Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Since Lawd Today was finally published in 1963, critics have debated its merits. Some have argued that the book is a flawed early novel and cite Wright’s inability to publish it during his lifetime as evidence of its shortcomings. Wright wrote, revised, and sent out the novel several times from 1931 to 1937, but it was uniformly rejected by publishers. Published after Wright’s death, Lawd Today has never received the critical attention accorded Wright’s autobiographical Black Boy (1945) or his other novel about the Chicago ghetto, Native Son (1940).

Lawd Today has been criticized as an apprentice novel far inferior to Wright’s later work and as an unoriginal text that relies too heavily on borrowings from John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, and other white writers. Critics have rejected it as dull, unimaginative, and full of unconnected, hackneyed episodes that fail to come together in a compelling plot. Some critics have asserted that the novel is offensive because it relies on so many negative black stereotypes.

Nevertheless, Lawd Today has been praised for anticipating Wright’s later work. The unlucky antihero Jake Jackson seems to be a model for the more tragic Bigger Thomas. Some have argued that Lawd Today even surpasses Wright’s later stories and novels in its skillful use of satire and humor free from sensational incidents. Wright’s first novel has been praised for its structure and balance and for the coherence of its imagery as well as for its use of experimental writing techniques. The radio broadcasts of Lincoln’s birthday in the background contrast the emancipation of the slaves with Jake’s failed attempts at emancipation, and the melting together of the voices of Jake, Al, Bob, and Slim during the post office dialogue produces a nameless and typical workingman’s voice, trapped in unoriginal thought.

The relationship between Lawd Today and Wright’s activity in the Communist Party during the Depression is complex. The novel echoes communist criticism of capitalist society in its focus on corruption, racism, and the dullness of repetitive, supervised labor. However, Lawd Today does not offer an alternative to Jake’s existence, and its spokesman for the communist position, Duke, is restricted to a few statements that are rejected by Doc Higgins and Jake at the barbershop.