Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man, lives in Chicago’s South Side ghetto with his long-suffering mother, his younger sister Vera, and his younger brother Buddy. Unemployed, Bigger hangs out with his pals; they occasionally commit petty crimes to get spending money and prove their manhood. Bigger expresses his pent-up feelings mainly through violence.
Bigger gets a chance for a better life when the Daltons, a family of rich white liberals, hire him as a chauffeur. Disaster strikes on his first night on the job. He carries the Daltons’ drunken daughter, Mary, to her bedroom, where, to prevent being caught, he accidentally smothers her with a pillow. He burns Mary’s body in the furnace, then conceives a kidnap scheme for which he recruits the help of his alcoholic girlfriend, Bessie. When Mary’s bones are discovered, Bigger kills Bessie to keep her quiet.
Bigger is soon apprehended and put on trial for his crimes. His white, communist lawyer, Boris Max, battles a racist prosecutor, Buckley. Connecting Mary’s death with Dalton ownership of the slums that bred Bigger, Max projects Bigger’s case as a paradigm of black revolution, with future armies of Biggers swarming out of the ghettos. Bigger, however, makes a pathetic revolutionary model, and Max himself is no more convincing than the other stereotyped whites. What does persuade is the novel’s depiction of black frustration: Wright’s portrayal of Bigger has a gripping intensity that recalls Dostoevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Emanuel, James. “Fever and Feeling: Notes on the Imagery in Native Son.” Negro Digest 18, no. 2 (December, 1968): 16-24. Identifies and examines clusters of images and symbols present in the novel. Concludes that Wright uses this sprawling network of images to deepen the reader’s understanding of Bigger and Bigger’s feelings about himself and his environment.
Felgar, Robert. “The Kingdom of the Beast: The Landscape of Native Son.” CLA Journal 17 (March, 1974): 333-337. Enlightening, important discussion of the novel’s depiction of society as a jungle. Convincingly contends that animal imagery pervades the novel and posits that the book’s many beast images objectify white society’s stereotypical conception of the African American world.
Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on “Native Son.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a thorough examination of the genesis and background of Native Son. Kinnamon analyzes Wright’s own essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” along with letters, notes, manuscripts, and galley and page proofs to show how external forces influenced the writing of the novel.
Magistrale, Tony. “From St. Petersburg to Chicago: Wright’s Crime and Punishment.” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 59-70. Argues that, in composing Native Son, Wright was greatly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel Crime and Punishment (1966). Pinpoints and analyzes in detail a number of significant similarities between the two novels. Convincing and informative in its treatment of the novel’s debt to the Dostoevski classic.
Nagel, James. “Images of Vision in Native Son.” University Review 35 (December, 1969): 109-115. Perceptive, highly instructive analysis of Wright’s use of sight and blindness in the novel. Argues that blindness is the novel’s controlling image and that it functions throughout the book as a metaphor for white America’s racial myopia. Remains, even after its initial publication in 1969, one of the most insightful articles ever written on the novel.
Siegel, Paul N. “The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son.” PMLA 89, no. 3 (May, 1974): 517-523. Detailed, illuminating interpretation of book 3 of the novel. Sets out to refute the frequently advanced criticism that book 3 is the novel’s weakest section. Maintains that the lengthy trial that concludes the novel, far from being repetitious and anticlimactic as many critics have claimed, is an integral part of the book’s artistry and message.
Skerrett, Joseph T., Jr. “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Making of Native Son.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Offers an illuminating analysis of the biographical aspects of Native Son. Skerrett argues convincingly that Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas share many attributes.
Williams, John A. The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Provides a solid biography for the general reader. Williams places Wright in his historical context both at home and abroad, giving a sense of the man and his times.
Wright, Richard. Early Novels: Lawd Today! Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son. Vol. 2 in Works. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991. Reinstates significant cuts that were made in Lawd Today! and Native Son. The volume, however, also deserves attention for its detailed chronology, which reads like an excellent biography.
Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” In Native Son, by Richard Wright. Reprint. New York: Perennial Library, 1987. Details the genesis of Native Son. The author describes five Bigger Thomases, dating back to his childhood. Wright is his own best critic.
Put simply, I hated ''Native Son.'' Put more accurately, I hated it with a passion. Hated it because it violated most of the principles of novelistic construction I was struggling to master. The plot was improbable, the narrative voice intrusive, the language often stilted and the characters -especially that silly little rich white tease Mary Dalton and her stupid, gigolo Communist boyfriend, Jan - were stereotypical beyond belief. At first I tried to rationalize these flaws as precisely the ''ineptitude'' and ''unfitness'' that James T. Stewart had written about. But I couldn't get around what I hated with a passion: Bigger Thomas.
It wasn't that Bigger failed as a character, exactly. I had read Wright's essay ''How Bigger Was Born,'' and therefore knew that Wright had set out to write a book ''no one would weep over.'' In this, for me, Wright succeeded; I shed no tears for Bigger. I wanted him dead; by legal means if possible, by lynching if necessary. (The only difference between me and the mob that pursued him was that I hated him not because he had accidentally killed Mary - I understood that, and would have preferred it to have been intentional - but because he had intentionally murdered Bessie, a woman who loved him and would have done almost anything for him.) But I knew, too, that Wright had intended Bigger to be a flat character, so he could serve as a ''meaningful and prophetic symbol'' of the black masses. In this, for me, Wright failed. I did not see Bigger Thomas as a symbol of any kind of black man. To me he was a sociopath, pure and simple, beyond sympathy or understanding. The truth is, my first reading of ''Native Son'' ended at the passage in which Bigger, after practically raping Bessie, bashing in her face with a brick and tossing her body down an airshaft, thought that ''he was living, truly and deeply.'' This, I thought, is sick.
I said so in class. I felt guilty about saying it, because all my life I had been schooled never to say a mumblin' word about any Negro the non-Negro world recognized as an achiever, which surely meant Richard Wright. I silently endured my classmates' charge that I had been so brainwashed by the dominant culture that I was ''not black enough'' to appreciate ''Native Son.'' I did not even protest (though I thought about it) that it was the dominant culture which had declared ''Native Son'' a work of brilliance. I kept my mouth shut because my heresy went beyond ''Native Son.'' I hated the idea of ''Black Literature,'' too, and was resolved that if the price of becoming a black writer was following the model of ''Native Son,'' I would just have to write like a honky.
Fortunately, I found in works by other blacks -Charles Chesnutt, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston - reason to soften that stand. Still, reading ''Native Son'' made me determined that the models I took from black letters would come from the days before ''Native Son'' changed America and made Richard Wright a lot of money.
I FIRST FINISHED ''NA-tive Son'' in the fall of 1973, when I was a graduate student at the University of London, ostensibly doing research for a thesis on the relationship between American history and the writing of American blacks.
I say ''ostensibly'' because I was actually hiding out in the British Museum and reading the essays of James Baldwin. Some of the essays, of course, were about ''Native Son.''
Baldwin expressed eloquently the things I had tried to express in class. In ''Everybody's Protest Novel'' he charged that the works belonging to the sub-genre known as the protest novel, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' and Wright's ''Native Son,'' were unreasonably forgiven ''whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of a frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are badly written and wildly improbable.'' In ''Many Thousands Gone,'' Baldwin criticized ''Native Son'' in particular. ''A necessary dimension,'' he wrote, ''has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that Negroes bear to one another. . . . It is this which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse. . . .''** Aha! I thought triumphantly. Who is going to tell James Baldwin he isn't black enough? But Baldwin did something more significant than rescue my claim to racial identity: in arguing that the flaws in ''Native Son'' were common to novels distinguished not by the race of the author but by the form of the work, Baldwin, in effect, was challenging the black esthetic. This made me realize that although a course in black literature had made it possible for me to read works by black authors which were otherwise absent from the curriculum, the assumptions behind the course had made it impossible for me to see those works as part of an American, as opposed to Afro-American, literary tradition. I wondered if I would have a different reaction to ''Native Son'' if I considered it in a new context. So I went in search of a copy.
My reaction was indeed different. Put simply, ''Native Son'' infuriated me. Put sequentially, it bemused, astonished, horrified and then infuriated me. And then it frightened me out of my wits.
The British Museum had a copy of the original edition of ''Native Son,'' which included an introduction by Dorothy Canfield. It seemed curious that a contemporary novel would require an introduction at all. But especially that introduction. For, while Canfield said things you would expect an introducer to say, testifying that ''the author shows genuine literary skill in the construction of his novel,'' and comparing him to Dostoyevsky, she also said things you would expect an introducer not to say - for example, that she ''did not at all mean to imply that 'Native Son' as literature is comparable to the masterpieces of Dostoyevsky . . .'' What was horrifying was what she thought Wright's novel was comparable to.
''How to produce neuroses in sheep and psychopathic upsets in rats and other animals has been known to research scientists for so long that accounts of these experiments have filtered out to us, the general public,'' she began, and went on that ''our society puts Negro youth in the situation of the animal in the psychological laboratory in which a neurosis is to be caused.'' ''Native Son,'' she said, was ''the first report in fiction we have had from those who succumb to these distracting crosscurrents of contradictory nerve impulses, from those whose behavior patterns give evidence of the same bewildered, senseless tangle of abnormal nerve-reactions studied in animals by psychologists in laboratory experiments.''*** Suddenly I realized that many readers of ''Native Son'' had seen Bigger Thomas as a symbol; in 1940, when ''Native Son'' hit the shelves, they, like Mary Dalton, had probably never come into enough contact with blacks to know better. God, I thought, they think we're all Biggers.
I found myself wondering how many of the attitudes of 1940's whites toward blacks may have been confirmed, influenced, if not totally shaped by such a tremendously popular ''report.'' Had ''Native Son'' contributed to the facts that, in 1942, less than half of all white Americans approved of integrated transportation facilities, and that only about one in three approved of integrated schools or neighborhoods? And, if they believed ''Native Son'' was an accurate ''report,'' who could blame them for those attitudes? I myself did not want a nut like Bigger Thomas sitting next to me on a bus or in a schoolroom, and certainly I did not want him moving in next door.
Still, I thought, while Canfield's characterization may have seemed credible to the general public, it seemed incredible to me that literary critics would have accepted it. So I sought out Irving Howe's essay, ''Black Boys and Native Sons,'' from which the ''changed the world'' quote had come. In Howe, I thought, I'd surely find someone who knew that a novel is not a report.
But Howe was just as bad. True, he praised ''Native Son'' for having changed our culture, but he also wrote of ''all its crudeness, melodrama and claustrophobia of vision. . . . The language is often coarse, flat in rhythm, syntactically overburdened, heavy with journalistic slag. . . 'Native Son,' though preserving some of the devices of the naturalistic novel, deviates sharply from its characteristic tone: a tone Wright could not possibly have maintained and which, it may be, no Negro novelist can really hold for long.''**** At that moment I saw how ''Native Son'' could be a classic according to the black esthetic and still be loved by white critics; the whites did not view it as literature, except in the sense that scientific journals or polemical pamphlets are literature.
I saw, too, how unmarked was the road I would have to travel if I became a writer. I could not assume I was writing well if white critics praised my work or if they slammed it for ''ineptitude'' and ''unfitness.'' They might praise it to the skies while finding it inept and unfit, for they might think me not a writer, but a laboratory rat just slightly more articulate than his fellows.
I OPENED ''NATIVE Son'' for the third time in the summer of 1977. By then I had written a novel called ''South Street.'' Acclaimed as a ''black novel,'' it prompted a magazine editor to invite me to review a ''new'' book by Richard Wright - who had died in Paris in 1960 and had been cremated with a copy of his autobiography, ''Black Boy,'' at his side. The appearance of the ''new'' book was due not to reincarnation, but to the curious publication history of ''Black Boy.''
''Black Boy,'' published in March 1945, told the story of Wright's youth in the oppressive South and his escape to the North. As he wrote in the book's concluding lines, he made his escape with his head ''full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame. . . .''*** The book was a huge success -400,000 copies were sold within weeks. This was perhaps due to the fact that Wright's escape, which conformed to the pattern of the ''Great Migration'' of blacks during the first third of the century, when coupled with his wealth and fame, made ''Black Boy'' the quintessential Afro-American success story.
But it hadn't been that when Wright completed it in 1943, calling it ''American Hunger.'' In this version, Wright had gone on to describe the experiences in the North that shaped the pessimism of ''Native Son'' - his near-starvation in the Chicago ghetto, his lonely drive toward self-education, his Kafkaesque involvement with the Communist Party. Sometime in mid-1944, however, Wright's editor at Harper & Brothers, Edward C. Aswell, told Wright he felt ''the book would break much more logically with the departure from the South.'' Wright originally told his agent, Paul Reynolds Jr., ''I don't think that there is much I will ever be able to do on this script. . . . the thing will have to stand as it is.'' Still, he agreed not only to cut almost a third of the manuscript, but also to alter the tone by adding five concluding pages that contained that hopeful ''hazy notion.'' The deleted portion remained essentially unpublished until 1977; this was the book I was asked to review.
My response to the story behind ''American Hunger'' mirrored my reactions to the British Museum's copy of ''Native Son'': bemusement, that Wright - or anybody -should write an autobiography at 32; astonishment, at his editor's effrontery in asking that the text of that autobiography be truncated; horror, at Wright's acquiescence and cooperation. The fury came as I read ''American Hunger,'' which seemed to me a virtual rewriting of ''Native Son.'' What inspired that fury was not the many similarities between Wright's history and Bigger's, but the presence of a real-life Bessie.
At one point Wright earned a living selling burial insurance in the Chicago ghetto, where, as he wrote in ''American Hunger,'' ''there were many comely black housewives who . . . were willing to make bargains to escape paying a ten-cent premium each week.'' Wright made such a ''bargain.'' While he did not bash in the woman's face with a brick, he did once threaten to kill her, laughed at her when she admired his ability with words and viewed her as a sex object. ''Sex relations were the only relations she had ever had,'' he wrote. ''No others were possible with her, so limited was her intelligence.'' Once, ''I stared at her and wondered just what a life like hers meant in the scheme of things, and I came to the conclusion that it meant absolutely nothing.''*** Black folks have a word for a man who could even think something like that about a woman whose bed he's shared: cold. And that was the image of Wright that came to me as I read ''American Hunger'' and went back to read ''Black Boy.'' In both books I could see Wright, the frigid intellectual, portraying black people as psychological ''types'' - and then damning them for their lack of humanity. In ''Black Boy,'' he wrote of his father, ''how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body.'' Of black people in general, he wrote, ''I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. . . . I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure.''*** In those passages I heard echoes of ''Native Son.'' What made me furious was not that the novel was autobiographical - an artist has a right to draw his material from wherever he chooses - but that Wright had to know these statements were untrue. But he also knew how much they conformed to the view of blacks that prevailed in the very society he accused of oppression, for, in ''American Hunger'' he wrote that ''My reading in sociology had enabled me to discern many strange types of Negro characters.'' Put kindly, it seemed to me that Wright was pandering to white expectations. Put bluntly, I thought he had sold his people down the river to make a buck.
But as I searched through ''American Hunger'' for the quotes to support that view, I saw something which, in my outrage, I had overlooked: that, after saying the life of his lover ''meant absolutely nothing'' Wright had gone on, ''And neither did my life mean anything.'' The awful thought occurred to me: What if Richard Wright was not pandering to white expectations? What if he believed he was writing the truth? What then would be the meaning of ''Native Son''?
My second full reading of ''Native Son'' filled me with a terrible sorrow. Not for Bigger Thomas - I still did not give a damn about him - but for Richard Wright himself. For when I read the passage in which Mary Dalton tells Bigger how she had long wanted to enter a ghetto house ''and just see how your people live,'' I heard the echo of Dorothy Canfield's introduction. And in the passage in which Jan tells Bigger that it was really O.K. that Bigger had killed the woman he, Jan, loved, because ''You believed enough to kill. You thought you were settling something, or you wouldn't've killed,'' I heard Irving Howe's blithe waiver of the esthetic standards that he, as a critic, had to hold dear. And when Big (Continued on Page 78) ger, at the end of his life, reiterates that piece of dialectic insanity, I saw Richard Wright letting somebody tell him where his life logically ended.
And I realized that previously I had done ''Native Son'' the injustice of trying to fit it into my America, a place where, while a black person's right to human dignity is not exactly a given, such a thesis can at least be argued. Richard Wright's America was a very different place, a place where a black who hoped to survive needed a sense of humility more than a sense of dignity, and where Bigger Thomas's story was no more melodramatic, crude or claustrophobic than the times themselves.
In Richard Wright's America, a novelist could - as Wright did - base descriptions of lynch mobs in the streets of Chicago on reports taken directly from newspapers. In Richard Wright's America, a best-selling, financially independent novelist - if he was a Negro - could not lunch with his agent in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, could not buy a house in Greenwich Village and could only rent an apartment there if he found a landlord willing to defy half the neighborhood. In Richard Wright's America, a critically acclaimed, Guggenheim Fellowship-winning Negro novelist would hesitate to use the surnames of his agent and his editor in the dedication of a book because he was not sure they would want to be so closely associated with a black. In Richard Wright's America, they didn't have black literature courses; a black boy who wanted to be a writer could remain tragically unaware of the writing of black people, and could say, while explaining the origins of his characters, that ''association with white writers was the life preserver of my hope to depict Negro life in fiction, for my race possessed no fictional works . . . no novels that went with a deep and fearless will down to the dark roots of life.''
And so I came to realize that ''Native Son'' was not as inaccurate as I had thought; and that, in a sense, Dorothy Canfield was not entirely wrong. Not that there was great validity in Wright's use of Bigger Thomas as a type. Nor is there any validity in reading any piece of fiction as ''a report'' of general social conditions. But fiction is a report of specific conditions: that is its value. ''Native Son,'' I realized, shows the vision one black man held of his people, his country, and, ultimately, himself. And I thought, Dear God, how horrible for a man to have to write this. And, Please, God, let no one ever have to write this again.
I T IS THE AUTUMN of 1986. I have just finished reading ''Native Son'' for the fourth time. I have been invited to write an introduction to a new edition. Put simply - and frighteningly, to me - I have been asked to step into the role of Dorothy Canfield, and dared to do a better job.
I am not sure I can do a better job. For while what Canfield wrote still infuriates me, she was a part of her time, as I am a part of mine. Still, I have had the opportunity -as she did not - to read ''Native Son'' over a span of years. And I find that I can be kinder toward ''Native Son'' than I have been in the past.
Not that I think ''Native Son'' has suddenly become artistically brilliant. But I have realized, belatedly, that ''Native Son'' is a first novel. Its flaws are typical of first novels, no more severe than those found in most. And now I can see beneath the shroud of politics, and accept that ''Native Son'' is, in fact, a valuable document - not of sociology, but of history. It reminds us of a time in this land of freedom when a man could have this bleak and frightening vision of his people, and when we had so little contact with one another that that vision could be accepted as fact.
But despite that, I find that Wright, after all these years, has failed in an ironic way. He wanted ''Native Son'' to be a book ''no one would weep over.'' With me, he once succeeded. He no longer does. ''Native Son'' is an ineffably sad expression of what once were the realities of this nation. We have not come as far as we ought. But I hope we have come far enough by now to read ''Native Son'' and weep. =
* FROM ''BLACK FIRE'' COPYRIGHT c 1968 BY LEROI JONES AND LARRY NEAL.
* *COPYRIGHT c 1955 BY JAMES BALDWIN, BEACON PRESS BOSTON.
* **COPYRIGHT c 1968, 1973, 1977 BY ELLEN WRIGHT.
* ***COPYRIGHT c 1963 BY IRVING HOWE, HORIZON PRESS.Continue reading the main story