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Alas Poor Richard

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Alas Poor Richard

“Alas, Poor Richard" is an essay by American writer and public intellectual James Baldwin. Originally published in The Reporter and Encounter magazine, it was republished in the collection Nobody Knows My Name (1961). The essay, written as a memoir, explores Baldwin’s relationship with his late idol and mentor, Richard Wright.

“Alas, Poor Richard”: James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born on August 2nd, 1924. He grew up in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. Baldwin was the first child of his mother. She married his stepfather, whom he referred to as Dad, and never knew his biological father. Growing up, he read books and watched films. Encouragement from a school teacher fostered his interest in writing, particularly plays. As a young writer, Baldwin idolized Richard Wright, who was sixteen years his senior.

“Alas, Poor Richard”: Purpose

James Baldwin was originally commissioned to write the memoir for Richard Wright in the literary journal The Reporter. The purpose of the piece was to be a reflection on his relationship with Richard Wright. Additional parts were added later, with a third part in the final publication in the collection Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin intended to focus on the remembrance of Richard Wright, but it also became an exploration of Black identity and success as an artist and writer.

“Alas, Poor Richard”: Summary

Baldwin feels that unless a writer dies at a very old age, their death seems premature. A true writer is continually changing. Writers strive for success, so they are intimately familiar with defeat. They can never truly know if they’ve achieved their “intentions.” It may feel that right before death, they came closest to realizing their greatest achievements.

From Baldwin’s perspective, Richard Wright was approaching a new phase as a writer. Wright has died in Paris, France, at age fifty-two. Writers are a sort of paradox. They want everything and nothing. A writer’s ego tests his relationships. Often the writer creates an impasse between their work and their readers. One reader remarked that Wright’s work seems more relevant a couple of decades later. Baldwin begins to suspect that maybe Wright was not quite the controversial figure he thought himself to be.

Richard Wright had died suddenly and unexpectedly. The memoir follows Baldwin's feelings in the immediate aftermath.

Despite his acceptance in intellectual circles, no one appreciated Richard Wright for what he was. Wright referred to Paris as a refuge for Black people. Baldwin countered that having an American passport gave Black American’s a privileged experience in Europe compared to African immigrants. Wright's later works had settings in Europe, but to Baldwin, they still retained the “landscape” of his Southern American experience. If anything, they’re more about Black identity in a white world.

In “Man of All Work,” a Black man dresses in his wife’s clothes to get work. “Man, God Ain’t Like That” is about a French artist showing off his African servant as exotic. “The Man Who Killed a Shadow” is a fantasy about rape and murder that never comes true. To Baldwin, these stories fill a space with violence that should be instead about sex. Baldwin argues it’s because the body of myths that concern the “figure” of the Black man is second to none. He is essentially punished for the fears, desires, and “sexual paranoia” of the white imagination. The root of the violence is unexamined, and it comes from deep-seated rage from the imprisonment of the Black male body.

Richard Wright was Baldwin’s hero. America, Europe, and Africa didn’t understand or appreciate him. He couldn’t imagine the difficulty of writing this memoir for Wright. Baldwin found in Wright’s work, for the first time, someone who touched upon the “sorrow, rage, and the murderous bitterness” that was consuming him. Wright became his “ally, witness, and …father.”

Alas Poor Richard, Richard Wright portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Richard Wright inspired Baldwin to write about the Black experience.

Separated by almost two decades in age, Baldwin met Wright, who became his mentor. Baldwin is now the age that Wright was when they met: thirty-six. He agreed to read some of Baldwin’s work and ultimately helped him win a fellowship to support his work. Baldwin regrets that they never became friends, as they could have reconciled their very different world views. Being young and lacking confidence, he thought Wright was ashamed of him (when he wasn’t) and hid himself.

Baldwin did meet Wright one more time before Wright left for Paris, France. Wright was invited to be an honored guest by the French government. As an artist and Black man, Wright had already received rejection in America and wondered what it would be like to live as an exile in France. Baldwin later renounced America and joined Wright in leaving for Paris.

Abroad, Baldwin wrote for Zero magazine an essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In an interview following its publication, Wright claimed that the essay was a “betrayal.” Baldwin had mentioned Native Son (1940) towards the end, and Wright, being the author, felt attacked. Baldwin realizes that he had idolized Wright, which dehumanized him. This charged exchange became an irreconcilable difference that Baldwin and Wright would never resolve, though they saw each other a few times after in the company of others. Baldwin believes the nearly two-decade age difference, and not experiencing the American South, was the source of the divide between him and Wright.

Baldwin hopes he has “set the record ‘straight’“ but is “doubtful” that he has ever settled an account. What he really wanted from Richard Wright was to be seen as his own man with his own “vision.” Wright proved to Baldwin and others that he could escape the slums of Mississippi and Chicago. All a writer needs are those who can see them for who they are and not be swept up in the “hullabaloo.”

Baldwin believes the irreconcilable difference between Wright and himself extended to anyone who challenged Wright’s ”system of reality.” Wright’s friends felt he was drifting away from his “roots” by living abroad so long. Baldwin resisted this “judgment” because, as an expatriate himself, it could also be used against him. An African remarked that Wright believed himself to be “white.” Baldwin resisted this as well, because he did not consider himself white. He also understood that to a native of Africa, Baldwin was hardly the “purest or dependable of black men.”

Alas Poor Richard, James Baldwin young portrait, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Being a younger generation than Wright, Baldwin had not experienced the American Deep South.

Baldwin reflects on his “blackness.” His dark skin color has always been disliked by other Blacks, whites, and himself. Yet, he was a “paleface” among Africans. He “envies and fears” them. To illustrate his point, posits a very real example of two Black men meeting at an otherwise all-white cocktail party. They will both wonder: how did the other get there? Is he “for real? Or is he kissing ass?” Wright once said that all Blacks are giving a performance in a white world.

It is not possible to “overstate” the price a Black man pays to “climb out of obscurity.” If a Black man becomes exceptional, then other exceptional Black men watch to see if they both understand the double standard at play. Richard Wright hoped to address this by forming a lobby that pressured American businesses and government in Paris to proportionally hire Black men. Ultimately, Wright, Baldwin, and others created a fellowship group in Paris. Baldwin was skeptical, and felt that Wright was detached from the reality shared by others, too concerned with his white intellectual social circles. Wright had “estranged” himself from all the other young Black writers in Paris.

Alas Poor Richard, James Baldwin gives speech, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Baldwin often gave speeches to American and European audiences.

Many Africans and Algerians strongly disliked Wright. They believed he cared more about his comfort and standing than the Black condition. Baldwin feared, as an expatriate, he could become like Wright too. So, when Wright proclaimed his rage, they dismissed it. The American Black person pays a “high price” for white acceptance. It produces an inescapable hatred of oneself and others. He believes Wright was a “victim” of this. Though Baldwin believes it is no longer important to be white, he also hopes it will no longer be important to be Black either.1

“Alas, Poor Richard”: Analysis

While “Alas, Poor Richard” is a memoir of his mentor and idol Richard Wright, it also explores Black identity, specifically Black males in a white world. Baldwin feared becoming an intellectual exile like Wright, despite their artistic differences. Three recurring themes in the essay are Black identity and roots, white acceptance, and Artistic Identity.

Black Identity and Roots

Baldwin believes the major difference between Wright and himself was that Wright experienced the American Deep South. Wright was dismissive of young Black writers who grew up in the north, like Baldwin. Wright was part of a generation who experienced the Great Migration, whereas Baldwin grew up in the Black neighborhood of Harlem. Baldwin became an expatriate like Wright and moved to Paris. He feared the rejection and loss of connection to the Black community that he witnessed happen to Wright, who seemed to forget his “roots” while living abroad.

White Acceptance

Being accepted as a Black in the white world felt like a paradox to Baldwin. On the one hand, it meant some level of success to be invited to white intellectual circles. On the other hand, other Black Americans were skeptical of the acceptance. Baldwin feared becoming like Wright, who was “exiled” by the American, European, and then African communities. His work and speeches seemed to be disconnected from the Black experience.

Alas Poor Richard, James Baldwin surrounded by white celebrities, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Baldwin was wary of white acceptance as a Black writer.

Baldwin shares a story of an African who said that Wright believed himself to be white. While not literal, it referred to the comfort of the white world that Wright enjoyed. Many Blacks viewed his success with suspicion. When Wright tried to form a Black social club in Paris, he was criticized for being overly concerned with the approval of the white intellectuals.

Artistic Identity

Baldwin believes a true artist should grow and change over time. Failure is a defining part of the writer’s experience, so much so that it’s hard to know when one is “successful.” Baldwin spent many years trying to get work published. He was dismissed by publishers for being too young.

Failure also refers to not only rejection by publishers, but by literary critics and readers. Baldwin was controversial in his time, along with Richard Wright, but for different reasons. Wright experienced the American Deep South; Baldwin did not. He often challenged Wright’s world view. Baldwin believed that his lack of experiencing the South led Wright to be more dismissive of his thoughts and ideas.

“Alas, Poor Richard”: Quotes

Below are quotes that reflect the themes from above.

Part of the trouble between Richard and myself, after all, was that I was nearly twenty years younger and had never seen the South.”

Wright and Baldwin had a falling out that resulted from irreconcilable differences. Baldwin wrote an essay that Wright felt was an attack on his novel Native Son. It never occurred to Baldwin that his essay could be interpreted as such. He also felt that Wright rejected authors who challenged his worldview. He grew up in the American Deep South and escaped poverty. Baldwin ultimately attributed the disagreement to the difference in their age and life experience.

Richard was able, at last, to live in Paris exactly as he would have lived, had he been a white man, here in America.”

Richard Wright and James Baldwin both expatriated to Paris. Wright said that Paris was a “refuge” for Black artists. Paris didn’t have the slave history, Jim Crow segregation, and accompanying obstacles that Black Americans still grappled with. Baldwin countered that this experience living abroad was a privileged afforded them by having an American passport.

When I say simply a black man, I do not mean that being a black man is simple, anywhere. But I am suggesting that one of the prices an American Negro pays—or can pay—for what is called his ‘acceptance’ is a profound, almost ineradicable serf-hatred. This corrupts every aspect of his living, he is never at peace again, he is out of touch with himself forever.”

Baldwin felt that the success that Black artists enjoyed was a double-edged sword. While they were praised by French intellectuals for their achievements, instead of being viewed as a direct challenge to Black stereotypes, Baldwin and Wright were treated as exceptions. Black readers and intellectuals became suspicious of their success and wondered if it was due to merit or sycophancy. Baldwin admits it's a double standard that even he applies when he sees another successful Black artist at a white cocktail party.

"Alas, Poor Richard" - Key takeaways

  • "Alas, Poor Richard" was written by American writer James Baldwin
  • Originally published in literary magazines, it is part of the Nobody Knows My Name collection of essays by Baldwin
  • Baldwin was commissioned to write the piece as a memoir for his late mentor Richard Wright
  • Baldwin explores Black identity and roots through his relationship with Wright
  • Baldwin also explores the paradox of white acceptance and artistic identity as a Black writer

1Baldwin, James. "Alas, Poor Richard" (1961).

Frequently Asked Questions about Alas Poor Richard

“Alas, Poor Richard” was written by James Baldwin.

“Alas, Poor Richard” was published in 1961.

“Alas, Poor Richard” includes themes that explore Black Identity as an artist.

The purpose of “Alas, Poor Richard” was for Baldwin to write a memoir about his mentor Richard Wright.


In summary, “Alas, Poor Richard” explores Baldwin’s relationship with his late mentor Richard Wright and their identity as Black artists.


Final Alas Poor Richard Quiz

Question

Who wrote “Alas, Poor Richard”?

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Answer

“Alas, Poor Richard” was written by James Baldwin.


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When was “Alas, Poor Richard” published?



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“Alas, Poor Richard” was published in 1961


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What are “Alas, Poor Richard”'s themes?

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Answer

Black Identity and Roots

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What was the purpose of “Alas, Poor Richard”?


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Answer

The purpose of “Alas, Poor Richard” was for Baldwin to write a memoir about his mentor Richard Wright.

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What is “Alas, Poor Richard” in summary?


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Answer

In summary, “Alas, Poor Richard” explores Baldwin’s relationship with his late mentor Richard Wright and their identity as Black artists.

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James Baldwin had idolized

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Answer

Richard Wright

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How much younger than Wright was Baldwin?

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sixteen years.

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Baldwin first met Wright

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when he was a young writer.

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Baldwin believes that a writer wants

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everything.

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Baldwin followed Wright in his footsteps by

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moving to Paris.

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Baldwin believed the irreconcilable difference between Wright and himself extended to anyone who challenged Wright’s

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 ”system of reality”

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Baldwin found in Wright’s work someone who touched upon the 

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“sorrow, rage, and the murderous bitterness” that was consuming him.

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Baldwin did not experience

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the Great Migration.

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Baldwin believes a true artist should 

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grow and change over time.

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Baldwin believed that Black readers and intellectuals became

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Answer

suspicious of Black success and wonder if it was due to merit or sycophancy.

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