November 2, 2011
When Richard Wright applied for a passport in January 1946, he was turned down. The State Department did not look favorably on left-leaning Americans (in this case, an ex-Communist) leaving their country and maligning it from abroad. The passport came through only when an invitation came from the French government – instigated by Gertrude Stein and backed by Marc Chagall and Jean-Paul Sartre. Wright with his wife and infant daughter were invited as guests of the Cultural Relations Section of the French Foreign Ministry. Their transatlantic passage was paid for, and living expenses covered for one month. When Wright arrived in Paris on May 9, 1946, his first stop was the Hotel Trianon Rive Gauche, where Gertrude Stein had reserved a room for him.
The two had been corresponding for a year. Stein was a fan of the recently published and hugely successful Native Son and Black Boy. Wright, on his part, had written in his journal that Stein’s Narration (her lectures at the University of Chicago) “made me hear something that I’d heard all my life, that is, the speech of my Grandmother who spoke a deep Negro dialect colored by the Bible, the Old Testament.” In an article about her which he wrote for PM Magazine, he said that his main impression of her “is this: perhaps more than any other mind in our time, she has realized acutely the difference between Yesterday and Today.”
One does not have to agree with this account of Stein to see that the synergy between the two authors is anything but trivial. Along with the friendship between Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison, and the collaboration between Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol on “Strange Fruit,” the Stein/Wright relationship makes it clear that a cross-racial poetics has always been a crucial part of American literature, one that, just as easily, could be called “un-American.”