Julia Wright said she believed that the previously unpublished portions add context to the story of a man’s adventure in the sewers, a realistic dimension to an otherwise fantastical tale. “We need what’s happened in the daylight, in the critical daylight, to understand the change that Fred Daniels goes through in the underground,” she said.
Some of the first readers of Wright’s manuscript were taken aback by the brutality of those daylight scenes. Kerker Quinn, the editor of the literary quarterly Accent, called them “unbearable” in the margins of his copy. After Harper & Brothers rejected the novel, Quinn included two short excerpts in the magazine in 1942, focusing solely on scenes in Daniels’s underground cave. In 1944, the story — without the novel’s first section — was published in the anthology “Cross Section,” and a similarly truncated version was later included in a collection of Wright’s short stories, “Eight Men.”
“It’s not by accident that it was not published back in the 1940s,” his grandson, Malcolm Wright, said in an interview.
Comments like Quinn’s, along with the cuts made to the novel, suggest that editors and publishers were uncomfortable with the original book’s subject matter and tone, John Kulka, the editorial director of Library of America, said in an interview.
While “Native Son” also featured scenes of violence — some of which Wright cut or revised at the request of the influential Book-of-the-Month Club — the Black protagonist, Bigger Thomas, had victims who were both white and Black, and his story seemed to traffic in the tropes, as James Baldwin argued in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that appealed to white sympathies.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” offered no such appeal. “It’s an immensely Black book,” said Kiese Laymon, a writer who counts Wright among his influences and read the Library of America version before its publication. “There’s no character in this book that white liberals can be like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ That’s a hard sell sometimes.”
In the included essay “Memories of My Grandmother,” Wright explained the genesis of the novel, writing that he was inspired by his Seventh-day Adventist grandmother, the structure of blues lyrics, the “Invisible Man” films of the 1930s, the writing of Gertrude Stein and the arrival of surrealism in America. Laymon described the book as both a critique of the justice system and an “internal, surrealist Black story, from a Black space told to Black spaces and places and people.”