... feels wearily descriptive of far too many moments in contemporary America ... More than any other Black writer, Richard Wright recognized that understanding Black folks’ relationship to the police is central to understanding racism ... The underground strips the markers of his identity just as any prison sentence does. And so, while the book is no longer concerned with the police and arrests and beatdowns, Wright forces readers to ask what the cost of this freedom is ... shows us that even when we survive those interactions, ducking the immediate dangers of incarceration or death, we can find ourselves bewilderingly stuck reliving the moment, struggling to find our freedom.
A...logical comparison may be with Native Son. Weighing in at under 160 pages, Underground is perhaps less ambitious than Wright’s most famous novel, but it matches that work for sheer tension, and while the narrative propulsion of Native Son comes to a halt near the end, as Bigger’s lawyer mounts his defense, Underground moves continuously forward with its masterful blend of action and reflection, a kind of philosophy on the run. The work is rich with literary echoes ... Whether or not The Man Who Lived Underground is Wright’s single finest work, it must be counted among his most significant.
Wright reached for the very core of the human condition in his portrait of growing up destitute in the Deep South during the early 20th century, and then making his way north: abundance everywhere and terrible hunger, tragedy mixed with the quotidian in the most disorienting ways. The experience he evoked might not have been every Black life, but it was indeed a part of Black life ... Now that I’ve read The Man Who Lived Underground—a previously unpublished novel held in the Wright archives, also written in the early 1940s—I’m even more convinced that Wright deserves to be looked at with fresh eyes ... Wright scripts a surreal reencounter with the world as seen through discovered cracks and doors that reveal hidden interiors ... This isn’t the doctrinal Wright, warning us of the disasters that capitalism creates. This is an unmooring Wright, pushing us past the edge of social analysis and into madness ... the novel is also a Protestant work, as much about God as it is about Black people ... In Fred’s odyssey, which leads him back aboveground to confess to the crime he didn’t commit, Wright has him careen from rage at the pervasive burden of guilt to an embrace of it ... Wright deserves sensitive reconsideration, especially now that so many of us have been proved naive in our belief that an honest rendering of Black people might lead to recognition of our existence in the universality of humanity ... Wright tells an old story that still lives ... He finds himself encountering the world, unfiltered by established terms of order, and acquires a tenderness for all people. In the end, his Black existence presents a particular window and a universal predicament—and a reminder: Surrounded by ghastly forces every day, we destroy life with our many idolatries and illusions.