Review: “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright

Rating: 4 out of 5.

About the Book

“The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright

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 this scorching novel, a never-before-seen masterpiece by Richard Wright. Written between his landmark books Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), at the height of his creative powers, it would see publication in Wright’s lifetime only in drastically condensed and truncated form, and ultimately be included in the posthumous short story collection Eight Men (1961). 

Now, for the first time, by special arrangement with 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.

My Review

It’s the 1940’s.  A young Black man named Fred Daniels is arrested and accused of a double murder.  The police don’t care if he’s innocent.  From the moment they pick him up, he’s their guy. No evidence needed. He’s young, Black, and was in close proximity to where the crime took place. That’s all they need. The first few chapters are a all-too-real tale of racial injustice.  Written around 80 years ago, the opening of “The Man Who Lived Underground” should feel dated.  Unfortunately, it feels a lot like a story ripped from the headlines today.

Hours after being taken into custody, Fred is beaten down by the police and forced to sign a confession, admitting to the murders. Knowing he’ll die for the crimes he didn’t commit, he seizes on an opportunity to escape and slips down a manhole into the sewer system beneath the city streets.  Once underground, he tunnels through brick and enters the basements of various businesses, observing people and taking the valuable objects he finds.  What held meaning above-ground becomes merely symbolic to Fred as he adjusts to a new world below.

Read by itself, “The Man Who Lived Underground” can be viewed as an existential novel – a man shedding the culture and values of the above-ground world and gaining a new perspective of self.  However, when paired with Wright’s essay about his grandmother (included at the end), the book clearly becomes an allegory for religion and the religious.  While the themes of racial injustice and inequality become more subtle and symbolic in nature after the first few chapters, they’re still present in the different basements he tunnels into.

For me personally, “The Man Who Lived Underground” is a stark reminder of how little progress we’ve actually made against racial injustice and how far we need to go. Written almost a century ago, it should be a sad, chilling reminder of our history, yet it’s still relatable. Parts of this novel broke my heart while others angered me, but the story as a whole captivated me.  How could it not?  Richard Wright was a powerful writer, and his stories still carry powerful messages today.   

Thank you to Library America for the gifted copy of this book.