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The Man Who Lived Underground: A Novel

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Notes From Black Reads

It’s hard to tell what’s more shocking: The nature of the story when it was written or just how pertinent it is today. Maybe these points are equally so — which means you have a couple great reasons to delve into this unearthed classic.

New York Times Bestseller • One of the Best Books of the Year by Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and Esquire, and one of Oprah’s 15 Favorite Books of the Year

From the legendary author of Native Son and Black Boy, the novel he was unable to publish during his lifetime—an explosive story of racism, injustice, brutality, and survival. "Not just Wright's masterwork, but also a milestone in African American literature . . . One of those indispensable works that reminds all its readers that, whether we are in the flow of life or somehow separated from it, above- or belowground, we are all human." (Gene Seymour, CNN.com)

The Man Who Lived Underground reminds us that any ‘greatest writers of the 20th century’ list that doesn’t start and end with Richard Wright is laughable. It might very well be Wright’s most brilliantly crafted, and ominously foretelling, book.”—Kiese Laymon

Fred Daniels, a Black man, is picked up by the police after a brutal double murder and tortured until he confesses to a crime he did not commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from custody and flees into the city’s sewer system.

This is the devastating premise of Richard Wright's scorching novel, The Man Who Lived Underground, written between his landmark books Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), at the height of his creative powers. Now, for the first time, by special arrangement between the Library of America and the author’s estate, the full text of the work that meant more to Wright than any other (“I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration”) is published in the form that he intended, complete with his companion essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.” Malcolm Wright, the author’s grandson, contributes an afterword.

ISBN-13: 9780062971487

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 11-08-2022

Pages: 240

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his novels, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.

Read an Excerpt

The door of the police car swung open quickly and the man behind the steering wheel stepped out; immediately, as though following in a prearranged signal, the other two policemen stepped out and the three of them advanced and confronted him. They patted his clothing from his head to his feet.
“What’s your name?” asked the policeman who had been called Lawson.
“Fred Daniels, sir.”
“Ever been in trouble before, boy?” Lawson said.
“No, sir.”
“Where you think you’re going now?”
“I’m going home.”
“Where you live?”
“On East Canal, sir.”
“Who you live with?”
“My wife.”
Lawson turned to the policeman who stood at his right. “We’d better drag ’im in, Johnson.”
“But, Mister!” he protested in a high whine. “I ain’t done nothing . . .”
“All right, now,” Lawson said. “Don’t get excited.”
“My wife’s having a baby . . .”
“They all say that. Come on,” said the red-headed man who had been called Johnson.
A spasm of outrage surged in him and he snatched backward, hurling himself away from them. Their fingers tightened about his wrists, biting into his flesh; they pushed him toward the car.
“Want to get tough, hunh?”
“No, sir,” he said quickly.
“Then get in the car, Goddammit!”
He stepped into the car and they shoved him into the seat; two of the policemen sat at either side of him and hooked their arms in his. Lawson got behind the steering wheel. But, strangely, the car did not start. He waited, alert but ready to obey.
“Well, boy,” Lawson began in a slow, almost friendly tone, “looks like you’re in for it, hunh?”
Lawson’s enigmatical voice made hope rise in him.
“Mister, I ain’t done nothing,” he said. “You can ask Mrs. Wooten” back there. She just paid me off and I was on my way home . . .” His words sounded futile and he tried another approach. “Look, Mister, I’m a member of the White Rock Baptist Church. If you don’t believe me, call up Reverend Davis . . .”
“Got it all figured out, ain’t you, boy?”
“No, sir,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. “I’m telling the truth . . . “
A series of questions made him hopeful again.
“What’s your wife’s name?”
“Rachel, sir.”
“When is this baby going to be born?”
“Any minute now, sir.”
“Who’s with your wife?”
“My cousin, Ruby.”
“Uh huh,” Lawson said, with slow thoughtfulness.
“I think he’ll do, Lawson,” said the tall, raw-boned policeman who had not spoken before.
Lawson laughed and started the motor.