity: not satisfied with just increasing the world’s riches, he restores its soul, he delivers it from its fragmentation:

There is an ache for marriage, for the sight of halves grown whole, for cactus land to blend with dingy dreams, for the welding of irons and bleeding palms.

It is for fusion of number and nerve we strain…

Breathing life back into the machine and tuning its music to the harmony of the celestial spheres, the worker becomes the Demiurge, an artist like the poet:

O Creators! Poets, Makers of Melody! Some first-shift dawn shall find us on equal ground, holding in our hands the world’s tools, drafting the hope-prints of our vision on canvases of green earth!

Although these poems were not inspired by a particular political event, their ideological content is closely linked to Wright’s Communist faith, and yet both his sincerity and his originality emerge more clearly in the manner than the themes.

One is first struck by the fact that Wright is as realistic in his poetry as he is in his novels: lynching, financial failures, strikes and police repression, bread lines, are all news items from the columns of the Daily Worker. His realism — often visionary realism — extends even to urban scenes sketched effectively in a few words:

We have grown used to nervous landscapes, chimney-broken horizons, and the sun dying between tenements… Our sea is water swirling in gutters; our lightning is the blue flame of an acetylene torch,… we hear thunder when the “L” roars, our strip of sky is a dirty shirt.

Here we find the Chicago of Dreiser, of Farrell, of Algren, the blizzard on the outskirts of Michigan and the pale glow of the street lights in Native Son. There is realism in the grounding of collective lyricism on Wright’s personal experiences; however, the real world, naked and violent, is never incorporated in its everyday form: either the Marxist interpretation transforms it into a significant universe or else the author’s imagination recreates it through a religious, elemental, or mythical symbolism. At this stage of its development, Wright’s art already rests on a solid culture base in which we can distinguish several distinct sources: a Protestant tradition incubated under the aegis of his intransigent grandmother; wide and eclectic reading; a vital knowledge of American folklore; a keen sensitivity to nature and a truly elemental imagination. A wealth of Biblical references, paradoxical component of these Communist poems, produces a two-sided effect: at times the aim is to parody, underlining the state of confusion in American society, as when the spectator who observes the Socialist Messiah painting the belfry cross red utters a series of pious exclamations. At times the satire is directed at Christ’s liberalism; the descendant of obsolete divinities, he is shown in “Child of the Dead and Forgotten Gods”, to be incapable of repeating his miracles. At times the metaphor is required for reasons of form: the Marxist books become the Bible, and in “A Red Love Note” the final notice of the proletarian to the capitalist echoes the Creator’s curse on Cain’s; the deluge and the destruction of the Temple are the principal symbols of “Everywhere Burning Waters Rise.” Wright constantly harks back to Christian formulas which seem the most appropriate for his political designs. Above all, it is in following his inspiration that Wright, as we can see in this passage from Black Boy, delves into a religion-bound black culture:

The elders of the church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dry bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth,… While listening to the vivid language of the sermons, I was pulled towards emotional belief… The adolescent refused the dogmas of this religion, but its images remained engraved in his mind.

Linked to the Biblical references, the natural elements in “Everywhere Burning Waters Rise” become symbols of destruction. The blood haze that covers the empty silos and deserted workshops of the Egypt of the New World is the beginning of the deluge which, in the middle of the poem, is curiously transformed into a torrent of fire. The first section restates the theme of the water cycle: icy, viscous fog condenses into pools of water, flowing in thin streams and then in heavy torrents, to swell into a tidal wave. Water turns to fire — the transition facilitated by the ambiguity of the word “boiling” — and suddenly the glowing coals burst into flame, fanned by the poet’s prophetic malediction:

Sweep on, o red stream of molten anger
surge and seethe like liquid lava
into every nook and cranny of this greed-reared temple
and blister the rottening walls with your hot cleansing breath!
Lick and lap with your tongues of flame
at the golden pillars of oppressive privilege…

Wright seems to be fascinated by the element of fire. We have no intention here of analyzing his exploits as a four-year-old incendiary, nor those of his hero Bigger who burns the body of his boss’s daughter in a basement furnace, nor the fire by which Cross Damon effaces his identity, nor the blaze which destroys the dance in The Long Dream. But it is important to mention that in the poems under discussion, the element of fire already appears in all its destructive and purifying aspects. In “Spread your Sunrise” the Reichstag fire is symbolically evoked by a splash of red paint. In the numerous lynching scenes, the flames blend with the water and the blood of the Negro burning at the stake:

Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs…

Along with his orchestrations of warring elements, the more benign aspects of nature are occasionally invoked. In “Strength” the image suggesting individual action, “a gentle breeze ineffectually tearing at granite crags,” is just as successful as the sonorous metaphor for mass revolt.

… a raging hurricane, vast and powerful, wrenching and dredging by the roots the rottening husks of the trees of greed.

Similarly the urban landscape of “We of the Streets” is transposed into natural terms. Wright frequently borrows from nature and nature is the touchstone of his poetic sensitivity: it was the Mississippi country that restored his strength during a childhood of struggle and deprivation. We are therefore all the more prepared for the lyrical tirades of Black Boy when the writer sings of his renewed wonder before the scenes of nature.

The two odes to the revolution, which represent a sharp break with his other compositions, celebrate the exploits of a mythical character or narrate a symbolic adventure. Eager to communicate the appeal of the new ideology, Wright personifies it in the giant of “Spread your Sunrise.” This incarnation was perhaps suggested by some of the illustrations of New Masses, but in fact is rather in the tradition of the rough and ready hero of American folklore:

a bushy-haired giant child,
Big-limbed and double-jointed,
Boisterous and bull-headed,
With great big muscles bursting through his clothes.

Compound words, alliterated consonants, the exaggerations of popular speech make him a mixture of Johnny Appleseed and John Henry. Wearing not the seven-league boots of the fairy tale but the shoes of the Five Year Plan, this “tall man” of the steel mills seems to come from certain pages of The People, Yes and clearly belongs to the legends of the frontier.

The same informal and enthusiastic tone graces the poem “Transcontinental” in which Wright has painted the chariot of Time, slightly renovated as the automobile of History. The key to this symphony lies in the use of the idea of speed. At first a group of young men and women, enviously observe the glittering world of the rich:

Across the ceaseless hiss of passing cars
We hear the tinkle of ice in tall glasses
Clacks of crocket balls scudding over cropped lawns
Silvery crescendos of laughter
Like in the movies
On Saturday night
When we used to get paychecks…

Then the desire to penetrate this inaccessible world, to ride in the rich man’s limousine, takes on the convincing form of reality: time is telescoped and the rigid structure of the first stanzas comes alive in a wild race of moving images. Leaving behind them a social upheaval similar to that created by the Communist giant, these new horsemen of the Apocalypse, casting down the oppressors, lifting up the oppressed (Indians, Negroes, proletarians) cross the United States in their symbolic automobile.

3 thoughts on “Red leaves of red books (1935)

  1. If you’re referring to “I Tried to be a Communist” I’m not sure we read the same piece.

    Wright understood his activism as making Marxism legible to the blacks he knew–women like his mother, who’d found Communist literature alien and off-putting. Sadly, the Chicago Communists he encountered were entirely committed to their homogenizing abstractions and guarded against actual black people possessed of actual black consciousness (though poems on a page are nice). As part of his project, Wright composed a story based on the adolescence of a black communist he’d interviewed– a man named Ross, who happened to be under indictment for “factionalism”. By focusing on Ross’ experience with a lynching, Wright unwittingly conspired to paint him as a “nationalist.” Wright fled the Party foremost on account of its shit racial politics, though its procedural and cultural absurdities certainly didn’t help.

    “‘I’ve already sold a story based upon an incident in his [Ross’] life.’
    Nealson became excited.
    ‘What was the incident?’ he asked.
    ‘Some trouble he got into when he was thirteen years old,’ I said.
    ‘Oh, I thought it was political,’ he said, shrugging.”

    The description of Ross’ trial by his fellow Communists is gruesome. His subjectivity decimated, his blackness forfeited, he begs his “comrades” to pardon him.

    Wright recounts white Communists in New York whose convention he’d traveled to attend declining to house him (black membership in NYC CPUSA only ever reached around 3-5%). When a black ex-comrade pulls Wright–by now an “enemy”–into the Communist ranks of the May Day parade, a white Party leader physically tosses him out.

    Ralph Ellison left the Communist party with comparable resentments. James Baldwin declared his time on the American Left “did not last long” (he briefly fell in with some Trotskyists).

    I would not say American Marxists have heard what Wright was trying to tell them. Some things just don’t seem to change.

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