African-American Writers and Dostoevsky

by Maria Bloshteyn

In his 1976 essay The Devil Finds Work, the African-American writer James Baldwin wrote that he compulsively read Dostoevsky during his childhood in the 1930s because he felt that Dostoevsky “had something to tell me” in the course of “this particular child’s way of circling around the question of what it meant to be a n*gger. It was the reason that I was reading Dostoevsky, a writer—or, rather, for me, a messenger.” [1] On the face of it, it’s a puzzling assertion.  What insights could Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century Russian novels possibly offer about being Black in the United States in the twentieth-century?  And yet the breakthrough generation of twentieth-century African-American writers who first found recognition both nationally and internationally (novelists such as Richard Wright, and his contemporaries Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin), frequently testified to the importance of Dostoevsky to their writing.  What was it that attracted these writers to Dostoevsky and made them identify with him and his work? [2] 

Nineteenth-century Russian literature, in general, proved relevant for many early twentieth-century American writers from a vast variety of backgrounds.  African-American writers (and, later, many Southern writers) were particularly drawn to Russian literature because of the parallels between the historical experience of the two countries; heading the list, of course, was the legacy of slavery/serfdom and the suffering it left in its wake, along with continued prejudice, oppression, and hardship.  In fact, many African-American writers gravitated toward Russian literature because they were not finding any depictions of their own experience in American writing. Richard Wright said that when he came North as a young man in the 1920s and finally obtained free access to books, he started looking for an American one that illuminated the life of an African-American either in the South or the North of the United States. Yet he “found nothing about [his] environment” — “until he turned to the Russian novel.”[3] The African-American novelist Ernest J. Gaines turned to Russian writers for a similar reason: “[W]hen I first started reading I wanted to read about my people in the South, and the white writers whom I had read did not put my people into books the way that I  knew them…I went into the Russians.…the [Russian] peasants were [depicted as] real human beings, whereas in the fiction of American writers, especially Southern writers, they were caricatures of human beings.” [4]

The emphasis on Dostoevsky’s early experiences with imprisonment and exile and his suffering under an unjust and repressive regime—central to the American reading of his work [5]—set him apart from other 19th-century Russian novelists, and made for a more immediate and personal identification.  Wright, whose reading of Dostoevsky was not only emblematic but particularly influential, given his primacy in the African-American literary canon, [6] recounted that one of the first Dostoevsky books he read was

The House of the Dead, an autobiographical novel depicting the lives of exiled prisoners in Siberia, how they lived in crowded barracks and vented their hostility upon one another.  It made me remember how Negroes in the South, crowded into their Black Belts, vented their hostility upon one another, forgetting that their lives were conditioned by the whites above them.  To me reading [Dostoevsky] was a kind of remembering. [7]

Albert Murray, an African American novelist and cultural historian who was Wright’s late contemporary, wrote that Dostoevsky was “very poor, much oppressed […] He was certainly alienated.  He was imprisoned and one time he came within minutes of being officially lynched” [8] [emphasis added]. Such a pronouncement is extraordinary, considering lynching came to be associated almost exclusively with African-American victims. Yet while Dostoevsky’s near-execution was not carried out by a mob but on the orders of the Czar, the ritual humiliation he underwent—the ridiculous clown-like outfit he was made to wear, the sword broken over his head—is suggestive to Murray of the humiliations that lynching victims underwent before being killed.

Further, the turbulent period in Russian history in which Dostoevsky both lived and about which he wrote was perceived by many African-American writers as being parallel to their own historical moment in America.  Joseph Frank, the great Dostoevsky scholar, biographer, and a close friend of Ralph Ellison, wrote about Ellison’s identification with “Dostoevsky’s relation to the Russian culture of his time.” [9] Ellison himself commented at length about how the social shifts and political upheavals of Dostoevsky’s Russia corresponded to a similar situation in America of his day (both within the African-American community and in American society at large). In a 1974 interview, for instance, Ellison talked about “the extreme disruption of hierarchical relationships which occurred during the nineteenth century [in Russia]…On one hand, society was plunging headlong into chaos, and on the other there was a growing identification…across traditional hierarchical divisions.” He went on to compare “[s]uch disruption of the traditional ordering of society” with what was happening “in our own country since 1954.” He also commented that life in nineteenth-century Russia became “so theatrical (not to say nightmarish) that even Dostoevsky’s smoking imagination was barely able to keep a step ahead of what was actually happening in garrets and streets” and again drew a parallel with America of his day: “Today, here in the United States, we have something similar.” [10]

Finally, an important point of attraction for many African-American writers was Dostoevsky’s ability to lay open the inner workings and complexities of his characters’ psyche, especially of those characters who were somehow alienated from mainstream society:  the pariahs and the outcasts.   Notably, Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin all created characters who were doubly alienated—first, from American society at large, and then from their own community and family.  Margaret Walker, an African-American poet and novelist, whom Wright befriended in Chicago, argued that Wright considered Dostoevsky “the greatest novelist of all time” because of “his [unique] knowledge of psychology [ . . . ] his probing of the human mind and…psyche…his understanding of the problem of…guilt…[and his] probing of the unconscious.” [11] Ralph Ellison, for a time Wright’s close friend and protégé, also wrote about Wright’s focus on the psychology of Dostoevsky’s characters, saying that he saw Zapiski iz mertvogo doma, for instance, as “a psychological document of life under oppressive conditions…[a] profound study of the humanity of Russian criminals.” [12] Wright himself confirmed all of these insights numerous times, saying that “[f]oremost among all the writers who have influenced me in my attitude toward the psychological state of modern man is Dostoevsky.” [13]

As a result, many African-American writers drew on Dostoevsky’s novels as inspirational examples in their struggles with literary form.  In an interview given in 1960, Wright commented that although “[s]ome say [Dostoevsky] is an old-fashioned novelist, a novelist of the past,” he believed that Dostoevsky “wrote tremendous dramatic works . . . with direct encounters and passionate exchanges between people,” [14] something that he tried to achieve in his own novels.  In reply to an interviewer who suggested that Ellison’s seminal work, Invisible Man was written “in the American vernacular tradition . . . [with] some correspondence between [its] prologue and that of Moby Dick,” Ellison countered: “Let me test something on you”—whereupon he read the opening lines from chapter one of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and concluded, chuckling, “That ain’t Melville.” [15]

Altogether, the reading of Dostoevsky was a formative experience for this early and enormously influential group of African-American writers.  They identified with Dostoevsky’s fringe position in the Russian society of his time; they saw parallels between the turbulent era in Russian history during which Dostoevsky lived and the upheavals through which they were living in America; they learned from his psychological analysis of characters who were alienated from their society;  and they were inspired by and learned many lessons from the construction of Dostoevsky’s novels.  Dostoevsky, of course, was only one of many writers that these erudite and exceptionally well-read African-American novelists connected with, but he may have been the only one to provide them with so many levels of connection and important insights into their own identity.  Dostoevsky was an inspirational figure—writing in the 1960s, Albert Murray pointed to Dostoevsky’s example in order to counter the idea, widespread during this time, that “Negroes will be able to write first-rate novels only after oppression is removed…[and] Negroes no longer feel alienated from the mainstream of U.S. life.” [16] He argued that if Dostoevsky could write great novels despite all his experiences with injustice, alienation, and suffering, then so could African-American writers, despite the prejudice and discrimination they faced in American society. 

Notably, Dostoevsky continues to be relevant to many 21st-century African-American writers who are dealing with an at times equally fraught racial terrain and even more complex issues of identity in contemporary America.  Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer who comes from a mix of racial and cultural backgrounds (his father is Black and his mother is white), wrote the following in Harpers Magazine last year: 

In my own reading life, I had never felt genuinely understood, glimpsed in the deepest recesses of my contradictory psyche, until I read Dostoevsky. It wasn’t simply that I had not yet encountered a black writer with whom I could identify so completely—that would come later—it was that there were no American writers of any ethnicity who could fill that role… What I know is that insofar as I or anyone has an identity that could be constraining, reading Dostoevsky freed me. [17]

This sense of freedom gained in reading of Dostoevsky was what Baldwin had in mind when he wrote that Dostoevsky was not simply a writer but a messenger.  Whatever constraints and barriers were placed in the way of young African-American writers, they were free to move beyond them and to find their own voices—just as Dostoevsky had.

This blog post is part of the series Global Dostoevskys edited by Melanie V. Jones and Christina Karakepeli. To find out more about the series, click here.

Maria Bloshteyn is an editor and translator living in Toronto. She has a PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Maria is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007) and is also the editor and main translator, most recently, of Russia is Burning:  Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).  Her translation of Dostoevsky’s little-known play in verse Nigilistka i ofitser [The Nihilist Girl and the Officer] is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books


[1] James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, (New York: Dial, 1976) 10-11.

[2] This blog post is based on my 2001 article, “Rage and Revolt:  Dostoevsky and Three African-American Writers” in Comparative Literature Studies (38.4.2001) 277-309.

[3] Richard Wright, interview, “The American Novel,” radio broadcast rec. ORTF Paris (Oct. 1960); rpt. in Conversations with Richard Wright, eds. Kenneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre, trans. Michel Fabre (Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1993) 214.

[4] Ernest Gaines, “An Interview with Ernest Gaines,” Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973) 82-3.

[5] For a discussion of the American reading of Dostoevsky, see “Dostoevsky as American Icon” in my The Making of a Counter-Culture Prophet:  Herny Miller’s Dostoevsky (Toronto:  U of T Press, 2007) 24-44.

 Margaret Walker, a fellow African-American poet and novelist would say that “Like the Russians, who say they have all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’ most of our writers have come out of Wright’s cloak.”

[6] Margaret Walker, “Richard Wright,” Richard Wright:  Impressions and Perspectives, eds. David Ray and Robern Farnsworth (Ann Arbor:  U of Michigan Press, 1971) 66.

[7] Richard Wright, “Black Boy and Reading,” 1945, The Lexington Reader, ed. Lynn Z. Bloom (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987); rpt. in Conversations with Richard Wright (Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 1993) 81.

[8] Albert Murray, “Something Different, Something More,” Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (New York:  Harper, 1966) 128.

[9] Joseph Frank, “Ralph Ellison and a Literary ‘Ancestor’: Dostoevsky” (New Criterion Sept. 1983), rpt. in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, ed. Kimberly W. Benston (Washington, D.C.: Howard U P, 1987) 232.

[10] Ralph Ellison, interview, “‘A Completion of Personality’: A Talk With Ralph Ellison,” Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Hersey (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1974), rpt. in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, eds. Maryemma Graham and Amrijit Singh, (Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1995) 288.

[11] Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (New York: Warner, 1988) 100-1.

[12] Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Antioch Review 3.2 (1945); rpt. in Shadow and Act (New York: Signet, 1964) 90.

[13] Richard Wright, interview, “Richard Wright: I Curse the Day When for the First

 Time I Heard the Word ‘Politics’,” LExpress (18 Oct. 1955); trans. Kenneth Kinnamon,

 Conversations with Richard Wright, 163.

[14] “The American Novel,” 214.

[15] Ralph Ellison, interview, “Ralph Ellison: Twenty Years After” (1973); rpt. in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, 202.

[16] Ibid, 127.

[17] Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Campaign Literature,” Harper’s Magazine (03.31.2021);  accessed on January 8, 2022,

One thought

  1. This is one of the best essays that I have seen here and it brings to light the concept of the suffering of the oppressed not being limited to or owned by any one group of people.
    Thank You.


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