(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Let Me Breathe Thunder is a terse tale of three hobos in the western United States during the Great Depression. William Attaway’s novel quickly builds to its tragic climax of racial brutality by depicting the social and economic desperation of the times. Step, Ed, and Hi Boy ride the rails looking for work and adventure. They sleep outdoors, travel both by day and by night, and eat when and where they can. They are at the mercy of the elements, the train “bulls,” and the town police, who harass migrant workers.

Step and Ed have traveled the Southwest and West for years. Like thousands of other unemployed men during the Depression, they know no other life. A week before the novel starts, they meet up with Hi Boy, a Mexican boy who has ten dollars and does not speak English. Step takes the money. They travel to Seattle, where Step gets drunk, fights with a bartender over a woman, and knocks the man out. They flee from the town, buying tickets with the last of Hi Boy’s money. Uncomfortable in the train, Step insults the conductor and other passengers. They eat in the dining car but cannot pay for the meal. As they are about to jump from the train to avoid their bill, a stranger pays for their food. The stranger, Sampson, offers them a job on his farm in Yakima. Step laughs at first at the job offer, but they follow the farmer after Step flips his lucky dog tail to decide whether to accept it.

They travel in a boxcar with three other hard-luck drifters with no jobs or homes, two of them white and one black. The hobos talk of wandering desperately in search of work and discuss their inability to settle down. Whites and African Americans suffer the same indignities and poverty of the unemployed. Step gets angry at Hi Boy for complaining about the rain and cold, since such complaints violate the “code of...

(The entire section is 753 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Richard Wright and the Triumph of Naturalism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bell illuminates the naturalist tradition in terms of black writing and analyzes Attaway’s writing closely in terms of class and race consciousness. Sees the roots of Attaway’s work in the interplay between Freudian psychology and Marxist social analysis. Stresses the biological and socioeconomic conditions that control Attaway’s naturalistic style and theme. Bell also outlines the historical and political themes of the early part of the twentieth century, including the Great Migration, the Depression, Communism, and the Chicago School of Sociology.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Examines Attaway’s connection to the Federal Writers Workshop. Sees the novel as unoriginal and too closely based on Steinbeck, making no new contribution to the proletarian novel of the 1930’s. Gives Attaway only a small place in the annals of black writing during the Depression.

Margolies, Edward. Introduction to Blood on the Forge, by William Attaway. New York: Collier Books, 1970. Critical and biographical survey of William Attaway, concentrating on Attaway’s second and last novel. Provides valuable information about the...

(The entire section is 428 words.)