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American writer Richard Wright sitting at the table in Italy for the publication of the book "Black power" in Milan, 1957. Photo: Mondadori via Getty Images

An unpublished novel about race and police violence by one of the 20th century's most influential African American writers is set to be released 80 years after publishers rejected it.

Why it matters: The publication of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" comes as the nation faces questions around systemic racism in media, as social media videos of police treatment of Black residents go viral, and as the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd dominates the news.

Driving the news: "The Man Who Lived Underground" will be released by Library of America on April 20 along with an unpublished essay by Wright, "Memories of My Grandmother."

  • The writer's eldest daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed the unpublished work years ago at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and approached Library of America about releasing it.
  • Portions of the novel were included in a short story published in 1944 and in a posthumous 1961 collection, but a complete version never made it to publication.

The details: The novel follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who is framed by police for a double murder he did not commit.

  • After being tortured and forced to confess, Daniels escapes from police custody and disappears into the city's underground sewer system, where he observes the world by looking up.
  • American publishers refused to touch the novel with such intense subject matter on racism and police brutality in the 1940s, even after Wright gained international fame for his 1940 novel, "Native Son."
  • "I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom, or expressed myself in a way that flowed more naturally from my own personal background, reading, experience, and feelings than 'The Man Who Lived Underground,'" Wright wrote in an essay.
Richard Wright's novel to be released April 20. Photo: Library of America.

The intrigue: An extensive study by Library of America looking at manuscripts, notes, and letters found that Wright worked on the novel between 1941 to 1942 after moving from Harlem to Brooklyn.

  • Harper & Brothers rejected the novel. Kerker Quinn, a faculty member at the University of Illinois and editor of a small literary magazine, thought the depiction of police brutality against a Black man was "unbearable."

Malcolm Wright, the writer's grandson, writes in an afterword of the novel that he sees his grandfather tackling the isolation felt by people of color while connecting it to Plato's allegory of the cave.

  • "In these pages, he had poetically distilled the rewarding and dangerous conditions of Otherness (dwelling on the periphery of society), a theme at work in almost all of this writings," the 46-year-old grandson wrote.

Don't forget: Wright eventually fled racism in the U.S. for France.

  • James Baldwin would criticize "Native Son" for being a mere protest novel filled with caricatures and a main character who has no agency in fighting against racism.
  • University of Houston English professor and Black literature scholar Cedric Tolliver said the new novel seems to be in contrast to "Native Son," in that Fred Daniels takes actions as opposed to being a victim of his environment.

Richard Wright died in November 1960 after a heart attack in Paris. He was 52.

Go deeper

Updated Apr 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Police chief and officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright resign

Protesters in front of the Brooklyn Center police station on April 13. Photo: Christopher Mark Juhn/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Kim Potter, identified as the officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a weekend traffic stop near Minneapolis, resigned from her position "effectively immediately," Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said in a statement Tuesday.

What's new: Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon also submitted his resignation letter on Tuesday, Elliott said at a press conference. Elliot also called on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to turn the case over to Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is currently prosecuting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

Apr 13, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

Fallout over Daunte Wright shooting continues

A second night of protests over the police shooting of Daunte Wright unfolded in Brooklyn Center Monday, as a large crowd defied a curfew and pleas from city leaders to go home.

Driving the news: “We are going to get to the bottom of this. We are going to make sure that there’s justice, that this officer is held accountable," Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott told demonstrators in an effort to calm tensions after dark.

Updated Apr 15, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

In photos: 4th night of Twin Cities protests after Daunte Wright shooting

Demonstrators protesting the April 11 death of Daunte Wright use umbrellas for protection from pepper spray and rubber bullets outside the Brooklyn Center police station on April 14.

Brooklyn Center officials imposed a curfew for a fourth straight day Wednesday, as law enforcement and demonstrators protesting the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright faced off into the night.

The big picture: The Star Tribune reports the scene was calmer than previous nights, with most protesters leaving by 10:30p.m after an unlawful assembly was declared and dispersal orders issued. Police deployed "occasional gas canisters" and sprayed chemicals at protesters who neared the police station fence, and some demonstrators threw objects, AP notes.