In the midst of the Great Depression, a series of ghostly and mysterious thefts flummoxed the Los Angeles Police Department. In November of 1931, $11,000 went missing from a safe at the Owl Drug Company, with no sign of breaking and entering. Then a safe was emptied in a nearby clothing store. Over the next few months, blankets, typewriters, and other items disappeared from stores in the neighborhood without a trace.
The police had no witnesses, no leads, no suspects, and no idea what was going on until the following winter, nearly a year and a half later. In February of 1933, they surveilled a store for nine nights straight. On the final evening, an officer saw an arm emerge from a small hole in the floor and reach for the lock on a nearby trapdoor. The officer tried to grab it, but the phantom limb pulled back just in time and vanished underground. The police decided to search the basement and, amid all the furnishings necessary to live, found their culprit: Herbert C. Wright, a 33-year-old white man who, unable to find a job during the Depression, endeavored to solve the problem by living underground and stealing.
Though this gothic tale has long since fallen through the cracks of historical memory, it left traces on the most famous African American novel of the mid-20th century: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which begins and ends with its protagonist living underground. But it more directly influenced another author whose work had an impact on Ellison’s. Just after publishing Native Son, Richard Wright read about the robberies in True Detective and found his new subject. As he recalls in “Memories of My Grandmother,” he was already thinking about surrealism and about science-fiction tales of invisible men when he learned of Herbert Wright, whose bizarre story gave him a means of applying those interests to his next book.
In 1941, Wright began to draft The Man Who Lived Underground, a novel about whose Black protagonist, Fred Daniels, escapes into the sewers after the police arrest and beat him and attempt to frame him for murder. The senselessness of the event leads Fred to conclude that life is meaningless. As a result, he decides to live underground, tunneling into basements to steal what he needs and observing the aboveground world with a cynical eye.
A surrealist and existentialist tale, The Man Who Lived Underground was rejected by several publishers, but the novel found an afterlife via a series of winding roads. The rejections led Wright to condense the narrative, in particular cutting the lengthy description of police violence in the novel’s opening, and turn it into a short story that was published in 1944. That story was admired by Wright’s friend and mentee, Ralph Ellison. Later, after winning the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, Ellison stated that his novel had been inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. While he and Wright had fallen out by this time, Wright’s influence on the novel was hard to deny. Despite this fact, Invisible Man entered the American literary canon, while Wright’s story languished in obscurity. In the popular imagination, he became known as the author of Native Son, Black Boy, and (for those interested in anti-colonialism) The Color Curtain, but not as the originator of invisible men living underground. That honor remained Ellison’s.
Now, some 80 years after Wright drafted the novel, the Wright estate and Library of America have published The Man Who Lived Underground. More than just a curio of African American literary history, Wright’s tale of how one Black man experiences police violence and is plunged into a life-changing existential crisis as a result is, sadly, still as relevant today as it was when Wright wrote it. The Man Who Lived Underground portrays state violence as prevalent and yet isolating, commonplace and yet alienating, and not only because it physically separates individuals from their kin—via incarceration or, in the case of Wright’s novel, fugitivity—but also because the experience makes its survivors question why they have lived their lives in accordance with social norms. If Black people can be assaulted and framed for murder on their walk home from work on a public street, as Fred Daniels is, why bother to work or be in public at all?
Born in 1908 to parents who were the children of slaves, Wright had a turbulent childhood in Jim Crow Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He attended Black schools until the age of 15, when he dropped out to go to work and help pay the family’s bills. At 17, he moved to Memphis on his own, where he continued his education by reading Harper’s and The Atlantic, among other periodicals; two years later, in 1927, he and his family moved to Chicago, where Wright found work as a clerk with the US Postal Service.
Though his job survived the early years of the Depression, his position was eliminated in 1931, and Wright went on relief. The next year, he began attending meetings of the local John Reed Club, a literary offshoot of the Communist Party. In time he became a party member and worked with the Federal Writers’ Project. In 1938, he published a short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children, and two years later he published the novel for which he is best known: Native Son. It was in the midst of this period of early success, when Wright was a member of the Communist Party and still close to the days of his impoverished childhood, that he wrote The Man Who Lived Underground.
The novel begins at the end of a workday. In its opening pages, we meet Fred Daniels as he is counting his wages after leaving his employer’s house, where he mows the lawn. “Tired and happy, he liked the feeling of being paid of a Saturday night,” Wright tells us; “during seven sweltering days he had given his bodily strength in exchange for dollars with which to buy bread and pay rent for the coming week.” As he walks down the street and contemplates going to church the next day in the hopes of feeling “renewed” for the upcoming workweek, he sees three policemen watching him. The cops stop and question him, but Fred feels no fear, since he hasn’t committed any crime and is certain that his employer and his church will vouch for him if need be. As far as he’s concerned, once the encounter is over, he will return to his familiar routine of trading labor for wages and going to church until the end of his life.
Fred, of course, is wrong. The three cops—Lawson, Johnson, and Murphy—ask him what he’s doing in the neighborhood and whether he has ever been arrested before. Though Fred answers their questions truthfully, Lawson says, “We’d better drag ‘im in.” “I ain’t done nothing…” Fred protests and adds, “My wife’s having a baby,” to which Johnson replies, “They all say that.” The three cops force him into their patrol car, and Murphy says, “I think he’ll do.” After this ominous remark, Lawson asks, “What did you do with the money?” They continue to question him as they drive to the police station, and Fred begins to have “the terrifying feeling that these men knew what he would be doing at any future moment of his life, no matter how long he lived.” His life is now out of his hands and in those of the state.
At the station, the cops reveal that they suspect him of murder and theft in the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Peabody, a white couple who lived next door to Fred’s employer, and they begin to beat him as they attempt to extract a confession. With each blow, Fred inches closer to confessing to get “free of this nightmare.” Their questions “had the power of projecting him into a strange orbit where, though he was not guilty of a crime, they made him feel somehow guilty.”
Fred repeatedly insists on his innocence and pleads to be let go so he can return to his pregnant wife, Rachel, but the beating continues and he eventually passes out. When Fred comes to, the cops beat him unconscious again. When he wakes up a second time, the district attorney is present. He tells Fred that he can see his wife if he signs a typed confession. “Yes, all he had to do was write his name and they would take him home, home to Rachel…. Elation seized him,” Wright tells us; “truly, he felt nothing important could come from his signing his name to that splash of white that danced before his eyes.” Though Fred finally agrees, he has been beaten too savagely to control his body: The DA has to take his hand and guide it so he can sign the paper.
But the cops aren’t done with Fred yet. Next they take him to the scene of the crime, where they ask him to describe how he killed the Peabodys as they continue to beat him. Wright describes Fred’s increasing despair throughout this ordeal:
What these men said, what he said, the blows and curse words, were all neutral and powerless to alter the feeling that, though he had done nothing wrong, he was condemned, lost, inescapably guilty of some nameless deed.
After this, the cops finally drive Fred home, and he gazes out the window, seeing other Black people and realizing that they “had become alien to him.” The police let him out of the car to see Rachel, but with Murphy following close behind him. As they approach his apartment, Fred begins to feel hope: “this nightmare was ending!” But when he sees Rachel and she asks who the policeman following him is, Fred feels as if his “consciousness was possessed by the man who waited behind his back.” He no longer belongs among the Black people walking freely through the neighborhood or with the woman with whom he hoped to have a future. He has now been claimed by the state; he is now the officers’ property.
Rachel’s pregnancy offers Fred an unexpected escape. As he holds his wife in his arms under Murphy’s watchful eye, she goes into labor. The cops take her and Fred to the hospital, with Murphy keeping him in custody on the labor ward. But he leaves Fred briefly to go to the restroom. “At last he was alone,” Wright says; “at last that constant threat of nameless punishment was gone from him, for a little while.” In this moment of freedom, Fred makes his escape: He jumps out a window, runs down the street, and hides in the vestibule of an apartment building. But then he hears the sound of police sirens circling. “He had to leave; to remain meant risking capture and a renewal of torture.” Fred looks into the street and spots a half-open manhole. Seizing this small window of opportunity, he runs to it and descends into the sewers.
Fred’s escape underground, however, soon yields new problems. Shortly after his descent, a stream of sewage water threatens to sweep him away. After narrowly avoiding the peril, Fred contemplates the subterranean dangers he now faces—disease, drowning, a gas leak. “He should leave, but an irrational notion made him remain.” Rather than risk being arrested and incarcerated, Fred decides to stay underground and fend for his survival there.
Suddenly Fred sees his own and others’ lives from a new perspective. Faced with the senselessness of the officers’ violence, he begins to question his and other people’s way of living. After finding that the sewer tunnels lead to basements, he spies on the congregants of a basement church, but scorns their singing for its resemblance to “whimpering.” He tunnels into an unknown building, sees a sink, and instinctively washes his hands. “He had slipped back…into the characteristics of everyday life aboveground,” Wright tells us; “and, having been engaged in the simple act of washing his hands, he had merely taken the next step in the long ritual of routine.” Washing his hands distracts him from his pressing needs, including the thirst he feels. Realizing his folly, Fred drinks the first clean water he’s been able to find in hours and then urinates in the basement’s corner. Free from the routines and demands of life aboveground, he begins to reconsider what he wants and what, in his eyes, makes a life meaningful.
After stealing a number of items, Fred tunnels into the basement of a real estate office that “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” From his hiding place, he watches someone enter the combination to a safe. When that person leaves, Fred opens the safe himself, thinking to steal the money in it. But something unusual happens:
He rubbed the money with his fingers, as though expecting it suddenly to reveal secret qualities. It’s just like any other kind of paper, he observed…. As he toyed with the money, there was in him no sense of possessiveness.
Now unable to use money to purchase anything, Fred no longer feels the attachment to it that people aboveground do, nor does he feel their attachment to objects. Wright describes his thinking later:
He did not feel that he was stealing, for the cleaver, the radio, and the money were on the same level of value, all meant the same thing to him. They were the toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him.
The realization that money no longer has any value to him culminates in Fred’s return to his cave, where he dips the bills in glue and pastes them to the walls. At last, Wright tells us, “He was free!” Defying capitalism, liberating himself from society, and escaping the reach of a racist state, Fred achieves what he sees as emancipation by realizing “the inexpressible value and importance of himself.” He resolves to live by his own rules from this point on, because he now values himself and his way of seeing the world.
But as in every existentialist crime novel—from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Albert Camus’s The Stranger—Fred’s individualism liberates him at the cost of endangering other people. When he returns to the basement of the real estate company, he finds Lawson accusing one of the workers of robbing the safe. The cop leaves the room, and the man commits suicide. Fred next reenters a jewelry store from which he stole some diamonds. There he sees Murphy accuse the watchman of stealing and then torture him to extract a confession. At first Fred thinks “the watchman’s being wrongly accused might serve to lift him into a higher state of awareness,” just as it did with him. But though he wants to believe this, he fears that won’t be the case and that the watchman will pointlessly suffer for Fred’s actions. Finally, after much consideration and internal dialogue, Fred decides that he must return to the world aboveground to share the truths that he has learned.
“Every move he made now was informed with a marvelous precision,” Wright says of the beginning of Fred’s ascent. “[H]is entire muscular system seemed reinforced from a reservoir of unlimited energy.” Propelled by the newfound knowledge of his life’s value and by the guilt he feels at seeing others being punished for his actions, Fred opens the manhole he originally escaped through and sticks his head out into the aboveground. After three subterranean days, the light blinds him: “He stood between that terrifying world of life-in-death above him,” Wright says, “and this dark world that was death-in-life here in the underground.” But in the end, Fred has no choice: No longer able to live underground happily, he returns to the streets.
Yet his time in the subterranean world has defamiliarized the world aboveground, such that the street comes to seem as surreal as the sewers once did. “A strange thing was happening. Traffic stopped, but no one rushed forward to challenge him.” As Fred stands in the middle of the street, the cars swerve around him and the drivers yell at him for disrupting traffic. He sees a police officer and briefly wonders, “Was this real?” Then he walks past a mirror, inspects his sullied appearance and eyes glaring “oddly,” and laughs. He is nearly as unrecognizable to himself as the simple happenings of life on the street are.
While Fred’s confusion highlights the thoroughness of his transformation, his attempts at communicating with others demonstrate the degree to which this change has isolated him. After seeing his appearance, he starts walking toward the police station.
He would go to the station, clear everything up, make a statement. What statement? He did not know. He was the statement, and since it was all so clear to him, surely he would, in one way or another, make it clear to others.
When he arrives at the station, the cops ask why he is there. Fred responds that he is “looking for the men,” but the police don’t understand. They ask where he came from. “I come out from under the ground,” Fred tells them. One cop says they should send him to a psychiatric institution; others joke that he’s insane. Though state violence has freed Fred from the illusion that work would make his life meaningful and abiding by the law would prevent him from becoming a criminal, he struggles to explain those lessons to others.
Fred’s final encounter with the three cops who attempted to frame him reveals the extent to which state violence and his life on the run have permanently estranged him from others. When Fred mentions his former workplace, the cops pass him on to Lawson, Murphy, and Johnson. But when Lawson recognizes him, he asks simply, “Why in hell did you come back?” “I just didn’t want to run away no more,” Fred replies. Murphy tells him that they caught the man who killed the Peabodys, but Fred insists that he is guilty nonetheless, enumerating his many subterranean thefts. The officers don’t believe him and assume he is crazy. Then Fred reveals that he saw them torturing the night watchman. Scared that Fred will reveal their brutality, the officers tell him to show them where he went underground. As they drive him to the manhole, Murphy notes that “colored boys sure go off their nuts easy.” Johnson replies, “It’s because they live in a white man’s world.” Demonstrating the truth of this statement, when the group arrives at the manhole, the cops force Fred to go back into it. Suddenly, an air raid siren distracts the officers—but this time, instead of trying to escape, Fred beckons for their attention. Lawson—in part annoyed by Fred, but also because he wants to kill the witness to their violent interrogations—pulls out his gun and shoots him dead. In the end, Fred becomes “a whirling, black object…lost in the heart of the earth.”
In its surrealist tale of a fugitive residing in the sewers, The Man Who Lived Underground represents police violence as antisocial, both because it isolates its victims and because it then pushes those victims to violate social norms themselves. Fred’s experience of being randomly assaulted by the police and framed for a murder he did not commit demonstrates how people experiencing police violence feel not only their body being harmed but also their position in society and the very rules they thought they lived by. If following the law does not prevent a person from being made a criminal or protect them from being assaulted by the police, then why not steal or violate any number of other social norms? By following Fred’s descent underground, where objects are useful only insofar as they satisfy his basic needs or urges, Wright underscores for his readers how capitalism and the state ultimately assail our humanity and blind us to other ways of living and relating to people. Yet the devastating consequences of Fred’s decision to return to society—hoping to liberate people from the routines of their lives, only to be murdered for it—also shows that there is a cost to renouncing the value of money, to being a fugitive, and to saying what one knows. Even in the effort to return to society and make it better, the fugitive remains persecuted by the state. For Wright, police violence is tragic not only because it is brutal and unfair but also because those who testify about it are punished for doing so. These punishments serve only to further marginalize, isolate, and alienate the victims.
The degree to which police violence isolates Fred surfaces in Wright’s portrayal of his relationship to his wife. Early in his subterranean life, Fred sees the glow of the streetlights and thinks of Rachel. “More and more,” Wright tells us, “he found it repugnant to think of her, as though the image of her crowded more important things from his mind.” This change carries through aboveground, when he returns not to his home but to the police station.
The representation of Rachel (and, let us not forget, their newborn child) as crowding out more important matters is troubling enough on its own. But in The Man Who Lived Underground, Fred’s isolation from Rachel is caused, at least in part, by the state and by the alienation and dislocations created by the violence to which it arbitrarily subjects its citizens. After all, had Fred remained in police custody at the hospital, he would have been incarcerated and separated from her anyway, and he flees his wife only because the cops tried to frame him for a crime. For Wright, the casualties of police violence include not only the person assaulted but also the families broken by criminalization and incarceration.
While Wright is assuredly not known for progressive gender politics—in fact, much scholarship on gender in Wright’s novels foregrounds his conservative representations of women—the novel helps to elucidate the consequences of police violence on Black women, even when the person assaulted is a Black man. As the anthropologist Christen A. Smith argues about Black women whose loved ones have been killed by the police in Brazil and the United States, Black mothers give life and thus often bear the “social responsibility” for keeping Black people alive. As a result, they also tend to bear the brunt of the material and emotional fallout of the police murders of Black loved ones.
Wright’s novel does not describe how Fred’s assault and eventual murder by the police affects Rachel—indeed, he does not describe much about Rachel or her thoughts at all—but it is not difficult to imagine the impact that state violence has on her. Rachel has to bear the anxiety of not knowing where her husband is, the grief of his being presumed dead when his body is not found, and the difficulty of raising a son without her husband’s wages. Each step Fred takes toward breaking free of society’s strictures is, simultaneously, a step away from the wife and family that depend on him. Inasmuch as The Man Who Lived Underground dramatizes how state violence isolates Black men, it also gestures toward how such violence affects Black women and Black families.
For all of its surrealist imagery, its phantasmagoric underground setting, and its questioning of social norms, The Man Who Lived Underground is, in many ways, a story about the material and emotional effects of state violence on work, kinship, and sociality. The novel focuses on a Black man—and rightfully so, given the state’s disproportionate use of violence against Black people—but its tale of how work and money push people to abide by rules that the state itself violates at will ultimately has much to say about all impoverished workers. After all, Herbert Wright, the real-life white man who lived underground, took to living in a basement because he could not find employment during the Depression. He stole to support himself in an economy and a country that would not support him. The surrealist, fantastical, and gothic elements of both his story and The Man Who Lived Underground serve to underscore how bizarre and unnatural such a governmental structure should seem. The publication of Wright’s long-lost novel, one hopes, will remind us that there are other ways of seeing the state and the market and, ultimately, other ways of governing ourselves and supplying the necessities of life.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Library of America is the publisher of the book and that the novel is not set in Chicago but in an unnamed city.