It has been said by Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, that most writers have one thing in common: they both love and hate the place of their origins. Richard Wright certainly fits into this category; but it is only toward the end of his autobiography that the conflict in his feelings becomes clear. Up until now, the reader has picked up only distant strains of nostalgia and affection for the South. Love has been but a minor refrain throughout the book. Yet its presence is always felt and it accounts for the Blues-like quality of the book.
Now, in the thirteenth chapter, Richard enters into a state of mind which will bring both an attachment to, and a liberation from, the South. First, he happens to read an article about H. L. Mencken, and the very fact that Mencken is being attacked draws Richard toward him. He longs to read him, but it is only by the most circuitous method that he can achieve the simple satisfaction of getting into a library. A white coworker, who is Catholic and therefore maligned by most southerners, lends Richard his library card. This is the beginning of his self-education.
Through Mencken’s essays, Richard learns the names of other American writers, as well as learning how prose can be used as a weapon. This is all Richard needs. To discover that the pen can be as mighty as the sword is a terrific surprise to him; and then to read these other writers (who also feel themselves alienated from the American scene) is a revelation.
Through reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and the major European writers, Wright not only begins to understand himself better, but to understand white people too. They are no longer so strange and impenetrable to him. Yet he must conceal from everyone what he is learning. He continues to work and to read and to play dumb for the benefit of his own survival and in order to bring his mother and brother to Memphis. But he is undergoing the final stage in his painful growth, and his secret world is his most important world.
What should have been a joy, a liberation, and a means of communication, however, are for Richard just the opposite. He has no one with whom he can talk about his discoveries or his dreams. There is no guarantee that they will come to fruition. He considers the alternatives, however, to pursuing these dreams, but they are so horrible that he ends up without a choice. He is coming to realize just how unalterable human character is. And although he is conscious of the many forces that have conspired to make him what he is, there still remains a mystery as to why he should be so profoundly alienated from ordinary people. He cannot change who he is or what course he must follow. Any other course would make him not only miserable, but he wouldn’t even be successful pursuing it. Yet he cannot feel any relief in knowing who he is. To be both an American writer and an American black is to be permanently in exile, an outsider on one’s own native soil. Richard has no choice now in being a writer, just as he has never had a choice in being the man or the color that he is.