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Richard Wright papers

Call Number: JWJ MSS 3

Scope and Contents

The Richard Wright Papers consist of manuscripts, letters, photographs, printed materials, legal and financial documents, subject files, and material objects which document the life and work of the writer, Richard Wright (1908-1960). The collection spans the years 1927-1978, the bulk of the material concentrated in 1940-1960, the years of Wright's greatest output as an author.

The Papers are housed in 136 boxes and arranged in four series: Writings, Correspondence, Personal Papers, and Subject Files. Boxes 119-130 contain Oversize items. Box 131 contains Restricted Papers.

Preceding Series I is the original finding aid to the Wright Papers (photocopies of catalog cards listing manuscripts and major correspondents) created when the collection was acquired by the library. This list catalogs items using a number sequence referred to in citations to the collection in published bibliographies prepared by Michel Fabre.

Series I, Writings , consists of 21 subseries, each concerning a particular type of creative endeavor. The first subseries, "Addresses, Broadcasts, Interviews, Lectures and Speeches" brings together various spoken texts of Wright's. These include presentations made on radio programs, speeches prepared for meetings and commentaries on writing and politics. The second subseries, "Anthologies," consists of clippings about literary compilations that featured Wright's work. "Articles, Essays and Reports" gathers Wright's short non-fictions pieces. Many were written specifically for publication in periodicals; one, "How Bigger Was Born," was eventually issued as a pamphlet. This subseries includes a number of articles Wright wrote as a reporter for the Harlem Bureau of the Daily Worker. While articles after 1938 exist as clippings and are filed by title, his work for the newspaper in 1937 can be found in a scrapbook Wright kept. The chronological listing of all of the articles includes notes indicating those which have not been verified as being by Wright. "Autobiographical Information" consists of Wright's resumes and vitae for the period 1938-1959. "Blurbs, Forewords, Introductions, Liner Notes and Prefaces" collects brief commentaries by Wright on writings by others. (Reviews, however, are filed as a separate subseries).

The next subseries, "Books," is the largest, consisting of drafts of all of Wright's published works and manuscripts of several unpublished books. The first title, Black Boy, contains both the original long drafts that were shortened upon publication as well as the galley proofs of American Hunger which were prepared for publication from the original manuscripts in 1977. [The latter were donated to the Beinecke Library by the publisher, Harper & Row, Inc. in 1980]. Among the supporting documentation included following the manuscripts are clippings, fan mail, a radio adaptation by Robert Rosenthal, and a galley proof of the French translation, Jeunesse Noire. Black Hope, an unpublished work about black domestic workers, is present in an "old" version and a "new" version. The drafts of Black Power, which follow, are supported by background material, documents for Wright's trip to Ghana and numerous photographs from the trip. For The Color Curtain, there are also photographs and a travel diary from Wright's 1955 trip to Indonesia, along with drafts for the book. The manuscripts of Eight Men include drafts for each of the eight individual stories which make up the collection and one draft of the complete text. Materials for three unpublished works are filed next. For Escapee, there is an outline; for A Father's Law, there exists a draft, with notes by Julia Wright; for Island of Hallucination, there are five episodes in typescript prepared for publication in Soon One Morning along with a draft of the novel (which had been restricted from use prior to 1996). Information on The Jackal can be found with the article, "Urban Misery in an American City" and the story, "Rite of Passage."

Lawd Today, published posthumously in 1963, exists in two versions, the earliest originally written in the 1930s. Along with the variously titled drafts of The Long Dream are drafts of the play version adapted by Ketti Frings. The novel version of The Man Who Lived Underground survives in both an early "long" version and a later "short" version.

Wright's best-known work, Native Son, is extensively documented in this archive. The earliest evidence survives in the form of a work plan submitted by Wright to the Guggenheim Foundation and a series of background clippings detailing the arrest and trial of Robert Nixon. These are followed by drafts, the setting copy, a galley proof, publicity materials, fan mail, clippings of reviews (including those in German, Spanish, Swedish and Yiddish) and segments of an aborted serialization in The People's Voice. Wright's subsequent novel, The Outsider, is extant in a "first" version, a "second" version and a draft of a French translation by Guy de Montlaur.

Wright's trips to Spain to gather notes for Pagan Spain are documented in his "Raw Material of Impressions of Spain" and several photographs from the excursions. The drafts of the work are accompanied by fan mail and clippings. Savage Holiday exists in seven different drafts. Tarbaby's Dawn is extant in complete drafts and fragments. Wright's essays for 12 Million Black Voices are divided into book drafts and chapter drafts. Included here are fan mail and a condensed version of the book prepared for Coronet magazine. The drafts for Uncle Tom's Children stand as perhaps some of the earliest manuscript materials for Wright's long works. Drafts are arranged by title of story and are accompanied by fan mail and clippings (including reviews from Russian publications). Wright's final book of essays, White Man, Listen! is divided into chapter drafts and book drafts, and is followed by promotional and publicity materials and clippings.

The next subseries, "Film Scenarios," contains outlines and drafts of movie scripts. Most of these, such as "Melody Limited," were prepared in the mid-1940s, when Wright attempted to expand his career into screenwriting. The film version of Native Son is extant in drafts of the script, supporting documentation, such as photographs and notes about costumes, and movie posters.

The subseries "Haiku" contains drafts for a collection, "This Other World," and notebooks and verses mounted on boards by Wright. (Other verse is filed under the subseries, "Poetry".) The "Notes" in the next section consist of typescripts and fragments for unspecified works. "Open Letters" consists of Wright's letters to the editor and printed copies of his published correspondence.

Among the "Plays" in the next subseries are drafts and outlines of works Wright wrote or adapted specifically for the stage. Among these are "Daddy Goodness" (from Louis Sapin's "Papa, Bon Dieu") and "Native Son," both of which exist in several drafts and are accompanied by printed materials detailing their production. "Poems" contains an alphabetic arrangement of drafts of verses by Wright. (Haiku are filed under a separate subseries.) The next subseries of "Proposals" consists of plans for several projects put forth by Wright. The two "Radio Scripts" in the next subseries are "Democratic Testimony" and "Sunny Side of the Street."

Richard Wright's "Reviews" of novels, plays and exhibitions are found in the following subseries, followed by "Statements," comments principally intended to address political and social issues. Among the "Stories" are short fictional works from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Most of the stories collected in Uncle Tom's Children and Eight Men are present here in formats in which they were published individually. "Translations" contains three pieces: an essay by Alioune Diop; a section of a work by Jean-Paul Sartre; a foreword and an introduction to a book on Karl Jaspers. "Other Writings" consists of six unique items, including the outline for a memorial pageant for Lenin.

The final subseries, "Writings of Others," includes essays and studies by Ben Karpman, a psychiatrist working at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and his students, as well as a number of poems and essays given to or collected by Wright.

Series II, Correspondence is divided into "Personal Correspondence," "Third-Party Correspondence" and "Fan Mail". In general, individuals writing on behalf of an organization have been filed under the name of the organization, with cross-references made from the person's name. For example, letters from Paul R. Reynolds, Wright's agent for many years, are filed under Paul R. Reynolds, Inc., along with letters from other representatives of the company. The "Third-Party Correspondence" includes several letters to Ellen Wright and some letters of recommendation for Wright. The Fan mail filed here is of a general nature; fan mail for specific works is filed in the Writings series following the drafts. (NOTE: When the collection was first processed, groups of letters were given consecutive numbers, written on the upper corner of each individual sheet. Due to interfiling and identification of some items, the numbers which remain on these letters no longer correspond to any arrangement scheme.)

Series III, Personal Papers , includes a diary (from 1945), two lengthy typewritten journals (1945, 1947), engagement calendars (1941-45, 1948), financial records, real estate documents, photographs, receipts and a number of "to do" lists with notes. The larger subsections of this series are clippings on a variety of subjects, including Wright himself, interviews, profiles and literary references and the records for the Franco-American Fellowship which Wright headed from 1950-52. Other photographic prints made by Michel Fabre from negatives in the possession of Mrs. Ellen Wright which were not included when this archive was acquired can be found in the JWJ Photographs of Blacks collection.

Series IV, Subject Files , contains material collected by Richard Wright, likely to serve as background material for his writings. These files, arranged by topic, contain clippings, printed items (such as pamphlets and government documents) and typescripts of papers, reports and articles. A number of pamphlets originally stored with these subject files have been catalogued separately. This series was added after the original processing of this archive was completed, hence the break in the linear progression of box and folder numbering.


  • 1927 - 1978


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Original film: Restricted fragile material. Reference surrogates available. Consult Access Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Access

Boxes 126 and 126a (audiotape reels): Restricted fragile. Reference copies may be requested. Consult Access Services for further information.

Box 129a (audiodisc): Restricted fragile. Reference copies may be requested. Consult Access Services for further information.

Folders 2036a-f (films, cold storage): Restricted fragile material. Reference copies available. Consult Access Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Richard Wright Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Wright Papers were purchased in 1976 from Mrs. Ellen Wright, Richard Wright's widow.


72.29 Linear Feet ((142 boxes) + 5 broadside, 6 cold storage, 1 record album storage)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The Richard Wright Papers contain manuscripts, correspondence with other writers such as Nelson Algren, Arna Bontemps, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Gunnar Myrdal and Margaret Walker, photographs, financial and legal documents and printed materials relating to the life and work of Richard Wright. Included are drafts of such works as Black Boy and Native Son, photographs of trips to Spain and Ghana, various items of personal memorabilia such as Wright's Spingarn Medal, and a film of Wright's screen test for the movie version of "Native Son".


Richard Nathaniel Wright was born September 4, 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi, to Ella Wilson Wright, a schoolteacher, and Nathan Wright, a sharecropper. The story of Richard Wright's childhood, with its harrowing episodes of abandonment by his father, his temporary consignment to an orphanage after his mother became ill, and his short-lived schooling under the harsh guardianship of his grandmother have been detailed in his autobiography, Black Boy (published in 1945 by Harper & Row).

Wright's break with his past began in 1927, when he left the South for the more hopeful environs of Chicago. There, he worked at a number of different jobs, continued to educate himself by reading and began to write. During the early years of the Depression, Wright found himself attracted to local Communist groups, eventually joining the Chicago John Reed Club. His entrance into this exciting political milieu was matched by an increasingly prolific output of writing. He published poetry in left-wing journals such as New Masses and The Anvil, and began working on early versions of Lawd Today and Tarbaby's Dawn. In 1935, he was employed by the Illinois Federal Writers Project, which further strengthened his hopes of being a published author.

Wright moved to New York in 1937 to act as the head of the Harlem Bureau of The Daily Worker. His first major break came the following year, when he submitted four long stories for a contest sponsored by Story magazine and won a publishing contract. The collection, published as Uncle Tom's Children, garnered sympathetic reviews and secured Wright an agent and a hopeful future as a novelist.

The work Wright proposed next was to be a deeply realistic account of oppression and black rage. With the assistance of a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Wright spent much of 1939 writing Native Son. Harper & Row published the novel on March 1, 1940. The resulting sales and critical acclaim for the book placed Wright in the position as the most well-known black author in America. In January, 1941, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP.

Though Wright was constantly working on several different novels intended to follow Native Son, he switched the focus of his creative endeavors to different forms of writing. Late in 1940, he began a stage adaptation of Native Son in collaboration with Paul Green. The production debuted in early 1941 on Broadway in a production staged by Orson Welles. The summer of that year saw the publication of a collection of photographs of black Americans, 12 Million Black Americans, accompanied by a discursive essay by Wright, and a collaboration with Count Basie on a jazz song, "Joe Louis Blues."

In March 1941, Wright married Ellen Poplar. (A brief marriage to Rose Dhima Meadman had ended in divorce in 1938). Richard and Ellen Wright would have two children, Julia, in 1942, and Rachael in 1949.

Between 1943-45, while Wright tried his hand at other fields of the arts, such as screenwriting, he concentrated on writing his autobiography. The finished draft, known as "American Hunger," was cut in half by the time it was ready for publication. The resulting work, Black Boy, thus details Wright's life only from the time he was born to the point of his departure from the South in 1927. Though sections of the suppressed later sections of the book appeared in print in various places in subsequent years, the original work was only completely "published" posthumously with the appearance of American Hunger in 1977.

In 1946, at the invitation of the French Government, Wright visited France for a period of six months. He returned the following year with his family to live and remained there until his death. The translation of his books and stories into French clinched his growing popularity in that country. While at work on a second novel, Wright took time off between 1949-51 to work on the film version of Native Son. Having found a partner in the French director Pierre Chenal, Wright adapted his most well-known work to this medium and prepared to play the role of Bigger Thomas, himself. The movie, shot in Argentina and alternately titled Sangre Negra, debuted in America in 1951 to less than enthusiastic reviews and even a legal action which successfully banned its projection in several states.

In 1953, Wright reaffirmed his stature as a novelist by publishing, The Outsider, on which he had been working since the publication of Black Boy. This was followed a year later by a shorter work, Savage Holiday. For the rest of the decade, Wright concentrated on reportorial writing. He describes his 1953 trip to the Gold Coast of Africa in Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. His attendance at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955 is the subject of The Color Curtain. His commentary and analysis of the culture of Spain was published in 1956 as Pagan Spain. White Man, Listen!, which appeared in 1957, brought together four essays and lectures, on which Wright had been working for many years.

Wright returned once again to the novel form in 1958, publishing The Long Dream, a work that was quickly adapted by Ketti Frings for the stage. It debuted on Broadway in 1959 and ran for five performances. Wright's own adaptation of Louis Sapin's "Papa, Bon Dieu" (as "Daddy Goodness") also suffered a short life, its production abandoned in the Spring of 1959 (before finally being staged in New York in 1968). In 1959, Wright pursued the possibility of moving his family to England, but faced ultimate rejection from the immigration authorities. This, coupled with failing health, slowed his preparation of a collection of short stories. In late November, 1960, Wright was admitted to a clinic in Paris to undergo medical examinations. While resting at the clinic, he died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960, at the age of 52.

Processing Information

Several additions have been made to this collection since it was first processed. While most of the materials added were generic items such as duplicate clippings, the additions of note are Series IV, Subject Files, described below, added in 1996, and two folders of letters - from Dashiell Hammett and from Dorothy Parker - which were added in February 1998. Papers that were formerly restricted and housed in box 131 ("Island of Hallucination") were made available for research in 1996 and reprocessed into box 34 in 1998.

Guide to the Richard Wright Papers
Under Revision
by Timothy G. Young
April 1994
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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