Text: Michel Fabre, “Black Cat and White Cat: Richard Wright’s Debt to Edgar Allan Poe,” from Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:17-19


[page 17, column 1:]

Black Cat and White Cat: Richard Wright’s Debt to Edgar Allan Poe

Universite de Paris

In enumerating such requirements for literary success as “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and the mystical” (1), Edgar Allan Poe certainly spoke from experience. That is, he sought those literary qualities with avidity, for he felt that to really be appreciated, one must be read. And read he was, not only by his contemporaries but also by twentieth-century readers lured by similar fascinations~and especially by a young black American writer named Richard Wright. Tales of horror and imagination were the favorite reading of Richard Wright, who had his first significant literary experience when a fearless teenager told him the tale of Bluebeard in the household of his book-hating Seventh Day Adventist grandmother. This gruesome story was the first experience in his life that elicited from him a total emotional response (2). It certainly paved the way for his inordinate love of melodrama, murder stories and ghastly settings.

Among the books and magazines he read in his youth, Wright lists not only Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, but also Flynn’s Detective Weekly and Argosy All-Story Magazine. One of his favorite tales is that of “a renowned scientist who had rigged up a mystery room made of metal in the basement of his palatial home. Prompted by some obscure motive, he would lure his victims into his room and then throw an electric switch. Slowly, with heart-racking agony, the air would be sucked from the metal room and his victims would die, turning red, blue, then black.” He comments: “This was what I wanted, tales like this. I had not read enough to have developed any taste of reading” (Black Boy, pp. 34 35).

Although he later developed a taste for the realistic fiction of Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, Wright never forgot this version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” brought up to date to foreshadow the horrors of the gas chamber. The first story which Wright recalls writing at the age of twelve was indebted to the dual influence of frontier romanticism and of the frail heroines of Edgar Allan Poe.

More significant is the presence of Poe’s main works among the scanty hundred volumes Wright possessed before becoming the author of Native Son. Of the collection, Volume IV of the Complete Works, published by Harpers at the beginning of the century, comprised Poe’s criticism. A secondhand copy of Poems and Tales. printed in 1924 for the University Publishing Company, included “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” “The Bells,” “The Raven,” “Eldorado,” “Coliseum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Descent into the Maelstrom,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Ligeia,” and “The Gold-Bug.” It is very likely that Wright, having discovered and enjoyed Poe to the point of buying these books, did his best to secure the rest of [column 2:] his works in the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, where they were readily available. At a later date, he also bought Volume III of the 1876 Widdleton Edition of Poe’s works. We may therefore assume that he was more conversant with Poe’s fiction and aesthetic theories than the average student would have been.

An early debt to Poe’s technique as a story teller is to be found in Wright’s first preserved story. Written in 1930, its title is, significantly, “Superstition,” and the caption reads: “Each year the family held a reunion— each year death claimed its toll—was it superstition—or was it fate?” (3). At the end of a leisurely dinner with two friends, when the conversation turned to subjects of a weird and mysterious nature, the first-person narrator relates “a baffling incident that defied explanation” (p. 45). The experience is simple: having to spend the night in a small Southern town, the young man has to stay with the Lancaster family, which takes guests, because all the hotels are full. The younger daughter, Lillian, has no sooner expressed her fear of the superstition which entails death to a member of a household at a family reunion when her brothers arrive for an unexpected Christmas visit. She dies in the night of acute pneumonia. When chance brings the visitor back to Koogan a year later, curiosity prompts him to stay with the Lancasters again, and, this time, Mrs. Lancaster dies of a heart attack after the ominous fall of Lillian’s portrait from above the mantlepiece and a second unexpected visit of the two brothers.

Wright owes much to Poe’s technique of describing the setting in order to suggest an eerie, dreary atmosphere. The beginning of “Superstition,” with “houses standing out like gaunt sores against the bleak sky, . . . . the incessant rain, the cold and penetrating damp, the overhanging gloom . . . . in the far distance the mournful whistle of a departing train, the faint and musical tinkle of a cowbell, a solitary dog, the monotonous beat of rain” (pp. 4546), seems a clumsy attempt at recreating the opening note of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Usher family and their mansion are analogous—crumbling from within, stained with time; so do the Lancaster parents and their wooden house, used up as they are, decline together. Mrs. Lancaster is “exceptionally frail, so frail that she seemed to cling to life by bare effort . . . . her eyes entirely lifeless, so sunken were they” (p. 46). Her husband is “a bent and aged man, somewhat older than she, dressed in a loose-fitting black suit, and whose head was wrapped in a black silk skull cap” (p. 46). Although cozy, the room, “with an abnormally high ceiling across which flitted fantastic shadows from a blazing log fire seemed heir to a blanket of decay and melancholy” (p. 46).

As for Lillian, she seems a sepia Ligeia, a beautiful yet disembodied, consumptive beauty. “Her narrow face, pale and emaciated, attracted me. Her hair was brushed backward and revealed a broad, bulging forehead, below which, shining in contrast to her pallid features, were a pair of dark, sunken eyes. The most unusual thing about her was a timid and perpetual smile, a smile that seemed melancholy and slightly cynical. A peculiar air of resignation pervaded her whole being” (p. 47) . Lillian is the victim, marked for sacrifice by an unseen hand.

More interesting is Wright’s use of Poe’s habit of [page 18:] blending the uncanny and the natural by postulating hidden but rational laws governing the action, as is particularly apparent in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In “Superstition,” the reader is left with a dual explanation: Lillian and her mother die for natural reasons (of pneumonia and a heart attack), but the coincidence, in place and in time, equally vindicates the supernatural explanation expressed by the popular saying about family reunions. The mystery here is related to chance, but mostly to a strange correspondence between externals and psychology where the “objective correlative” takes on an active role. The arresting attributes of both works are the creation of the atmosphere and the disruption of mental states, the early work of Wright being clumsier in that respect. In realizing that a situation replete with horror is more catching by being vague, Wright tries to make fear more terrible through ambiguity. “At that moment the coming tragedy cast its shadow, and that shadow, like all the shadows that attend human events, was unseen by human eyes. The causes in our lives that later develop into glaring effects are so minute, originate in such commonplace incidents that we pass them casually, unthinking, only to look back and marvel” (p. 64). Here the moralist breaks the dramatic suspense by his intrusion. Elsewhere, the same effect is more appropriately achieved to bring the reader back to the teller of the tale in his Chicago setting: “I shall never, as long as I breathe, forget that silence. In that silence, there was revealed, hideously and repellently, the stark nakedness of the fearful hearts of a primitive folk—fearful hearts bowing abjectly to the terror of an unknown created by their own imaginations. . . . . The very contents of their inmost hearts were laid bare in that one moment: the unreasoning fear of death” (p. 73). Having pretended to share the characters ’ fears and feelings, the narrator now steps aside and poses as a rationalist.

Despite their differences, Wright owes his nineteenth-century master more than he admits; they are more akin than one thinks. Both share similar experiences; their imagination has measured the limits of terror in real earnest because a hostile world has assaulted their souls and left them shaken; both, feeling cut off from the average man by their talent, resist authority and will concede to the superiority of no one but themselves. Art, based on first-hand data and autobiography, is for them a means of escape and self-realization. They share the same liking for psychiatric case histories, where they find valuable source material; the grim existential importance of terror, death, depression, or in Poe’s case, dissolution of personality, compels them to treat these subjects other than as merely good material for a horror story in the Gothic or the melodramatic tradition. Wright’s fascination for the roots of religious belief and for the unexplainable motives of human behavior brings him the closer to Poe’s sounding of the malevolent powers of man’s soul. Both authors deal in delusions, dread, and dreams, their work a tissue of nightmares in which symbolism takes over naturalism, although Wright concentrates more upon factual truth and Poe more on the fantasies of a cerebral logician. Their dreaming is a form of social criticism and. clearly, a way to escape from the shocks and vulgarities of life, be it a world of brutal racial discrimination or one of debts, social snubs, and [column 2:] petty intrigues.

Among the few American writers to whom Wright occasionally alluded, Poe’s name is ranked with Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, Twain, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson as literary artists who made major attempts to deal with their times. Around 1937, Wright judges that Poe “hid in the shadows of a dream world, a region almost akin to the Heaven of the surrealists” (4), while Melville dramatized his conflict with society in pessimistic, emotional terms. Three years later, he thinks again of Poe, this time as the representative of horror: “We have only a money-grubbing civilization but we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him” (5).

The last quotation could be drawn directly from the plea pronounced by Max, the Communist lawyer who tries in vain to rescue Bigger Thomas before a self-righteous court in Native Son. It makes use of a too obvious Gothic imagery which immediately recalls Poesque metaphors and scenes (6). Likewise, the comparisons of vacant houses with skulls, “empty buildings with black windows like blind eyes, buildings like skeletons standing with snow on their bones” (p. 147), or “tall, snow-covered buildings whose many windows gaped blackly, like the eye-sockets of empty skulls” (p. 196) are reminiscent of the luminous, red-lit windows of “The Haunted Palace.” An autodidact, Wright certainly first learnt from Poe words like “pallid,” “sunken,” or, in a more obvious case, “oblong.” For Wright, “oblong” inevitably alludes to a coffin and to death, as in “The Oblong Box.” The word recurs with that connotation throughout his fiction, but particularly in Native Son: “the oblong black belt” (p. 266) on the Chicago map hems the fugitive like a cell and the “oblong, sheet-covered table” (p. 280) on which Bessie’s corpse is brought to the tribunal recalls the oblong, empty mound of coals left by Mary’s burnt body.

Still more striking is the use of “The Black Cat” in Wright’s Native Son. It would be too easy to speak of a mere literary finding. As we learn from Black Boy, his autobiography, Wright recorded two important traumatic events of his early youth: the time when he set fire to his grandmother’s house, starting with the white curtains, and his hanging of a kitten with a string, apparently as a gesture of resentment against his father. Both episodes brought a strong sense of guilt to the four- or five-year-old boy. This personal psychological background may have increased the impression that Poe’s tale (in which the hero hangs the cat to the limb of a tree, and in which he finds the curtains of his bed in flame) made upon Wright’s sensibilities. For him, the tale was linked with personal guilt, and he had no trouble recreating, half-unconsciously, a situation in which the fire, the cat, and the obsessive guilt are linked. These influences crystallized in the basement scene of Native Son, when the white cat of Mrs. Dalton looks at Mary’s murderer, and upon another occasion, jumps upon his shoulders at the very moment when Bigger fears being discovered by the reporters. Mrs. Dalton, blind as she is and dressed in

flowing white robes, already seems like a ghost (cf. p. 40); her cat is the embodiment of her intuitive knowledge of the situation; it is the eye of justice looking at Bigger. Its eyes, at first “large placid eyes” (p. 41), turn into “two green pools—pools of accusation and guilt—staring at him from a white blur that sat perched upon the edge of the wink” (p. 78) .

Bigger’s reaction is typical of Poe’s murderer: “It was the white cat and its round green eyes gazed past him at the white face hanging limply from the fiery furnace door. God! He closed his mouth and swallowed. Should he catch the cat and put it into the furnace too? He made a move. The cat stood up; its white fur bristled; its back arched. He tried to grab it and it bounded past him with a long wail of fear” (p. 79). This symbolically white (the colors are inverted) cat plays the part of the tell-tale heart in a scene destined to show the murderer’s fright. To create suspense, Wright makes use of the literary culture of his reader: when the cat leaps upon Bigger’s shoulder at the moment when the host of newspapermen are searching intently for clues, Bigger feels that “the cat had given him away, had pointed him out as the murderer of Mary. He tried to lift the cat down, but the claws clutched the coat. The silver lightning flashed in his eyes and he knew that the men had taken pictures of him with the cat poised upon his shoulder” (p. 171).

Here the situation and the symbolical use of the cat are unmistakably Poesque. But the central episode of the novel—once the reader can step back from the psychological suspense and the social protest—is one long, melodramatic murder story, from the unreal bower of the rich heiress’s bedroom with its flowing drapes, blurred outlines, and the ghost-like appearance of the blind mother at the door, to the fiery atmosphere of the basement where Bigger performs his gory task. Equally fantastic is the icy blizzard of the Chicago night, from mouldy room to empty, crumbling house, in a world of angry rats, cockroaches, clinging cobwebs, and blood trickling from Bessie’s crushed head in the room “filled with quiet and cold and death and blood and the deep moan of the night wind” (p. 202) .

In later novels, the influence of horror tales, of the dime novel all more or less indebted to Poe—on Wright’s fiction dwindled greatly. The Outsider, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream evince a definite appeal for violence, murder, and blood. The treatment, however, is more psychoanalytical and far less macabre. What Wright may have learnt from Poe was that his own liking for the type of abnormality which is precisely at the border between insanity and the normality of the “average man”— a liking he shared with Dostoevsky, among others—could be used in literature in a way which went further than simply getting the reader involved, a way that forced him to accept abnormality as normal.



(1) “Letter to Thomas White” in Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1948), pp. 57-58.

(2) “The tale made the world around me throb, live. As she spoke reality changed, the look of things around me altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences.... I hungered [column 2:] for the sharp, frightening, breath-taking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders.” Black Boy (New York: Harpers, 1945), pp. 34-35.

(3) “Superstition,” Abbott’s Monthly Magazine (April 1931), p. 46. All page references are to this edition. I am indebted to the editors of PN for pointing out that Dan McCall in The Example of Richard Wright ( New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969), pp. 70-71, has also briefly touched on Wright’s debt to Poe in “Superstition” and Native Son; my own—more detailed— conclusions were arrived at before I had read his study. Kenneth Kinnamon, to whose thesis, “The Emergence of Richard Wright,” McCall failed to acknowledge his debts, first wrote about that point in 1966.

(4) “Personalism,” unpublished article, circa 1937, p. 1. Quoted with the permission of Mrs. Ellen Wright.

(5) “How ‘Bigger ’ Was Born,” in Native Son (New York: Harpers, 1940), p. 1. All page references are to this edition.

(6) “We have thought to thrust a corpse from before our eyes .... The corpse is not dead! It still lives! It has made itself a home in the wild foresee of our great cities, amid the rank and choking vegetation of slums! It has forgotten our language! In order to live it has sharpened its claws!” (Native Son, p. 331).


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]