Critical Overview

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In Native Son, Richard Wright aimed to present the complex and disturbing status of racial politics in America. The great quantity of criticism that the work has generated and its popularity over more than fifty years indicate that Wright succeeded. The work has undergone several periods of critical assessment. Early reviewers, especially African American critics, recognized the book’s significance. In the decade that followed its publication, the novel’s stature was diminished by harsh criticism from James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Later critics, examining the ability of art to wage battle in the social war for greater equality, once again praised the novel. This phase coincided with the “black power” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the novel was faulted by feminist critics for its misogynist tone.

Early reviewers of the novel acknowledged its significance. Charles Poore, in the New York Times, declared that “few other recent novels have been preceded by more advance critical acclamation.” Native Son was seen as a novel of social protest, typical of works from the 1930s, when writers who lived through the Great Depression created works critical of the American dream. Thus, Wright was easily subsumed in the category of “protest novelist” along with John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, and others.

After World War II, writers like James Baldwin, in the Partisan Review, and Ralph Ellison, in the New Leader, soundly criticized Wright for being too harsh and impatient. They felt that his picture of the black man in America was too negative. Baldwin went further to say that the protest novel did not advance the cause of equality but instead worsened relations between the races. Ellison, meanwhile, declared the novel artistically crude and its perspective excessively committed to Marxism.

In his 1963 article, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Irving Howe defended Wright as a representative of the protest tradition in black literature. The “black power” movement took inspiration from Native Son with many of its members declaring an emphatic identification with Bigger. Theodore Solotaroff stated in his The Red Hot Vacuum & Other Pieces on the Writings of the Sixties: “we came to our own yearly confrontation with the algebra of hatred and guilt, alienation and violence, freedom and self-integration and in the struggle for what is called today ‘civil rights’ the meaning of Bigger Thomas and of Richard Wright continue to reveal itself.”

By the 1980s Wright’s reputation was firmly established in American literature, and Native Son became required reading in high schools and colleges. New questions were being posed about his work. For example, an aspect of the novel previously unexamined was Wright’s attitude towards women. Marie Mootry discussed this in her 1984 article, “Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright.” She was not alone in taking to task Wright’s novel for its view of women, although she was more direct than some. She found that Bigger’s inability to see women as human beings, with the same rights to expression that he claimed for himself, restricted his view of humankind and made his self-destruction a foregone conclusion.

David Bradley, a New York Times critic, admitted to hating the novel on his first reading, finding Bigger to be sociopathic. However, when reading it for the fourth time years later, he believed the book to be “a valuable document—not of sociology but of history. It reminds us of a time in this land when a man of freedom could have this bleak and frightening vision of his people.”

In Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero, Robert Butler offered a contemporary interpretation of Wright’s work: “The novel is … much more than the ‘powerful’ but artistically flawed piece of crude naturalism that many early reviewers and some later critics mistakenly saw. It is a masterwork because its formal artistry and its revolutionary new content are solidly integrated to produce a complex and resonant vision of modern American reality.”

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