Charles Wright (1932 - 2008)
African American Novelist, Dies at 76
1964 American PB edition, Cover: Photograph, author Charles Wright, The Wig, 1966 American HB edition, Cover Design: Milton Glaser, The Wig, 1968 British PB edition,
Below: Photograph, author Charles Wright.
By BRUCE WEBER/The New York Times
Published: October 8, 2008
Charles Wright, who wrote three autobiographical novels about black street life in New York City between 1963 and 1973 that seemed to herald the rise of an important literary talent but who vanished into alcoholism and despair and never published another book, died on Oct. 1 in Manhattan. He was 76 and lived in the East Village.
The cause was heart failure, said Jan Hodenfield, one of Mr. Wright’s former editors; earlier in the year, he said, Mr. Wright had learned that alcohol had eroded his liver. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, Mr. Wright lived in the spare room of the Brooklyn apartment of Mr. Hodenfield and his family.
Mr. Wright’s three books were “The Messenger” (1963), “The Wig” (1966) and “Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About” (1973), all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Together they describe a loner’s life on the fringes of New York society, his protagonists stand-ins for himself, working at low-level jobs, living in low-rent apartments, hanging out with lowlife personalities.
“The Messenger” was the best received of the three, perhaps because it told a more universal tale about being an outsider.
“The Wig” is a far angrier effort. “Malevolent, bitter, glittering,” the critic Conrad Knickerbocker wrote in The New York Times, adding that Mr. Wright’s style was “as mean and vicious a weapon as a rusty hacksaw,” and that he wielded it against blacks as well as whites. The book is an occasionally surreal, comic portrait of a black man, Lester Jefferson, who feels he must hide his blackness to achieve the acceptance and material rewards he thinks he deserves.
“Absolutely Nothing,” most of which had been previously published in columns that Mr. Wright wrote for The Village Voice, is a chronicle of seedy adventures — as a dishwasher and porter, as a lover, as a drunk — that some critics questioned as self-hating, though others found it evocative and disturbing. The three books were republished in a single volume by HarperCollins in 1993.
Charles Stevenson Wright was born June 4, 1932, in New Franklin, Mo. His mother died when he was 4, and his father, a railroad porter, sent him to live with his maternal grandmother. When he was 14, they moved to another central Missouri town, Sedalia.
By that age, Charles was an avid reader and knew he wished to be a writer; he dropped out of high school and spent his days in the library, and according to one story he told the Hodenfield family, he would read magazines in their bound stacks at the railroad station because he knew that once they got to the local drugstore, he wouldn’t be allowed in to look at them.
At 17, having read about the Handy Writers’ Colony in Marshall, Ill., newly founded by the novelist James Jones and others, he went there.
Mr. Wright served in the Army during the Korean War and moved to New York in his 20s. An early novel was rejected by Farrar, Straus, but an editor there encouraged him to write his own story, which became “The Messenger.” Over the next decade, his profligate habits — he told one interviewer his hobbies were smoking and drinking — seized hold of him. Mr. Hodenfield, who in the late 1960s was working at GQ Scene, a magazine for teenage boys, assigned him to write an article about Motown.
“He was a very strange man, and after we met I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to work,’ ” Mr. Hodenfield said. “Then he turned in the most perfect manuscript I’d ever received.”
The two men became friends, and when Mr. Hodenfield saw Mr. Wright, then 44, spiraling into oblivion, he offered him a room in his home. Mr. Wright leaves no survivors.
“He came to stay for a few weeks in 1976,” Mr. Hodenfield said. “And he stayed until just before he turned 64. He was a second father to both my children.”