Cheap pulp tales enlarged my knowledge of the world

Richard Wright in his study, NYC 1943In my class was a tall, black, rebellious boy who was bright in his studies and yet utterly fearless in his assertion of himself; he could break the morale of the class at any moment with his clowning and the teacher never found an adequate way of handling him. It was he who detected my plaguing hunger and suggested to me a way to earn some money.

“You can’t sit in school all day and not eat,” he said.

“What am I going to eat?” I asked.

“Why don’t you do like me?”

“What do you do?”

“I sell papers.”

“I tried to get a paper route, but they’re all full,” I said. “I’d like to sell papers because I could read them. I can’t find things to read.”

“You too?” he asked, laughing.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“That’s why I sell papers. I like to read ’em and that’s the only way I can get hold of ’em,” he explained.

“Do your parents object to your reading?” I asked.

“Yeah. My old man’s a damn crackpot,” he said.

“What papers are you selling?”

“It’s a paper published in Chicago. It comes out each week and it has a magazine supplement,” he informed me.

“What kind of paper is it?”

“Well, I never read the newspaper. It is’t much. But, boy, the magazine supplement! What stories…I’m reding the serial of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage.”

I stared at him in complete disbelief.

Riders of the Purple Sage!” I exclaimed.


“Do you think I can sell those papers?”

“Sure. I make over fifty cents a week and have stuff to read,” he explained.

I followed him home and he gave me a copy of the newspaper and the magazine supplement. The newspaper was thin, ill-edited, and designed to circulate among rural, white Protestant readers.

“Hurry up and start selling ’em,” he urged me. “I’d like to talk to you about the stories.”

I promised him that I would order a batch of them that night. I walked home through the deepening twilight, reading, lifting my eyes now and then from the print in order not to collide with strangers. I absorbed in the tale 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 this 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. This was what I wanted, tales like this. I had not read enough to have developed any taste in reading. Anything that interested me satisfied me.

Now, at last, I could have my reading in the home, could have it there with the approval of Granny. She had already give me permission to sell papers. Oh, boy, how lucky it was for me that Granny could not read! She had always burned the books I had brought into the house, branding them as worldly; but she would have to tolerate these papers if she was to keep her promise to me. Aunt Addie’s opinion did not count, as she never paid any attention to me anyway. In her eyes, I was dead. I told Granny that I planned to make some money by selling papers and she agreed, thinking that at last I was becoming a serious, right-thinking boy. That night I ordered the papers and waited anxiously.

The papers arrived and I scoured the Negro area slowly building up a string of customers who bought the papers more because they knew me than from any desire to read. When I returned home at night, I would go to my room and lock the door and revel in outlandish exploits of outlandish men in faraway, outlandish cities. For the first time in my life I became aware of the life of the modern world, of vast cities, and I was claimed by it; I loved it. Though they were merely stories, I accepted them as true because I wanted to believe them, because I hungered for a different life, for something new. The cheap pulp tales enlarged my knowledge of the world more than anything I had encountered so far. To me, with my roundhouse, saloon-door, and river-levee background, they were revolutionary, my gateway to the world.

Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth (1944), 149-151. In the next passage, Wright learns from one of his customers that he has been selling a Ku Klux Klan paper.

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2 Responses to Cheap pulp tales enlarged my knowledge of the world

  1. Tim Lacy says:


    I know you’re not necessarily seeking comments on these posts, but…I love Richard Wright. Jodi read Black Boy years ago and loved it. I’ve only read Native Son.

    – TL

  2. higbie says:

    Tim: I’m not opposed to comments and reactions at all. Fire away. I highly recommend Black Boy. Not light reading, but would be interesting for you on a number of levels.

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