Historian, library administrator. Wright was born on March 1, 1899, in the crossroads village of Phoenix in Greenwood County, the son of Thomas F. Wright, a country schoolmaster, and Lena Booker. He studied chemistry at Wofford College (B.A., 1920) and English literary history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (M.A., 1924; Ph.D., 1926). He was a newspaper correspondent and an editor of the Greenwood Index-Journal before turning to the academic life. After graduate school, he remained at Chapel Hill as an instructor and associate professor of English; then he became a member of the research staff of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He remained at the Huntington Library until 1948, when he was appointed director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., whence he retired in 1968. During his tenure at the Folger Library, he arranged major acquisitions of rare early imprints and the library became a world-class research institution.
Wright was a superb scholar and a prolific writer whose graceful style made the prodigious research that went into his articles, which were published in professional journals, appear deceptively easy. Perhaps his best books were Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935) and Gold, Glory, and the Gospel: Adventurous Lives and Times of Renaissance Explorers (1970). He was coeditor (with Elaine W. Fowler) of West and by North: North America Seen through Eyes of Its Seafaring Discoverers (1971) and Moving Frontier: North America Seen through Eyes of Its Pioneer Discoverers (1972). He was also author of a charming pair of memoirs: Barefoot in Arcadia: Memories of a More Innocent Era (1974), about coming of age in South Carolina; and Of Books and Men (1976). In addition he wrote South Carolina: A Bicentennial History (1976). His paperback annotated editions of Shakespeare’s works were for many years standard fare for high school and college students. He served as associate editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas (1940–1955), William & Mary Quarterly (1944–1945), and Pacific Spectator (1947–1948). He frequently delivered distinguished lectures and occasionally served as resident scholar or as a visiting professor. He was a consultant historian of the National Geographic Society, chairman of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation advisory board, vice chairman of the Council of Library Resources board of directors, a member of the board of directors of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute of National and International Affairs, and vice chairman of the board of the American Council of Learned Societies. Because of his prominent position in these learned societies, he influenced the course of scholarship in America for decades.
Wright was a member of the Modern Language Association of America, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was awarded twenty-nine honorary degrees from United States and foreign universities; Queen Elizabeth II made him an officer in the Order of the British Empire; and the Royal Society of Arts presented him with the Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal.
Wright married Frances Marion Black on June 10, 1925. They had one son. Wright died on February 26, 1984, at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.