Wright’s most significant achievement as a writer was his ability to render the particulars of American racism from the point of view of its victims. He powerfully chronicles the historical injustices that black Americans have suffered: physical abuse and emotional degradation, the denial of meaningful opportunities to cultivate and benefit from their native abilities, stifling living conditions dictated by segregation and poverty, and a compromised legal system.
In Wright’s fiction, as in his own life, characters respond to such outrages first with rebellion and finally with flight, because escape alone seems to offer a real alternative. Yet his depictions of the northern migration undertaken by thousands of southern black people in the twentieth century always include the disorientation and rootlessness they suffer in their new urban milieu, and his expatriates continue to struggle with the psychological wounds—rage, anxiety, and self-doubt—engendered by earlier bigotry.
The various philosophical positions Wright assumes in his work spring from his hunger to see the African American’s experience as a metaphor for the modern human condition. Having learned to interpret the world through a deterministic lens, he finds in literary naturalism a congenial intellectual apparatus upon which to build the compelling logic of his narratives. The antidote to naturalistic despair in Wright’s early fiction is provided by Communism, which explains the degradation of racism as part of a worldwide pattern of class exploitation whose remedy is assured through the historical inevitability of revolution. The Marxist hopefulness of Uncle Tom’s Children and Max’s anguished social protest in Native Son reflect this orientation. Even in Native Son, however, Wright is straining toward a less mechanistic interpretation of black universality—one which equates the negation of self experienced under racism with a cosmic spiritual alienation that is humanity’s existential fate.
The symbolic import of black people rests on their outcast status in relation to the dominant white culture. Denied their own identities by the racist premises determining their lives and precluded from entering the culture on any other terms, they become metaphysical outlaws estranged from the moral codes of society and continually testing the limits of individual moral freedom in search of self-definition.
Wright’s fictions, from Native Son to The Long Dream, employ criminal melodrama not only because of the taste Wright developed for it as a boy but also because tales of violent crime dramatize his vision of modern humans’ existence in a godless universe. Wright’s protagonists regularly find themselves faced with choosing between affirmation of their bond with others and assertion of their own egotism at the expense of such ties. The equation mirrors Wright’s intellectual contradictions as well, for while he espouses a belief in Enlightenment rationalism (embodied first in Marxism and later in a committed existentialist individualism), his creative energies are most engaged when examining the psyche’s dark, demoniac side. Wright demonstrates a fascination with psychoanalytic theory that takes a variety of forms.
Such interests explain his increasing resistance later in his career to being categorized as a writer of racial themes—the troubled sensibility of The Outsider’s Cross Damon, for example, is attributed to something other than his race. Ironically, a crucial source of Wright’s outcast sensibility lay in his hostility to the southern black community from which he had sprung, and much of his work indicts the elements therein that stifle rational thinking and thwart personal aspiration toward a better way of life. As Wright’s international experience grew, he became aware of the presence of intellectuals such as himself in preindustrial societies worldwide.
While his fiction explores the tragic condition of these “marginal men” caught between cultures, Wright’s political writings of the 1950’s charge them with the responsibility for transforming their homelands into modern industrial societies and insist that Western nations responsible for the colonization of the so-called Third World materially assist them to that end. Wright also recorded his own divided responses to black cultures in Africa and the Caribbean region, revealing an emotional empathy for the spiritual cohesiveness of such communities as well as a deep skepticism of the tribal and religious traditionalism that hampered what the West would term progress.
His report from Ghana in Black Power reflects that tension, which leads him to concede that history has transformed the African American into a Westerner. Wright’s overarching literary vision springs from a philosophical extrapolation of that fact; he considered himself a cosmopolitan humanist grounded in secular rationalism but was convinced that only the nonwhite peoples of developing nations could redeem Western civilization. This view explains his willingness to devote so much energy in the last decade of his life to documenting the potential of developing nations.
First published: 1940
Type of work: Novel
An angry black teenager in the Chicago ghetto commits two murders which liberate him from his own victimized mind-set at the same time they feed the societal racism that has defined his life.
Native Son triggered Wright’s emergence into the foreground of American literature; the book became a best seller and was selected as the first Book of the Month Club offering by an African American. It immediately initiated controversy: Many within the black bourgeoisie condemned its depiction of a violent, white-hating black youth as the embodiment of white racist fantasies about the Negro “threat.” Wright’s fellow Communists disliked its racial preoccupations and reactionary emphasis upon the misdirected rebellion of a lone individual.
The novel also garnered high praise, however, often from those same audiences: The NAACP awarded Wright the Spingarn Medal, and critic Irving Howe suggested that Wright had transcended strictly aesthetic evaluations, saying, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” Wright’s avowed intention was to force readers to confront the full “moral horror” of American racism.
In the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the composite of innumerable young black men Wright had encountered throughout his life; their outrage at being denied the American Dream explodes into unfocused violence that is as much a consequence of modern America’s urban industrial rootlessness as it is their racial grievances. Wright’s perspective rests on the Marxist tenet that the race question is intimately linked to the class exploitation at the heart of capitalism. Chicago’s notorious 1938 Nixon case, in which a black teenager was tried for the robbery and murder of a white mother of two and which influenced Wright in some of his fictional choices, provided topical validity for a story whose larger truths Wright had been pondering for years.
The novel rests upon elaborate philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings. Wright composed Native Son in three “acts,” titled “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” each of which blends naturalism, symbolism, and ideology. “Fear” deals with Bigger’s circumstances as the eldest son in a fatherless household dependent on government assistance. It also depicts the emotional volatility with which he responds to the grinding poverty of his family members’ lives, his mother’s expectations of rescue through accommodation to the system,...
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