As Richard Wright had gone through the worst part of his life in the South, he moved Northwards to Chicago and eventually landing in New York he started rising to prominence, with his lifestyle itself going through significant changes as well as his literary projects growing beyond novels and autobiographies onto drama and films..
His brother was now engaged in the Works Progress Administration in which Richard himself got engaged. His brother’s employment.and his assuming some responsibility for the family’s support. relieved Richard from wholly and singly supporting the family as he had been doing before.
Richard Wright ranking first in the postal service exam in Chicago did not lure him into staying back. He turns down the resulting offer of a permanent position at about $2,000 a year in order to move to New York City to pursue his career as a writer. But on the way there, he stays briefly with his artist acquaintances in Greenwich Village. He then moves to Harlem, by mid-June 1937 and secures a furnished room in the Douglass Hotel at 809 St. Nicholas Avenue.
Later in the year he attends the Second American Writer’s Congress as a delegate and got elevated to a session president. He also becomes the Harlem editor for Daily Worker and writes over 200 artcles for it during the year. Amongst the pieces he wrote were a series of articles on blues singer Leadbelly. He also collaborates with other writers like Dorothy West and Marian Minnas to launch the magazine New Challenge which was designed to present black life as related to the struggle against war and Fascism. Towards the close of the year Wight was already writing the Harlem section for New York Panorama and was also working on “The Harlems” in The New York City Guide”
The next year he rents another furnished room at 139 West 143rd Street. and announces plans to marry the daughter of his Harlem landlady, but which he later cancels revealing to friends that a medical examination had indicated that the young lady had congenital syphilis.
Not too long after, he moves house again, this time moving into the home of friends from Chicago, Jane and Herbert Newton, at 175 Carleton Avenue in Brooklyn. Newton’s landlord evicts them. Then Wright moves again, this time with the Newtons to 5222 Gates Avenue.
In 1939 Wright moves to Douglas Hotel at 809 St Nicholas Avenue, renting the room that was next to a friend from Chicago, Theodore Ward. Around this time, he becomes close to Ellen Poplar and was considering marrying her when another woman stole his heart. Later in that year, he married the woman that stole his heart away from Ellen Poplar, Dhima Rose Meadman, a modern-dance teacher and ballet dancer of Russian Jewish ancestry in an Episcopal church on Convent Avenue, with fellow African-American novelist, Ralph Ellison, serving as his best man. He lives with his wife, her two-year -old son by an earlier marriage and his mother-in law in a large apartment on the fashionable Hamilton Terrace in Harlem. But the two did not last together for long as they separated shortly thereafter.
Also in 1940 Richard Wright takes his first airplane flight. He was accompanying Life magazine photographers to Chicago for an article which was being written on the South Side which Richard had a thorough knowledge of. He toured the area with the sociologist, Horace Cayton, starting a relationship that was to last for long. In February 1940 whilst on a visit to Chicago he bought a house for his family on Vincennes Avenue and has lunch with prominent African American writers, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.
Wright in April sailed with his wife, her son, her mother, and his wife’s pianist for Veracruz, Mexico for a few months. He rents a ten-roomed villa in the Miraval colony in Caenevaca. There he starts learning Spanish, taking lessons in it. He seizes the opportunity of learning to play the guitar.Getting reunited with Herbert Kline, a longtime friend of the John Reed club days who was now engaged in filming a documentary with John Steinbeck titled The Forgotten Village was another opportunity for Wright to exploit to the full. Developing an interest in the filming Wright followed them right through the countryside. He then signs a contract with Orson Welles and John Houseman for the stage production of Native Son.
Strains in the marriage started to become evident and then Wright realizing it was breaking up, leaves Mexico and travels through the South alone.On the trip back to New York, he stopped to visit his father for the first time in twenty-five years. His father during this visit was described in Black Boy as “standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands…when I tried to talk to him I realized that…we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality.”
He returned to New York and divorced Dhimah in 1940.
In 1941he married Ellen Poplar,a daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, a white woman and Communist party member with whom he had worked and been in love before he married Dhimah. A year later their first daughter Julia was born in 1942. Rachel was born in Paris in 1949. In 1942 Wright moves again to 7 Middagh Street, a 19th century house near the Brooklyn Bridgesharing house sharing the house with several other writers and artists like Carson McCullers.
During 1940-1941 Wright collaborated with Paul Green to write a stage adaptation of Native Son which ran on Broadway in the spring of 1941 and was produced by John Houseman and staged by Orson Welles. Simultaneously, Wright published his sociological-psychological treatise Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941), with photographs collected by Edwin Rosskam; the book was well received. He was elected vice-president of the League of American Writers.
Native Son starring Canada Lee opens also at St James Theatre on March 24 after a benefit performance for the NAACP with favorable reviews except for the Hearst pages which have been hostile to Orson Welles following his acting in Citizen Kane. The production runs in New York until June 15. Welle’s striking but costly staging caused the production to lose some money which were however recovered during a successful tour of Pittsburg, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St Louis and Baltimore.
Wright’s reputation and stature was now so large and impressive that he could singly champion noble and selfless social causes such as his asking the New Jersey Governor to parole Clinton Brewer, a black man who had been imprisoned since 1923 for murdering a young woman, arguing that Brewer who had taught himself musical composition had sufficiently rehabilitated himself to be gainfully reabsorbed into society. Brewster is then released on July 8. But even though Brewer did not avoid getting into further trouble Wright never tired of trying to rescue him.
His autobiography, Black Boy, came out in 1945, and it too emerged as both a bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection, although the U.S. Senate denounced it as “obscene.”
The later section about his life in Chicago and experience with the Communist party was not published until 1977 under the title American Hunger. Wright’s publishers in 1945 had only wanted the story of his life in the South. So they cut what followed about his life in the North.
He worked during 1949-1951 on a film version of Native Son, in which he himself played Bigger. Wright, forty years old and overweight, had to train and stretch verisimilitude to play the nineteen-year-old Bigger. During filming in Buenos Aires and Chicago, the production was fraught with problems. The film was released briefly but was unsuccessful. European audiences acclaimed it, but the abridged version failed in the United States and the film disappeared.