Cover Image: The Man Who Lived Underground: A Novel

The Man Who Lived Underground: A Novel

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Published by Library of America on April 20, 2021

Richard Wright (1908-60) was not a particularly prolific writer, but he wrote two of the most important books of the last century. Black Boy (1945), a largely autobiographical account of racism in Wright’s younger years that he blended with fiction, and Native Son (1940), a fictional account of the racism and poverty that underlies the crimes committed by the protagonist, are among the most powerful books of their time.

Wright published “The Man Who Lived Underground” as a short story in 1942. The story was condensed from a short novel that Library of America has, for the first time, published in full. Accompanying the novel is an essay, “Memories of My Grandmother,” that Wright hoped would be published with the novel.

The protagonist is Fred Daniels, a young black man who lives with his wife, attends White Rock Baptist Church, and works for the Wootens, a prominent white family. When the police stop him as he is leaving work, he assumes that those credentials, mixed with the deference and respect he has learned to give white people (and particularly police officers) whether they have earned it or not, will convince the police to let him go about his business. He’s not so lucky.

A neighbor of the Wootens was murdered. Since Fred is black and in the area when the police begin to investigate, they decide he must be guilty. They isolate him, beat him, confuse him, and do everything they can to convince him of his guilt before having him sign a confession that he doesn’t read.

Fred eventually seizes an opportunity to flee. Hearing police sirens, Fred escapes down a partially open manhole. He then lives for a period of time underground. Fred discovers a series of connecting tunnels and breaks into a basement with a deteriorating foundation by loosening some bricks. He steals tools that he uses to break into other basements.

While living underground, Fred observes the outside world. He contemplates the services at a black church. He sees a man stealing money from a safe and decides to do the same. He breaks through the basement of a jewelry store where a night watchman is sleeping and steals watches and diamonds. Later, Fred sees that the same cops who framed him are blaming others, including the night watchman, for crimes that he committed. He feels overwhelming guilt, one of the themes Wright explored in Native Son.

Fred quickly loses touch with the world and with himself as he lives in the dark. He feels nothing when he sees a dead baby that someone abandoned in the sewer. When he gets his hands on cash and jewels, none of it seems real. He can’t spend the money; he wants to keep it around so he can look at it. He starts to think of aboveground as “something less than reality, less than sight and sound, less even than memory.”

As the story nears its resolution, Fred decides to emerge from the underground and to atone for his crimes, as his religion taught him to do. Unsurprisingly to all except Fred, the story does not end well for him.

Racism in law enforcement is an important theme, but the novel also explores the impact of religion on Fred’s life. Living underground gives him a new perspective. “When he had sung and prayed with his brothers and sisters in church, he always felt what they felt; but here in the underground, distantly sundered from them, he saw a defenseless nakedness in their lives that made him disown them.” Living underground empowers Fred to reject all that he has been taught.

Wright’s essay about his grandmother expands upon the role of religion in black American life. Wright explains that religion was the dominant force in his grandmother’s life (she was a Seventh Day Adventist) and that he wrote The Man Who Lived Underground to depict “the religious impulses” among black people. Wright did not understand how his grandmother could embrace humanity as a whole while having such callous disregard for individual humans. That is a question that puzzles many about people who are not true to the religious values that they espouse.

The novel and the essay are just as timely today as they were when Wright wrote them. Readers who are interested in the history of black fiction and those who just want to read a powerful story should be happy that The Man Who Lived Underground has been published in its full length.


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Fred is a laborer who is nabbed by the police one evening as he is going home from work. They suspect that he robbed and murdered his employers’ neighbors, based on no evidence other than that he is a convenient Negro. The police interrogate, beat, torture and trick Fred until he confesses to the murders that he did not commit. When an opportunity presents itself, Fred runs away and hides in the sewer. From there, he finds that he can gain entry to various businesses and also eavesdrop on the occupants. As his mental state deteriorates, Fred gains knowledge that both changes and dooms him.

As I listened to this audiobook, I kept thinking that it was important to have this published. However, I wasn’t enjoying it very much. I preferred the parts of the story that bookended Fred’s time underground. This was previously published as a short story and maybe I would have liked that more. Included in the audiobook, and ebook, is an essay titled “Memories of my Grandmother” which ties certain of the author’s experiences to the book. I can’t say that the essay helped me much.

The audiobook was read by Ethan Herisse. I believe that he is an actor, which surprised me because his reading was very flat. A more experienced narrator might have done a better job. 3.5 stars rounded up because of the author.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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I don’t think I like this book very much.. I really wanted to like it because, well, it’s Richard Wright author of Native Son but I just .. don’t! It started off very good. A black man randomly walking down the street gets stopped by the cops and accused of murdering a white Family and is tortured and abused into admitting to the crime. Then he escapes and descends into the sewer and finds his way in total darkness into several basements stealing food, money and other stuff. The whole underground part to me was meaningless to me. If it was supposed to be symbolic for something, it just didn’t resonate with me. The only thing I did like was Wright’s style of writing that’s filled with lots of imagery but the plot itself seemed very incomplete

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This short story was riveting and sadly not much has changed about the world since the original story was written. It angered and saddened me the more I read it simply because nothing has changed at all.

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After reading this book, I'm not surprised that the book wasn't published years ago when it was first written. Some people don't want to know the truth. And although it was written years ago, It could have been ripped from today's headlines. a man is walking home from work and is arrested and accused of murder. He is able to escape and goes into the sewer to hide underground. OMG, this story just took my breath away. I am so glad this book was finally able to be released to the public.

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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.

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Yesterday I found myself so captivated by a Richard Wright book his 1940s publisher rejected that I completed it in one late-night sitting. Library of America has worked with Wright’s estate to bring The Man Who Lived Underground, a long-lost novela, to timely public attention. Publishers Weekly points out its relevance: “Wright makes the impact of racist policy palpable as the story builds to a gut-wrenching ending. . . . The nightmarish tale of racist terror resonates.”

As the book opens, Fred Daniels, a black man in his thirties, leaves his job at Mr. and Mrs. Wootens’ home to return to his pregnant wife due to give birth any day. Before he reaches the bus stop, two officers confront him, demanding, “What are you doing out here?” Despite his efforts to persuade them to contact his white employers or the minister of the church where he teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir, they haul him to the station and savagely beat him until he falsely confesses to the robbery and brutal murder of the Wootens’ nextdoor neighbors.

Later hauling Daniels to the crime scene to gauge his reaction, the officers decide to take him for a brief visit to his wife, reasoning that everyone will have to agree they have treated him well. When they find his wife in labor, they drive her to the hospital. Once there, Daniels manages to escape the distracted officers. Hearing sirens, he lifts a manhole cover and flees underground.

Living in the sewer system, he does and witnesses things that change his mental outlook. Gradually, he convinces himself he must return to the surface where he faces a strange and unpredictable second encounter with the police. The tragi-comic conversation that ensues determines the ending.

Today I completed the three supplementary essays. Wright’s “Memories of My Grandmother,” contemporaneous with the novella, recalls the disengaged woman who raised him and influenced The Man Who Lived Underground. Wright also ponders other factors—such as surrealism, blues and jazz, a magazine article, a personal experience, and the Prometheus myth—that influenced the book. Grandson Malcolm Wright, a filmmaker and conservationist who grew up in Europe as a result of Wright’s eventual move to France, has written the “Afterword” in which he discusses his reaction to reading the typescript as a teen. “My sixteen-year-old self,” he observes, “felt that in this story of Fred Daniels, Wright was telling us, his children and grandchildren, what he had left behind by leaving America. What he had allowed us not to experience.” To the many influences his grandfather discusses in “Memories of My Grandmother,” the younger Wright adds Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” part of The Republic, which he knows to have been part of his grandfather’s library. Finally, the publisher’s “Notes on the Texts,” sheds light on the possible reasons for rejection based on clues in the two original 1940s reader’s notes, the racial climate at the time, another novel that the publisher may have preferred to see follow Native Son, and the task of consulting several typescripts and working extensively with two to produce the published copy.

Originally published only as a short story, Wright’s posthumous novella and the accompanying essays make a priceless contribution to his previously known work.

Thanks to NetGalley and Library of America for the advance copy.

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Richard Wright (Native Son, Black Boy) submitted a draft of this novel to his publisher in 1941 and it was rejected for the content. It was later published as a short story, the full manuscript was found by his daughter Julia at the Beinecke in 2010 and is now being published in full. A young black man is picked up by the police and beaten, no, tortured, into confessing to killing two white people in a robbery - a crime he had not committed and the police had just randomly picked him up simply for being black and proximity. He escaped the police and begins a life underground in the sewers. The first part is difficult to read and the second like reading a parable. Wright’s writing is as wonderful today as it was when he wrote it decades ago.

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The Man Who Lived Underground is a previously unpublished novel by Richard Wright. A version of the story was published as a short story, but no publisher would publish the full novel in Wright’s lifetime. This book tells the story of handyman Fred Daniels, his arrest and forced confession to a double murder that he did not commit. He escapes custody and hides underground in the sewers. He is able to navigate the sewer system and gain entry to different locations via basements collecting things along the way that he surprising seems to attach no value to, although society might beg to differ.

Wright writes with all 5 senses so be prepared to be transported by Fred’s experiences. If you’ve read Native Son then you know what I mean. Wright’s description of the torture Fred endured prior to unknowingly confessing to the murders is visceral. In all honesty I had to take a break. The story got a little slow for me in the middle once Fred made his way underground. It is very cerebral with mostly just Fred’s thoughts pushing the story forward. There are a series of events that seem so unrelated that I was struggling to figure out where it was going. Trust Wright! All of those seemingly disconnected events all come together in the end and make perfect sense. They all play a role in Fred’s eventual fate.

The Man Who Lived Underground is paired with an essay entitled “Memories of My Grandmother” which Wright uses to share how his grandmother inspired his story. It was always Wright’s intention that these two pieces be published together. It’s nice to see an author’s wishes be honored in this way.

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Depressing but really well done. Wright really goes for the hypocrisy and the difficulty of living in a world so unreasonable that every step is a danger.

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While it should have been published as the author intended in its own time, it is a gift that we have this book now in the presence of all that has happened in the past decade.

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Major literary events come around every so often. Richard Wright is the legendary author of Native Son. In about a month, the public will be graced with The Man Who Lived Underground, a previously unpublished novel from the 1940s.

A black man is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder. Fred Daniels is taken to the precinct and tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn't commit. Let me remind you at this point that the same shit happens today in 2021 that happened when Wright wrote this nearly 80 years ago. EIGHTY YEARS AGO. Okay back to my review...

After escaping, Fred takes up residence where no one can find him—underground in the sewers below the streets of Chicago. You can imagine all the possible things he witnessed, feared and experienced. All the while trying not to become the black criminal that society expects of him. The author also depicts the religious impulses among "Negroes" using his grandmother's life as a model. Add in the narrative of being falsely accused and this novel is still relevant today.

The Man Who Lived Underground was written in a different era. When lynching and beatings were widespread. When grown black men were called a "boy" by white men. It is a powerful novel in its full form. But what I enjoyed most was the essay at the end. What a treat to glimpse into Wright's motivations behind writing such a timely novel.

Happy Early Pub Day to the late great Richard Wright! The Man Who Lived Underground will be available Tuesday, April 20.


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When The Man Who Lived Underground was turned down by his publisher in 1940, Richard Wright, perhaps best known today for his novel Native Son, put the manuscript to one side. Shortly afterwards he reworked some of the themes into a short story, which was accepted for publication. The full novel is now published for the first time, with a companion essay “Memories of my Grandmother” and an afterword from his grandson Malcolm Wright, which put the novel into context. And what a novel it is, powerful, moving, and with unavoidable modern resonances, which make reading it a visceral and disturbing experience. It’s the story of Fred Daniels, who while walking home after work one day, is picked up by the police and accused of a double murder. The police are determined to “solve” the case and randomly pick on Daniels as the culprit. He manages to escape their custody, jumps into a manhole, and spends some time underground where his life takes on an almost surreal aspect. As well as being an all too familiar indictment of police brutality towards black men both then and now, the book is also an intriguing allegory of black experience in general, often forced underground, or into the “lower depths”, unseen, but the allegory is never forced or didactic and can, in fact, be ignored, and the work taken as a realistic portrayal of a man on the run. Morality, crime and guilt, racism, culpability and injustice are all explored in this relatively short text, and I found it a compelling read.

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So compelling. Hard to read at times. I was mad, sad, depressed, the book made me have all the feelings. Highly recommend.

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Richard Wright’s books have a way of sticking with you long after you finish reading them. This was true for me when I read Native Son in college and is also true after I recently read his unpublished novel The Man Who Lived Underground. The novel tells the story of a Black man in his late 20s named Fred Daniels. One day he gets picked up by the police and is accused of murder and armed robbery. Fred tells the police he did not do it but they do not believe him. The officers beat him continuously until he confesses to committing the crime. At his first opportunity, Fred escapes from their custody and hides out in the city’s underground sewer system. While he lives underground, Fred becomes a totally different person. He does things he would not normally do, he becomes the thing that White society fears the most, a Black criminal. But this side of Fred does not last for long, he gets sick of the underground. He sees things he doesn’t want to see, the corruption of society and the system. He feels convicted and wants to return aboveground to report what he saw and turn himself in, but doing so will cost him everything.

The Man Who Lived Underground is a powerful book one that will resonate with modern readers even though it was written in the early 1940s. I love Wright’s writing in this novel, he was so vivid in his descriptions especially his details of the underground world. Wright use of alliteration and anaphoras was exceptional.

This novel could be viewed as a philosophical book since Fred learns some hidden truths while living underground. This notion is confirmed when the reader reads “Memories of My Grandmother” by Wright which is the companion essay to the novel. Wright’s daughter stated that this novel could only be published if the essay was published alongside it. In the essay, the author writes about all of the themes that inspired the novel including: his grandmother’s religious identity, invisibility, the Christ legend, the Negro problem, surrealism, jazz music, and the common theme of being falsely accused of something. It’s a long essay but I think it will be a good supplement to read alongside the novel in English classes. In my opinion most readers can go without reading the essay and let the novel stand for itself but I would only recommend it if the reader wants to get in the author’s head on the origins of novel.

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This story sucked me in and it did not let me go! Simply put, it’s a masterpiece.

Thanks to @netgalley and @libraryofamerica for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Richard Wright's The man who lived underground is a harrowing book about racism, a nightmarish journey into the violent depths of discrimination. It's the sad & painful story of Fred Daniel, a young African American man unjustly accused of a murder he didn't commit. After being forced to sign a confession, he manages to flee and hide underground into the sewer system of the city. At the core of this magnificent novel there is human resilience, the strength of the hunted man, the survival instinct of an innocent man. Through his dismal adventures & brief encounters in the dark urban underworld, we witness first-hand how Fred grows, how he matures and how it comes to accept his fate during his hellish flight until his ultimate death.

It was very difficult for me to walk away from this incredible masterpiece of African American fiction. It shook me to the core and will probably haunt me for quite a long time.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Library of America for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel prior to its release date

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The Man Who Lived Underground is a powerful telling of a man unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit and the aftermath of his recovery from the abuse he endures from law enforcement. The world becomes very confusing for this young man as he discovers a new way of living in the darkness of the underworld. Richard Wright characterizes the main character, Fred Daniels, in a way that has the reader feel deeply for the racial discrimination, physical and emotional abuse, and the hardship Daniel’s endures.

This story has you thinking about humanity long after reading it, wondering and questioning about the vicissitudes of human character and what it means to have freedom, let alone obtain freedom. Wright weaves a meticulous tying in of religion within this fictional narrative, portraying conflicts of character to self and character to the world.

I highly recommend this book and feel it is a must-read.

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Richard Wright is my favorite author so when I saw that this book was forthcoming I knew I had to request a prepub edition. Netgalley provided me a copy in exchange for a review.

I read Wright's "Native Son" and was instantly enamored by his writing. I've read all of his fiction and consider his lesser-known works such as "The Long Dream," "Lawd Today!," and "The Outsider" as near perfect novels.

The Man Who Lived Underground was originally published as a short story and included in the "Eight Men" anthology. This is the full, unedited story published for the first time.

It is very classically Wright in content, but the writing style is different. I feel that it still feels unfinished, even though the afterward essay (also penned by Wright) deems it as complete.

I still believe everyone should read this story, but it's not the same Wright that I know.

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<i>The Man Who Lived Underground</i> is a fictional novel of a man who escapes one world to live in another. Fred Daniels is a decent family man who suffers through a false accusation, escapes, and then returns to a confusing world. <i>The Man Who Lived Underground</i> was written by the renowned author Richard Wright.

Fred Daniels is coming home from work one night when he's pulled over by three policeman who accuse him of having murdered two people. They beat him all night long and in the morning they to take them to the house where a murder has taken place. They take him home to see his wife. During the visit his wife goes into labour so the police rush Fred and his wife to the hospital. While in the hospital Fred manages to escape and he hides in a sewer. While in the sewer and he is able to observe businesses around town by digging a hole into their basements and observing the people from his hiding place. When he finally leaves the sewer and goes back to the police station he experiences a whole series of unexpected events.

The story is extremely well written. Wright’s descriptions are so true to life that you feel as though you are experiencing the horrific the beatings. His writing evokes strong emotions throughout.

Although this book describes an era when lynching and beatings are widespread, the book is so much more than that. It is not at all what you expect. The story is an allegory which is totally beyond description in this review. Fred Daniel's life underground becomes a major part of the story. His return to life above ground is truly a surprise.

This book is meant for people who like truly different and surprising stories that make you think. I give it a 4 on 5. I want to thank NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a digital copy of this novel. I have provided this honest review voluntarily.

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