Literary daybook, Nov. 28

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published November 29, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)
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Today in fiction
On Nov. 28, 1902, Elmer Gantry proposes to go to Cato, see the girls and get drunk.
-- "Elmer Gantry" (1927)
by Sinclair Lewis

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1960, the expatriate American writer Richard Wright died in Paris at the age of 52. Wright's last 15 years in France were a final stop in a life of migrations: from first years as the son of an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper, to urban poverty in various Southern cities and then Chicago, to writing for and then rejecting the Communist Party in New York, to Europe and travels throughout northern Africa and Asia. The international reputation earned from his political writing and his two bestsellers -- the novel "Native Son" (1940), the autobiography "Black Boy" (1945) -- traveled with him: "He came like a sledgehammer," wrote the historian John Henrik Clarke, "like a giant out of the mountain with a sledgehammer, writing with a sledgehammer ..."

Of all the things Wright wanted to smash in racist America, the last may have been the Hollywood producer who wondered if he could make a film of "Native Son" with a white hero. This was in 1947; later that year, feeling that maybe white America was just not ever going to get it, Wright left for Europe.


He would never return, though he would say that, looking back, "Anger turned into a sort of amazed pity, for I felt that America's barbaric treatment of the Negro was not one-half so bad as the destructive war which she waged, in striking at the Negro, against the Rights of Man, and against herself." While his final perspective on America and racism could hardly be described as detached, Wright began to study and compose haiku in his last months. Biographer Hazel Rowley says that these "gave Wright a modicum of inner peace in the worst period of despair and self-doubt he had ever known." While continuing with the other, sledgehammer writing (and constantly worrying that either his amoebic dysentery or some CIA/FBI plot was killing him), he wrote some 4,000 of these "spider webs." If Wright's wife had chosen to tuck one into his coffin, rather than a copy of "Black Boy," it might have been this:

"Keep straight down this block,
then turn right where you will find
a peach tree blooming"

Basho, the Japanese haiku master, also died on this day, in 1694. This is his last-written poem:


"Stricken while journeying
my dreams still wander about
but on withered fields"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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