Richard Wright

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Janice Thaddeus (essay date May 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6181

SOURCE: Thaddeus, Janice. “The Metamorphosis of Richard Wright's Black Boy.American Literature 57, no. 2 (May 1985): 199-214.

[In the following essay, Thaddeus chronicles the publishing history of Black Boy and traces the book's metamorphosis from an open autobiography to a closed one.]

There are two kinds of autobiography—defined and open. In a defined autobiography, the writer presents his life as a finished product. He is likely to have reached a plateau, a moment of resolution which allows him to recollect emotion in tranquility. This feeling enables him to create a firm setting for his reliable self, to see this self in relief against society or history. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for instance, is a defined autobiography, a public document, moving undeviatingly from self-denial to self-discovery. It rests on the fulcrum of: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”1 The writer of an open autobiography differs from Douglass and others like him in that he is searching, not telling, so that like Boswell or Rousseau he offers questions instead of answers. He does not wish to supply a fulcrum, does not proffer conclusions and solutions, and consequently he refrains from shaping his life neatly in a teleological plot. The tone and purpose of an open autobiography are entirely different from a defined autobiography. Therefore, if an author needs to write an open autobiography, it must not be changed into the defined variety. But Richard Wright's Black Boy experienced such a metamorphosis.

The publishing history of Black Boy is most fully told in Michel Fabre's “Afterword” to Wright's other autobiographical work, American Hunger, which was released in 1977. However, even in Fabre's account, some of the important details are hazy. It is the purpose of this essay to clarify the entire incident and to document the metamorphosis of Black Boy.

Wright's Black Boy, published in 1945, is—so far as plot goes—molded and shapely, beginning in speechlessness and anger, and ending in articulateness and hope. The boy who at the age of four set fire to his own house, became a drunkard at the age of six, and was so frightened of a new school that he could not write his name on the board, by the final pages has fought and lied his way out of the racist South. The book fits into the familiar plot of the slave narrative. And it ends twenty years before its publication, a long swath of time during which the author has become a famous novelist, writer of Native Son. To a degree which has puzzled many readers, however, Black Boy also introduces oppositions—both imagistic and thematic—which it never resolves.

Black Boy's epigraph sets its theme, but that theme is paradoxical. Wright initiates his book with an unsettling quotation from Job: “They meet with darkness in the daytime / And they grope at noonday as in the night. …” Darkness and daytime, black and white, are insistent images throughout. Given the subject matter, this is an obvious choice, but Wright presents his oppositions with puzzling complexity. He mentions in passing in the opening paragraph that his grandmother is white, but it is not until fifty pages later that we discover that Granny was a slave, that she bears the name as well as the color of her white owner, that she does not know—or does not care to know—who her father was. If Granny is white, why is she black? The question is simple, but the answer is not, and Wright emphasizes this indefiniteness. In many scenes, as Gayle Gaskill has shown, Wright deliberately reverses the usual connotations Western tradition has assigned to black and white—that black is always bad and white is good.2 For instance, when Wright's mother beats him nearly to death for setting their house on fire, he has a feverish dream. “Huge wobbly white bags, like the full udders of cows,” hang menacingly over him, and their whiteness is terrifying. Further, although they look like udders and therefore must represent mothers' milk, they threaten to engulf the four-year-old Wright in “some horrible liquid.”3 His mother has become his potential destroyer, and although she is black, her milk is white, and whiteness is evil. In the earlier version of this dream published in Uncle Tom's Children, the nightmare is attached to an incident where in a fight with a white gang a flung bottle cuts Wright behind the ear. Here, the apparitions are menacing white faces, a simpler and less psychologically determined image. In Black Boy, Wright's mother, like his grandmother, is a mixture of black and white. Although it is true that in Black Boy white images are often repressive and black images are often positive, Wright does not entirely deny the traditional meanings of the words. Wright's poodle Betsy is white, and he loves her whiteness, but he will not sell her to white people. If he has to use a blackboard, he emphasizes that the chalk is white. The chalk represents education—and terror. Throughout Black Boy Wright's imagery of black and white resists simple formulations. He has not shaped and tailored it to a simple, clear purpose.

The imagery of light and dark is similarly mutable. The South is dark, so dark that Wright frequently wonders over the fact that the sun is still shining. When he hears that an acquaintance has been lynched for presumably consorting with a white prostitute, it seems uncanny that life can continue: “I stood looking down the quiet, sun-filled street. Bob had been caught by the white death” (p. 190). Here, although the light is beautiful, whiteness means death. As readers, we recognize the reference to the black death, and are forced to the analogy that the animals carrying this plague are human. When Pease and Reynolds force Wright out of the optical shop where he had hoped to learn a trade, to help people literally to improve their vision, he recounts: “I went into the sunshine and walked home like a blind man” (p. 212). The sun shines, but not for him. In ironic and various ways, then, aesthetically and thematically, the book fulfills its epigraph. The result, however, is anxiety, not resolution.

Black Boy is a violent book, but it has not been sufficiently noted that violence is always linked with its opposite, in a poised opposition resembling the metaphorical tension just discussed. Wright's experiences have made him “strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful” (p. 112). Besides the imagery mentioned above, Wright's chief word for this indefinable yearning is hunger. The word and the fact of hunger recur like drumbeats throughout the book, an insistent refrain. Wright never has enough to eat: he steals food even when there is plenty; he receives an orange for Christmas and eats it with preternatural care; he fills his aching stomach with water; he is too thin to pass the postal examination. The hunger is both “bodily and spiritual” (p. 147), and the spiritual hunger is as insistent as its bodily counterpart. The entire book is strung between hunger and satisfaction, as well as light and dark and black and white, and similarly opposing, irreconcilable forces. The word tension appears so many times that Wright had to cut out thirty instances of it in the final draft.4

Among these oppositions the narrator becomes an immensely powerful but undefined force. Wright himself said, “One of the things that made me write is that I realize that I'm a very average Negro … maybe that's what makes me extraordinary.”5 This recognition of the self as typical is frequent in black autobiography, where beleaguering social forces chain the writer to his race. On the other hand, Wright also said, “I'm merely using a familiar literary form to unload many of the memories that have piled up in me, and now are coming out.”6 These views are quite incompatible, since an average person would not have to unload memories, and their rendering as competing forces in Black Boy is one of its greatest sources of interest—and tension.

But in spite of Black Boy's insistent refusal to resolve the oppositions upon which it rests, the final six pages nonetheless attempt to summarize the preceding experiences, to explain them, give them a defined significance. Wright asks, “From where in this southern darkness had I caught a sense of freedom” (p. 282)? And he proceeds to answer his question. He argues that books alone had kept him “alive in a negatively vital way” (p. 282), and especially books by “Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis” which:

seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.

(p. 283)

These final words counteract the paradoxes of the epigraph. The black boy who was heading North was still blind at noonday, but he felt “warmth from an unseen light,” and that warmth was hope. He was groping, but groping toward something. The ultimate paragraph states that Wright's search was for the essential significance of life. “With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, 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, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars” (p. 285). Even though this last paragraph is presented conditionally, it is strong and eloquent. The promise, even the faint promise, of “redeeming meaning” seems adequate to the dignity of “having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.” We feel that hunger has at last changed to hope.

But this final statement, wrapping up and rounding out the book, is not what Wright had originally planned to publish when he finished Black Boy in December of 1943. As is now well known, the book was half again as long and its title was American Hunger. It reached page proofs and its jacket was designed. The full autobiography ends in 1937, ten years later than Black Boy, only six years before the actual writing of the book. Therefore, Wright had not achieved the sort of distance from his material which the shortened Black Boy implied. Partly for this reason, the full American Hunger—as distinct from the published Black Boy—retains that tentativeness which is the hallmark of the open autobiography.

In addition, the omitted second section of the autobiography expresses the tensions, the unresolved conflicts, of the first. American Hunger is the story, chiefly, of Wright's unsatisfying relationship with the Communist Party. Here, the themes of black and white are more subdued, but the theme of hunger persists and becomes more elaborate and universal. Of course, the question of black and white as a simple issue of race continues, but as Wright notes, he now feels “a different sort of tension,”7 a different kind of “insecurity” (p. 3). The distinction now is likely to be animal and human, dirty and clean. A re-consideration of Black Boy's epigraph will best illustrate the qualities of the omitted section and its relationship to the whole.

The epigraph from Job which prefaced Black Boy was originally meant to summarize the entire American Hunger. The first line, “They meet with darkness in the daytime,” as shown above, summarizes the action of Black Boy. The second line, “And they grope at noonday as in the night, …” although not denying the content of Black Boy, more properly applies to the second section of the book. When Wright first enters a John Reed Club, it seems that neither he nor the members of the club need to grope; they ignore his blackness, and he feels for the first time totally human. But soon they begin to reduce his humanity in other ways. The Communists thwart his attempts to write biographies of their black members. “I had embraced their aims with the freest impulse I had ever known. I, the chary cynic, the man who had felt that no idea on earth was worthy of self-sacrifice, had publicly identified myself with them, and now their suspicion of me hit me with a terrific impact, froze me within. I groped in the noon sun” (p. 86). The isolation Wright feels is different from what he experienced in the South, but it is in some ways more terrible. He is still blind, groping even in the sunshine.

Wright had also picked separate epigraphs and titles for each of the subdivisions of the original American Hunger, and when these are properly replaced, they reassert the anxiety, hunger, and searching. In its original form, Black Boy-American Hunger had specific titles for each book, and each book carried a separate epigraph. Black Boy was to be called “Southern Night,” and its epigraph was also from Job: “His strength shall be hunger-bitten, / And destruction shall be ready at his side.”8 The dark imagery of the “Southern Night” fulfilled its title, as did its violence and hunger. The second part was to be called “The Horror and the Glory,” and its epigraph came from a Negro Folk Song:

Sometimes I wonder, huh,
Wonder if other people wonder, huh,
Sometimes I wonder, huh,
Wonder if other people wonder, huh,
Just like I do, oh my Lord, just like I do!

This brief verse indicates tentativeness, indecision, and a total lack of communication. In company with this resistance to conclusiveness, Wright emphasizes throughout his sense of wonder, his innocence: “how wide and innocent were my eyes, as round and open and dew-wet as morning-glories” (p. 111). Besides elaborating on its epigraph, the section called “The Horror and the Glory” explicitly defines its subtitle. In a climactic scene toward the end of the book, Wright's friend Ross confesses in an open trial that he has fought the policies of his fellow Communists. The glory of this moment is that Ross “had shared and accepted the vision that had crushed him” (p. 124), the vision that all men are equal and sharing in a communal world. But the horror is that this vision has been oversimplified by its followers, that they have allowed the Party to truncate their abilities to think. Wright says, “This, to me, was a spectacle of glory; and yet, because it had condemned me, because it was blind and ignorant, I felt that it was a spectacle of horror” (p. 125). Wright is a writer, and as such it is his business to search deep into the human heart, to name blindness when he sees it. This is of necessity a lonely search, and a complex one. Like the protagonist of “The Man Who Lived Underground,” which Wright was working on during the years when he was finishing American Hunger, a writer may find himself separate from the rest, observing, innocent, condemned.

The final pages of the full American Hunger, unlike those of the revised Black Boy, do not in fact explain how Wright managed to separate himself from his black confrères in the south, how he became a writer. They do not even hint at his future successes, but rather at his sense of quest, and as Michel Fabre has put it, his feeling that the quest was unfinished and perhaps unfinishable. Wright did not plan to create in his readers nor to accept in himself a feeling of satisfaction, but of hunger, “a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all” (p. 135). Here, too, Wright returns to his imagery of darkness and light: “Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into this darkness” (p. 134). The terminology is similar to Conrad's at the end of Heart of Darkness, with reference to the continent before him and its immensity. Wright no longer believes in the Communist vision, no longer yearns for what Fishbelly's father in The Long Dream calls “the dream that can't come true,”9 asserts that he is working “Humbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity.” Wright knows that his effort is tentative and minimal, but also that he must try to write on the “white paper”: “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human” (p. 135). This statement is an admission that Wright cannot produce a work that is neat and conclusive, and as a result the content and effect of these final pages clash with the revised ending of Black Boy.

To understand why Wright's conclusion to Black Boy is so mismatched with the deliberate inconclusiveness of his full autobiography, one must consider in detail the events surrounding its writing. After the extraordinary success of Native Son in 1940, Wright turned to a novel about women, servants, and the problem of those who attempt to pass for white. This novel was never to be finished, but he was working at it consistently until 9 April 1943, when he gave a talk at Fisk University in Nashville. He had not prepared his remarks in advance, and he decided at the last minute to talk about his own life, to be honest with his audience. After the publication of Black Boy, he recounted this experience:

I gave a clumsy, conversational kind of speech to the folks, white and black, reciting what I felt and thought about the world; what I remembered about my life, about being a Negro. There was but little applause. Indeed, the audience was terribly still, and it was not until I was halfway through my speech that it crashed upon me that I was saying things that Negroes were not supposed to say publicly, things that whites had forbidden Negroes to say. What made me realize this was a hysterical, half-repressed, tense kind of laughter that went up now and then from the white and black faces.10

This experience convinced him that he ought to finish the book about his own life which he had long been writing in pieces. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” for instance, written in 1937, he would eventually transport bodily into his autobiography.11 The book which he now set out to write, although revised, shaped, and ordered, was primarily an effort to tell the truth, not to convince a particular audience, black or white. Indeed, Wright wrote to his editor at Harper's, Edward Aswell, about a juvenile edition of Black Boy that “I'm just too self-conscious when I write for a special audience.”12 He could not finish the juvenile edition.

The search for truth, for as much truth as one can possibly set down, is the primary motive of a writer of an open as opposed to a defined autobiography. He is not trying primarily to please an audience, to create an aesthetically satisfying whole, but to look into his heart. This attempt is perhaps the most difficult a writer can undertake, requiring as Wright put it in his Fisk speech “real hard terror.”

If you try it, you will find at times sweat will break out upon you. You will find that even if you succeed in discounting the attitudes of others to you and your life, you must wrestle with yourself most of all, fight with yourself; for there will surge up in you a strong desire to alter facts, to dress up your feelings. You'll find that there are many things that you don't want to admit about yourself or others. As your record shapes itself up, an awed wonder haunts you. And yet there is no more exciting an adventure than trying to be honest in this way. The clean, strong feeling that sweeps you when you've done it, makes you know that. … Well, it's quite inexplicable.13

When Wright had at last, through a multitude of drafts, faced and finished these truths and these terrors, he forwarded his manuscript to his agent, Paul Reynolds. Reynolds sent the manuscript, which was at that moment called “Black Hunger,” to Harper's, where Aswell was expecting the novel about the problems of attempting to “pass.” Aswell instantly recognized the autobiography's worth, however, and within three days had sent an advance. By this time the title was American Hunger. The unsigned reader's notes (presumably Aswell's) preserved in the Harper papers suggest, among other things, that Wright cut out some of the John Reed section. The reader adds, “I may be wrong but I personally would like to see some of this cut and the story carried on to the years of Wright's success—perhaps to the writing of Native Son. His own feeling of hope, his own preservation through adversity would somehow be justified as it is not here.”14 It is an editor's business to ask that even lives be given justification, that order be imposed, that readers be given a sense of wholeness and completion. The suggestion that the autobiography be brought up to Native Son was somehow dropped, but Wright cut the John Reed section as much as he could. He rewrote the ending, but it resisted closure: “I tried and tried to strengthen the ending. One thing is certain, I cannot step outside of the mood rendered there and say anything without its sounding false. So, what I've done is this: I've expanded the end to deepen the mood, to hint at some kind of emotional resolution.”15 The book moved toward its final stages. Wright objected to the phrase “courageous Negro” in the jacket copy and asked that it be changed to “Negro American,” which “keeps the book related to the American scene and emphasizes the oneness of impulse, the singleness of aim of both black and white Americans.”16 Wright's emphasis, once again, is on a general audience. He is trying to tell the truth, avoiding the need to mask, modify, change, which had characterized his life in white America. He is deviating from the model of the black slave narrative, which moved teleologically from slavery into freedom, from dehumanization to fulfillment. The pressure to round out the book was strong, but Wright successfully resisted.

The further metamorphosis, the addition of the final six pages to Black Boy, took place in the Spring of 1944, after American Hunger in its entirety had been forwarded to the Book-of-the-Month Club. There, the judges said that they would accept the book on condition that the second section be cut off and the first section be provided with more complete resolution. On 26 June, Aswell forwarded a draft of the new conclusion in which Wright had “tried to carry out a suggestion made by Mr. Fadiman to the effect that he summarize briefly, and make explicit, the meaning that is now implicit in the preceding pages.”17

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who had written the introduction for Native Son, urged Wright to expand somewhat on his first draft, and to seek out the American sources for his feelings of hope. “From what other source than from the basic tradition of our country could the soul of an American have been filled with that ‘hazy notion’ that life could be lived with dignity? Could it be that even from inside the prison of injustice, through the barred windows of that Bastille of racial oppression, Richard Wright had caught a glimpse of the American flag?”18 With America at war, this spirit of patriotism was the general mood, and elsewhere Fisher contrasts American freedom with Nazi repression. Reflecting similar fervor, Aswell's list of possible titles for the truncated first half of American Hunger includes besides fifteen evocations of darkness such as “Raw Hunger” and “The Valley of Fear,” these familiar complacencies: “Land of the Free” and “Land of Liberty.”19 Wright replied that the Negro environment was such that very few could intuit the American way. Even these could desire nothing specific; they could feel only a hope, a hunger. He emphasized that accident, not fate or choice, had more often than not governed his own life. However, Fisher had suggested that Wright consider which American books might have influenced him, given him a vision of America which had inspired him. In response to this request, Wright added two more paragraphs. One defined his hope—or more precisely refused to define his hope, showing that he was simply running away from violence and darkness, not toward anything he could formulate. The second paragraph had to do with his reading. Although Wright was careful to emphasize that his reading had been accidental, that the books were alien, that Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis were critical of the American environment, he did give his hope a nearer reality. Even so, as mentioned above, he called it “a warmth from an unseen light,” a phrase which Fisher praised with special emphasis. Wright had actually transported this phrase from American Hunger, where it appeared in a much more nebulous context: “Even so, I floundered, staggered; but somehow I always groped my way back to that path where I felt a tinge of warmth from an unseen light” (p. 25). Here there is blindness, the groping of the epigraph, and a tiny waft of hope. The Black Boy context, too, mentions groping, but the rhetoric is more assured, the feeling more triumphant.

Indeed, Wright realized that American Hunger was no longer an appropriate title for this transformed autobiography. The Book-of-the-Month Club suggested “The First Chapter,” which would have emphasized the initiation theme and implied a sequel, but this choice seemed jejune. Wright himself eventually suggested Black Boy; and his accompanying comment emphasizes the unity he had attained by truncating his book: “Now, this is not very original, but I think it covers the book. It is honest. Straight. And many people say it to themselves when they see a Negro and wonder how he lives. … Black Boy seems to me to be not only a title, but also a kind of heading of the whole general theme.”20 His suggested subtitles, however, retained the sense of process. Nearly all of them contained the word “anxiety.” Eventually, however, the subtitle too reflected the pose of completeness. Black Boy became A Record of Childhood and Youth.

No one will ever know how the original American Hunger would have fared after publication, but Black Boy became an instant best-seller. In 1945 it ranked fourth among non-fiction sales.21 The content was new and shocking, but even so, many readers noted the hopeful ending. Responses ranged from outrage through misunderstanding and biased readings to unalleviated praise. Senator Bilbo attacked the book from the right and Ben Burns hacked away at it from the left. Black opinion was divided over Wright's frequently sharp comments about members of his own race. Orville Prescott recognized and disliked some of the elements of open autobiography and downgraded the book for its inclusiveness, criticizing Wright's “excessive determination to omit nothing, to emphasize mere filth.” Although we have seen that this inclusiveness was a deliberate and necessary choice, Prescott decided that it sprang “from a lack of artistic discrimination and selectivity.”22 Milton Mayer made a similar criticism, defining the book's genre as “history.”23 Lewis Gannett, claiming that “Black Boy may be one of the great American autobiographies,” saw a double America in the book much like Dorothy Canfield Fisher's: “This, too is America: both the mud and scum in which Richard Wright grew up, and the something that sang within him, that ever since has been singing with an ever clearer, painfully sweeter, voice.”24 Many others used Wright's subsequent career as a defining measure, seeing in his earlier experiences the seeds of his genius. One typical review ended: “Soon after this discovery of the great world of books, we find our black boy born of the Mississippi plantation, now nineteen, packing up his bags for new worlds and horizons in the North. The rest of the story is well-known.”25 Readers of Black Boy, no matter what their race or persuasion, often made the easy leap from the trip North to best-sellerdom and success.

But for Wright himself this leap was not easy, as readers of American Hunger know. Although pieces of the end of the original American Hunger were published in the Atlantic Monthly and Mademoiselle before Black Boy itself actually appeared, it obviously could not reach as large an audience as Black Boy itself. Constance Webb produced a photo-offset version of the whole manuscript, but this was only privately circulated.26 Even readers who later read most of this material in The God that Failed or in Eight Men27 could not intuit the negative strength of the omitted pages which immediately followed Wright's escape to the North in American Hunger. Nothing short of Wright's opening words can convey the desolation he felt on arriving in his hoped-for paradise: “My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies” (p. 1). Wright did at last find a place where he was comfortable, but it was not Chicago or any other place in the United States. In spite of Mencken, Anderson, Dreiser, Masters, and Lewis, the American dream which Wright could not honestly elicit in the last pages of his Black Boy simply did not exist for him. When Wright arrived in Paris on 15 May 1946, he wrote to his editor at Harper's: “Ed, Paris is all I ever hoped to think it was, with a clear sky, buildings so beautiful with age that one wonders how they happen to be, and with people so assured and friendly and confident that one knows that it took many centuries of living to give them such poise. There is such an absence of race hate that it seems a little unreal. Above all, Paris strikes me as being truly a gentle city, with gentle manners.”28 Here he could live and work as a human being, released from the ungentleness he could never escape in the United States.

In spite of the tentativeness of Wright's ending for Black Boy, in spite of his ultimate emigration, subsequent readers have continued to misread those final pages. Arthur P. Davis, for instance, in From the Dark Tower says, “The book ends … on a note of triumph. Near the close of the work Wright describes his moment of truth.”29 But there was no moment of truth. Similarly, although Stephen Butterfield describes black autobiography in general as reflecting “a kind of cultural schizophrenia, where the author must somehow discover roots in a country which does not accept him as a human being,”30 he defines Black Boy as one of the modern survivals of the pattern of the slave narrative. In support of this argument, he writes, “The slave narrative's basic pattern, it will be remembered, was an escape from South to North as well as a movement up the social scale from the status of slave to that of respected, educated citizen and vanguard of black politics and culture” (pp. 130-31). Without the American Hunger ending, Black Boy is indeed modeled on the slave-narrative pattern, but Wright intended the ending to remain ambiguous, groping, hungry. Unfortunately the pattern absorbs the deviating elements, and only an unusually careful reader will notice the hesitancy in the final pages, the conditional verbs, the haltered rhetoric, the mention of luck.

In 1977, seventeen years after Wright's death, Harper and Row published American Hunger as a separate volume, with an afterword by Michel Fabre giving a brief outline of its publishing history. Fabre objected to the disjoining of the two parts of the original autobiography, observing, “Black Boy is commonly construed as a typical success story, and thus it has been used by the American liberal to justify his own optimism regarding his country” (p. 140). The rhetoric is strong, but the point is valid, and indeed it is more generally true than Fabre implies. Davis and Butterfield also misread Black Boy, and they cannot easily be grouped with “American liberals.” Reviewers of the 1977 American Hunger, those of both races and all political persuasions, generally agreed that reading it changes one's perceptions of Black Boy. Alden Whitman went one step further, arguing that American Hunger did not make sense alone, and suggesting: “It would have been more useful, in my opinion, to have issued Black Boy complete at last, so that the reader could get the full flavor of the autobiography as Wright initially wrote it.”31

Many books, through the influence of an editor, have been drastically changed before publication, and the published work is accepted as definitive. What we read is The Waste Land, not “He Do the Police in Three Voices.” It is true that Wright concurred entirely in the division of American Hunger into Black Boy and its sequel, even supplying the new title. But, as I have tried to show here, the change was more drastic than Wright meant it to be; the ultimate significance of the book shifted further than Wright had intended. Black Boy became a more definitive statement than its themes of hope and hunger could support. Therefore, American Hunger needs to be reissued in its entirety, with the final six pages of the present Black Boy given as an appendix. Failing this, every reader of Black Boy should buy both books and read them together, recognizing that the last six pages of Black Boy were added in a final revision in part as a response to wartime patriotism. When combined, both of these books emphasize the lack of conviction, the isolation, and finally the lack of order in Wright's world as he saw it, a sadness and disarray which his truncated autobiography Black Boy, as published, seems at the end to deny.


  1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1968), p. 77. Wherever clear, subsequent citations of works already cited will appear in parentheses in the text.

  2. “The Effect of Black/White Imagery in Richard Wright's Black Boy,Negro-American Literature Forum, 7 (1973), 46-48.

  3. Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945; rpt. New York: Harper, 1966), p. 13.

  4. Firestone Library, Princeton Univ., Harper Papers, Box 33, Folder 17, TS Letter to Edward Aswell, 14 January 1944; these thirty instances were spread over the whole book, including the section now known as American Hunger. Materials from the Harper Papers are published with permission from Princeton University Library, Harper and Row Publishers, and Paul Reynolds, Inc.

  5. Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (New York: William Morrow, 1973), p. 251.

  6. Richard Wright, quoted in an interview with JKS, “A Searing Picture of Childhood in the South,” Minneapolis Tribune, 4 March 1945; rpt. in Richard Wright: The Critical Reception, ed. John M. Reilly (New York: Burt Franklin, 1978), p. 131.

  7. Richard Wright, American Hunger (1977; rpt. New York: Harper, 1983), p. 2.

  8. There are many extant copies of the galleys of the original American Hunger. I have used the copy in The Richard Wright Archive Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. This copy of the Author's Proofs, JWJ Wright 20, dated 25-26 April 1944, is complete except for the last page.

  9. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958), p. 79.

  10. “Richard Wright Describes the Birth of Black Boy,New York Post, 30 Nov. 1944, p. B6.

  11. Fabre, Quest, pp. 250-51.

  12. Harper Papers, TS, Folder 20, 27 November 1944.

  13. “Richard Wright Describes the Birth of Black Boy.

  14. Harper TS, Folder 15.

  15. TS Letter to Aswell, 14 Jan. 1944, Harper Folder 17.

  16. TS Letter to Aswell, 22 Jan. 1944, Harper Folder 17.

  17. TS Letter to Meredith Wood, Harper Folder 18.

  18. TS carbon enclosure, 1 July 1944, Harper Folder 18.

  19. Harper Folder 19. Wright's replying letter is not available to the general public, but a draft of a response can be found in Beinecke JWJ Wright 10.

  20. TS Letter to Aswell, 10 August 1944, Harper Folder 19; Fabre, Quest, p. 254.

  21. Fabre, Quest, p. 282.

  22. Rev. in New York Times, 28 Feb. 1945, p. 21; rpt. in Reception, ed. Reilly, p. 121.

  23. “Richard Wright: Unbreakable Negro,” Progressive, 9 (9 April 1945); rpt. in Reception, ed. Reilly, p. 154.

  24. Rev. in New York Herald Tribune, 28 February 1945, p. 17; rpt. in Reception, ed. Reilly, p. 120.

  25. James W. Ivy, “American Hunger,” Crisis, 52 (1945), 118; rpt. in Reception, ed. Reilly, p. 159.

  26. Fabre, Quest, p. 628.

  27. The God that Failed, ed. Richard Crossman (New York: Harper, 1949); Eight Men, ed. Fabre (Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1961). In the Fabre version of “The Man Who Went to Chicago,” the many parentheses are removed, an undoubted improvement which should be transferred to subsequent editions of American Hunger.

  28. TS 15 May 1946, Harper Folder 27.

  29. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), p. 157.

  30. Black Autobiography in America (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1974), p. 94.

  31. Rev. in Chicago Tribune Book World, 22 May 1977, Sec. 7, p. 1; in Reception, ed. Reilly, p. 376.


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Richard Wright 1908-1960

(Full name Richard Nathaniel Wright) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Wright's works from 1985 through 2001. See also Richard Wright Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 9, 14, 21.

A seminal figure in African American literature, Wright has been called one of the most powerful and influential writers of twentieth-century America. He was one of the first writers to portray—often in graphic, brutal accounts—the dehumanizing effects of racism on African Americans. His stories usually center on alienated and impoverished black men who, denied freedom and personal identity, lash out against society. Scholars have hailed Native Son (1940) and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth as Wright's most accomplished works. Although some critics fault Wright's oeuvre as too violent and unabashedly propagandistic, such prominent writers as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison consider them essential works of African American literature.

Biographical Information

Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. When he was six years old, his father abandoned the family, forcing his mother to work as a cook for a white family. Life in the South was difficult, and Wright and his younger brother Leon frequently went without food. Wright's first indelible encounter with racial hatred and violence occurred during the family's brief stay with an uncle, who was murdered by a group of white men trying to seize his property. Fearing for their lives, the Wrights fled to West Helena, Arkansas; young Wright was about eight or nine years old. They eventually returned to Mississippi, but Wright went to live with his grandmother when his mother became ill. His formal schooling, frequently interrupted as he moved from town to town, ended when he was seventeen. Wright was strongly influenced by the work of H. L. Mencken, whose trenchant language and outspoken critical opinions awakened him to the possibility of social protest through writing. He also read the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. In 1927 Wright left the South for Chicago. He worked at various menial jobs, all the while reading and writing extensively. During the Depression he joined the WPA Writers' Project and became active in the Communist Party, contributing articles, poems, and short stories to various communist newspapers. In 1944, after witnessing the trial of a party member for ideological “deviationism,” Wright resigned from the party. Wright died in Paris at the age of fifty-two on November 28, 1960.

Major Works

Wright's first major publication was a collection of short stories inspired by the life of an African American communist he had known in Chicago. All of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children (1938) deal with the oppression of black people in the South, of the violence of whites against blacks, and the violence to which the black characters are driven by their victimization. His next book, Native Son, chronicled the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man in Chicago who accidentally murders a white woman and is condemned to death. To depict the dehumanization of blacks in the “hard and deep” manner he wished, Wright avoided making his protagonist a sympathetic character. His autobiographical work, Black Boy, has been called a masterpiece. A work structured in many ways like a novel, the book recounts Wright's experiences as a youth in the South. In this work, Wright attacks both white oppression and the predatory nature of members of his own race. He rebukes his strict religious upbringing and reprimands blacks for their servile response to racial subjugation.

After the commercial success of Native Son and Black Boy, Wright moved with his second wife and daughter to Paris, France, in 1947. Here, he found refuge from the racial tensions of the United States and became friends with several noted intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Wright's literary output during this period, including the novels The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958), is generally considered inferior to his earlier achievements. Eight Men (1961), a posthumously published collection of short stories, contains “The Man Who Lived Underground,” which is often regarded as Wright's most important fictional work of the 1950s.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Wright produced several nonfiction works: 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941), a textual and photographic history of racial prejudice in the United States; Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954), a work that recalls Wright's visit to Takoradi, a British colony in Africa where a black man had been appointed prime minister; and The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), Wright's reflections on a conference held in Indonesia by the free nations of the Third World. Pagan Spain (1957) recounts Wright's bitterness over the poverty and corruption he observed while traveling in Spain, and White Man, Listen! (1957) contains four lectures by Wright on race relations.

Critical Reception

Wright's reputation ebbed during the 1950s as younger African American writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin gained in popularity. But in the 1960s, with the growth of the militant Black consciousness movement, there was a resurgence of interest in Wright's work. His place in American literature remains controversial: some critics contend that his writing is of sociological and historical, rather than literary, interest. In the judgment of many commentators, however, Wright remains the most influential African American protest writer in America. According to Ellison, Wright “converted the American Negro impulse toward self-annihilation and ‘going underground’ into a will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly and throw his findings unashamedly into the guilty conscience of America.”

James A. Miller (essay date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: Miller, James A. “Bigger Thomas's Quest for Voice and Audience in Richard Wright's Native Son.Callaloo 9, no. 3 (summer 1986): 501-06.

[In the following essay, Miller argues that the concluding scene of Native Son illustrates Bigger's recovery of his voice, which “not only undermines the argument that Max functions as a spokesman for Wright's political views but also challenges the view that Bigger himself is inarticulate.”]

Critical commentary about Native Son has invariably focused on the meaning of the final section of the novel, particularly Max's impassioned speech to the judge in his vain attempt to save Bigger Thomas's life and the final encounter between Max and Bigger at the end of the novel. Max's appearance in the novel has been regarded by many critics—among them Irving Howe, Robert Bone, Dan McCall, Edward Margolies, and Russell Brignano—as an ideological intrusion which disrupts the artistic unity of Native Son.1 To the extent to which Max speaks for Bigger Thomas and, by implication, for Richard Wright—so the argument goes—Wright succumbs to his own ideological (i.e., political) impulses at the expense of his literary artistry. One important consequence of the centrality some readers and critics confer upon Max's role in Native Son is that it inevitably leads to the conclusion that Bigger Thomas himself is inarticulate, incapable of negotiating the conflict between “thought” and “feeling” which defines his emotional life for a great deal of the novel, incapable of telling his own story and, therefore, of defining himself.2 To be sure, Bigger's story is presented from the perspective of a third-person narrator who is clearly more politically informed and verbally articulate than Bigger himself, and, within the novel itself, readers are confronted with a variety of voices—ranging from Buckley, the State's Attorney, to Max—which seek to define Bigger's reality. Nevertheless, the concluding scene of the novel clearly belongs to Bigger and his recovery of his voice at this crucial moment in Native Son not only undermines the argument that Max functions as a spokesman for Wright's political views but also challenges the view that Bigger himself is inarticulate.

The insistence by some critics that Max functions as authorial spokesman seems to derive from the rather mechanical equation of Max's political beliefs (and legal tactics) with those of the Communist Party and, therefore, with Wright's ideological viewpoint. But this perspective tends to overlook the artistic and ideological complexity of Native Son and, indeed—as Mikhail Bakhtin points out—the stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre: its incorporation of a range of heterogeneous stylistic unities into a structured artistic system. In Bakhtin's words:

The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voice, artistically organized. … Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships.3

Bakhtin's definition of the novel as a multiplicity of voices is particularly useful in this context, it seems to me. It cautions us against isolating any single language system (in this case, Max's speech) as a direct and unmediated expression of authorial intention; it directs our attention to the possibility that there are other voices and communities in Native Son which deserve close attention; and it requires us to pay careful attention to the various speech communities Bigger Thomas encounters on his quest for voice and audience.

To begin with, it should be clear that Bigger Thomas is far from the inarticulate character many critics claim him to be. Bigger is sullen, brooding, brusque, and sometimes violent in his attitude towards his family and immediate community, but he is definitely not inarticulate. If we define the pattern of call-and-response in the Afro-American community as a dynamic exchange between speaker and audience, one which elicits responsive speech from the audience and encourages the audience to respond with its own variation on the performer's song or story, there are numerous examples of Bigger Thomas's participation in this pattern in Native Son. Early in the novel, for example, after Bigger and Gus have amused themselves by the ritual of “playing white,” the following exchange occurs:

“You know where the white folks live?”

“Yeah,” Gus said, pointing eastward. “Over across the ‘line’; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue.”

“Naw; they don't,” Bigger said.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, puzzled. “Then, where do they live?”

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.

“Right down here in my stomach,” he said.

Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.

“Yeah; I know what you mean,” he whispered.

“Every time I think of 'em, I feel 'em,” Bigger said.

“Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too,” Gus said.

“It's like fire.”

“And sometimes you can't hardly breathe. …”

Bigger's eyes were wide and placid, gazing into space.

“That's when I feel like something awful's going to happen to me …” Bigger paused, narrowed his eyes. “Naw; it ain't like something going to happen to me. It's … like I was going to do something I can't help. …”

“Yeah!” Gus said with uneasy eagerness. His eyes were full of a look compounded of fear and admiration for Bigger. “Yeah; I know what you mean. It's like you going to fall and don't know where you going to land. …”4

The ease with which Gus anticipates what Bigger is going to say, the way their voices overlap and co-mingle in this conversation tends to undermine Wright's assertion, in “How Bigger Was Born,” that Bigger “… through some quirk of circumstance … had become estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race.”5 Bigger, in fact, belongs to a specific speech community within the larger black community, one which is governed by its own norms and values: the world of the black, urban, male lumpenproletariat. Not only is Bigger articulate in this world, he exercises considerable power within it. Bigger realizes, perhaps more fully than Gus, Jack, and G. H., that fear and shame are the dominant forces in the world he inhabits; and, by successfully manipulating these emotions, externalizing them—as he does when he pulls his knife on Gus in the pool-room—he gains power over this world, or at least manages to keep it at bay.

Bigger Thomas's quest for voice and audience has therefore little to do with his relationships with the black community, tension and conflict-ridden as they may be, but is inextricably connected to his perceptions of the white world. In other words, Bigger's quest for voice and audience is essentially Other-directed, defined by his need to struggle with externally determined definitions of the self. As Wright observes:

To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it.6

The white world represents, in Bakhtin's terms, the world of “authoritative discourse”:

The authoritative word demands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own; it binds us, quite independently of any power it might have to persuade us internally; we encounter it with its authority already fused to it. The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher. … It is a prior discourse. It is therefore not a question of choosing it from among other possible discourse that are equal. It is given … in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special … language. … It is akin to taboo. … It demands our unconditional allegiance. … It enters our verbal consciousness as a compact and indivisible mass; one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it. It is indissolubly fused with its authority—with political power, an institution, a person—and it stands and falls together with that authority.7

It is within this world of “authoritative discourse”—symbolized by the billboard of the State's Attorney in the opening pages of the novel, the distortions of African reality at the Regal Theatre, the liberal pieties the Dalton family, the inflammatory rhetoric of the press, and the blatantly racist arguments of the State's Attorney—that Bigger must struggle to discover his voice and, presumably, an audience which will give assent to his testimony.

But what is the nature of the dialogue Bigger Thomas seeks, and with whom? As readers of Native Son, we know the sense of elation Bigger experiences in the aftermath of Mary Dalton's accidental death, the ease with which he accepts responsibility for his action and confers meaning upon it, the way in which his secret knowledge establishes further distance between himself and his family, the sense of power he temporarily achieves over a white world trapped smugly in its own assumptions of racial superiority; yet, one of the questions which has always intrigued me as a reader is: why doesn't Wright allow Bigger Thomas to escape, say somewhere between the first and second books of Native Son? What would be the imaginative and ideological implications of Wright exercising such an artistic choice? The text of the novel provides us with a clear answer:

He wanted suddenly to stand up and shout, telling them that he had killed a rich white girl, a girl whose family was known to all of them. Yes; if he did that a look of startled horror would come over their faces. But, no. He would not do that, even though the satisfaction would be keen. … He wanted the keen thrill of startling them, but felt that the cost was too great. He wished that he had the power to say what he had done without the fear of being arrested; he wished that he could be an idea in their minds; that his black face and the image of his smothering Mary and cutting off her head and burning her could hover before their eyes as a terrible picture of reality which they could see and feel and yet not destroy. He was not satisfied with the way things stood now; he was a man who had come in sight of a goal, then had won it, and in winning it had seen just within his grasp another goal, higher, greater. He had learned to shout and had shouted and no ear had heard him.8

Bigger will not be satisfied, in other words, until his actions are recognized by the world whose attention he seeks. And it is here that we see how completely Bigger's quest for voice and audience are determined by his fascination with the white world.

For Bigger, in fact, does achieve recognition for his actions from his girlfriend, Bessie. As we know, Bessie remains an unacknowledged character—except as evidence—by the State's Attorney, by Max, and by many critics as well, yet she is an important figure in Bigger's life. Like Gus, Jack, and G. H. she participates in Bigger's world and understands its terms. Bessie knows Bigger so well that she realizes fairly quickly that he has murdered Mary Dalton and elicits a confession from him. Enlisted by Bigger as an unwilling accomplice in his inept kidnapping scheme, Bessie articulates the pain of her life with all of the passion of a blues singer, a testimony to which Bigger nods his head and assents, but a song which he clearly does not want to hear. And when Bigger rapes and murders Bessie, he effectively severs his ties to the black community. From this point in the novel until its conclusion, Bigger functions essentially as a soloist.

It is in this context that Max emerges in Native Son as an intermediary between Bigger Thomas and the white world. Throughout the novel, Bigger's voice falters in the presence of white people: in his encounter with Mr. and Mrs. Dalton; with Peggy, the housekeeper; with Mary and Jan, with Britten and Buckley. Virtually all of these exchanges are conducted in the interrogatory mode, with Bigger confining himself to terse, monosyllabic responses. Max interrogates Bigger too, but the difference between Max and the other white characters Bigger encounters is that Max addresses Bigger as a human being rather than as a social type. This is clearly the kind of human encounter for which Bigger has been yearning throughout the novel, one which has been presumably missing up until this point, and Bigger instinctively and immediately places his trust in Max. Nevertheless, while Max and Bigger communicate reasonably well in their private conversations, Max's defense of Bigger in the public sphere reveals that Max, too, suffers from some of the limitations of the white world.

There is, first of all, the problem of the legal strategies Max chooses to pursue in his defense of Bigger Thomas. In his review of Native Son for the New York Sunday Worker, Benjamin Davis, a leading black official in the American Communist Party during the 1940s, correctly pointed out that Max's defense of Bigger is seriously flawed and, in fact, atypical of the kind of legal defense the Communist Party would conduct. Max does not challenge the false charge of rape against Bigger Thomas, he pleads Bigger guilty to both the rape and murder of Mary Dalton, even though it is clear that the murder is accidental. Finally—Davis concludes—“Max should have argued for Bigger's acquittal in the case, and should have helped stir the political pressure of the Negro and white masses to get that acquittal.”9

Secondly, there is the question of whether Max fully understands Bigger Thomas. It is true that Max's probing questions awaken Bigger to a sense of his own reality which he has not experienced before, but it is also clear—as Donald Gibson has pointed out—that Max is primarily concerned with the social and symbolic implications of Bigger's situation while Bigger is concerned with his personal fate.10 Max appropriates many of the statements Bigger makes and incorporates them into the structure of his appeal to the judge, but it is clear that Max's argument will fall on deaf ears. Not only is Bigger's ultimate fate at the hands of the court a foregone conclusion, it is also clear that Bigger himself does not grasp the meaning of Max's speech.

Indeed, throughout the third book of Native Son, Bigger Thomas remains curiously detached from the action; he functions as a witness, an auditor to the public debate which rages about him, but not as a participant in the dialogue. The public exchanges between Max and the State's Attorney, Buckley, represent two attempts to define, in opposing ideological terms, the meaning of Bigger Thomas's actions—and, by extension, his existence—in the public sphere of “authoritative discourse.” In the final analysis, however, Bigger repudiates both arguments—as we see in the concluding conversation between Max and Bigger, when Bigger blurts out: “What I killed for, I am!” and Max backs away from him, groping for his hat like a blind man.

Max does not speak for Bigger Thomas, nor does he speak for Richard Wright. He attempts to represent Bigger, in both a legal and linguistic sense, and fails. Nevertheless, Max's presence in the novel does have an important bearing on the development of Bigger's consciousness. Through his relationship with Max, Bigger Thomas is able to further de-mystify the power of the white world over him, a process which has been unfolding since the accidental murder of Mary Dalton. And even though Bigger does not understand Max's language, he nevertheless appropriates it for his own purposes.

“The word in language,” Bakhtin observes, “is half someone else's. It becomes one's own only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own expressive and semantic intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word … exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own,”11 seizing it and transforming it into private property.

This is precisely what Bigger Thomas does in the concluding pages of Native Son. Having shaken the “authoritative discourse” of the white world to its foundations and triggered off an ideological debate which seeks to define his place in the public sphere, Bigger Thomas, partly inspired by Max's rhetoric, chooses a position that places him decisively outside of the existing social framework.

Nevertheless, Bigger Thomas's achievement of the voice he assumes at the end of the novel has not been without its price. In cultural terms, the strategies Bigger pursues to evade white society after Mary Dalton's death—particularly the gratuitous murder of Bessie—only serve to isolate him from the black community. In social and political terms, Bigger's actions not only invite the wrath of a racist society but confirm his place within popular mythology. In personal terms, Bigger seems to achieve a level of human recognition—of sorts—through his relationships with Jan and Max, accepting Jan's offer of comradeship by, for the first time in his life dropping the use of “mister” in front of a white man's name. But Max—as we have seen—recoils from Bigger's final speech, and the call which Bigger issues in his assertion “I Am” does not receive responsive testimony from Max. Rather, we are left with the final image of Bigger Thomas facing his impending death in proud and lonely isolation, a soloist listening to the sound of his own song.


  1. See Irving Howe, A World More Attractive (New York: Horizon, 1963) 104; Robert Bone, Richard Wright (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1969) 23; Dan McCall, The Example of Richard Wright (New York: Harcourt, 1969) 90; Edward Margolis, The Art of Richard Wright (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969) 114-15; and Russell Carl Brignano, Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and his Work (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970) 81.

  2. See Robert B. Stepto, “I Thought I Knew These People: Richard Wright & the Afro-American Literary Tradition,” The Massachusetts Review 18:3 (Autumn 1977): 525-42.

  3. M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: The U of Texas P, 1981) 262-63.

  4. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940) 18-19.

  5. Richard Wright, “How Bigger Was Born,” reprinted in Richard Abcarian, ed., Richard Wright's Native Son: A Critical Handbook (Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth, 1970) 19.

  6. Native Son 97.

  7. Bakhtin 342-43.

  8. Native Son 110.

  9. John M. Reilly, ed., Richard Wright: The Critical Reception (New York: Burt Franklin, 1978) 75. See also Paul N. Siegal, “The Conclusion of Richard Wright's Native Son,” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, eds., Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1984) 106-16.

  10. Donald B. Gibson, “Wright's Invisible Native Son,” in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays 98.

  11. Bakhtin 293-94.

Principal Works

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Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (short stories) 1938

Native Son (novel) 1940

12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (nonfiction) 1941

Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (autobiography) 1945

The Outsider (novel) 1953

Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (nonfiction) 1954

Savage Holiday (novel) 1954

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (nonfiction) 1956

Pagan Spain (nonfiction) 1957

White Man, Listen! (lectures) 1957

The Long Dream (novel) 1958

Eight Men (short stories) 1961

Daddy Goodness [with Louis Sapin] (play) 1963

Lawd Today (novel) 1963

American Hunger (autobiography) 1977

The Richard Wright Reader (essays, novel excerpts, letters, and poetry) 1978

Richard Wright: Works 2 vols. (novels, essays, and autobiography) 1991

Rite of Passage (novella) 1994

*Haiku (poetry) 2000

*The works in this volume were written in 1960 and appeared in manuscript form as This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner.

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date autumn 1986)

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SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Richard Wright's Experiment in Naturalism and Satire: Lawd Today.Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (autumn 1986): 165-78.

[In the following essay, Hakutani offers a stylistic analysis of Lawd Today and compares it to James Joyce's Ulysses.]

Lawd Today, completed by 1935 and released posthumously in 1963, is an anomaly in Richard Wright's canon since it was written first but published last. Not only has it puzzled critics since its publication, but it has elicited a variety of responses. Granville Hicks, in a review entitled “Dreiser to Farrell to Wright,” affectionately defended Lawd Today, calling it less powerful than Native Son or Black Boy but uniquely interesting.1 What interested Hicks in this novel is that, though Wright was an avowed communist at the time of composition, he did not make a communist out of Jake Jackson, its protagonist. Jake even despises communism, but he also refuses to become a victim of capitalism. Sympathetic critics have considered Wright's delineation of Jake superb, or at least as good as that of any other character in his best fiction: Jake is uneducated, frustrated, but alive. Even James Baldwin, who had earlier assailed Wright's treatment of Bigger Thomas in Native Son,2 came around and said “his great forte, it now seems to me, was an ability to convey inward states by means of externals.”3 In general, those opposed to Naturalism in modern fiction were not appreciative of Lawd Today. Nick Aaron Ford, a black critic, could not even believe that it was written by Richard Wright. Objecting to Wright's concept as well as technique, Ford deplored the book's melodramatic and disjointed pattern “with a multitude of hackneyed episodes.”4

Aside from Ford, no one has really objected to Wright's theme and content. Lawd Today is a black writer's painfully direct and honest rendition of a racial victim. To some readers, it is an interesting treatment of the anti-hero;5 to others, it is a satire on the mechanized urban society, a realistic portrayal of black life in Chicago's South Side in the depression years.6 Michel Fabre's biography of Wright shows that the details of Wright's experience in Chicago as a postal worker closely correspond to those in the novel.7

If Lawd Today is regarded as a failure, the flaw must be found in its form and technique. Externally the book resembles James Joyce's Ulysses, which Wright had read:8 the action is restricted to the classical unity of time and place. All the significant events of the protagonist's life occur in the same place and within twenty-four hours. Both Jake Jackson and Leopold Bloom are psychologically and sexually estranged from their wives; both have self-doubts and are socially frustrated. They suffer various nightmares and fantasies, go to bars with their friends, and meet prostitutes. But there are obvious differences: Jake is a black in white America while Bloom is a Jew in Catholic Ireland. Jake tries to air his frustration by physical violence; Bloom has an inward, brooding personality. The most important difference is that of style and technique. Joyce's parodies of English authors and his use of interior monologues, free association, question-and-answer form, and classical allusions are well blended in describing Bloom's world. On the other hand, Wright's use of radio broadcasts, card games, historical references, and his parodies of political systems are all interesting in themselves but may not be well suited for the one-dimensional characterization of Jake Jackson.

Unlike Bloom, Jake is not merely the protagonist but the only character whose actions constitute the action of the novel. The book is divided into three parts, “Commonplace,” “Squirrel Cage,” and “Rats' Alley,” each corresponding chronologically to the three periods in Jake's typical day. This might be compared to Wright's division of Native Son into “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” but his theme basically differs between the two novels. Both novels are Naturalistic in terms of philosophy: Jake and Bigger are largely victims of environment. In both Wright tries to show that their actions are the inevitable products of the circumstances and implies that one must blame society, not the individuals.

In terms of technique, however, the novels are not equally Naturalistic. Although both are filled with realistic detail and documentation, Wright does not weave metaphor into Native Son as consciously and as much as he does into Lawd Today.9 The allusiveness of the section titles in Lawd Today—“Commonplace,” “Squirrel Cage,” “Rats' Alley”—is further intensified by the epigraphs appropriate to Wright's purpose: Van Wyck Brook's America's Coming-of-Age, Waldo Frank's Our America, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, respectively. On the other hand, the titles in Native Son—“Fear,” “Flight,” “Fate”—are not only devoid of metaphor but free from any allusions to specific literary texts.

Wright's method in Lawd Today is two-fold. On the one hand, he has adopted social determinism, a version of literary naturalism, to account for Jake's behavior; on the other, he has accumulated documentary detail characteristic of a naturalistic style, but his scenes are imparted with gratuitous metaphors and images. Not that there is a disharmony between a given scene and its metaphorical allusion; indeed, each scene is carefully constructed to evoke an appropriate vision. Jake and his three black friends must put in eight boring hours through the night, sorting letters at the main post office in Chicago, “a squirrel cage.” The brothel Jake and his friends visit after work turns out to be “a rats' alley.” It is a nest for black gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes, as well as a symbol of decay and depravity in modern life.

But a disharmony exists between Wright's description of environment and the actions of Jake, in whom Wright's central interest presumably lies. One does not, of course, expect of Jake the type of courage and integrity that sustains Bigger's manhood in Native Son. But Jake has none of Bigger's virtues; he is the most despicable person imaginable. True, Jake is boxed in by circumstance, but this is true of a white postal worker or any other worker in an industrial society. Since Jake's story takes place in the depression years, he is lucky to have a job, and yet he habitually beats his sickly wife, gambles, and drinks. He becomes a perennial bitcher, embittered by his sexual frustration. The central meaning of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy comes from the economic and social forces that overpower Clyde Griffiths and finally negate his aspirations; Clyde is a victim of the American dream. But such meaning does not derive from Jake's story.

There are other reasons for Jake's frustrations. At the outset of the story Jake is an extremely jealous husband, but not because Lil, his wife, is carrying on with the milkman, as Jake claims. She is in fact unable to perform sex with anyone because of the earlier abortion forced by Jake. Now she suffers from a tumor, and Jake's anxiety heightens. None of these events, however, is enumerated in a naturalistic fashion. Instead Wright concentrates on a dream Jake has so that his initial action can be reasonably accounted for.10 The book begins with Jake's awaking from an erotic dream in which he is climbing a long winding stairway and hearing the voice of his boss from the top. It is significant that Jake is fully awakened by the arrival of the milkman. “His loin,” Wright interprets, “felt heavy and exhausted. He closed his eyes and his mind groped, thinking, What was I dreaming? He remembered being on the very brink of something, on the verge of a deep joy.”11 It is also significant that Jake's boss appears in this dream and harasses him. Jake battles with life on two fronts: he is socially oppressed as a worker as well as sexually unfulfilled as a husband. Admittedly any dream is unreal and often a medley, but adding a social theme to an already overloaded sexual image is superfluous at best. Such a strategy, so apparent from the beginning, is an example of Wright's failure to integrate the social ideas of the novel into the narrative at hand.

If social determinism cannot fully account for the life of a central character as in Lawd Today, a naturalist writer often endows his hero with free will and self-assertion. The immediate model for this is Wright's own Native Son. Before committing his crime, Bigger, like Jake, is presented as an uneducated, uninformed individual; unlike Jake, however, Bigger is portrayed as a victim of white society who grew up in the worst black ghetto of the nation. It is thus surprising that Bigger gains identity after the murder. The crime gives him some awareness of himself and of the world in which he has never been capable before. Jake, on the other hand, has as much propensity for violence as Bigger but no capacity for growth and development. If Jake can be invested with any worthy traits, he is given only pretense and loquacity. The only commitment he ever makes in his life is to assert his manhood by uttering obscenities, abusing his wife, and goading her into stabbing him.

The lack of free will in Jake is best seen in his attitude toward the problem of race. Early in the story Jake bitterly complains of the fix he is in: he must pay Lil's doctor $500. Even though he might be able to borrow the money, he is forced to pay an exorbitant amount of interest. “Then,” he thinks to himself, “there were other bills: the furniture bill and the rent bill and the gas bill and the light bill and the bill at the Boston Store and the insurance bill and the milk bill” (p. 21). For all this family misfortune, he blames racism rather than capitalism. Jake has a gift of language and laconically says, “what in the world can a man do? I'm just like a slave” (pp. 20-21). The question he raises is legitimate enough, but the answer he gives in a metaphor is a non sequitur. No one doubts the relation between the question and the answer, but in the context of this scene the author has done away with the bridge between the economic forces and the plight of an individual. Consequently, for the reader Jake seems a bigot and ignoramus. He looks down upon Communists, Jews, Italians, Hungarians, Mexicans, Chinese, even some blacks. It may well be true that in a multiracial and political society a minority has a tendency to despise another minority, but the problem with Jake is that his attitude is not derived from his thinking.

Jake's inability to think for himself results in the way the narrative is structured. In “Squirrel Cage,” the middle section of the story, Wright interprets Jake's mind, saying “he definitely preferred the company of his own color; they understood him and he understood them” (pp. 104-05). Wright's observation here is accurate and also conforms to Jake's own conception of himself. But before this observation is made, Wright provides a scene in which clerks are working in the huge post office. Rather than letting Jake see the situation himself, Wright makes an interjection:

Tables began to rattle from the thud of cards being whacked down. Hoarse shouts cut through the smoky air. Though there were no written rules of segregation, it was generally assumed that Negroes would occupy one end of the canteen and whites the other. However, if a mixture was found nothing was said. But Jake always felt that he wanted to sit with his own race because he did not know the whites so well.

(p. 103)

The fact pointed out by the author indicates that segregation is not really a problem for Jake or any other black postal worker, or at least as serious a disadvantage as Jake thinks it is. This narrative pattern illustrates Jake's limitations in observation and judgment. Jake is too ignorant to realize that the white workers are really prejudiced, though they might not show it in their actions. Wright's presentation of detail is so selective that a man like Jake is incapable of observation, let alone self-determination.

Unlike Wright's self-made men, such as Bigger Thomas, Cross Damon, and Fishbelly Tucker, Jake Jackson hardly generates sympathy from the reader. Although he is not capable of reasoning, he is capable of deceiving others. He approves of graft as a way of life for anyone to get ahead; he admires people who can profit by accepting bribes. He even envies gangsters who can wield their power to intimidate the strong and the weak alike. Jealousy over woman is the only emotion that influences his thought and action. He hates Germans during the war because in his eyes they are beasts and rapists of French women.

Ironically, he does not realize that his own behavior smacks of the best. From the beginning of the story Jake is described in terms of animal temperament, a version of atavism of which Frank Norris makes so much in McTeague. Jake's animalism is provoked by Lil's stubbornness as McTeague's brutality is triggered by Trina's parsimony. Even when Jake is calm he resembles an ape in a cage that runs “his fingers through his hair, scratching an itchy scalp” (p. 12). No wonder when he was angered by Lil moments later, “Jake gripped her arm, digging long nails into her flesh” (p. 14). Only after Lil submits herself to his beating does he return to the posture of a relaxed animal. If he wins a row with her, he invariably begins to have a dream in which he is basking in the warm sun. “He stirred restlessly,” says Wright, “and his shoulders twitched as though he were a child nestling deeper into a mother's bosom” (p. 35). As long as Jake remains an animal in the forest he gives no one harm, but he is a menace to human society. McTeague, by contrast, is an amiable animal. One feels sorry for him because his misfortune is accidental; after all he has strived to have a good job and a good wife, the twin goals of his life. But few would feel compassion for a man like Jake. Calling Lawd Today “devoid of any unified relevance,” a black reader notes that it is the only Wright book in which the white man or society is not made the villain.12

That Jake is made a villain instead of a hero not only makes this novel unique in Wright's fiction but partly explains its failure. One of the most important requirements for a successful novel in the tradition of American literary Naturalism is that it create tensions in the life of the protagonist. These tensions grow out of an environment over which he has no control and about which he understands very little and, therefore, by which he is victimized. Even though a Naturalistic character is unable to control the forces outside of him, he is compelled to act and wage a battle with them, thereby creating tensions. One cannot expect heroism from Jake, but in the absence of any action, let alone a challenge against the forces, his story must be a dull one.

Wright is, thus, least concerned with the forces in society which man must battle for survival. Most Naturalist writers are clearly pessimistic determinists who observe that man is destroyed either by competition or submission. And his fate is often death. Native Son stands at the opposite end of this human struggle, for Bigger is victorious over the brutal facts of experience. True, Bigger is condemned to die as a murderer, but this defeat is really a triumph for him, who has rejected society's rules and values and established his own. James Farrell's Studs Lonigan is a story in which defeat comes after a long, fierce struggle. Dreiser's An American Tragedy stands between defeat and triumph. If Naturalism deals with the tension between will and determinism, Dreiser is content to keep the tension unresolved. Despite Clyde's destruction in the end, Dreiser refuses to indict life. Instead he has tenaciously sought its beauty and avoided its ugliness. Compared with these novels, Lawd Today glaringly falls short of their power and interest, for neither does the protagonist participate in a battle of life nor does the author seek life's beauty and exaltation.

The failure in Wright's experiment in Naturalism does not necessarily mean that Lawd Today is a failure as a novel. Within the confines of one day, one place, and one person of mediocre, if not inferior, mentality, a great deal happens and the story is filled with meaning. Of Native Son, James Baldwin has said that it is “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.”13 If Baldwin is right, Lawd Today is perhaps the most satiric and the least celebrated statement made of what it means to be black. Most significantly, however, Wright's satire is not only aimed at black life but, as a white critic points out, “it also, insidiously, provides glimpses into what it means to be white, colorless, ubiquitous.”14 One cannot laugh at a man like Bigger who has so much dignity, nor can one belittle a man like Cross Damon who has so much intellect.

Above all, Jake is an average man, black or white, who is trying in his own way but always erring. He is used as a symbol, a satire of such a man. As a satire Lawd Today is full of cynicism and sarcasm, but Wright's remarks are rarely as bitter as those in Native Son are. By no means can Lawd Today be construed as a protest novel, but his attack on society is made with subtlety. This is why, as Russell Brignano has observed, “although the protest is muted in Lawd Today by his reportorial and journalistic technique, it is implanted within the author's selection of his subject matter.”15

Wright's skill is at his best with a scene in which he reigns as an impartial judge on racial issues. Neither a black nor a white point of view influences his vision; fact alone makes his judgment. Under the clamor of the crowd his voice, though quiet, carries the weight of a decree. At the end of “Part One: Commonplace,” Jake and his friends walk reluctantly toward the post office for a tedious night shift. They eagerly watch a pompous parade of the Allied Imperial African War Councils in which ancient African generals are advocating the power and solidarity of blacks throughout the world. Jake and his friends are impressed not only by the show but by what blacks can do, just as Bigger in Native Son is proud of the abilities of Germans, Japanese, and Italians, who have conquered other lands. Though Jake and his comrades are convinced of the abilities of Africans, Asians, and Europeans, they are painfully reminded of the limitations imposed on them in this continent. This scene is immediately followed by a brief scene in which they gaze lasciviously at the carelessly exposed thighs of a white woman sitting obliquely across the aisle on a train. The taboo of interracial sex is defined in a quatrain improvised alternately by Jake and his three companions:

Finally, Jake rolled his eyes heavenward and sang in an undertone:

“Oh, Lawd, can I ever, can I ever? …”

Bob screwed up his eyes, shook his head, and answered ruefully:

“Naw, nigger, you can never, you can never. …”

Slim sat bolt upright, smiled, and countered hopefully:

“But wherever there's life there's hope. …”

Al dropped his head, frowned, and finished mournfully:

“And wherever there's trees there's rope.”

(pp. 96-97)

Another important technique in Wright's satire is irony.16 Jake's day abruptly begins as he is awakened by a loud radio broadcast announcing that it is February 12, 1936, Abraham Lincoln's birthday: “My Dear Friends, our flag is flying high today in honor of one of our greatest Americans, a man who saved his country and bestowed the blessings of liberty and freedom upon millions of his fellow men!” (p. 8). But Jake feels as though he is abandoned in “a vast Sargasso Sea—a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by groundswells of half conscious emotion” (p. 7). The irony sets the tone of the entire book. Jake and his black friends often dream of their good old days in the South where they used to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the quietude of the pastoral. They swam in the creek, caught catfish, and smelled the Magnolia trees. It is ironic that they were not accepted where they were able to live in harmony with nature. It is doubly ironic that blacks in the North are physically free but mentally restless.

Jake is aware that he and other blacks in the North are victims of racial strife, but he is not aware that they are victims of capitalism and money worship. He venerates gangsters because “it takes nerve to be a gangster! But they have a plenty of fun. Always got a flock of gals hanging on their arms. Dress swell in sporty clothes. Drive them long, sleek automobiles. And got money to throw away” (p. 30). Jake emulates them by loading his closet with plenty of fancy suits. While Jake and his friends watch a sidewalk medicine show, one of them says, “a man must make a lot of money in a business like that” (p. 88). Since selling Universal Herb Cureal Medicine is profitable, they reason, it must be good. “I'm going to make Lil take some of that,” says Jake, who believes that the quack medicine “might save her from that operation.” He is not really concerned whether or not it will cure Lil's tumor; he is merely concerned about saving money.

Wright's irony is direct and least subtle when it is used in dialogue. Duplicity in Jake's personality is most revealing when he desperately tries to save his job. In order to have his job in the post office reinstated, he blatantly lies to his supervisor:

Mister Swanson, I'm a black man. You can see my skin. I loves my race. I'm proud to be black. I wouldn't do nothing on earth to drag my race down. I ain't the kind of a man what would beat his wife and stand here before you white gentlemens. …

(p. 110)

Jake says “I love my race,” but he does not. He says “I'm proud to be black” but in fact he is ashamed to be black; he spends hours straightening his hair. He says “I wouldn't do nothing on earth to drag my race down,” but he would indeed do anything to get money and women. He says “I ain't the kind of a man what would beat his wife …” but he makes a daily ritual out of beating poor Lil. Jake calls his superiors “you white gentlemens,” but behind their backs he calls them “you white bastards.”

While irony is a dominant form of Wright's satire, sarcasm and cynicism are dominant elements in Lawd Today. They occur most frequently in “Squirrel Cage,” in which the author seldom intrudes into the dialogue so that the black men may speak their minds without interruptions. The book characteristically becomes a satire rather than a disguised protest novel, for the author does not protest at all. His characters attack every ethnic, social, and economic group of Americans; in so doing they are releasing their pent-up emotions and frustrations. To blacks, Jews mistreat them because they suspect Jews were mistreated by Europeans. Catholics accuse blacks of raping their women, since “the South's sure hard” (p. 156) on Catholics. Although Jake envies and respects anyone who has money, he hates professionals. He recalls his success in finding Lil an abortionist and reflects that such a doctor has no integrity since he takes advantage of poor workers: “It cost me five hundred iron men. … Boy, them quacks'll gut you if you let 'em. Quacks and mouthpieces get all a postal clerk's money. Abortions and divorces. … But Lawd!” (pp. 133-34). What is interesting is that their views are white, middle-class views.

There are other comments that are directed toward whites and are distinctly their own. The rich Southern whites, despite their wealth and power, are cowards in the eyes of the blacks: “The Reds sure scared them white folks down South where they put up that fight for the Scottsboro boys” (p. 152). Moreover, their hatred of the white race is so deeply ingrained in their minds that they can scarcely conceive of white blood in the Communists. Noticing that Lenin's eyes are narrow and slanted, one of them remarks, “I'll bet you when they find out about 'im they'll find he had some Chink blood in 'im” (p. 151). In particular, they loathe white men who exploit black women sexually. Since they cannot retaliate by exploiting white women, those black women invariably become the target of their attack. “Yeah,” Jake says with exasperation, “let a nigger woman make fifty dollars a week and she begins to think she's too good for her own race. … It just makes my blood boil to see a nigger woman grinning at a white man like they do. And these white man around here don't give a good Gawddamn about us. We'll just be clerks as long as we stay here, but they's got a chance to rise as high as a man can go …” (pp. 121-22).

What they call “Crackers, Rednecks, Hillbillies,” their arch-rivals over livelihood, are, they are convinced, “the ones what lynch and burn us” (p. 153). They think that rich whites in the South are less offensive than poor whites because the rich have no economic woes. The poor whites thus resent the blacks: “They grudge you the ground you stand on” (p. 153). Small wonder the description of whites that Jake and his friends give is the harshest and, from their point of view, the most accurate portrayal they ever make:

“And don't they look awful. …”

“… with them old bleached-out blue eyes. …”

“… sunk way back in their heads. …”

“… and that old dead stringy hair. …”

“… falling down over their faces. …”

“… like a dirty mop. …”

“… and them old thin mouths all drawed in. …”

“… and when they talk they whine through their noses. …”

“… like starved cats!”

(p. 153)

One reason for making Lawd Today a social criticism is the width and impartiality of Wright's satiric vision. Such a derogatory depiction of white features is matched with an equally disparaging view of black features. Wright describes Jake as he wakes up in the morning:

He stood up, fronting the mirror. The reflection showed a face round as a full moon and dark as a starless midnight. In an oily expanse of blackness were set two cunning eyes under which hung flabby pouches. A broad nose squatted fat and soft, its two holes gaping militantly frontward like the barrels of a shotgun. Lips were full, moist, and drooped loosely, trembling when he walked. A soft roll of fat seeped out of his neck, buttressing his chin. Shaggy sideburns frizzled each temple.

(p. 12)

Jake and the three black men also function in the novel as social critics. While they praise whites for their industriousness and system, commenting that they are “together like a army,” they grieve over a chronic black attitude: “If three niggers is trying to do something, one of 'em's going to trip the others up. …” One of Jake's associates interjects a quatrain: “Niggers is evil / White folks too / So glad I'm a Chinaman / I don't know what to do …” (p. 144). In their view, whites are Machiavellian, blacks are “sellouts,” and “yellows” do not count.

The fact that Wright was an active member of the Communist Party at the time of writing Lawd Today gives a special significance to whatever views Jake and his comrades express on politics. Wright's view on American capitalism is explicitly stated throughout the book: the rich always exploit the poor; race, politics, and everything else in the United States are part of the system. Jake thus condones bribery and corruption as a capitalistic way of life. Money sometimes transcends the color lines; Jake, for example, stands in awe of Doc, a black “precinct captain. A businessman. A property owner. He's got pull with all the big politicians down in the Loop” (p. 54). Even before this scene, one of Jake's comments is that “cold, hard cash runs this country, always did and always will” (p. 28). Although Wright is critical of capitalism, he is also critical of communism. Jake says of the Communists:17 “Now them guys, them Commoonists and Bolshehicks, is the craziest guys going! They don't know what they want. They done come 'way over here and wants to tell us how to run our country when their own country ain't run right” (p. 32).

However selfish and materialistic Jake may sound, his comments reflect Wright's unwavering emphasis on American life: the independent spirit of individuals. Wright thus chides whites who “rush about like bees. Yeah, but ain't no use of a black man rushing. Naw, 'cause we ain't going nowhere. … We just as well take it easy and have some fun” (p. 103). Wright's critical attitude toward both communism and capitalism is abundantly clear. Wright himself, through Jake, expresses his belief in the independence of the mind. Yet black Americans are only free within limits. Within these limits, the black American defines himself. Wright defines Jake and, in so doing, transcends the mold.

Lawd Today can be interpreted as either a Naturalistic novel or a satire. A Naturalistic interpretation will be concerned with Jake's character in the light of the society in which he lives. A reading of the novel as satire may deal with the fashion in which the social and personal ills are exposed and ridiculed. Throughout the story the focus is on American society, but there is an ambiguity in Wright's treatment of the protagonist. In “Part One: Commonplace” and “Part Three: Rats' Alley,” Jake appears as the protagonist as the narrative proceeds; however, in “Part Two: Squirrel Cage” in particular, Jake is used as a symbol. In this part of the story Wright constructs the dialogue among Jake and the black characters without, in most cases, distinguishing the speakers. As a result, the men are cut into a single character with one voice as if in a proletarian pluralistic novel.

But the problem with this device is that Lawd Today is not a proletarian novel. Nor is it a novel of any political persuasion. Needless to say, there is every sign that Jake is a Naturalistic character; he is examined in terms of the social and economic forces over which he has little control. A Naturalistic writer, however, cannot make a story out of a character who largely disappears in the midst of the experiment. It is irrelevant whether a Naturalist ought to place emphasis on the forces of circumstance, as Zola does in a novel like L'Assomoir, or on the actions of his hero, as Wright himself does in Native Son. In any event, the focus of his attention must necessarily be upon the interactions between will and determinism.

Wright's presentation of Jake's day, though comprehensive, is metaphorical. A literary Naturalist establishes a milieu taken from life and, into it, projects characters to prove the process of a social phenomenon. What underlies the narrative in such a novel is the author's constant reminder for readers to form their own reflections. In Lawd Today, Wright allows readers as little interruption of the action as possible. Unlike Dreiser's Naturalistic novel, Wright's has a severely limited time frame and only an occasional pause to indicate a transition or change of scene. By the time Jake stumbles into bed drunk and allows Lil to cut him down, readers have all forgotten about her. Her final action, however understandable, precipitates as if in a gothic tale. Before Roberta's murder, in An American Tragedy, which occurs at the end of Book II, Dreiser provides a comprehensive background of Clyde's life: his relationship with his family, including his sister Esta, who has been deserted by her lover, with all his friends and associates, and with all the girls he has attempted to allure. In Wright's novel, on the other hand, readers have no such recourse to detail.

There is no question that Lawd Today is a successful attempt at satire, particularly in “Squirrel Cage.” Wright is completely impartial in treating his material. If Jake is a caricature, he is a caricature of not only black men but white men and any ordinary men and women in urban society. Wright's novel is at its best in Part II before Jake and the black characters descend into the brothel, as Huckleberry Finn is in the middle chapters before Tom returns to make Huck's story a travesty. The middle section of Lawd Today provides the four black men with a full range of social, economic, and political commentary with no other characters intruding into their vision. These four are the funniest of all the Wright characters, for they have no inhibitions of any kind, no conflicts of interest with society. Their views are almost as candid as Huck Finn's.

The central question to be asked about Lawd Today is whether Wright has succeeded in combining his two experiments. Granted, the tragic death of a hero, whether it is in Native Son or An American Tragedy, is no laughing matter. But in both novels there are significant elements of satire that suggest the crimes they dramatize are inevitable products of American society and that both protagonists are morally free from guilt. In Lawd Today the elements of humor and sarcasm are so dominant that the idea of reform, which underlies a satire, is minimized. Wright has no intention of reforming Jake or society at large; indeed Jake is an average man and his foibles are those of human nature. Wright knew them deeply and succeeded in letting the reader witness them. It is true that serious satire and light humor are harmoniously wed in Huckleberry Finn, but it is basically an initiation story, not a Naturalistic one. It seems difficult for any writer to mix satire and Naturalism as equal bases for a novel and accomplish both ends. Such an experiment, however possible it may be, has no precedent, and Lawd Today, despite its merits, is a failure in that respect.


  1. Granville Hicks, “Dreiser to Farrell to Wright,” SatR, 46 (March 30, 1963), 37-38.

  2. Baldwin believed that Wright's characterization of Bigger is marred by a paucity of feeling the protagonist has for his fellow human beings. For Baldwin, though Wright records black anger as no writer before him had done, the expression of anger is also the overwhelming limitation of Native Son. What is sacrificed, according to Baldwin, is a necessary dimension to the novel: “The relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life. … It is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, 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, such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father's house.” See James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 35-36.

  3. James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dial Press, 1961), p. 187. Although this response specifically refers to “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Baldwin also seems to have in mind Cross Damon in The Outsider (1953), whose prototype is Jake Jackson: Cross begins as an uneducated frustrated worker in the Chicago post office exactly as Jake does.

  4. See Nick Aaron Ford, “The Fire Next Time?: A Critical Survey of Belles Lettres by and about Negroes Published in 1963,” Phylon, 25 (Summer, 1964), 129-30. Lewis Gannett, in the New York Herald Tribune Books (May 5, 1963), p. 10, thought that the novel lacks the tension of Native Son because of the monotonously overdrawn dialogue and the absence of overtones.

  5. See Edward Margolies, The Art of Richard Wright (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 90-92.

  6. See Keneth Kinnamon, “The Pastoral Impulse in Richard Wright,” MASJ, 10 (Spring, 1969), 41-47; “Lawd Today: Richard Wright's Apprentice Novel,” Studies in Black Literature, 2 (Summer, 1971), 16-18.

  7. See Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (New York: Morrow, 1973), pp. 78-79.

  8. Fabre, p. 111.

  9. While Native Son contains no specific literary allusions, some critics have noted Wright's conscious effort to create artistic images. James Nagel, for instance, observes that the novel is not only a solid sociological study of the Negro's life in the United States, but a work of art that “transcends the limitations of sociological prose.” The most significant artistic element is Wright's use of the imagery of blindness. See James Nagel, “Images of ‘Vision’ in Native Son,University Review, 36 (December, 1969), 109-15.

  10. How Wright became acquainted with Freudian psychology is unknown. In discussing Lawd Today Keneth Kinnamon cites The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. A. A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1938). See Kinnamon, “Lawd Today: Richard Wright's Apprentice Novel,” p. 18. Another possible source is Farrell. It is generally agreed among critics that Wright, as Granville Hicks has observed, “could scarcely have failed to be influenced by James T. Farrell, who was just beginning to have a strong effect on American fiction. As Farrell had learned something about documentation from Dreiser, so Wright had learned from Farrell” (Hicks, pp. 37-38). Farrell had commented as early as 1943 on the relationship between Naturalism and Freudianism in connection with Dreiser: “He [Dreiser] accepted as science generalizations based on the ideas of nineteenth-century materialism. In The Financier and The Titan this biologic determinism is usually explained by the word ‘chemisms.’ Paradoxically enough, Dreiser's appeal to ‘chemisms’ is made quite frequently in specific contexts concerning motivations of characters, where we can now see that the real rationale of these motivations can be most satisfactorily explained by Freudianism.” See Farrell, The League of Frightened Philistines (New York: Vanguard, 1945), pp. 13-14n.

  11. Lawd Today (New York: Walker, 1963), p. 10. Subsequent page references are to this edition and incorporated into the text.

  12. Ford, pp. 129-30.

  13. Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, p. 23.

  14. Lewis Leary, “Lawd Today: Notes on Richard Wright's first/last Novel,” CLA Journal, 15 (June, 1972), 412.

  15. Russell Brignano, Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), p. 28.

  16. Lewis Leary maintains that Wright's humor in Lawd Today is not “tainted with irony. It is genuine, as Mark Twain's at his best is genuine, with bitterness showing through but not intruding.” See Leary, p. 419.

  17. Edward Margolies argues that Wright did not publish Lawd Today because it would be interpreted as anti-communistic, and that he kept it with him in the hope that in the event he would leave the Communist Party, he would be able to publish it. See Margolies, pp. 91-92.

Joyce Ann Joyce (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9077

SOURCE: Joyce, Joyce Ann. “The Critical Background and a New Perspective.” In Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy, pp. 1-28. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Joyce surveys the critical reception to Wright's work, focusing on interpretations of his novel Native Son.]

In his essay aptly titled “The ‘Fate’ Section of Native Son,” Edward Kearns, in a discussion of courses in Afro-American literature, summarizes the “fate” of criticism written on the works of Black literary artists: “… black American writers have been nearly excluded from serious critical attention, and when attention has been paid, the black American writer has generally been treated as an author of social documents rather than works of art” (149). No criticism on the works of a Black writer demonstrates the validity of Kearns's statement more than that written on Richard Wright's Native Son. The immediate impact of Native Son elevated Wright to the position of father of Black American literature, changed the course of Black American fiction, and attracted the attention of literary circles all over the world. First published in 1940, Native Son is continually translated from English into other languages: Czech, 1947; Danish, 1959; Dutch, 1947; Finnish, 1972; French, 1947; Georgian, 1971; German, 1941; Italian, 1948; Japanese, 1972; Norwegian, 1947; Polish, 1969; Portuguese, 1949; Rumanian, 1954; Russian, 1941; Spanish, 1941; Swedish, 1943; and Turkish, 1975.

The attention given the novel on American soil is equally striking. A brief survey of the best-known studies of Wright substantiates Kearns's view of the state of Black American literary criticism by showing that most studies dealing with Wright's canon discuss his recurring themes and his life, but not his art. Those who have written single studies devoted to Wright and whose names appear frequently are Edward Margolies, Dan McCall, Robert Bone, Russell Brignano, Keneth Kinnamon, and most recently Michel Fabre. The year 1969 marks the appearance of three significant additions to criticism on Wright: Margolies's The Art of Richard Wright, McCall's The Example of Richard Wright, and Bone's pamphlet Richard Wright. Although these studies are heavily biographical, Margolies, Brignano, and Kinnamon directed significant attention to Wright's works within their established frameworks. Still, despite the promising title, Margolies's work is disappointing, for in this single study he includes a chapter on Black Boy and Twelve Million Black Voices (Wright's pictorial history of the Black man in America), a chapter on Black Power and Pagan Spain, a chapter on The Color Curtain and White Man, Listen!, a chapter on Uncle Tom's Children and Eight Men, a chapter on Lawd Today, a chapter on Native Son, a chapter on The Outsider and Savage Holiday, and finally a chapter on The Long Dream. The list is almost as extensive as Wright's canon. Brignano's study Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works is primarily ideological, concentrating on Marxism, Wright's affiliation with the Communist party, and the philosophical premises that shaped Wright's thought. In The Emergence of Richard Wright, Keneth Kinnamon's concern is Native Son; thus his earlier chapters function as background material for Native Son. His first two chapters are “The Burdens of Caste and Class” and “Wright's Literary Apprenticeship”; the second chapter includes comments on Wright's proletarian poems that introduce his radical ideology. In addition, while this study was in its final stages, the University of Mississippi Press published Michel Fabre's The World of Richard Wright (1985). This collection of twelve of Fabre's previously published essays presents a diverse look at the broad range of influences on Wright's creative imagination.

Not as well known as Margolies, Kinnamon, Brignano, and Fabre, David Bakish, Milton and Patricia Rickels, and Katherine Fishburn are the authors of three other books whose sole subject is Richard Wright. Like Bone's pamphlet, the Rickelses' study Richard Wright, published in 1970 by the Southern Writers Series, merely provides a biographical sketch and a critical reading of most of Wright's canon in forty-two pages! More useful than this study is Bakish's Richard Wright, published in 1973. Although Bakish makes perceptive critical comments, his work is primarily a biography, dividing Wright's life into three periods: his experiences in Mississippi and Chicago, in New York, and in Paris. Of all the fairly recent studies of Wright (including Robert Felgar's Richard Wright, 1980), Katherine Fishburn's Richard Wright's Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim, published in 1977 and originally a Michigan State University dissertation, is the most impressive. It is a thematic, philosophical study of the protagonists of all of Wright's novels except Savage Holiday. This esoteric look at Wright's ideological and philosophical influences includes numerous references to Freud, Frye, Hassan, Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Dostoevski, and Booth. Obviously, Fishburn is not concerned primarily with the minute techniques of Wright's artistry. And Felgar's Richard Wright, a publication of the Twayne's United States Authors Series which follows a restricted format, limits itself exclusively to the traditional format which characterizes works in such a series and only repeats many of the already well-established interpretations of Wright's works.

In addition to the texts devoted solely to Wright, a large number of books contain individual chapters or major sections on Wright's works. Any list of the most well known of these would have to include Carl Milton Hughes's The Negro Novelists 1940-1950 (1953), Walter Allen's The Modern Novel (1964), Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), Edward Margolies's Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors (1968), C. W. E. Bigsby's The Black American Writer (1969), Donald B. Gibson's Five Black Writers (1970), A. Robert Lee's edition of Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945 (1980), and Donald B. Gibson's The Politics of Literary Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers (1981).

None of these studies devotes itself to a pointed discussion of Wright's artistry: they are largely biographical and sociological. Margolies focuses heavily on Native Son, stating many of the same ideas as most of Wright's critics. Native Son is also the subject of Hughes's discussion of Wright. Hughes maintains that the psychological, sociological, and economic factors in Native Son influenced the Black novelists of the 1940s (68). Thus he, too, approaches Wright's work thematically. Walter Allen carries this thematic emphasis one step further by showing the “universality” of Wright's subject matter. In his summary of the history of the British and American novel from the 1920s to beyond World War II, Allen shows that the same social and economic conditions that precipitated Studs Lonigan and The Grapes of Wrath also anticipated Native Son (155-56). An historically significant study, Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual concentrates on Wright's Marxist ideology and on Wright's delineation of this ideology in his “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” published in the fall 1937 issue of New Challenge. Cruse asserts that Wright's Marxist ideology smothered his creative abilities (188). Much like Cruse's assessment of Wright's career, Warren French's “The Lost Potential of Richard Wright,” found in C. W. E. Bigsby's first volume of The Black American Writer, holds that Wright's career as a serious artist ended with his departure for France (1:134). Donald Gibson's Five Black Writers collects six of the best-known essays on Wright. Although all of them are monumental studies, only Edwin Berry Burgum's “The Art of Richard Wright's Short Stories” addresses itself to Wright's artistry. Unfortunately, Burgum concludes that Wright's reputation as a stylist rests on the art of the short stories alone (37). Gibson's more recent The Politics of Literary Expression and A. Robert Lee's edition of Black Fiction both include one chapter on Richard Wright. The title of Gibson's chapter on Wright clearly illuminates the perspective he takes: “Richard Wright: The Politics of a Lone Marxian.” Ian Walker's essay “Black Nightmare: The Fiction of Richard Wright,” collected in Lee's text, sees Bigger Thomas's characterization in Native Son as a working out of “racial and psychological problems rather than political and economic” (23).

Too many scholars believe that Wright was at his best when he wrote out of the anger aroused by his experiences as a child in Mississippi and as a young man in Memphis, Chicago, and New York. This attitude finds its source in both the subject matter of Wright's novel and in the cultural conditions that have long separated the aesthetics that govern mainstream literature from those of Black American literature. The peculiar racial history shared by Black and white Americans, the concomitant view of Bigger Thomas as victim, Bigger's sensational murder of a white woman, and the numerous analogies between Bigger's life and Richard Wright's experiences bog Native Son down in sociological, thematic studies. In order to see beyond the worn lenses of biography, naturalism, and existentialism in our analyses of Native Son, it is necessary that we understand the basis for the old critical approach which links Wright's creativity to his life experiences.

This exploration begins with a look at the studies devoted to impressions and perspectives of Wright's personal life and with the four biographies to date. David Ray and Robert W. Farnsworth's Richard Wright is perhaps more objective than the personal views of Wright's friends Saunders Redding, Horace Cayton, and Arna Bontemps in Anger, and Beyond, edited by Herbert Hill. Of the four biographies, Michel Fabre's The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973) emerges as the most comprehensive in perspective. Unlike Constance Webb's Richard Wright: A Biography (1968) and John A. Williams's The Most Native of Sons (1970), The Unfinished Quest not only provides anecdotes about Wright's life, but also evaluates his works by relating them to his life and the times in which he lived, by assessing the value of his canon, by discussing and by relating the still unpublished works to the rest of the canon. Such a study as Fabre's will remain indispensable to the study of Richard Wright. And Addison Gayle's Richard Wright: The Ordeal of a Native Son (1980) answers many questions surrounding Wright's political activities in America and abroad. Gayle's biography appropriately supplements Wright's four sociopolitical tracts—Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), Pagan Spain (1956), and White Man, Listen! (1957), all written abroad. For Wright was as much a political activist as he was a novelist. But that is not to imply that he sacrificed art for the sake of politics or politics for art. He was concerned with the human condition and he chose diverse arenas in which to engage in the battle to improve humanity. While Gayle emphasizes the political influences on Wright's life and Fabre the literary, Margaret Walker Alexander's forthcoming The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright is a psychological biography that addresses those elements of Wright's psyche which attracted him to the political, social, literary, and philosophical ideas that imbue his art.

At the end of his study, Fabre makes a final comment about Wright that seems to have escaped the perception of many scholars:

… we must not forget that Richard Wright was attempting more than entertainment or even political enlightenment. Uncertainly at times, but more often quite consciously, he was grappling with a definition of man. Although his solitary quest ended prematurely and did not allow him to find one, his achievement as a writer and a humanist makes him, in the Emersonian sense, a truly “representative man” of our time.


Too much of the criticism so far on Native Son falls short of addressing the intricacies of the human experience born out in Wright's characterization of Bigger Thomas. If Wright's portrayal of Bigger is a stage in the development of Wright's “grappling with a definition of man,” categorizing Native Son as mainly naturalistic or existential reflects a far more pessimistic view of man than, I believe, Wright intended. In reference to a long proposed work that Wright never finished, Houston Baker explains that he interprets Wright's works as “celebrations of life, particularly the complex life lived by black Americans” (73).

Ironically, the essay from which this quotation is taken is a part of the critical mechanism responsible for the stagnation in the criticism written on Richard Wright in particular and in the literary critical network in general. Baker's comment first appears in the essay “Racial Wisdom and Richard Wright's Native Son,” from his landmark study Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture (1972). During the same year, it was included as the introduction to Baker's edition of Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Native Son. In fact, this entire collection, as is rather customary in literary criticism, reprints some of the most incisive, definitive essays on Richard Wright and Native Son. However, the ten years between the publication of Baker's Long Black Song and the collected Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “Native Son” and publication of Yoshinobu Hakutani's recent Critical Essays on Richard Wright (1982) do not bring with them a new essay on Native Son. All essays devoted to the novel in Hakutani's edition are reprints, including at least the third appearance of Baker's “Racial Wisdom and Richard Wright's Native Son.

Repetition, which is partly rooted in the human tendency to become comfortable with the familiar, seems to characterize the processes of literary criticism; but the critiques surrounding Black authors, especially Richard Wright, reflect critical and theoretical stagnation. In his provocative “Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature,” Baker cites the late Larry Neal's succinct summation of the dilemma peculiar to the Afro-American creative artist and literary critic:

The historical problem of black literature is that it has in a sense been perpetually hamstrung by its need to address itself to the question of racism in America. Unlike black music, it has rarely been allowed to exist on its own terms, but rather [has] been utilized as a means of public relations in the struggle for human rights. Literature can indeed make excellent propaganda, but through propaganda alone the black writer can never perform the highest function of his art: that of revealing to man his most enduring human possibilities and limitations.


“Excellent propaganda” is another name for protest literature. The protest novel written by Black writers blatantly and unflinchingly condemns racism, severely rebuking its economic, sociological, and psychological effects on the lives of Black people. The history of the Black American novel directly parallels the history of the Black Americans the novels describe. From Harriet Wilson and William Wells Brown to Richard Wright and Toni Morrison, Black writers, to varying degrees and through diverse techniques, have always predominantly concerned themselves with their relation to the dominant culture. For the Black American novelist has always protested. But because of the emotional and historical side effects of racism, the mere mention of “protest literature” or provocative subject matter that highlights the lives of Blacks solicits an entire chain of programmed responses that obscures the subtleties of technique and inhibits fresh, stimulating discourse on works by Black writers. Consequently, once an idea is accepted, it becomes paradigmatic, as exemplified by the continual reprints of well-known essays on any given writer, in this instance Richard Wright.

All of the studies on Native Son mentioned earlier accept as a foregone conclusion that Bigger is the existential rebel thwarted because of his blackness by economic, political, and psychological forces. Katherine Fishburn, in Richard Wright's Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim, succinctly describes the merger of naturalism and existentialism in Wright's characterization of Bigger, as her title suggests:

Although Native Son, is without question, a proletarian novel, it remains something more. In this powerful novel Wright straddles the opposing forces of naturalism and existentialism, wearing the boots of a Marxist. At first Bigger Thomas seems to be at the mercy of his environment, determined by nature and society to become a killer. But Bigger, using sheer will, manages to transcend his world, to accept himself for what he is and to accept the consequences of what he has done.


This view of Bigger as victim and rebel is a paradigm for what critics cite as the relationship between Wright's works and his life. One of the most influential studies on Richard Wright, Keneth Kinnamon's The Emergence of Richard Wright, demonstrates this point:

It is important to consider in some detail each of these four basic facts of Wright's youth—his racial status, his poverty, the disruption of his family, and his faulty education—not only because collectively and individually they left ineradicable scars on his psyche and deeply influenced his thought, but also because they provide much of the subject matter of his early writing. Social reality determined Wright's literary personality, even if his successful efforts to become a writer constituted a gesture of mastery over that reality.


Although Kinnamon continues to belabor biographical factors as the initial determinants of the author's personality, he must be given credit for seeing literary mastery as something won through struggle. This “gesture of mastery” is what Ellison and Baldwin see as the sine qua non—that which distinguishes the artist—of the literary endeavor. Yet, by implication or neglect, literary criticism on Richard Wright so far has failed to prove that he possessed these credentials.

It was inevitable that Baldwin and Ellison—the two Black writers to follow Wright and to be most accepted by the literary mainstream—would become involved in the controversy over Native Son and protest fiction. Passages from their most frequently cited essays suggest at once the similarity between protest fiction and naturalism, as well as Baldwin's and Ellison's contention that these fictional modes skirt the main issue of the rendering of the writing. In his “Everybody's Protest Novel,” a response to Native Son, Baldwin discusses what he sees as the heart of the limitations of protest fiction written by Black writers:

… our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.


Whereas Baldwin is concerned with what he sees as the apologetic tendency inherent in the content of protest fiction, Ellison rejects what he sees as the banal craft of protest fiction:

… protest is not the source of the inadequacy characteristic of most novels by Negroes, but the simple failure of craft, bad writing; the desire to have protest perform the difficult tasks of art; the belief that racial suffering, social injustice or ideologies of whatever mammy-made variety, is enough … good art … commands attention of itself, whatever the writer's politics or point of view … skill is developed by hard work, study and a conscious assault upon one's own fear and provincialism.


Ellison, in contrast to Baldwin, does not condemn protest fiction for its particular portrayal of Black humanity; he instead attacks it for what he believes to be a serious imbalance between form and content, the scales weighted down heaviest on the content side.

The Ellison-Baldwin antithesis reflects the same critical skirmish, outlined earlier, which underlies what Larry Neal refers to as the “historical problem of black literature.” Ellison shares with Larry Neal the idea that good art demands that there be an inextricable union between method and message. The cliché that now characterizes protest fiction and naturalism is that works written within these modes are distinguished more by social propaganda than by an interest in aesthetics. Just as it was natural for Harriet Wilson, Frances E. W. Harper, and William Wells Brown to adopt the sentimental methodology of their day to delineate the ramifications of slavery, it was equally natural for Richard Wright to choose the mode of naturalistic fiction to describe the evils of racism. Both the literature of protest and naturalistic fiction—a particular mode of protest—focus on society's mistreatment of an individual and of a particular group of individuals. When Ellison accuses many protest writers of being bad writers, he is not referring to Richard Wright. His sensitive and perceptive reading of Native Son in “Richard Wright's Blues” pinpoints Wright's adroit skill at transforming the personal and the environmental into art. What Ellison does highlight, though, is the inferior status given protest literature. Baldwin's denunciation of the tendency of protest literature to categorize, to deny man's beauty and power, challenges the very core of naturalism.

Essentially, as explained in Charles Child Walcutt's American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream (1956) and Donald Pizer's more recent Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation (1982), the naturalistic novelist transforms Darwinian determinism into literary thought. Human beings become victims of their environment, encaged by socioeconomic forces they cannot control and driven by fundamental drives they do not understand. (As supplement to Walcutt's analysis, see Pizer 3-10. I have previously used this same definition of naturalism along with Ellison and Baldwin's attitude toward protest fiction in a discussion, similar to this one, aimed at illuminating the pitfalls of categorization in interpreting Ann Petry's novels. See Joyce, “Ann Petry” 16-20.) The idea that Bigger Thomas is a victim of his environment remains the prominent interpretation of Wright's characterization of him in Native Son. For Richard Wright's Marxist ideology, his Communist affiliations, his sensational subject matter, and his open explanation of the relationship between his art and the sociological and economic lives of Black people in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” have indelibly marked him as a protest writer and Native Son as an exemplum of naturalistic fiction. This naturalistic-existential-biographical triad subsequently results in three main levels of irony that govern the traditional view of Wright's characterization of Bigger and, simultaneously, Wright's status as an artist.

The idea that Bigger is primarily a victim of his environment strips him of the beauty and psychical mysteries that characterize the human personality. Yet, the accompanying critical attitude is that through sheer will Bigger manages, to some degree, to isolate himself from the plight of those around him and hence transcends environmental forces by his growth into self-knowledge. Kinnamon's statement implies that Wright, like Bigger, transcended overwhelming obstacles in achieving his success as a writer, and more importantly that Wright, again like Bigger, was torn between the same contradictory tensions of despair and rebellion. From this perspective Native Son becomes primarily an extension of Wright's personality. A deeper reading of the novel demands that we move away from polemical biography.

The third level of irony emerges as the most striking. The tensions between the contradictory elements that critics see as the components of Bigger's and Wright's personalities reflect the same opposing elements that Charles Walcutt outlines as the embodiments of naturalism. “The elements of these contradictions, which I have illustrated at such length, are contained in every piece of naturalistic writing. There is always the tension between hope and despair, between rebellion and apathy, between defying nature and submitting to it, between celebrating man's impulses and trying to educate them, between embracing the universe and regarding its dark abysses with terror” (17). One a literary movement and the other a philosophical concept, naturalism and existentialism are contemporaneous nineteenth- and twentieth-century responses to what men and women perceived as a hostile and an indifferent universe. Because naturalism is inherently pessimistic and existentialism optimistic, we usually do not think of them as two sides of the same coin. Walcutt's delineation of the contradictions inherent in naturalistic writing illuminates the underlying affinity between the two modes of thought.

To view Bigger Thomas's characterization and the impetus behind Wright's creativity from the constructs of naturalism and existentialism falls short of capturing not only the beauty that Longinus refers to as the sublime, but also the subtle intricacies of Wright's technique responsible for the power of Native Son. The key to moving beyond the narrow doors of naturalism and existentialism in interpreting Native Son is buried in Wright's inexhaustible commitment to knowledge and in our ability to penetrate the established, prejudicial critical walls that immure Bigger as primarily an environmental victim. Addressing the vision necessary for the Black writer, Wright in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” says, “… it should have a complex simplicity. Eliot, Stein, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, and Anderson; Gorky, Barbusse, Nexo, and Jack London no less than the folklore of the Negro himself should form the heritage of the Negro writer. Every iota of grain in human thought and sensibility should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications” (44-45). This insatiable interest in human thought manifests itself in the diversity of Wright's literary technique. Robert Felgar too narrowly summarizes the multiplicity of Wright's literary method: “His literary technique is multiple: Socialist Realism, social protest, Naturalism, Gothicism, diatribe—he used any literary method he thought would work; he was no technical purist” (106). As demonstrated here, even when literary criticism does point to the diversity of Wright's technique, it fails to view his works beyond the lenses of socialism, victimization, denunciation, and the macabre, all manifestations of a pessimistic view of reality. It seems feasible, however, that an artist's craft—the shaping of his or her vision—could reflect the same kind of diversity as “every iota of grain” ground into his thought processes. And at the far extreme from this idea is the possibility that the finished product of an artistic endeavor contains elements that remained cognitive during the creative process. An interpretation of Bigger Thomas as a tragic hero lies between these two extremes.

The ideological relationship of naturalism and existentialism to tragedy is the clue which directs the way to interpreting Bigger as a tragic hero and Native Son as a tragedy. Explaining the interrelationship between naturalism and existentialism in Bigger's characterization, Fishburn writes:

Bigger's success derives from an act of pure violence, another intersection of naturalism and existentialism in Native Son. Violence rages in many forms through most naturalistic literature; sheer animal survival is the key activity. … Existentialism also explores man's capacities for violence. … Metaphysical rebellion begins with protest against man's situation. It leads to the deification of man; God's order is replaced by man's, often through violence and crime.


A philosophical concept describing an individual's violent refusal to accept the strictures and limitations of the environment, existentialism moves beyond naturalism. And tragedy extends the limits of existentialism. In the chapter on Doctor Faustus, Richard B. Sewall's A Vision of Tragedy pinpoints violence and rebellion as essential constituents of the tragic form:

It is said that the great tragedies deal with the great eccentrics and offenders, the God-defiers, the murderers, the adulterers. But it is not tragedy's primary concern to establish the moral truth or the sociological meaning of the hero's action. It is the orthodox world, and not the tragic artist, which judges (or prejudges) a Job or an Oedipus, a Faustus or a Hester Prynne. To bring his protagonist swiftly to the point of ultimate test, the artist imagines a deed which violently challenges the accepted social and (it may be) legal ways. Hence the fact that tragic heroes are often criminals in the eyes of society, and hence the frequency of the legal trial as a symbolic situation in tragedy from Aeschylus to Dostoevski and Kafka.


Wright's characterization of Bigger goes beyond challenging the “moral truth” and the “sociological meaning of the hero's action.” For Bigger's accidental murder of Mary Dalton catapults him into the “symbolic situation” of the trial, the force which compels Bigger to come to terms with the meaning of existence.

Although violence and rebellion are indigenous to the forms of naturalism, existentialism, and tragedy, the conclusions drawn about the meaning of human existence mark their points of demarcation. Whereas naturalism views human beings as total victims of their environment, existentialism argues that human existence is unexplainable. Tragedy, on the other hand, not only finds meaning in human existence but also celebrates it. The tragic hero, as implied in a passage from T. R. Henn's The Harvest of Tragedy, finds redemption and meaning in the struggle to pursue freedom to the limit:

Tragedy, even when its conclusions appear to be pessimistic, does not accept this limitation [human limitations as a norm of human conduct]. In this apparent wreckage of human aspirations which it perceives there is implicit, not only the possibility of redemption, but the spiritual assertion that man is splendid in his ashes, and can transcend his nature that Rousseau thought perfectible and that Freud once thought evil.

The possibility of redemption may be perceived in many forms. If we are to use non-Christian terminology, we are confronted with the essential fact that man's desires exceed his limitations in the universe in which he is set; and that from this evil must spring.


That evil springs from the very act which brings redemption forms the crux of the paradox characteristic of tragedy. The events that lead to Bigger's murder of Mary and the results of his subsequent actions illustrate that “curious blend of the inevitable and the incongruous which is peculiar to tragedy” (Frye 38).

Bigger's sense of himself—his pride—is in constant conflict with society's attitude toward him throughout the novel. After accidentally committing a murder, he is courageous enough both to accept the consequences of his actions and, for a time, to choose or control the way in which society deals with him. Bigger's success at controlling his life finds its source in Wright's beliefs in the values of this world. Instead of being primarily a novel of social protest aimed at condemning racist societal evils, Native Son is an affirmation of life which charts Bigger's growth into self-awareness. It is not enough that Bigger understands his world is racist; what is important is how he deals with himself in such a world. Once he resolves this dilemma, he must move on to understand his relationship to other human beings in society, both Black and white. Thus Native Son reflects Wright's belief that redemption for the oppressed individual—and for any individual—depends upon inner strength, that spiritual strength which makes man “splendid in his ashes” and enables him to transcend the evils of societal forces. Wright's attraction to Communism substantiated his faith in humanity, not in political institutions. This same belief in humanity caused his disillusionment with the party and his subsequent rejection of the party and its hypocrisy. More important, Wright's perception of a similar kind of insincerity spurred him to begin work on Native Son. In the essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” his explanation of the impetus behind the novel illuminates the strategy which underlies his characterization of Bigger Thomas:

The second event that spurred me to write of Bigger was more personal and subtle [the first was his work at the Southside Boys' Club in Chicago]. I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.


Determined, then, to strike the appropriate balance between pity and fear, Wright, having learned of the ineffectiveness of pathos or melodrama, intended that the readers of Native Son achieve enough distance from Bigger to question and feel the nature of human existence.

Consequently, in the above passage, Wright evinces an awareness of the integral, interdependent relationship of form, meaning, and reader response. D. D. Raphael's essay “Why Does Tragedy Please,” collected in Robert W. Corrigan's Tragedy: Vision and Form, parallels what Wright says about the aesthetic distance necessary to fulfill his purpose:

Tragedy is a form of art, and its pleasure is an aesthetic pleasure. We rarely, if ever, obtain from the so-called tragedies of life the satisfaction that we gain from tragic drama. In life, we are on the same level as those who suffer, we are fellow human beings. Our sympathy for their disaster is usually too strong for feelings of satisfaction at any sublimity they may display. In the theatre, the way is clear for the appreciation of sublimity by giving us the “God's-eye view.” The scene is set in the past, so that we know what is going to happen; or, if not in the past, in the distant clime, so that we shall not be too disposed to identify ourselves in sympathy with the characters on stage. The dramatist fails in his purpose if … he represents life close to his audience and inhibits admiration by excessive pity.


Bigger's extremely sullen personality, his ever-present potential for violence, his murder of Mary, his gory disposal of her body, and his murder of Bessie all serve as dramatic tools Wright uses to assure that his readers maintain, to use Raphael's words, a “God's-eye view” of Bigger, thus achieving an aesthetic distance that reaches deeper than pity into the caverns of human consciousness.

Raphael's summation of the aesthetic distance necessary for the tragic form evokes at once the question of the relationship of pathos or melodrama to tragedy, and the question of whether the traditional tragic form is appropriate to describe modern society. Northrop Frye's incisive definition of pathos serves as an enlightening basis for a distinction between the use of pathos in naturalism and in tragedy. Frye writes, “The root idea of pathos is the exclusion of an individual on our own level from a social group to which he is trying to belong” (39). Although Bigger is excluded from all social groups, Wright ensures that the reader does not feel excessive pity for his protagonist by characterizing him as both awful and awesome. He moves Bigger beyond the naturalistic descriptions of characters like Norris's McTeague, Crane's Maggie, and Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths. Typical of the tragic hero, Bigger has a strong sense of pride that is an integral element of his fate and thus the source of the conflict between the inevitable and the incongruous in the novel.

Moreover, a modern misconception is to associate melodrama exclusively with sentimental, propagandistic, and naturalistic literature. However, it is through the melodramatic aspects of tragedy that we experience the catharsis described originally in Aristotle's Poetics. Oedipus's blindness, Lear's brokenheartedness, Othello's suicide, and the numerous murders in Macbeth are all rooted in violent, extravagant emotions. Different from those of the sentimental literary modes, the protagonists in tragedies are never stripped of their dignity. Eric Bentley humorously and astutely captures the point of merger between the melodrama characteristic of naturalism and that of tragedy:

Yet the idea of such a scale is misleading if it suggests that tragedy is utterly distinct from melodrama. There is a melodrama in every tragedy just as there is a child in every adult. It is not tragedy, but Naturalism, that tries to exclude childish and melodramatic elements. William Archer, a Naturalist, defined melodrama as “illogical and sometimes irrational tragedy.” The premise is clear: tragedy is logical and rational. Looking for everyday logic and reasonableness in tragedy, Archer remorselessly drew the conclusion that most tragedy of the past was inferior to the middle class drawing-room drama of London around 1910. Had he been consistent he would even have included Shakespeare in the indictment.

But tragedy is not melodrama minus the madness. It is melodrama plus something.


This something which melodrama lacks emerges as part of the stimulating force behind the controversy over the nature of tragedy in the modern world.

Because tragedy traditionally recorded the lives of ruling kings and their royal families, and because Greek culture—and to some extent Renaissance culture—consisted of a societal system in which institutions, practices, and feelings were all interrelated, some early twentieth-century scholars held that traditional tragedy was not possible in the modern world (Williams 17). They believed it was not the appropriate form to describe a society characterized by fragmentation and disillusionment. From different perspectives both Richard Sewall in The Vision of Tragedy and Raymond Williams in Modern Tragedy trace the history of tragedy. While Sewall focuses on the critical skirmish around the nature of tragedy, Williams emphasizes the history of the cultural changes that underlie the tragic mode. Sewall cites the ideas of Macneile Dixon and Joseph Wood Krutch, who saw no hope of tragedy in the modern world because contemporary society lacked cosmic order, faith in the glory of God, and a belief in the dignity of man (128). In tracing the ideological framework of tragedy, Williams explains that tragedy began in a culture which emphasized “rank” and “heroic stature” and made no distinctions between social and metaphysical categories. According to Williams, both Renaissance and neoclassical tragedians concern themselves with the lives of famous men (23). His discussion of the critical attitude that accompanies tragedy intersects Sewall's: “Broadly, the idea of tragedy ceased to be metaphysical and became critical, though this development was not complete until the neoclassical critics of the seventeenth century. … Over the next two centuries, until the radical Hegelian revision, the idea of tragedy comprises mainly methods and effects. But in fact, behind this critical emphasis, the assumption of the nature of a tragic action was changing radically” (25).

Possibly no two works demonstrate this radical change in the ideas concerning tragedy better than Arthur Miller's famous essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Of course, the title of Miller's essay quite appropriately illuminates his thesis: “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (148). He continues:

As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.

Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks to attain it for the first time, but the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.


Miller's definition of tragedy is most notable and significant for its discounting of the class distinction associated with tragedy.

In Chapter 26 of Moby-Dick (“Knights and Squires”), Melville, focusing on this same idea of dignity, has much earlier elevated the stature of the common man to that of the tragic hero. An embodiment of the theme of democratic dignity, Melville's tragic hero is the common man who struggles to realize the ideal within himself. In what is stylistically a sort of incantation to his muse, Melville has Ishmael say:

But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! …

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; … then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! … Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a warhorse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!


Melville's Ahab and Miller's Willie Loman join a long list of tragic heroes whose idealized aspirations far exceed their human limitations. Consequently, from the fourth century b.c., with the appearance of Aristotle's Poetics, to the 1949 publication of Miller's “Tragedy and the Common Man,” the concept of tragedy underwent a notable change reflective of the societal values of various epochs.

The underlying consistency in the characterization of the tragic hero—whether a king or common person—is the dignity that motivates the hero and isolates him psychologically and many times physically from the rest of society. Thus dignity, an important embodiment of the tragic character's personality, elicits the reader's admiration of the spiritual strength peculiar to the tragic hero despite the hero's socioeconomic status. Moreover, achieving a synthesis between form and meaning, traditional tragedies required a highly stylized form to describe their noble protagonists. The above passage from Melville exemplifies the elevated language he uses elsewhere in his descriptions of Ahab. Hence the language used in the exploration of the tragic theme parallels the tragic writer's perception of the hero, becoming an integral part of the process which distinguishes the tragic hero from all other characters. The stylized language of tragedy separates it, to some extent, from naturalistic expression. While Crane strips language to its bare essentials in Maggie, Dreiser in An American Tragedy chooses to tell his story through an omniscient narrator skilled in the art of reportage. Naturalistic literature, in other words, does not use language to celebrate life or to aggrandize its hero. The reason for this is clear: naturalism sees little to celebrate; essentially, its purpose is to condemn.

An effective means of encapsulating the distinctions made so far in this introduction between naturalism and tragedy, and of outlining the strategy I shall use in the chapters to follow, is to juxtapose briefly Dreiser's characterization of Clyde Griffiths—a quintessential naturalistic protagonist—to Wright's portrayal of Bigger Thomas. For the Robert Nixon trial and Dreiser's An American Tragedy are structural influences on Native Son. Although both Dreiser and Wright depict their protagonists as products of American society and share the idea that society is in part to blame for their crimes, Wright breaks two of the salient rules of naturalism when he has Bigger control his situation by manipulating the environment that seeks to victimize him. Clyde Griffiths, on the other hand, remains a total victim. Moreover, the most important difference in the portrayals of these two young men is Bigger's spiritual growth or transcendence. Unlike Clyde, Bigger learns intensely from his experiences. He discovers himself, recognizing who he is and what has caused his fall. Clyde is “motionless in time.” He is basically as dimly aware of the forces that motivate him at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning. While Dreiser highlights the cause of Clyde's crime, Wright focuses on the result of Bigger's murder of Mary (Hakutani 168, 171). Therefore, if we see Bigger's murder of Mary as the beginning of his journey into self-discovery, it is easy to shift our focus from Wright's condemnation of societal evils to his affirmation of Bigger's willingness to lay down his life to obtain his sense of personal dignity.

My analysis of Native Son as a tragedy and of Bigger Thomas as a tragic character does not at all mean I am suggesting that tragedy and didacticism or condemnation are antithetical. The fact is that tragedy, too, contains an essential element of the reprehensible. In describing the tragic vision, Sewall pinpoints the goal of tragedy as challenging human nature and rebuking passivity:

Nor is the tragic vision for those who, though admitting unsolved questions and the reality of guilt, anxiety, and suffering, would become quietist and do nothing. Mere sensitivity is not enough. The tragic vision impels the man of action to fight against his destiny, kick against the pricks, and state his case before God or his fellows. … The writing of tragedy is the artist's way of taking action, of defying destiny, and this is why in the great tragedies there is a sense of the artist's own involvement, an immediacy not so true of the forms, like satire and comedy, where the artist's position seems more detached.


Hence the act of writing tragedy and the nature of tragedy to strip the tragic hero of all worldly dependencies involve the tragedian in the struggle for the improvement of human kind. A prolific reader and subtle thinker, Wright was too skillful an artist and too astute a political activist to jeopardize his literary aspirations by over-emphasizing propaganda at the expense of the sublimity which underlies great works of literature.

Finally, the most telling distinction between protest literature and the sublimity of tragedy is that protest literature easily becomes dated while tragedy, striking at the core of what it means to be a human being, remains perpetually powerful. The 200,000 copies of Native Son that sold during its first month of publication attest to its power. Its having been translated into seventeen foreign languages and its secure position in many curricula in American literature reaffirm its power. The source of this impact is not Bigger's murder of a white woman or his sensational disposal of her remains. The intensity of the novel comes from Wright's masterful handling of language, the adroit synthesis he achieves between his message and the form that shapes the message. The entire linguistic network of the novel hinges on a complex system of ironies that metaphorically parallels the inevitability and incongruity of the elements that make up Bigger's life. When he describes the rhythms of Bigger's life early in Book 1, Wright also foreshadows the intricate web of ironies that characterize his use of language: “These were the rhythms of his [Bigger's] life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger—like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force” (24-25). This description of the paradoxical nature of Bigger's personality echoes T. R. Henn's summation of the movement of the tragic form:

Alone of all artistic forms tragedy offers no apologies for its incidental didacticism. … Its didacticism may be, and often is, multiform, disguised, working by paradox or antithesis, implicit in its images. In the revelation and interaction of character we are confronted continuously with values, whether implicit or explicit, stated or inferred, that are steadily related to a traditional or evolving ethic.


Irreconcilable opposites characterize the tragic mode. The tragic hero, like Bigger as Wright depicts him in the above passage, is a divided human being who must confront conflicts that are rationally insoluble as well as obligations and passions. He must make choices, whether for good or evil. And he errs knowingly or involuntarily, accepts consequences, and grows into a deeper awareness of himself. He must suffer or die with his new perception of life (Heilman, “Tragedy and Melodrama” 248). Bigger Thomas is such a character. His realization that he is different from other human beings, but that the well-being of his family is affected by his actions, parallels the tightly wrought ironies that unite Wright's characterization of Bigger with a unique web of metaphor which reflects a soul divided against itself.

In order to comprehend the full significance of the paradoxes that underlie Wright's description of Bigger's personality, we must first understand the influence of the environment on Bigger's perception of life. The purpose of Chapter 2 in this study is to show that Wright exceeds the limits of naturalism in his use of setting to represent a state of mind. He elevates the powerful environmental forces that control Bigger's life to the level of gods, much like those who manipulate Oedipus's fate. Bigger's fate, then, is preordained by the cosmology of an environmental system which divides human beings into subgroups of Blacks and whites or into the oppressed and the oppressors. Native Son charts what inevitably happens when these two worlds or subgroups collide.

Although Bigger responds as expected (as it is preordained) when he encounters the powerful forces from the white environment, he ceases to become a total victim; he chooses through sheer will and indignation to take control of his own life, to act by challenging the established order of his environment. Chapter 3 demonstrates that Bigger is motivated by the same sense of pride described as hubris by Aristotle and Renaissance tragedians and as dignity by Arthur Miller and Herman Melville. His hamartia is his loss of control, his easily excited temperament. As the title of Book 1 suggests, fear is a controlling factor in Bigger's personality. Nonetheless, his accidental murder of Mary gives him a new perception of himself and of his place in society, and enables him to conquer the fear and to control his own life. His loss of control precipitates the discovery of Mary's bones and points to him as her murderer. Traditional readings of the novel stop at describing Bigger as the existential human being isolated from both the Black and white worlds because of his rebelliousness.

The view of Bigger as a tragic protagonist probes further into the intricacies of Wright's method by emphasizing the irreconcilable aspects of Bigger's personality and of his relationship to the other characters. The same Bigger who intensely fears whites—and thus appears submissive and pusillanimous—is by comparison to the other Black characters quite courageous and intractable. Unlike them, he is a man of action who “fights against his destiny” by challenging established order. Wright ensures the reader's identification with Bigger's personality through his skillful use of a third-person limited point of view. This center of consciousness—without our always being aware of it—manipulates an ironic balance between the awesome and the awful in Bigger's characterization. Because of this narrator, at no point in the novel do we cease to empathize with Bigger and to understand the psychological forces that motivate him.

Some of the intensity in the novel emerges from the tension between Bigger's hate and shame as well as between his rebelliousness and fear, while the beauty comes from the paradoxical nature of the metaphorical functions of the wall, the color yellow, the sun, the snow, the colors black and white, and the concept of blindness. Chapter 4, entitled “Technique: The Figurative Web,” explores the ironies and relationships which embody the salient metaphors and images in the novel. These figurative elements illuminate the divided aspects of Bigger's character. For instance, the wall at once represents the emotional barrier Bigger keeps between himself and the world as well as the network of economic and political barriers that excite his indignation. The snow, a symbol both of Bigger's violent nature and of the sterility and insensitivity which characterize the white world that seeks to control him, merges with or parallels the paradoxical function of the wall and the metaphor of blindness. The rhythmic repetition of the metaphors of the snow, the sun and its accompanying color yellow, and the colors black and white impresses a stylized form upon the novel characteristic of the elevated language of tragedy. Another prominent aspect of this stylized form is the rhythmic repetition of the periodic, balanced, and compound sentences to depict the continual, abrupt changes in Bigger's reactions to the established order of his environment. The variation in sentence patterns to portray the movement of Bigger's thoughts corresponds to the semantic function of the metaphors used to highlight the contradictions that make up Bigger's character.

The minute aspects of language in Native Son form an intricate net of skillfully woven linguistic threads that become manifestations of Bigger's consciousness and thus of the themes in the novel. Though Wright successfully elevates his language to reflect Bigger's dignity, at the same time he strikes an impressive balance between Bigger's personality and the language used to describe that personality. This balance, as stated by Elder Olson in his essay “Modern Drama and Tragedy,” is an integral element of tragedy: “Tragedy demands a high style, certainly; but the true high style, is simply that which is appropriate to the tragic character—one, that is, which manifests his dignity. It is not bombast. The most affecting passages in the mature Shakespeare are composed in extremely simple language, elevated only by what they manifest to us” (183).

Max's address in Book 3 further demonstrates how Wright skillfully achieves a balance between language and meaning. The length and esoteric nature of Max's speech to the judge have drawn more negative criticism than any other aspect of Native Son. … With Max's speech serving as the focal point, Book 3 emerges as the climax of Bigger's suffering through its portrayal of the relationship between Bigger and Max. Illuminating Max's failure to perceive Bigger's humanity, the speech proves to be a dramatization of Max's character. That the speech unites all the dominant image patterns that depict Bigger's humanity reflects the irony characteristic of tragedy.

In the same way that traditional readings of Bigger as a naturalistic and existential character and of Max's speech as gratuitous diatribe have impeded fresh insights into Native Son, numerous misconceptions also haunt Wright's other novels. For the idea that Wright's creativity resulted primarily from his experiences in Mississippi and the implication that his political ideology was more important to him than the “sedentary toil” which, so Yeats maintained, must go into great works, have become serious impediments to new, discerning studies of his works. These prejudicial, biographical barriers must be broken down in much the same way as the territorial barriers that exclusively categorize the elements of tragedy and naturalism. For great works of art are like prisms, with diverse spectrums of life emanating from the consciousness of the creative artist. And as illustrated by our dreams, human consciousness is characterized by fluidity and boundlessness. Richard Wright's creative aspirations were equally boundless. As suggested by Michel Fabre, Wright's works demonstrate a quest for the meaning of life. The elements of this quest assume shapes as diverse as the characters in Wright's fiction. All five of his novels—Native Son, The Outsider, Savage Holiday, The Long Dream, and Lawd Today—reveal that Wright was a realist. He began by accepting the reality of racism in human consciousness.

Before individuals can begin to eradicate the emotional and physical abuses of racism from their lives, they must first understand the nature of racism. From this perspective, Wright celebrates Bigger's coming into an awareness of his internalization of racist concepts. Consequently, a coming to terms with the meaning of life in Native Son does not demand that we attack societal evils, but that we question the manner in which we choose to deal with these evils. Native Son treats the essential question of the meaning of existence to a young, prideful Black man who resists the strictures of established order and chooses to act, subsequently discovering a spiritual fortitude which brings self-knowledge and a kind of prudence that approaches wisdom.

Further Reading

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Kinnamon, Keneth, Joseph Benson, Michel Fabre, and Craig Werner. A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, 1983 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography.


Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: William Morrow, 1973, 652 p.

Definitive biography.

Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001, 626 p.

Biographical study with selected bibliography.


Algeo, Ann M. “Richard Wright's Native Son.” In The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer, pp. 43-73. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Analyzes Book Three of Native Son.

Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 133 p.

Provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Native Son.

———. The Critical Response to Richard Wright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995, 199 p.

Collection of previously published critical essays on Wright's work.

Davis, Thadious M. “Wright, Faulkner, and Mississippi as Racial Memory.” Callaloo 9, no. 3 (summer 1986): 469-78.

Investigates the importance of landscape in the work of Wright and William Faulkner.

Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985, 286 p.

Compilation of Fabre's critical essays on Wright's work.

Gounard, Jean-François. “Richard Wright.” In The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, translated by Joseph J. Rodgers, Jr., pp. 3-148. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Study of Wright's literary, philosophical, and journalistic works.

Kinnamon, Keneth. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 156 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Kinnamon, Keneth, and Michel Fabre. Conversations with Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993, 253 p.

Compiles several interviews with Richard Wright.

Rampersad, Arnold. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995, 211 p.

Assembles seminal critical essays on Wright's work.

Schultz, Elizabeth. “The Power of Blackness: Richard Wright Re-Writes Moby-Dick.African American Review 33, no. 4 (winter 1999): 639-54.

Considers the impact of Melville's Moby-Dick on Native Son.

Scruggs, Charles W. “Finding Out About This Mencken: The Impact of A Book of Prefaces on Richard Wright.” Menckeniana, no. 95 (fall 1985): 1-11.

Considers the influence of H. L. Mencken on Wright's work.

Shulman, Robert. “Richard Wright's Native Son and the Political Unconscious.” In The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered, pp. 137-80. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Explores the political nature of Wright's Native Son.

Smith, Virginia Whatley. Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001, 237 p.

Critical essays on Wright's travel writings.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work. New York: Warner Books, 1988, 444 p.

Full-length critical study.

Watkins, Patricia D. “The Paradoxical Structure of Richard Wright's ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’.” Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 4 (winter 1989): 767-83.

Views “The Man Who Lived Underground” as both a naturalistic and existential fable.

Additional coverage of Wright's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 42; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 3; Black Writers, Ed. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 64; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, 14, 21, 48, 74; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 76, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 3, 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 1; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 7; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 9, 15; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

James Robert Saunders (essay date winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Saunders, James Robert. “The Social Significance of Wright's Bigger Thomas.” College Literature 14, no. 1 (winter 1987): 32-7.

[In the following essay, Saunders traces the evolution of Bigger Thomas into a character of social significance.]

In an article entitled “Richard Wright's Blues,” which is included in his volume of essays, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison describes what he regards as a “basic ambiguity” in Richard Wright's sensational Native Son. Ellison, a contemporary of Wright's who survived to evaluate new generations of black American writers, assessed it as a crucial flaw that “Wright had to force into Bigger's consciousness concepts and ideas which his intellect could not formulate.”1 That complaint stems from Ellison's belief that Wright compromised too much of his own personality to achieve the fundamental theme of Bigger Thomas' frustrated existence.

To determine the validity of Ellison's complaint one must ask who is Bigger Thomas and why did the author find it necessary to create such a terrifying character? The novel might just as easily have been an American romance or at least a tale of people managing to find some solace in the midst of a world that has become increasingly complex. Wright, however, chose to give us an unpleasant view of American life, and thus the controversial anti-hero Bigger Thomas was created. The author in his introduction, “How Bigger Was Born,” explains, “What made Bigger's social consciousness most complex was the fact that he was hovering unwanted between two worlds—between powerful America and his own stunted place in life—and I took upon myself the task of trying to make the reader feel this No Man's Land.”2 Perhaps the key word in this explication is “stunted,” for one must wonder about the absurdity of Thomas' position in a society that we sing about as being “the land of the free” and praise as being an endless source of opportunity. How did Bigger Thomas evolve in this much heralded land?

Of course we could look back into America's past and put the blame for the evolution of Bigger Thomas squarely on the institution of slavery. We would to some degree be correct in offering that as the reason for various ills that continue to accrue to the black race even to this day. Michel Fabre, in his definitive biography of the author, notes that Wright thought of the average black person as exceptional merely for having survived the racist circumstances of American life. More specifically, one need only delve into the background of the artist himself. Having been born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, in 1908, Wright remembers, in the autobiographical Black Boy, that when he was a child, “Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.”3 Decades after slavery had officially ended, blacks continued to suffer from the deprivation associated with a race struggling to advance beyond the lowest socio-economic level that any group in this country has ever experienced. As the son of a sharecropper, one step removed from slavery, young Wright directly felt the pain.

Yet even before Native Son and Black Boy, Wright had written Lawd Today, a more clearly existential view of conditions in these United States, based on the life of one black post office worker in Chicago during the 1930s. However, we would be remiss to assume that Wright here limited his analysis to black men victimized by an unsympathetic white world. The author instead meant to expose the nature of life in general. Lewis Leary perceptively remarks:

Jake Jackson's long, harrassed, expectant, shattered activities during a single winter day in Chicago, though less celebrated than Bigger's awful experience, and less melo-dramatic and less productive of polemic also, nonetheless provide a powerful and terrifying insight into what it must be to be black in America, the essential bleakness of black life, the cultural barrenness. But it also, insidiously, provides glimpses into what it means to be white, colorless, ubiquitous.4

The protagonist of this novel (which Leary refers to as Wright's “first/last” novel, because it was the first novel written by the artist but the last to be published) does represent more than the so-called black plight in America. As a release from the boredom of his postal occupation, Jackson joins with three other men who play whist for a diversion, and on at least one occasion the players erupt into uncontrollable laughter and then they “paused for breath, and then they laughed at how they had laughed; and because they had laughed at how they had laughed, they laughed and laughed and laughed.”5 This fit of hysterical laughter on the part of all four card players serves to reveal the very absurdity of Jackson's everyday life.

If one looks far enough beneath the surface of color it becomes obvious that Jackson is not unlike the blue-collared Stanley Kowalski of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. As his world seems ready to crumble down about him, that descendent of Polish immigrants engages in his regular poker night as though it were some therapeutic measure for impending chaos. In reality, the absurdity of his existence parallels that of the mythical Sisyphus, who pushes his heavy burden up the mountain again and again although he knows that it will only keep on rolling back down for him to push it up again. The message is that mankind is really at a loss to explain the reason for existence.

Nathan Scott is wrong in concluding that “at its center Native Son exhibits nothing other than a socially discarnate and demoniac wrath.”6 This reaction is reminiscent of Southern politicians' reactions in the 1940s to the fact that a black man had dared to be so blunt about life in America. It reminds one of the push, by many white college professors, to have Ellison's Invisible Man regarded as the greatest novel ever written by an American black. They proclaim that they enjoy Ellison's work more because it, as opposed to Native Son, has universal value.

I would argue, on the other hand, that Invisible Man is as indicative of “demoniac wrath” as is the groundbreaking Native Son. Who, for example, is more despicable in American literature than the treacherous Dr. Bledsoe who ruthlessly contrives a means for the invisible man's demise? The difference between those two novels is that the college president, Bledsoe, does not bludgeon his victims to death. Instead, he plots behind the scenes to insure the socio-economic and spiritual destruction of those he does not like.

As a depiction of human flaws, Ellison's work is universal—but Native Son is just as crucial to an understanding of human nature in the midst of dire circumstances. Upon committing two hideous murders, Thomas marvels:

He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think. … Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions.


Frustrated by his limited position in society, the black chauffeur seems destined to kill the wealthy white Mary Dalton and equally destined to murder the unsuspecting Bessie Mears, whose meaning in life is similarly limited to all the liquor and sex that Thomas can provide.

It is fairly safe to say that Dalton's death is an accident; however, as students in one of my black literature classes agreed, that death seems too much to be pre-ordained, as if there is no other way the restricted relationship between Thomas and Dalton could have ended. Once he chooses to deliver the intoxicated Dalton daughter to her bedroom, his fate is sealed. And then it is only in the ordinary course of events that he will take that other life, Bessie's, which had appeared to be as lacking in meaning as his own. It is a powerful statement about the society in which we live that anyone would have to murder to achieve some semblance of identity. Nevertheless, we know that being a murderer has in some sense satisfied what had been Thomas' desperate yearning to be somebody, and we can only guess at just how many criminals have felt the same.

In talking about Thomas in a college class composed almost equally of whites and blacks, I found it interesting that nearly everyone sympathized with what he was going through. Students between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five (including an elderly Jewish woman who had to sell her downtown business establishment because of rising crime) declared that they understood what drove him to the depths of depression where the novel ends. They feared him, and yet they understood him. As strange as it might sound to some, Bigger Thomas and his plight do have universal appeal.

Wright himself echoed the disillusionment of many when he fled with his wife from the United States in 1946 to live in Paris. Generally speaking, he left to avoid any further suffering of racial oppression; much like Bigger Thomas, he was denied the opportunity to pursue individual identity, irrespective of race. It is in The Outsider that we receive a great deal of the existential philosophy behind the frustration that prompted Wright to leave. Like Jake Jackson, Cross Damon is confined to working at a job that he despises. However, the difficulty for Damon began even earlier than that for “he was convinced that there were no happy childhoods, that the myth of the happy childhood had been invented by middle-class people to show that their parents had money when they were children, or by people whose memories of unpleasant days were so defective that they could delude themselves into believing that they had come into this world trailing clouds of glory.”7 One cannot help but be reminded of Black Boy where the youngster Wright experienced about as little happiness as one might deem possible for a child to survive.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that in a way the fictional Native Son takes up where the autobiographical Black Boy leaves off. We find the sharecropper's son fleeing his oppressive South to find a better life in the North. Yet Chicago proves to be no “promised land.” And the story of Bigger Thomas is the tale of many an American who has ventured into unchartered territory, seeking the good life promised by our national creeds and slogans.

Some do succeed in their quests, but Native Son tells of how it is for countless others who fail. For those who are offended by the violence in that novel, it is essential to consider the words of John Reilly who, in his afterword to Native Son, declares—

violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed. When life in society consists of humiliation, one's only rescue is through rebellion. It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.


The humiliation Reilly mentions is conveyed most effectively by Wright as he portrays the shattered life of Bigger Thomas. Yet the novel is indicative of more than just one man's predicament; it tells about the plight of blacks in general and of others who compose the lower classes. As the author gives Thomas a certain capacity for insight, we are made to question the motivation for violent action and made to perceive how alienation can result in catastrophic social harm.


  1. Ralph Ellison. “Richard Wright's Blues.” In Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964: 89.

  2. Richard Wright. Native Son. 1940. Rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1966: xxiv. Additional page reference is in this edition.

  3. Richard Wright. Black Boy. 1945. Rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1966: 21.

  4. Lewis Leary. “Lawd Today: Notes on Richard Wright's First/Last Novel.” CLA Journal 15 (1972): 412.

  5. Richard Wright. Lawd Today. 1963. Rpt. New York: Avon, 1969: 92.

  6. Nathan Scott. “The Dark and Haunted Tower of Richard Wright.” In The Black Novelist. Ed. Robert Hemenway. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1970: 76.

  7. Richard Wright. The Outsider. 1953. Rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1965: 414.

Susan Neal Mayberry (essay date January 1989)

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SOURCE: Mayberry, Susan Neal. “Symbols in the Sewer: A Symbolic Renunciation of Symbols in Richard Wright's ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’.” South Atlantic Review 54, no. 1 (January 1989): 71-83.

[In the following essay, Mayberry explores the heavy symbolism of Wright's short story “The Man Who Lived Underground.”]

The fact that Richard Wright's “The Man Who Lived Underground” is somewhat paradoxically a long short story prepares its reader for its multiple ambiguities and explains the range of interpretations that have resulted from them. The short story has been variously described as a depiction of the social and ethical problems facing the American black (Gounard 381), a “perfect modern allegory” exposing the sewage of the human heart (Margolies), a rendering of Freudian guilt (Fabre, “Underground”; Margolies), a surrealistic search for identity (Bakish; Fabre, “Naturalism”), the paradox of the sightless seer who comes to visualize his invisibility (Felgar), a study in pessimism (Brignano; Everette), and an existentialist parable that surpasses the frequent absurdist theme of estrangement to offer hope (Ridenour). It has been called a “quasi-mythological quest” and an “epiphany of artistic creation.” One critic considers the story in terms of ritual, specifically the rites of the black w(hole), and of phenomenology (Baker 144, 157-72). Another suggests that what the story has to say about human nature could be applied to the nature of literary works (Fabre, “Underground” 217-19). The piece has at times been viewed as an escape adventure/detective story, a social history, a fantasy, and a moral examination. It is, at times, all of these. In the long run, however, it is most profitably understood as a symbolic rendering of the deconstruction of human values; it uses symbols to illustrate their potential destructiveness.

Wright begins his demarcation of the distance between real values realized underground and unreal values, or symbols, embraced by society with the complex, sometimes overwhelming system of symbols in his own story. One of the most striking characteristics of “Underground,” apparent upon first reading, is its heavy, almost blatant symbolism. Mildred Everette, for example, draws attention to Wright's “somewhat obvious but nevertheless careful art …” (321) in a story in which protagonist, setting, structure, and theme are obviously symbolic.

The story opens with a terrified black man cowering in a corner of a vestibule, fleeing from the white policemen who had forced him to confess to a murder he did not commit. Spotting a manhole cover lifted by the geyser-like eruptions of sewer water beneath it, he opts for the underground bowels of the city as his haven of escape. The implications here are hardly subtle. The sewer setting becomes Wright's metaphor for the black ghetto, and the protagonist, nameless through much of the story, represents Everyblackman. However, the situation as it is developed in the sewer projects meaning from a particular to a universal condition; Everyblackman becomes Everyman.1 The sewer water is described as warm, pulsing, womblike. Entering it, Man regresses to a world that offers both security and ignorance out of which he must finally climb. The darkness becomes for him a source of enlightenment. He learns that the nether world in which he dwells is the real world of human concerns while the surface world “which hums above him in the streets of the city is senseless and meaningless—a kind of unreality which men project to hide from themselves the awful blackness of their souls” (Margolies 141).

The structure of the story is also heavily symbolic—a peculiarly American motif of the journey: the protagonist embarks upon a trip or adventure that ultimately leads him to explore human society and the human heart. Man is in the company of characters like Huckleberry Finn, Ed Gentry of Dickey's Deliverance, and their predecessor Marlowe of Conrad's Heart of Darkness for whom getting on the boat becomes truly getting off the boat, a distancing device or means of withdrawal from the madding crowd. Their trips up or down a river provide them with a fresh perspective from which they can observe and evaluate various scenes of human behavior, which occur at periodic intervals on land, more objectively than if they were intimately involved in these activities.

Like his counterparts, Man occasionally takes on a godlike role when he alters the outcome of such situations by participating directly in them, but he then retreats to his version of the river world, unique in its subterranean setting, to ponder sagelike the significance of the chain of events he has set in motion. His journey is both exterior and interior, a search for meaning, identity, place, a means of understanding the practices and values of existence off the river. Like Huck, Ed, and Marlowe, Man must come to terms with the primitive nature of man, in this case the underground instincts that determine the values of the world of dread, terror, guilt, and death that exist on the surface. What all of these characters discover is that at bottom human beings are murderous and in love with death. Man's world, in which he is trying so desperately to live, reverses the situation so that death is not valued.

The general construction of the story is, then, a journey composed of various scenes symbolizing the priorities of the world above ground, which become reduced to nothingness in a world where death is denied value. The journey is marked off into three easily distinguished legs: a brief but intense prologue of fear and pain, necessary to throw into question all of the old above-ground values; a period of detachment and separation from the world above, allowing for the creation of new values; and a move into action to communicate the newly found knowledge and values with the human community.

In addition to providing his story with a symbolic setting and structure, Wright deliberately imbues each character, event, and scene of the journey with heavily symbolic overtones. In doing so, he sets the stage to develop his preeminent idea of the gap between a world that celebrates the real values of the human heart (the things that nourish life are the only things that come to matter in the underground where living is the highest priority) and an above-ground society that emphasizes symbols, things that stand in place of real values, that is, unreal values.

Man's first encounter in the sewer is the beginning of a number of symbolic meetings. He is startled by a “whisper of scurrying life,” a rat whose furry body, “wet with slime,” and blinking eyes foreshadow the description of Man himself when he emerges from the sewer (Wright 59). The rat's end also parallels Man's final outcome, both, like Bigger Thomas and his rat counterpart in Native Son, hunted, trapped, and finally rejected by people who find them ugly and frightening. Even what is usually considered a more aesthetically pleasing aspect of humanity is treated as garbage by the surface world. Man comes upon the “tiny nude body of a baby snagged by debris and half-submerged in water,” an unwanted life someone had tossed into the sewer out of shame or anger. When Man dislodges the “shriveled limbs” of the baby's body, it is twisted and spun by the current to become a permanent part of the underground world like that of the rat and Man's own at the end of the story. Like the baby's, Man's mouth will “gape black in a soundless cry,” underscoring his silent protest of a world where human life is treated as sewage and his futile attempt to defend the value of life to a society of death mongers (34, 91-92).

Further evidence of the surface world's rejection of life and its attraction to death can be found in Man's reaction to two additional scenes that depict commercialized death in the city. The first scene presents the “nude waxen figure of a man stretched out upon a white table” (36). Smelling a peculiar odor, and seeing rubber tubing and a coffin, Man realizes that he is witnessing an embalming procedure at an undertaker's establishment. Instead of being confronted with a newborn body carelessly tossed among other human wastes, he comprehends the meaning of an adult body to the above-ground world, a life whose commercial value exists only in death. Later, Man is reminded of the business of death again when he hides in the freezer of a meat and fruit shop and observes its owner whacking at a side of beef with a cleaver, his face “proud” as he places the slab in the crook of his elbow to present to a customer. When Man is left alone in the shop, free to eat his fill for the first time in hours, he chooses fruit instead of the meat, rejecting yet another way in which the world above ground sells dead flesh for commercial gain.

When he sits satiated afterward, smoking a cigarette and brooding over the events he has witnessed, he remembers the people who had been so significant in the world he had left, “his wife, Mrs. Wooten for whom he had worked, the three policemen who had picked him up …” (48). Feeling that he “possessed them now more completely than he had ever possessed them when he had lived aboveground” but not understanding why, Man laughs. This laughter occurs throughout the story at every significant event or lesson in Man's process of enlightenment.2 It marks his growing awareness of the vulnerable human condition and the universal human culpability that renders human life and love highest absolutes. Thus it becomes the ultimate signifier of the distance between these real values and the symbols substituted for them by members of society.

The laughter is first heard when he listens to and observes the black men and women singing hymns to Jesus. He has to check his impulse to laugh out loud, but he cannot contain the other emotions that sweep over him at the sight of the church service. He feels that he is “gazing upon something abysmally obscene,” and he experiences pain “induced by the sight of those black people groveling and begging for something they could never get.” He is bewildered by the conflict between his vague conviction that “those people should stand unrepentant and yield no quarter in singing and praying” and his knowledge that “he had run from the police and had begged them to believe in his innocence” (32-33).

The laughter occurs again when he follows a sign marked Exit up from the basement to discover himself standing in a box in the reserved section of a movie house. He observes sprawling below him a “stretch of human faces … chanting, whistling, screaming, laughing” while dangling before them on the screen are “jerking shadows” (38). Man is himself seized by laughter and by the same impulse he had in the church, that is, to tell people to stop when he realizes with amazement that they are “laughing at their lives” (38). He is moved by an overwhelming compassion to reach out to them, but reality snaps him back. He understands that he cannot awaken them to the knowledge that he possesses, that, like children, these people are “sleeping in their living, awake in their dying” (38). He laughs again at the innocence of an usher who assumes he is looking for the way to the men's room and is struck by wonder at the paradox of an old man who needs no light to stoke the basement furnace with coal yet who remains oblivious to everything but his limited role. Though the caretaker has learned “a way of seeing in his dark world,” his is a myopic vision; he has no awareness of Man's presence or of his significance (40).

The difference in the level of awareness concerning self and others distinguishes Man's laughter from the laughter of the theatergoers. Through his alienation and suffering, Man comes to understand that darkness is the human animal's natural habitat and that until people come to realize that they are created to wrestle with the darkness of the soul, they have no chance of enlightenment; human beings must first acknowledge the darkness before they can seek the light. Some, like the old man who needs no light to stoke his furnace, become immune to the blackness. He has been coping with the dark for so long that he never “once lift[s] his eyes” (40). Others deny that the darkness exists at all. The laughter of the theater patrons reflects their blind self-deception. This laughter is always accompanied, according to Henri Bergson, by the absence of feeling, by a sense of superiority, and by the desire to humiliate (4). The people in the movie house are so distanced from their own feelings, so unconscious of their vulnerable human state that they are able to laugh at the “shadows” on the screen without realizing that they are mocking themselves.

Man's laughter, however, is the thinking or “dianoetic” laugh of the absurd. In Watt Samuel Beckett describes this laughter, born not of innocence but of knowledge:

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout—Haw!—so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please, at that which is unhappy.


Man is laughing at the theatergoers' laugh. He is laughing at individuals' idea of their own superiority which masks the guilt, fear, and pain that lie underneath. Baudelaire is describing Man's compulsion to laugh when he writes that human laughter is “intimately connected with the accident of an ancient fall, of a physical and moral degradation.” He offers the view that in the earthly paradise when all things seemed good, joy did not reside in laughter. As no sorrow afflicted him, “man's countenance was simple and composed, and the laughter that nowadays shakes nations did not disturb the features of his face.” Baudelaire goes on to say that laughter and tears are “equally the children of sorrow” and that a creature is comic “only on condition that he is unaware of his own nature” (143, 161). In “Underground” the theater patrons are comic to Man in their ignorance and imperceptiveness, evident from their naive laughter. Because Man's laughter results, however, from the knowledge and sorrow inherited by humankind after its fall from innocence and grace, it is mirthless laughter. Man is terribly aware of his own nature; he laughs at the unhappiness inherent in it.

What he is aware of is what the church singers and the theatergoers try to escape from or deny: the guilt that is a by-product of the Fall. Man realizes he, and everyone, are guilty of everything. Though he is innocent of the crime he has been accused of committing, he is vaguely conscious of a feeling of guilt that grips him when he first comes into the underground. He is “crushed with a sense of guilt” when he hears the church congregation and strongly objects to their singing “with the air of the sewer blowing in on them” (32). He perceives that “their search for a happiness they could never find made them feel that they had committed some dreadful offense which they could not remember or understand” (68). When he comes upon the closed eyes and clenched fists of the baby in the sewer, he feels “as condemned as when the policemen had accused him” (30).

The guilt and terror overcome him even in his dreams. He imagines himself walking on water, reaching out to help a nude woman holding her nude baby above her head as they sink into the sea. Unable to save the woman, he lays the baby on top of the water where at first it floats but then, upon his return from diving for the mother, disappears. The nightmare ends with Man doubting his own ability to stand upon the waves and his sensation of drowning that jerks him awake. The dream obviously reflects Man's fear that he will not be able to save others from their obliviousness by communicating his knowledge of their guilt to them. The guilt and dread that paralyze him will not even let him sleep.

The dream also reflects the culpability of all humanity; even mothers and babies are overcome by the waves. Man instinctively recognizes this truth again in the butcher shop when he is “fascinated and repelled by the dried blotches of blood” on the meat cleaver. His fingers gripping the handle “with all the strength of his body,” he tries to fling the cleaver away but cannot; “though innocent, he felt guilty, condemned” (49). He knows that the instrument of death belongs as much in his hands as in anyone's, and he is determined to keep it.

Because guilt emanates from mere existence, Man's culpability is ironically shifted in the story. Though not guilty of the crime for which he has signed a confession, Man is responsible for the suffering of the boy in the radio store and for the suicide of the night watchman in the jewelry shop. Now though guilty, he responds as though innocent. He laughs when the boy is violently struck for stealing a radio that Man had taken earlier and dismisses a “distant pity,” deciding that it was “good they were beating the boy.” Perhaps it would enlighten him as to the secret of his existence, the “guilt that he could never get rid of” (68-69). The next episode finds Man watching with “guilty familiarity” the scene of a night watchman being tortured for stealing the jewels and money in Man's possession by the same policemen who had beaten Man into confessing a crime he did not commit. Again Man smothers a desire to laugh. He knows that though the watchman did not commit the crime of which he is accused, he is guilty, has “always been guilty” (69-70). This guilt is so “seemingly innate,” so “verily physical” that it emerges as part of “a faint pattern designed long ago,” the result of a “gigantic shock” that had left a “haunting impression” upon the body but that had been forgotten by the conscious mind, creating a “state of eternal anxiety” (68).3 Man's process of enlightenment culminates with this knowledge of the truth involving the Fall. He comes to understand that people share a common guilt resulting from that Fall and that it matters not whether an individual is punished for the appropriate crime; all people will be caught sometime during their lives.

Man's position as detached analyst of above-ground behavior gives him the perspective necessary to recognize this universal guilt. When he sees from his underground observatory that all people will steal, lie, and be tempted to kill, that they are guilty in thought, motive, and deed, and that they will attempt to deny or escape from guilt, he is able to accept his own culpability. With his acceptance comes the freedom and selfhood that Man has never experienced in the aboveground world, for he sees that people outside the rules of conventional social behavior are free to shape their own lives. With this freedom, however, comes the responsibility for acknowledging the human history of suffering and guilt, for acting out the compassion it makes valuable, and for communicating the story and its truths to others. Man must now match his definition of real values against society's unreal symbols.

When he first suspects that he is free to act, Man puts his newly found knowledge to use in his underground sanctuary. The medium he uses is symbolic. He tests his new value system by bringing into his cave certain symbols given the highest priority in the surface world in order to evaluate their validity in the world of his creation. Among these symbols are freshly minted money, rolls of coins, diamonds, rings, watches, the bloody meat cleaver, the night watchman's gun, the radio, and a typewriter. As he stands in his dark cave brooding about the things in his sack, he remembers other symbolic acts and symbols: the singing in the church, the people laughing in the theater, the dead baby, and the nude corpse. He feels that “some dim meaning linked them together, that some magical relationship made them kin.” He is convinced that “all of these images, with their tongueless reality, were striving to tell him something …” (59).

The something communicated silently by the images, like the dead baby's soundless cry, involves their very essence. Unlike the aboveground world where things are valued for their symbolic associations (the symbol becomes the thing symbolized), in Man's world all things are reduced to basic existence; the symbol is lost to the thing. From this perspective Man finds a vast difference in the value and meaning of the images when they are evaluated for what they really are rather than for what they symbolize.

Man explores the contents of his sack and cave, and, seeing now “with his fingers,” he develops a new perceptive sense toward the worth and meaning of what he finds. He evaluates his possessions as belonging roughly to one of two value groups: those materials that are essential for his survival and those that are ephemeral to it, useful for decoration, diversion, or contemplation. What he comes to understand is that the more closely the world above ground identifies the thing with its essence, the less the symbol is perceived as the thing, the more valuable it is to human life. Thus materials such as wire, sockets, light bulbs, sandwiches, and hand tools, limited in their symbolic associations and assigned a kind of dull, utilitarian value by the world above, take on new worth. In contrast to these materials are the wads of bills, rolls of coins, rings, diamonds, and gold watches to which the surface world allots a wealth of exciting, romantic connotations and thus a much higher priority than their more mundane counterparts. In the underground, however, they are only mocked. As they are reduced to their real essence, the bills become green wallpaper for the cave, the coins become shimmering, tinkling mounds of copper and silver, the diamonds and rings become glittering stones scattered on the floor and hung on nails, their blue and white sparks filling the cave with “brittle laughter as though enjoying [Man's] hilarious secret” (62-63). While the things acknowledged as things nourish, provide light, allow movement, the symbols merely titillate Man until his appetite is satiated and he seeks another diversion.

He hangs the bloody meat cleaver on the wall along with the gun and cartridge belt after he has satisfied an overpowering desire to experience the sensation others feel when firing a weapon. Once he smells the stench of burnt powder, the intensity of his feelings dies, and he drops the gun abruptly. He turns on the radio only to listen, as if from another planet, to a cultured voice reeling off an almost surrealistic description of above-ground battles, countries and generals involved, the destruction wrought by tanks, planes, warships, and bayonets, the groans of men as steel rips into their bodies. This is the stuff deemed newsworthy by the world above, a world which seems to him now “a wild forest filled with death” (62). The radio is as alien to his world as is the typewriter symbolizing another mode of above-ground communication—the cryptic exchanges of industrialists and entrepreneurs so devastating to the sensitive personality.4 Man is even separated from the above-ground symbol for himself. When he tries to type his name on the typewriter, he cannot remember what it is. He is no longer the symbol of himself; he is only the essence of himself.

All of these symbols have been reduced to the same level of value for Man. He risks capture to bring them to his cave for what they tell him about the “various currents of life swirling aboveground” (60). He does not steal the money or jewels out of greed, for in his world they can satisfy no human need. He takes them for their form and color and for the “manifold reactions which he knew that men aboveground held toward [them]” (55). These are the “serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left” (55). When Man understands completely that the value of symbols is purely aesthetic, that the things for which men will lie, steal, and kill are worthless in a world that reveres life instead of images of life, when he has tested his newly found knowledge in his own world and found it true, he is free. He has “triumphed over the world aboveground” (62).

He has now reached the final stage of his journey. Instead of descending from the heights of the mountaintop, like Moses or Zarathustra, to share his vision with those below, Man must rise from the depths of the sewer to communicate his knowledge with his brothers and sisters above. Paralyzed at first by his empathy with the suffering of other comrades in guilt, including the suicide of the night watchman, afraid of the actions he would perform if he went out into “that cruel sunshine,” he falls into a kind of trance brought on by internal conflict; his mind warns him not to move, but his body, the instinctual part of him, responds to his need to share human society.

When he does move, his actions are “informed with precision” (72). He takes his message of suffering and original guilt to both sacred and secular authorities, hoping that the knowledge will move them to act with compassion and love. When he enters the church where people are rejoicing in the story of the Lamb, he relies on the medium he has come to value, essence not symbol, to tell his own story. Having learned that, in a world of death, symbols are more important than life while in a world supporting life essence takes priority, Man does not use linguistic symbols to express his message; he “was the statement” (77). Man's language now is the essence of himself, an essence that the congregation rejects as dirty, foul-smelling, and rowdy. While revering the symbol of Christ's message, the story of His love, rejection, and sacrifice, they fail to accept the real thing when it appears before them.

The secular authorities are more perceptive, but ultimately they remain faithful to the laws of the above-ground world; they cling frantically to a system which rejects essence for symbol, life for death. Their partial self-awareness becomes even more destructive than the churchgoers' self-righteous blindness since it provokes a fear which, in turn, leads to violence. At first dismissing Man's explanations as the incoherent ravings of a madman, Lawson, Murphy, and Johnson finally recognize the danger that he represents to their world. They burn his original forced confession, hoping to deny their own guilt by destroying the evidence of it. Here they respond once again to the form rather than the essence of Man's message that is the inescapability of guilt. Sensing their uneasiness, Man offers to sign another confession to stealing the money blamed on the night watchman in hopes that acknowledgment of his guilt will make the policemen more accepting of their own. Then he pleads to show them the cave that houses his truths so that “they would feel what he had felt and they in turn would show it to others and those others would feel as they had felt, and soon everybody would be governed by the same impulse of pity” (89).

But caught at the juncture between Man's world and his own, his face twitching “as though he were hesitating,” Lawson's choice is to fire point-blank at the Man who stands below waiting eagerly for the policeman to join him in the sewer. For Lawson the truths of man's collective guilt, his aloneness, and his invisibility are too much to bear. Dimly sensing Man's meaning, he realizes that destroying the evidence of his existence is not enough; he must kill the Man. As he explains to the others: “You've got to shoot his kind. They'd wreck things” (92).

That Man is shot is less significant, however, than the fact that the killer heard him. He has completed those acts necessary to living a full life: realizing himself, realizing others and the total world, and communicating to others what he knows to be true. Though the story stops short of any realization of change in the world as a result of his message, Man has achieved self-actualization. Like most prophets, he simply sees further than his society is able to comprehend and so is feared and ultimately rejected by it.

Most critics have been overwhelmed by Man's fate, placing it among the bleakest of Wright's statements.5 The final message of this story is not completely bleak, however, but actually reflects what Albert Camus describes in “The Myth of Sisyphus” as happiness. Camus is interested in the respite between the time Sisyphus has pushed his designated boulder to the top of the mountain and the moment he must begin his effort all over again. This return from the heights is the hour of consciousness during and because of which Sisyphus, fully aware of the extent of his wretched condition, becomes in his knowledge superior to his fate. As Camus puts it, there is “no sun without shadow and it is essential to know the night” (338).

Like Sisyphus's awakening, “the lucidity that was to constitute [Man's] torture at the same time crowns his victory” (Camus 337-38). Though he may have little impact on his fellow human beings (Lawson does at least hesitate) and little control over his own destiny, he is heroic in his efforts to act with consciousness and conscience in the face of meaninglessness. He has learned that there is no substitute for the saving grace of laughter echoing in the void, and while he may not have conquered humanity, in the highest humanist fashion he triumphs over himself. The rock that Man has found it his fate to shoulder must inevitably, tragically roll back down on top of him. But, using the symbols he has cautioned us not to exchange for life in order to celebrate a life, Wright finally returns his character to the only place where he really belongs, the world of the underground; in death if not in life Man is truly home.


  1. Because Wright titled his story “The Man Who Lived Underground” and deliberately downplayed the individuality of his protagonist, delaying his real identity until almost halfway through the piece and referring to the character primarily as “he,” I refer to Fred Daniels in my essay as the Man. I also twice use man with a lower case m to mean people. In doing so, I do not intend to suggest that this story depicts a predominantly male experience, but I am imitating Wright's own language in the story and attempting to underscore his implications about the nature of language and symbols.

  2. Man laughs a total of sixteen times in the course of his journey to enlightenment.

  3. Here Wright presents a Freudian explanation of man's innate guilt, finding it instinctively connected with the trauma of birth.

  4. Tennessee Williams also uses the symbol of the typewriter in The Glass Menagerie to illustrate the crippling impact of the business world on the delicate sensibility.

  5. See Bakish 21; Brignano 149-53; Everette 318-26.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Bakish, David. “Underground in an Ambiguous Dreamworld.” Studies in Black Literature 2.3 (Autumn 1971): 18-23.

Baudelaire, Charles. “Of the Essence of Laughter, and Generally of the Comic in the Plastic Arts.” Baudelaire: Selected Writings On Art & Artists. Trans. P. E. Charvet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972.

Beckett, Samuel. Watt. New York: Grove, 1959.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Brignano, Russell C. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970.

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Fiction of the Absurd: Pratfalls in the Void. Ed. Dick Penner. New York: New American Library, 1980.

Everette, Mildred W. “The Death of Richard Wright's American Dream: ‘The Man Who Lived Underground.’” College Language Association Journal 17 (1974): 318-26.

Fabre, Michel. “Richard Wright: Beyond Naturalism.” American Literary Naturalism: A Reassessment. Ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Lewis Fried. Anglistische Forschungen 109. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1975. 136-53.

Fabre, Michel. “Richard Wright: The Man Who Lived Underground.” Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984. 209-13.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Gounard, J. F. “Richard Wright's ‘The Man Who Lived Underground’: A Literary Analysis.” Journal of Black Studies (8 March 1978): 381-86.

Margolies, Edward. “The Short Stories: Uncle Tom's Children; Eight Men.Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani. Boston: Hall, 1982. Rpt. from Edward Margolies. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969. 57-89.

Ridenour, Ronald. “‘The Man Who Lived Underground’: A Critique.” Phylon 31 (1970): 54-57.

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Eight Men. Cleveland: World, 1940. 27-92.

Bruce Dick (essay date fall 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6427

SOURCE: Dick, Bruce. “Richard Wright and the Blues Connection.” Mississippi Quarterly 42, no. 4 (fall 1989): 393-408.

[In the following essay, Dick discusses Wright's blues songs and critical work, contending that he “easily stands as one of the forerunners of interpretive blues criticism.”]

Of the major twentieth-century African-American writers, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison are famous for celebrating their forebears' folk roots. Hurston secured a permanent place among eminent American folklorists after the release of Mules and Men (1935), her monumental study of black American folk beliefs. Ellison also joined the first rank of American writers with the publication of Invisible Man (1952), which traced a young black man's coming to terms with his folk past. Although critics rarely say so, the same folk interests that kindled the writings of Hurston and Ellison also inspired the works of Richard Wright, their contemporary.

Wright recognized the important value of African-American folk culture, particularly a form that received but scant critical attention during his lifetime, the blues. In fact, considering his numerous writings on the blues, which included a long article extolling Huddie Ledbetter, an essay comparing the blues to surrealism, several record reviews, and the foreword to blues critic Paul Oliver's first important book, Blues Fell This Morning (1960), Wright easily stands as one of the forerunners of interpretive blues criticism. That he tried his own hand some ten times at writing the blues makes him both a participant in and an interpreter of the blues, and certainly ranks him besides Hurston and Ellison in overall contribution to this particular facet of African-American folk culture.

It is possible that Wright's first contact with the blues, or at least with some of the folk ditties which closely resembled them, came as early as his fourth year, in 1911, on the Kate Adams, a tattered riverboat mentioned in early blues lore.1 In Black Boy, the autobiography of his Southern youth, Wright describes a typical blues setting as he “wandered about the boat and gazed at Negroes throwing dice, drinking whiskey, playing cards, lolling on boxes, eating, talking, and singing.”2 If he was too young to savor this experience completely, he definitely absorbed the blues during his first stay in Memphis. Blues music thrived, not only in the vaudeville halls lining Beale Street, the major thoroughfare cutting through the heart of the city, but in pool halls, poker dens, and taverns.3 Wright claimed these places as his territory, especially since he “found [them] irresistible to roam during the day” (Black Boy, p. 26). As he writes in Black Boy, “Every happening in the neighborhood, no matter how trivial, became my business” (p. 27): “With a gang of children, I roamed the streets, begging pennies from passersby, haunting the doors of saloons, wandering farther and farther away from home each day. I saw more than I could understand and heard more than I could remember” (p. 29).

After leaving Memphis in 1916, Wright lived with his grandmother and various relatives around the South, from Elaine and West Helena, Arkansas (both of them Delta towns, just across the river from Charley Patton's celebrated Lula), to Jackson, Mississippi. Like Memphis, these towns served as vital links in the blues hinterland. Thus Wright's exposure to the blues continued. A humorous quip taken from an unpublished essay called “Memories of My Grandmother” confirms this exposure. It also shows the consequences when Wright pushed his contact with the blues too far. “If my grandmother heard me so much as humming a blues song,” he writes, “she would have struck me with whatever she happened to hold in her hand, be it a broom or an eight-pound skillet.”4 A 1943 letter to his good friend Joe Brown in Oxford, Mississippi, further supports Wright's early awareness of the blues and reveals the importance he had come to place on African-American folklore:

I heard a record recently called “The Dirty Dozens.” It consisted of a recital of the little jingles which you and I heard in our childhood set to boogie woogie music; the dumb folks around New York are eating it up. Boy, why don't you take pencil and paper and hang around the black boys and put on paper what they say, their tall tales, their words, their songs, their jokes? That stuff is some of the … best stuff this country has produced.5

When the seventeen-year-old Wright returned to Memphis in 1925, the town was jumping with the blues. Although Handy Park had not yet blossomed into a musician's paradise, blues acts poured in from as far south as Louisiana and Texas. For the next two years Wright lived on or close to Beale Street. And because he wandered “aimlessly about the streets of Memphis, gaping … at the crowds” and “killing time” (Black Boy, p. 224), it is safe to assume that once again he absorbed the blues. In fact in “Memories of My Grandmother,” Wright states that one of his favorite pastimes was to venture each Saturday night to the Palace Theatre, the hottest nightspot in Memphis, just to hear blues singer Gertrude Saunders sing the blues.

Thus, before he was twenty, Wright had developed an appreciation of vaudeville blues and the downhome Delta blues characteristic of much of the Deep South. He began cultivating a more thorough understanding of the blues, particularly the urban blues, after his move to Chicago, where he stayed from 1927 until 1937. By the 1930's Chicago had become the major recording center for blues artists like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, whom Wright eulogized in a 1960 review for Barclay Disques called “So Long, Big Bill Broonzy.” These musicians and others frequented taverns up and down Maxwell Street, the equivalent to Memphis' Beale Street and the center for Chicago blues acts. Wright reveals his knowledge of such clubs in his early fiction, particularly in Native Son (1940) and the posthumously published Lawd Today (1963), when he depicts raucous nights punctuated with violence, drink, and music. He also reveals his familiarity with juke joints in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), his photo-journalistic history of his race. In this important folk study, Wright describes an assortment of makeshift music halls, where “black folk … play guitars, trumpets, and pianos, beating out rough and infectious rhythms that create an instant appeal among all classes of people.”6 He aptly calls the blues “the spirituals of the city” because they capture the longing for freedom and opportunity, especially for those who are caught in the “paradoxical cleavage” (p. 127) of laboring in the factories and mills of Western Civilization, only to be denied entry into that civilization.

By the time Wright moved to New York in 1937, he was well equipped to write about the blues. In fact, because his past had coincided almost simultaneously with their development, he had experienced the same hardships, heartaches, and frustrations as had the early blues singers. The restless moving and family quarrels that plagued his youth also defined the early bluesmen, as Wright himself points out in his writings. “The locale of the [blues] shifts continuously,” he states in his foreword to Oliver's book, “and very seldom is a home site hymned or celebrated.”7 In an earlier piece called “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” (1945), Wright quoted Bessie Smith's “Backwater Blues” to show how impulse and dissatisfaction prodded millions of blacks, blues singers included, to abandon the rural South for the industrial cities of the North:

Then I went an' stood up on some high ol' lonesome hill
I went and stood up on some high ol' lonesome hill
And looked down on the house where I used to live
Backwater blues done cause me to pack mah things and go
Backwater blues done cause me to pack mah things and go
Cause mah house fell down an' I cain' live there no mo'.(8)

Although Wright recognized that a constant reference to loved ones was a noticeable feature of the blues, he also pointed out that “little or no mention [was] made of the family as such.”9 He attributed this neglect to the fact that the blues singer had no real family life to celebrate. According to Wright, the family institution in African-American society had remained ineffectual until the 1950's. The early blues singer, like Wright, was born sometime between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the First World War, at a time when the black family was only beginning to take root.

Wright pointed out that the bluesman extolled other items akin to his immediate surroundings, such as “saw-mills, cotton-gins, lumber-camps, levee-banks, floods, swamps, jails, highways, trains, buses, tools, depressed states of mind, voyages, accidents, and various forms of violence.”10 As his autobiography and early fiction reveal, these environmental influences were constant in his own life and thus reason for him naturally to turn to the blues as a form of artistic expression. Indeed, by his thirtieth birthday, Wright was not only ready to write about the blues but also seriously prepared to attempt writing them himself.

Wright's earliest publication on the blues was a 1937 article for the Daily Worker called “Huddie Ledbetter, Famous Negro Folk Artist, Sings the Songs of Scottsboro and His People.” Wright praised the barrel-chested baritone Leadbelly, whose endless repertoire of blues, spirituals, and folk songs “poured forth in such profusion that it [seemed] he knew every song his race [had] ever written.”11 For Wright, Leadbelly embodied “the entire folk culture of the American Negro” (p. 7), and his uncharacteristic rise to fame reflected the blues singer's strong will in the fact of adversity, especially the racism of white America.

As an ardent Marxist, however, Wright promoted the line of the Communist tabloid as much as Leadbelly's musical achievements. He called special attention to Leadbelly's political songs like “Bourgeois Blues” and “Scotsboro Boys” and contended that only after joining the Workers' Alliance did Leadbelly find “relief.” “The folks in the Workers' Alliance are the finest I've known,” Wright quotes Leadbelly. “I feel happy when I'm with the boys here in the Workers' Alliance. They are different from those Southern white men” (p. 7). Although he eventually renounced his Communist ties, Wright continued using Marxist parlance to define the blues aesthetic. In his introduction to blues/folk singer Josh White's three-record album collection, Southern Exposure (1940), Wright states that “there also exist blues which indict the social system. … Their very titles indicate the mood and state of mind in which they were written.”12 Even as late as 1959, a year before his death, Wright speaks of “dialectical redemption” in relation to the blues.13 Wright's political vocabulary here contrasts with the orthodox position of many blues critics.14 The powerlessness of performers within the intolerable context of sharecropping and post-reconstruction racism ensured that the lyrics of blues songs would develop codes of covert protest while they remained overtly bland. At the same time, Wright's 1959 remark anticipated the recent desire to lever up the political subtext in blues lyrics.

In the same article Wright exposes what he considered one of the biggest “cultural swindles in American history.” According to Wright, John A. Lomax, the famous collector of American folklore for the Library of Congress, heard of Leadbelly and went to visit him in a Louisiana prison. Convinced Leadbelly could help him in uncovering heretofore hidden prison folklore, Lomax asked Leadbelly to join him in a tour of Southern prisons. After winning a pardon from the Louisiana governor, Leadbelly accepted Lomax's offer, but only under the gentleman's agreement that Lomax use his influence to help Leadbelly establish his music career. The twosome traveled through Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana, gathering scores of folk songs, which later were compiled into Lomax's famous book, American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934). Wright claims that the only credit Leadbelly received for his work was “the ‘high honor’ of seeing his name in print” (p. 7).15

Wright also argues that when Lomax tried promoting Leadbelly's concerts, “in order to make engagements and more profit, [he] gave out a vicious tirade of publicity” to radio stations, Time Magazine, and other publications that generally billed Leadbelly, in Wright's words, as a “half sex-mad, knifetoting, black buck from Texas” (p. 7). Disillusioned with what Wright considered Lomax's shifty dealings, Leadbelly approached Lomax about a legal contract and demanded the money owed him from several Northern concert tours. Lomax told Leadbelly he simply had been saving his earnings for him. When Leadbelly continued to press his demands, Lomax, according to Leadbelly, responded with a curt reply: “If I gave you your money you'd throw it away in Harlem” (p. 7).16 Some twenty years later when Wright wrote for Barclay Disques in Paris, he still held an antipathy for what he considered self-interested music moguls like Lomax.

One of Wright's favorite New York nightclubs was the Cafe Society Downtown, a popular gathering spot for musicians and record producers like Columbia's John Hammond, who had helped launch the career of the great jazz pianist and band leader Count Basie. Partly because of Hammond's influence, the club attracted some of the biggest names in popular music, including Basie, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Buck Clayton, and Teddy Wilson and his combo. It also became the center for boogie-woogie, a craze popularized in the 1940's by the important band leader, saxophonist, and singer Louis Jordan, whom Wright exalted in a 1960 record review for Barclay Disques.

Wright occasionally visited the cafe with Joe Louis, whom he had interviewed twice, once following the Max Baer-Louis fight in 1935, the second time three years later after Louis's world championship bout with the German boxer Max Schmeling. Louis's triumph over the white Schmeling, who was in the American public's mind linked to Fascism, symbolized a moral victory for blacks. In an article titled “How He Did It, and Oh!—Where Were Hitler's Pagan Gods?” Wright details a giant Harlem demonstration following Louis's knockout of Schmeling, in which thousands of blacks “hurled slogans of defiance at Hitler's pretensions of Aryan superiority.”17 In one short round Joe Louis had elevated his heroic status, and thunderous shouts of “Heil Louis!” echoed in “mocking taunt” throughout the city.

One night at the Cafe, Hammond, who had become Wright's good friend, suggested making a record dedicated to Louis.18 Wright would compose the lyrics for a twelve-bar blues tune to be played by the Count Basie Orchestra and sung by Paul Robeson. Considering Wright's reputation as an established writer as well as his continuing interest in the blues, which guitar lessons in the past year had enhanced, Hammond planted his suggestion in firm ground. In less than three weeks Wright took Hammond thirty-nine lines praising Louis. Count Basie's jazz influence on the subsequent arrangement embellished the song. In 1941 Okeh Records released “Joe Louis Blues.” With an advanced order numbering in the thousands, the record met with a more than average commercial success.19

As in his early journalism, Wright elevates Joe Louis's status to that of king. He accomplishes this task with the aid of black folk characters, including the boll weevil, the subject of many blues songs. Unlike the pest lamented in the boll weevil blues of Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, Wright's boll weevil, along with other popular folk animals portrayed in traditional blues, engages in dialogue to help set the conversational tone of the song. Some of the less conventional folk characters, not all of them animals, call attention to Louis's humble roots:

Black-eyed peas ask cornbread: What make you so strong?
Black-eyed peas ask cornbread: What make you so strong?
Cornbread say: I come from Alabam where Joe Louis was born.

Others praise the “big black bearcat's” physical and sexual strengths:

Jack Rabbit say to Bumble-bee: What make you sting so deep?
Jack Rabbit say to Bumble-bee: What make you sting so deep?
Bumble-bee say: I sting like Joe Louis and rock 'em all to sleep.

Wright also compares Louis to the Ford engine to highlight the boxer's prowess, as well as to accentuate the urban origin of certain blues. He points out that it is in American cities, especially ones with the greatest concentration of blacks, that the great boxer finds his most appreciative and loyal support. The following lines echo Wright's newspaper piece on Hitler's “pagan Gods”:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis, Washington, and Chicago too,
Been in Cleveland, St. Louis, Washington, and Chicago too,
But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

Wright's first incursion into the field of music raises some interesting questions. In an essay called “Can't Even Write: The Blues and Ethnic Literature,” Paul Oliver argues that the blues “is not a form of folk song that stands up particularly well when written down. … Blues can be analyzed on the printed page,” he contends,”but they do not exist there: blues are essentially performed—they exist in the singing and playing” (Oliver, p. 8). Oliver also points out that Wright was too much of a trained poet to write the blues. Like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown before him, he was conditioned to “develop critical ears” and “write with fastidious hands.” For Oliver “Joe Louis Blues” affected an “artificial naivete” because, unlike the songs of most blues singers, it relied too heavily on structured composition, on the “rhythms and the resonances of words” (p. 8).

On Oliver's first point, Wright would have agreed. “The meaning is not in the bald, literal words,” he writes in “Memories of My Grandmother.” “The meaning is in the music, in the mood and interpretation that Bessie Smith brings to the verses.” That is, according to Wright, the outstanding trait of the blues lies in its “sustained dynamics,” or the moving forces that unite audience, singer, words, and sound. Wright would also have difficulty refuting Oliver's other charge of “fastidious hands.” Some of the rhymes in “Joe Louis Blues” do appear forced and the “folksiness” of the song as a whole, despite Wright's good intentions, strikes “the wrong note” (Oliver, p. 13).20

Wright returned to America only once after his departure for Paris in 1947—to shoot Chicago slum scenes for the 1950/51 film version of Native Son. In order to adapt the book to the screen, he added several new scenes, including one in a black cabaret with Bessie Spears, Bigger Thomas's girl friend, crooning a bluesy, melancholy love tune. This song, prepared by John Elert and the Katherine Dunham Quartet, stands as Wright's only other formal venture into music. It is conventional and uninspiring and, like his “Deadbeat Blues” and “Blue-Black Blues,” written outside the classical AAB blues mode. The following lines highlight the song's overt sentimentalism:

I'll follow you anywhere
Just tell me what to do
I'll suffer with you there
And break this heart for you
I'll fight for you to the end
I'll never give you up
I'll throw my life to the wind
I'll drink the bitter cup

It is difficult to place exact dates on Wright's later blues pieces. None were published during his lifetime, and he left few marginal comments on his original drafts to help locate the poems chronologically. It is also difficult to determine if the motivation that produced “Joe Louis Blues” also prompted these later writings. Wright had experimented with the blues form as early as 1936 when he published “Hearst Headline Blues,” a satirical poem scorning the wealthy press baron William Randolph Hearst. There is little evidence suggesting that Wright intended this poem as a blues song. On the other hand, Wright co-wrote a blues piece in 1939 with Langston Hughes called “Red Clay Blues,” a poem about a migrant's longing for his Georgia homeland. Both writers approached the singer Josh White about possibly recording the poem. Considering that Wright's blues criticism coincided with his own attempts at writing the blues, it stands to reason that one kind of writing helped inspire the other.

Not surprisingly, Wright's blues reflect the salient characteristics he applied to others' blues tunes. They cover a wide range of topics, from the politically oppressed to the homeless wanderer, from the helpless drunk victim to the downtrodden and broken-hearted lover. Most of them explore threads common in both rural and urban blues: police, devils, promiscuity and deceit, unrequited love, movement, violence, nightfall, dreams, and various kinds of animals. Others examine unusual or more esoteric themes, like the draftsmen, lathehands, and riveters in “Machine Shop Blues.”

Considering that racial hatred was the determining factor in shaping his often grim vision, it was natural for Wright to condemn oppression in his blues. Like some of the protest songs of Josh White, Wright's blues frequently indicted the society in which he lived. “Joe Louis Blues” he had already hinted at the racial theme that dominated his famous fiction:

Wonder what Joe Louis thinks when he's fighting a white man.
Say wonder what Joe Louis thinks when he's fighting a white man.
Bet he thinks what I'm thinking cause he wears a dead pan.

In “The FB Eye Blues,” a poem comparable to Casey Bill Weldon's “W. P. A. Blues,” Wright launches a satirical attack on this clandestine agency of his white-run government:

That old mean FB Eye
Tied a bell to my bed stall
Say that old mean FB Eye
Tied a bell to my bed stall
And every time I loved my baby the government knew it all
Woke up this morning
FB Eye under my bed
Say I woke up this morning
And FB Eye was under my bed
Told me what I dreamed last night, every word I said.

This poem depicts the prevailing mood among American dissidents during the McCarthy era and foreshadows the mistreatment leveled against M. L. King and other black activists by the F. B. I. during the civil rights movement of the 1960's. “The FB Eye Blues” also condemns the harassment Wright himself received while living in Paris in the 1950's. Although he managed to acclimate himself to French society and gain entrance into various cultural and political circles, Wright still felt threatened by the American and French secret police who moved freely among Parisian intellectual communities. “I'm sick and tired of dodging government spies,” Wright wails near the end of his poem. Such a cry typified the frustration he felt near the end of his life, especially considering his belief that government agents were plotting to discredit his literary reputation as well as his stands on certain controversial political issues.21

As he had done in “Joe Louis Blues,” Wright reverts to characters from black folklore, including cats, rats, snakes, and insects, to assist his assault. The courageous grasshopper in the following stanza mirrors society's oppressed and reflects Wright's own bitter feelings toward police surveillance:

Grasshopper sure like to
Spit in bloodhound's eye
Say grasshopper really like to
Spit in bloodhound's eye
And that's what Im gonna do one day to the FB Eye.

Two of Wright's blues fall under the rubric of travel blues. Like Bessie Smith's “Backwater Blues,” “I Been North and East” speaks of agitated displacement:

I been North and East
Rambling South and West—
I have rambled North and East
Rambled the South and in the West—
But Lawd Lawd there just ain't no place
Where a black man can get some rest …

This poem echoes the longing for freedom that Wright felt played such a dominant role in the blues. It also complements the flight motif that characterized so much of his fiction and, like Native Son, attempts to dispel the myth that racism was confined only to the Deep South. “Today” expresses similar concerns, casting the blues singer as the “lonesome wanderer”22, struggling with a “bruised tongue” and “aching eyes”:

Like a man who's lost his way
I stare at streets and houses
Like a man losing his way
I search streets and houses
I stare lost
Looking for the land whose horizons were in my heart.

Although both poems follow the AAB blues formula, the diction in “Today” is awkward and reads as if Wright were forcing his lines to fit the standard blues mode. Such strained writing resembles the artificiality Oliver points out in “Joe Louis Blues.” Each poem also voices the oppression and alienation proclaimed in “The FB Eye Blues,” further supporting Wright's own use of the blues form as an indictment of the social system.

Some of Wright's blues were exceedingly long, like the nineteen-stanza “Blue Snow Blues,” an anti-drug poem in which Wright uses snow as a metaphor for heroin. That Wright had certain jazz and blues musicians in mind when writing this ambitious piece is highly likely, especially considering it was written in Paris in the late fifties when heroin had claimed several established performers who were playing there. In this poem Wright borrows words, phrases, and verses from traditional blues tunes—the “stanza storehouse”—and relies on the familiar blues device of warning others of impending trouble:

This falling curtain of snow
Paints my soul a deep blue
Said this falling curtain of snow
Paints my soul a deep blue
You'd better be careful
It'll do the same to you.

The poem examines addiction, escapism, and isolation, common themes in drug- and alcohol-related blues songs, and paints a gloomy picture of the desperate and forlorn victim:

Slowly falling snowflakes
Pinching at the skin on my back
Said slowly falling snowflakes
Clawing at the skin on my back
My old eyes become bloodshot
And my stomach becomes a sack.

Of course not all of Wright's blues were so melancholy. In fact several of them reveal the writer's livelier, less political side. “Nightmare Blues” tells the story of a man making love to his best friend's wife. And once again, Wright intersperses black folk characters to enliven his tale:

I got to have my best friend's gal
Or I feel I'm going to die.
Say I got to have my best friend's gal
Or I feel I'm going to die.
I know what I'm craving is wrong
But I can't help but try.
A devil and a great big baboon
A standing at my bedside
A devil and a great big baboon
A standing at my bedside
And I feel like a cold slab of ice,
Like I had gone and died.
All right, I confess I had her,
Took her one night on the sly.
Yes, I confess I slipped and had her,
Took her one night on the sly.
And now I'm oh, too ashamed
To look my friend in the eye.

Wright exposes a similar side in “Cat Blues,” a tale of the lustful rambler celebrated in numerous traditional blues songs. In nine stanzas he writes how

I had me nine good loves
Like a cat's got nine good lives
Said I had nine good loves
Like a cat's got nine good lives.
But I'd much rather have
Nine good loves than nine good lives.

Both poems show how Wright was able to transcend overt social and political statement and highlight the personal or more self-centered themes of so many traditional blues. The sexual desire in “Nightmare Blues” haunts the speaker and shows the result when a man breaks a code of friendship. The common blues thread of guilt overwhelms him and the sexual gratification he receives does nothing to soothe his troubled mind: his actions turn into a nightmare. The blatant chauvinism in “Cat Blues” belittles women and points out yet another theme Wright carries in his blues canon.

Wright's blues are not great blues. On the whole they are too erudite, elaborate and contrived and do not measure up to the simplicity and tone of the blues of a poet like Langston Hughes. At the same time they anchor him firmly in the blues tradition. Wright's blues are replete with imagery, symbolism and personification and cover the full gamut of standard blues themes. In “Joe Louis Blues” Wright proved that with the proper music connections he could blend words, tone, and form to produce a popular blues tune. Perhaps if his other blues had been set to music, they too would have met with a similar commercial success.

One of Wright's most compelling contributions to the blues appears in “Memories of My Grandmother,” written shortly after “Joe Louis Blues.” In this roughly 70-page manuscript, originally intended as an analysis of “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the Wright novella that influenced Ellison's Invisible Man, Wright outlines his theory comparing the blues to surrealism. For years Wright had been fascinated by what he considered a vital function of a “certain phase” in the creative process: “the ability to take seemingly unrelated images and symbols and link them together into a meaningful whole” (“Memories of My Grandmother”). He believed such a function applied specifically to a reactionary group like the surrealists, especially to a painter like Dali. In his “wild canvasses” the rational merged with the irrational, the conscious with the unconscious, to create a new view of life, or surreality.

Wright felt this idea of using partial concepts to communicate an overall whole also operated in the blues. After studying the lyrics to numerous blues songs, he concluded that isolated verses had no meaning or relationship to one another, that the verses rarely told a straightforward, comprehensible narrative, that one tercet could be substituted for another and still produce the same overall effect. In “Memories of My Grandmother” Wright states, “The meaning does not reside in the verses but in what is brought to bear upon them.” He goes on to explain:

A black woman, singing the blues, will describe a rainy day, then suddenly, to the same tune and tempo of the music, she will croon of a red pair of shoes; then, without any logical or causal connection, she will sing about how blue and lowdown she feels; the next verse may deal with a horrible murder, the next with theft, the next with tender love, and so on.

Thus, according to Wright, blues lyrics are not always progressive or sequential. They are associational in their improvisation; they are guided by “the urge to express something deeply felt” (“Memories of My Grandmother”).

Wright realized that discussing surrealism in relation to a particular facet of African-American culture would strike most people like mixing “oil and water.” He also doubted that Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington had ever discussed surrealism, and felt that if he mentioned the blues to them in relation to Freud's theory of dream analysis, which influenced the surrealists considerably, they would call him “crazy.” But Wright remained convinced of what he considered obvious links. According to him, the structure and function of both art forms are strikingly similar: a song like “Yellow Dog Blues” and a painting like Dali's “Battle of Tetuan” employ similar manners of looking at the world.

Wright's interests in the blues continued long after his self-imposed exile to Paris. The respect French audiences showed blues musicians like Big Bill Broonzy and Blind John Davis, who first toured Paris in the early 1950's, encouraged Wright to keep his concern for the form. Unlike most Americans, Parisians had held black music, particularly jazz, in high esteem. In fact as early as the 1930's they considered jazz a “high” art form and flocked to jazz musicians wherever they performed. This enthusiasm carried over to the blues, and by the end of the fifties Paris ranked second only to London as a favorite European stage for black blues singers.

Although Wright's literary ventures varied throughout the fifties, he maintained an ongoing interest in the blues. In Blues Off the Road Paul Oliver details how Wright took him to the “dark cellar clubs of the Rue de la Huchette” (p. 11) to hear Bill Coleman, Lil Armstrong, Sam Price, and others play their tunes. Oliver also acknowledges that he and Wright sat in Parisian cafes for hours discussing the blues. Wright continued writing and rewriting his own blues as well as reviewing those of established blues performers. One of his last blues publications was the jacket notes of The Blues of Big Bill Broonzy (Mercury 7198 Standard) titled “So Long, Big Bill Broonzy.” This piece not only praises the late Broonzy, whom Wright considered a “daringly truthful and universal” poet, but recapitulates the blues aesthetic that Wright had been formulating for almost twenty-five years. “That's the blues,” Wright writes in his review: “Despair transmuted into sensuality, sorrow and rhythms, defeat measured in the jumping cadences of triumph.” Such a synthesis is the same one he develops in his foreword to Oliver's book: “Yet the most astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat and down-heartedness, [the blues] are not intrinsically pessimistic; their burden of woe and melancholy is … redeemed through sheer force of sensuality, into an almost exultant affirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of hope” (p. ix).

For Wright, Broonzy and bluesmen like him epitomized the freedom “to do what you like … and say what you please” (“So Long”). Their “not belongingness” was a “strange and dubious wealth,” for unlike the senator or Wall Street stock broker, they yielded to no public opinion. Through melancholic but joyful, humble songs, they were free to tell what life meant to them. Wright cites one line from Broonzy's album to show that on the whole, life had been a just reward:

“Lord, I ain't got no money, but I'm the happiest man in town!”

As did Hurston's and Ellison's folk pieces, Wright's blues ventures inspired some of his other writings. Much of the action in The Long Dream (1959), his last novel, centers around the Grove, a blues juke joint nestled deep in the rural blackbelt of Clintonville, Mississippi. There are several incidents in his other fiction in which characters croon melancholy folk tunes to wile away their blues. Wright's blues writings stimulated writings in other music areas as well, particularly jazz. In fact, near the end of his life, Wright was working for Nicole Barclay of Barclay Disques, the leading French jazz production company. Although he was motivated partly by financial concerns, Wright believed his new music venture worthwhile. “I'm not doing any serious writing at the moment,” he states in a letter to his friend, M. de Sablonière, “but the writing I'm doing for the records does say something” (Fabre, p. 623). Indeed, in an unpublished essay called “Another Heroic Beginning,” Wright prophesied the career of Quincy Jones, the talented young musician who was living in Paris at the time, as “something worth watching.”

Wright's blues connection is of more significance than most commentators have previously acknowledged. Exposed to a variety of folk music since his childhood, Wright was motivated from the beginning of his literary career by a pronounced feeling for the blues, and was either studying them or working on his own until just a few days before he died. That his major literary contribution rests in his autobiographies and famous fiction is unquestionable. To limit Wright's achievements to two or three books, however, is a grave disservice to academic scholarship as well as to Wright and African-American folk culture. We must re-examine Wright's blues writings as well as his own blues if we are to gain a complete understanding of such a complex and fascinating writer.


  1. See “Dink's Blues,” Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folksongs (New York: Macmillan, 1934), pp. 193-194.

  2. Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (New York: Harper, 1945), p. 16.

  3. Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Penguin, 1982), pp. 225-227.

  4. Richard Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother,” Typescript (Original) JWJ Wright Misc 473, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven. I wish to thank Mrs. Ellen Wright for permission to quote this and other previously unpublished material in my article. I also thank the Beinecke Library for permission to quote unpublished Wright material housed there.

  5. Richard Wright, “Letter to Joe Brown,” 4 June 1943, Kent State University Library, Kent, Ohio.

  6. Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (New York: Viking Press, 1941), p. 128.

  7. Richard Wright, “Foreword,” to Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning (London: Horizon Press, 1960), p. ix.

  8. Richard Wright, White Man, Listen! (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 88.

  9. “Foreword,” p. ix.

  10. “Foreword,” p. ix.

  11. Richard Wright, “Huddie Ledbetter, Famous Negro Folk Artist,” Daily Worker, August 12, 1937, p. 7.

  12. Michel Fabre, Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1973), p. 237.

  13. “Foreword,” p. ix.

  14. Several leading blues critics have argued that blues songs are self-centered and individualistic, and that only the most special cases of the blues are dogmatic and sectarian in lyrics. The blues hope for amelioration, they argue, but rarely even state that. Mostly they are about continuing to cope within intolerable situations. See Samuel Charters, The Poetry of the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1963), for a lengthy discussion of blues lyrics; William Ferris, Blues From the Delta (New York: Anchor, 1978); Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning; Giles Oakley, The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1976); Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues; Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit (New York: De Capo Press, 1975); and Jeff Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), who asks, “And who can imagine that Leadbelly did not have some help composing ‘Bourgeois Blues’?” (p. 191).

  15. It should be pointed out that Lomax had released a long book commemorating Leadbelly the year before Wright's article, called Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Leadbelly (New York: Macmillan, 1936). The book includes a lengthy biographical sketch, told mostly in Leadbelly's own words, as well as forty-nine songs representative of Leadbelly's repertoire.

  16. Regarding Lomax's budgeting of Leadbelly's earnings, Lomax in Sung by quotes from a letter Leadbelly had written him:

    … the peoples are after me to play at the Strain theater so I told them i would right you about it so if you want me to play i will Do so But i want you there to take care of the money i Dont want no white man in the world outside of you and Mr. Allen [sic].

    (p. 64)

    Lomax also includes a biographical “Chronology” at the beginning of his book on Leadbelly. In a footnote Lomax writes: “These statements are not consistent. Neither was Lead Belly, at least not always” (p. 2).

  17. Daily Worker, June 24, 1938, p. 1.

  18. Wright's song was one of several celebrating the great boxer. Memphis Minnie's hit, “He's in the Ring,” was recorded in 1935 in Chicago, while Wright was still living there.

  19. See Fabre, Unfinished Quest, p. 237.

  20. Oliver's respect for Wright as a friend and critic never faltered, however. When recalling his early trips to Paris in Blues Off the Road (1984), Oliver states that Wright's “support for [Blues Fell This Morning] I valued then, as I do now, more than I can say” (p. 11). Oliver also mentions that he “felt a deep loss” after Wright's sudden death in 1960.

  21. See Fabre, The Unfinished Quest, p. 622.

  22. Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, p. 90.

Trudier Harris (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8673

SOURCE: Harris, Trudier. “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters.” In New Essays on Native Son, edited by Keneth Kinnamon, pp. 63-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Harris investigates the role of African American women in Native Son.]

The black women Richard Wright depicts in Native Son (1940) are portrayed as being in league with the oppressors of black men. Wright sets up an opposition in the novel between the native and the foreign, between the American Dream and American ideals in the abstract and Afro-Americans trying to find their place among those ideals, between Bigger as a representative of something larger and freer, indeed more American, than the limitations of the black community and the black women as representatives of a culture and a way of life that would stifle such aspirations. Wright thereby creates a paradoxical position for the black women in the novel. By preaching subservience, especially in the acceptance of and training for menial jobs, the women act in ways that are antithetical or “foreign” to individual black development, but commensurate with or “native” to what whites want for blacks. The women provide a contrast to Bigger, who, in his desire to break out of the confines of racism, adheres to American individualism: in his most idealistic conception, he is “native” to the best of American traditions and “foreign” to Afro-American subservience. While the dichotomy between native and foreign might be oppositional, it is one that serves, from the women's point of view, to support the status quo. One consequence of the women's identification with acceptable patterns of black behavior is that they inadvertently perpetuate the negative values of the larger culture, with whose positive potential for upward mobility Bigger prefers to identify. In other words, Bigger's dreaming is positive while the women's stifling of dreams is negative, but their very desire for him to remain a part of the invisible black masses is in keeping with the notion of place whites have defined for black people, who, from the whites' perspective, should not dream their way into any of the benefits of that larger world. The function of black female character in the novel, therefore, is superficially contradictory but is true to Wright's notion of what black women are and what they believe: they will use the larger world in quiet, unassuming ways in their efforts to carry out their mundane wills in the black community.

Black women's shared responsibility for the plight of the black man takes the shape of insensitivity to Bigger's plight, adoption of the ideals of manhood espoused by the larger culture and the imposition of those values on Bigger, and failure to offer understanding and support of Bigger as male. Bigger's mother Mrs. Thomas, his sister Vera, and Bessie, his girlfriend, are women who want desperately to belong to the invisible masses of blacks who get along with whites by holding the pitiful jobs they have, such as washerwomen and domestics, or training for “acceptable” ones, such as seamstresses. Their personalities render them incapable of challenging or even privately questioning the society that has taught them to be satisfied with grubbing around in the racial cages constructed for them.

All of the women desire to be safe from white accusations that they are out of the place prescribed and defined for them. Thus they will always be acquiescent mammies rather than tricksters or potential militants. They will take only small, indirect actions of defiance against the society that dehumanizes them, because they cannot conceive of direct confrontation. Bessie, for example, will allow Bigger and his friends to steal from the whites for whom she works, but the idea that she may be caught sends her into spasms of fear. Like Mrs. Thomas and Vera, she may confront Bigger directly, but she is utterly incapable of extending that confrontation from the black environment to the white one that oppresses both her and Bigger. All the women, therefore, through their desire to be safe, assist in maintaining the very forces that oppress them psychologically, and that oppress black men both physically and psychologically. After all, black women have always had rather free access to the homes of whites through their domestic and child-rearing obligations. They have made their peace as best they could, but the space itself was not prohibited to them. Black men, on the other hand, have found certain spaces off limits; indeed, as Wright points out in Black Boy (1945) and Ed Bullins in The Gentleman Caller (1969), they have frequently found themselves barred from those spaces by their own black spouses, lovers, and mothers.

The black women in Native Son are all content to nag rather than nurture. While that is certainly true of Mrs. Thomas in the role of mother, it is no less true of Vera when she advises Bigger to leave his gang and pursue the higher road of the Dalton job, or of Bessie when she pouts at Bigger's lapses or whines in reaction to his troubles. As a black mother, Mrs. Thomas is a mixture of misdirected strength and unexplained weakness, of practicality and reliance upon God. She makes demands of Bigger in that “loud, colored” way usually associated with emasculating black women who use their God and their religion as a way to keep black men humble and confined to the places assigned to them by the larger society. Mrs. Thomas succeeds in creating a sense of guilt in Bigger—guilt about his inability to function as a man, guilt about his inability to support his family, guilt about what he does with the other boys when she is not physically watching over him.

The pressure of family life, with the mother as presumed head, is one of the motivating factors in Bigger's later behavior. Mrs. Thomas becomes, therefore, a part of the problem, not a respite from it. There is no peace for Bigger at home with a nagging mother, an insecure sister, and an acquiescent brother whose temperament identifies him with the females in the family. Unable to show understanding toward her son or to inspire any change in his behavior, Mrs. Thomas perhaps inadvertently joins his list of accusers. Her inability to see beyond the here and now, except in an otherworldly way—in effect, her inability to dream—puts her on the side of those who would keep Bigger out of the airplanes he wishes to fly. Too busy with practical concerns to think beyond them, Mrs. Thomas, like Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), is viewed as an insensitive black woman who would tie the men in her life to the plodding, pedestrian cares of everyday existence rather than permitting them to fly—either literally or symbolically.

While Bigger dreams of flying airplanes, the women think only of where the next week's rent will come from, of what it would mean to complete a sewing class and get a good job. These concerns, understandably practical and certainly acceptable, nonetheless make the women plodders while Bigger soars, although temporarily, to at least a limited height of creativity. It is Bigger upon whom discussions of creativity in Wright's novel have centered. By killing Mary Dalton, Bigger focuses the chaos of his life into an ordered self-conception; through a creative act of violence, he reaches a higher level of consciousness, of self-reflection, than is possible for any of the women. Even the rather childish and unrealistic scene in which Bigger and Gus “play white” exemplifies a degree of creativity, an enlightened vision of the discrepancies of wealth and power in this country, that is never given to the females in the novel. The power of imagination is Bigger's alone; his soaring might lead to his destruction, but he has dared to fly. He grows, despite his defeat, far beyond any of the female characters, all of whom remain locked into the cubbyholes of blindness and fear they have created for themselves in reaction to and with the consent of the larger society.

In her plodding around upon her margin of safety, Mrs. Thomas is a burden to Bigger—as Bessie will be later on. She is a burden in terms of the philosophy she holds—that getting a job will make everything all right—because the circumstances of Bigger's life will not be eased simply by his getting a job. She is also a burden in the sense of the forced responsibility Bigger feels for her (and for his sister and brother) in his role as involuntary head of the household. To illustrate Bigger's acute repression by these circumstances, Wright strips from Mrs. Thomas any sense of the independent resourcefulness that characterized so many of her sisters throughout Afro-American history and literature. Mrs. Thomas is a defeated woman, one who urges her son to take responsibility for a family in which he is son, not husband or father. Implied, but not stated, in her interactions with her son is the notion that she holds him accountable for the absence of other men in her life. Because her husband has been taken from her, Bigger must take his place. Because she has no extended family in the area, Bigger must provide the support that such relatives could have provided. Her expectations for Bigger, Wright implies, are too extreme; she fails to consider the social traps in which Bigger is caught even as she pleads with him to help the family break out of those traps. She is presented, therefore, as being shortsighted—uninformed about or unwilling to see the larger situation in which she and her family are caught.

Mrs. Thomas vacillates between strong-armed, matriarchal, emasculating declarations and something approaching feminine guile. When Bigger waves the dead rat in front of Vera, Mrs. Thomas is bitter in her reprimand: “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you.”1 Implicit in the statement is the accusation that Bigger has failed to meet the expectations held out for him as the firstborn son of the family. A mother's expression of such regret must be as warping to a child as the mental and geographical strictures placed on him by whites. Mrs. Thomas continues the assault by asserting that the family “wouldn't have to live” in a “garbage dump” if Bigger had “any manhood” in him (p. 7 [12]). She further claims that it is his lack of manhood that keeps them in an apartment where rats are as regular tenants as they are: “Bigger, honest, you are the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!” (p. 8 [12]). Her verbal harangues clash directly with her urging of Bigger to take the relief job. She tries to provoke him into changing his behavior by drawing upon whatever inner spark of respect may be left, a spark that her own actions rather contradictorily have the effect of diminishing. If Bigger were a man, she adamantly asserts, he would fulfill the Western ideal as provider and protector. That he does not fit the pattern becomes a direct negative reflection upon Mrs. Thomas herself. To her mind, her own failure is ever before her in the very creation of a faulty specimen of manhood.

Her harshness, behind which lies desperation and the disappointment characteristic of a mother toward her wayward son, is also rooted in a struggling woman's disappointment in all men. Mrs. Thomas's husband, even if through no fault of his own, has left the family at the mercy of economic and social forces. The only way she can prevent further deterioration in the family's poverty-stricken condition is to control her sons as effectively as she can. Her verbalization of Bigger's “no-countness,” something he also feels intensely, may work inversely to protect against further dissolution of the family. Her goal of safety comes before any concern about embarrassing Bigger, which makes her lack of gentleness with his feelings true to the matriarchal traits in her personality, traits even more strongly exhibited in keeping the younger Buddy in line. When he interferes in the conversation in which Mrs. Thomas is encouraging Bigger to take the job offered by the relief agency, she exclaims: “You shut your mouth, Buddy, or get up from this table … I'm not going to take any stinking sass from you. One fool in the family's enough” (p. 10 [15]). The voice epitomizes the strong black female controller of her family that Lorraine Hansberry would immortalize several years later in the character of Mama Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. That voice owes explanation only to itself and demands that those nearby show the requisite respect; Mrs. Thomas's reaction to Buddy's comment is a striking contrast to her ignoring of Vera's interference in the conversation. Because Vera offers support and Buddy dares to challenge, battle lines are drawn between males and females in the scene, between potential nurturers and homemakers on the one hand and potential violators and street people on the other.

Yet only a breath after her reprimand of Buddy, Mrs. Thomas shows the other extreme in her repertoire of control; she resorts to an almost tender plea that is rendered ineffective only because its motivation is so blatantly obvious: “‘If you get that job,’ his mother said in a low, kind tone of voice, busy slicing a loaf of bread, ‘I can fix up a nice place for you children. You could be comfortable and not have to live like pigs.’” Vera's comment that “Bigger ain't decent enough to think of nothing like that” (p. 10 [15]) again brings no reaction from Mrs. Thomas, because it is her own party line.

In her transition from insult to cajoling, Mrs. Thomas shows the compartmentalization in character typical of the black woman who bows and scrapes in the white world and rules with an iron hand in the black household. But there are other seeming inconsistencies in her character. The part of the scene in which Vera and her mother seek refuge from the rat shows a helplessness traditionally uncharacteristic of black females and of mothers in general. It is also not in keeping with the matriarchal woman who commands one son to be quiet and calls the other a fool: “Frantically, Vera climbed upon the bed and the woman caught hold of her. With their arms entwined about each other, the black mother and the brown daughter gazed open-mouthed at the trunk in the corner” (p. 4 [8]). Again lacking resourcefulness and a will to survive, the women, especially the mother, become victims of their own fear, dependent upon Bigger to rescue them. There is no strong-willed desire on the mother's part to save her daughter, as maternal instinct might otherwise dictate. Wright simply twists natural tendencies in such a way that Mrs. Thomas can blame Bigger, once again, for the family's plight, for their living in a rat-infested tenement. So anxious is Wright, even in small ways, to place blame on black women for Bigger's personality that he is willing to distort natural bonds of affection between mothers and children to achieve that goal. This distorting characterization continues in Mrs. Thomas's crying response once the rat is dead; weak in character and in will, she is more the child than the mother, more the helpless lover than the protecting parent. Her unwillingness to fight for Vera's safety stands in a marked contrast to a later episode in the novel when she is more than willing to plead for Bigger's safety. There is an inherent contradiction between the two actions.

Yet in her pleading to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton to spare Bigger's life in the later scene, she becomes an embarrassment to him. There Wright sets up a clash between high culture and folk culture, between education and illiteracy, and between gentility and rawness. In all of these pairings, the latter qualities are degraded, and Bigger is embarrassed as a result. In other words, Wright suggests in this scene that a large part of Bigger's problem is that he is descended from such an ignorant, praying group of backward “niggers.” The crawling plea that Mrs. Thomas makes becomes an objective correlative of Bigger's own tortured state with whites. He has tried desperately to retain a semblance of dignity, to show that he has not been stripped of everything that distinguishes him as a human being. Then his mother arrives and puts on a minstrel show for the Daltons, showing thereby that Bigger is everything they and Buckley have believed him to be. Mrs. Thomas's thanking of the Daltons for not forcing her to move is another slap at Bigger's dignity, for perhaps he would have preferred seeing his family move to seeing his mother humiliate herself before the people who have made him feel less than a human being: “Bigger's shame for his mother amounted to hate. He stood with clenched fists, his eyes burning. He felt that in another moment he would have leaped at her” (p. 257 [280]).

In her pleading with the Daltons to spare Bigger, Mrs. Thomas plays well the role of the anguished mother, one who has shortly before given her son over to the care of the Lord. In the book, however, religion is a dead-end proposition. The fact that Mrs. Thomas adheres to it amounts to her washing her hands of Bigger. She says as much in her admonition to him: “The Lord knows I did all I could for you and your sister and brother. I scrubbed and washed and ironed from morning till night, day in and day out, as long as I had strength in my old body. I did all I know how, son, and if I left anything undone, it's just ’cause I didn't know. … Honey, your poor old ma can't do nothing now. I'm old and this is too much for me. I'm at the end of my rope. … We leaving you now with God, Bigger” (pp. 254, 255 [277, 279]). She has maintained in the opening scene, when Vera asserts that she will soon be able to work: “I reckon I'll be dead then. I reckon God'll call me home” (p. 9 [13]). Such self-martyrdom is a pathetic attempt by Mrs. Thomas to absolve herself of any responsibility for how Bigger has turned out.

Mrs. Thomas could, if she were genuinely and realistically concerned about her son, do much more than pray. She could talk with the lawyers or judges, try to influence public opinion, get her minister to take a more active role in Bigger's defense. Instead, Wright again limits her character, sacrificing motherly affection to make a point about the ineffectiveness of religion. He allows Mrs. Thomas to give up her son; by enabling her to transcend her earthly problems, Wright shows the practical failure of religion in this world. Mrs. Thomas is painted as having little conception of the reality of Bigger's plight except as it could possibly affect her seeing him in heaven. All the stages in between are irrelevant to her, if only Bigger will consent to pray.

Mrs. Thomas and Vera become mirrors reflecting back to Bigger his physical and social impotence. He sees such a reflection in all their actions—and even in their lack of action. He can see in his mother's and Vera's very postures the ways in which he has failed to make life easier for them. Vera has in fact adopted her mother's view, seeing Bigger as lacking concern about his family's plight. Inherent in her reaction to him is also the belief that he has fallen short of his responsibilities as a man. Vera maintains that “Bigger ain't decent enough” (p. 10 [15]) to think of taking the relief job so that Mrs. Thomas can fix up the place for them. It is clear that Vera has been socialized into acceptance of her mother's response to the world and that her reactions to her own circumstances will never get her into any trouble. Unlike Bigger and Buddy, Vera is safe. She also echoes her mother's philosophy in her sometimes self-righteous attitudes toward Bigger. After the breakfast confrontation about the relief job, Vera passes Bigger just outside the apartment building, then turns to admonish him in a miniature version of her mother's mission: “Bigger, please. … You're getting a good job now. Why don't you stay away from Jack and Gus and G. H. and keep out of trouble?” (p. 13 [18]). For Vera, as for her mother, trouble with a capital T is something that lurks in wait for those who challenge authority, for those who refuse to rein in their expectations about life and who persist in upsetting the status quo.

Seeing her place clearly, then, Vera defends her mother as representative of the status quo and perpetuator of safe values. “Don't bite her head off” (p. 10 [14]), she says to Bigger when he is impatient with Mrs. Thomas, and “Ma's talking to you, Bigger” (p. 10 [15]) when he persists in his effort to ignore his mother. The unarticulated virtues Vera is fighting for give her a strength that she does not exhibit anywhere else in the novel (and she has just fainted in fear of the dead rat). Instinct tells her, however, that her fate is to develop the nagging, cajoling role, to spur black men into behavior acceptable to the larger society. She senses that her mother's values—if not her current status—are the symbols of survival for black people in America. By contrast, Bigger's trouble-making mode of existence is the path to their destruction.

Her position is made more explicit in the scene in which Bigger announces that he has accepted the job at the Daltons. She croons upon hearing the news: “Goody! Bigger got a job!” and reiterates her transformed view of him a little later: “‘Oh, Bigger,’ said Vera, tenderly and plaintively” (p. 87 [98]). For the moment, she is the wide-eyed princess celebrating the hero who has charged off into the world to save his family's “kingdom” (though, a few sentences later, she will be angrily fighting with him). In her approval, she lauds Bigger's seeming willingness to accept the ideals that she and her mother hold. She is essentially patting him on the back for being a good boy, one who has stayed out of trouble by doing the right thing. Her encouragement of his action is a polite form of pressure, rendered absurd by the knowledge of Bigger's true situation at the Daltons. She nonetheless becomes in this instance a defender of the faith of subservience. After all, Bigger has become a chauffeur, not the vice-president of a bank.

Vera remains an echo of Mrs. Thomas, too slight in characterization to operate fully within her own space, but developed enough in philosophy to provide support for Mrs. Thomas's position. The Veras and the Mrs. Thomases of the world, Wright suggests, give plausibility to the argument that black women drive black men from their homes and onto the streets. These stereotypical nagging women are capable of judging black men only as dollar signs. If the men acquiesce to their wills, then the women are happy. If the men resist, then the women will cut them to ribbons with their tongues, producing psychological pain from which the men can escape only if they forsake the domestic realm. When Bigger reveals that he has accepted the job at the Daltons, Mrs. Thomas's response is almost absurd in its canned expectations: “‘You got a good job, now,’ his mother said, ‘You ought to work hard and keep it and try to make a man out of yourself. Some day you'll want to get married and have a home of your own. You got your chance now. You always said you never had a chance. Now, you got one’” (p. 87 [97]). Whatever the chauffeur job will offer, it cannot possibly ensure the completeness Mrs. Thomas imagines, though it may—if he is willing to persevere over a period of years, as Green, the chauffeur before him, has done—enable Bigger to improve his economic and educational status. Mrs. Thomas, however, responds to Bigger's job as if that faraway success were a fait accompli, and she applauds Bigger for taking an acceptable path of coexistence with whites.

Vera, Mrs. Thomas, and Bessie are sisters in their collective responses to the white world around them. They prefer not to disturb it, to keep their safe distance if possible, and to wring their hands and cry out to the Lord if that distance is dissolved. Bessie Mears could be thousands of young black women in the cities of the 1930s and 1940s, migrants from the South trapped in unfulfilling jobs from which they can find release only in sex and alcohol. Bessie, like Mrs. Thomas and Vera, is cut off from any of the usual sustaining institutions in black communities, a problem that critics have pointed out in the novel. Although she frequently invokes the name of the Lord, she is not actively involved with any church, and the usual kinds of support groups, such as women's clubs and neighbors, seem to be unavailable to her; in her social and cultural isolation, she is much like Ida Scott in James Baldwin's Another Country (1962). Afloat in a world of manipulators and manipulated, she easily falls into the latter category, a willing victim to be molded and shaped by Bigger's whims and desires. She has little social being beyond what Bigger gives her, whether it is a trip to Ernie's Kitchen Shack or to the Paris Grill for a drink. Bessie is painted as living an empty life, one in which there is little excitement and few opportunities for change. She is gullible, timid, and frightened.

Free in her sexual activity, Bessie has no concern for the possibility that she might become pregnant and thereby create even more social and financial difficulty for herself. Her situation contrasts with that of Zora Neale Hurston's Janie, whose lack of concern about and interest in children we can attribute to Hurston's own professional inclination—what was not a concern for the author is not a concern for the character. For Wright, who also writes out of his own experience, Bessie's freedom with her body might go back to a young woman he knew in Memphis, who almost literally threw herself at him. She saw her body as a way of getting him; and if she became pregnant, that would only solidify the commitment Wright or some other young man would be forced into.2 While Bessie does not seem enlightened enough to be concerned about marriage, she too has no care for saving her “pearl without price.” Her actions smack of promiscuity, and Bigger, the predatory animal, is ever ready to take advantage of a woman who mistakes sex for love and the purchase of drinks for caring.

Bessie is worth no more to Bigger than the sum of her bodily parts. In his depiction of their relationship, in his emphasis on “woman as body of woman,” Wright anticipates the role of Cross Damon in The Outsider (1953); there is little essence beyond the sexual. Bessie demands little more of Bigger than that he be available on a fairly regular basis to satisfy her physical needs.

Bessie prefers existence on a mundane, routine level—going to work, coming home and getting drunk or having sex with Bigger, going to work again. When that routine is interrupted, she has no way to alter her behavior. She likes the money Bigger brings to her after taking it from Mary's purse, but she does not want to face the consequences of how he obtained it. Her preference for not upsetting the status quo is not rooted in religion—as Mrs. Thomas's is—nor in a personal code of ethics that would make it wrong for her to join Bigger in his plot; rather, it is rooted in a basic weakness in character, an all-consuming fear of being distinguished from the masses of blacks and sought out as an offender of whites. She does not wish to take chances, to dream of a better life with Bigger; she prefers her boring routine. In her effort to ensure that routine, she creates religious substitutes that are as consuming for her as Christianity is for Mrs. Thomas.

While Mrs. Thomas is the stereotypical image of the praying black woman who looks for otherworldly assistance, Bessie turns to escapes within this world. Her calling on God comes from habit instead of belief, and there is little evidence that she ever actually prays. What she does is to turn to sex and alcohol, both of which have become forms of religion to her, serving the function of numbing her to her present situation. Since alcohol is more immediately available to her than sex, it is the crutch perhaps more comparable to the religion of Mrs. Thomas. The initial feelings of pleasure derived from drinking can certainly be compared to the ecstatic feelings of transcendence attendant upon religious experiences, especially when shouting is involved. Alcohol produces the euphoric escape that Wright in his Marxist interpretation of black experience has assigned to religion. Mrs. Thomas and Bessie turn to their respective crutches at various points in the book. As she cooks breakfast, Mrs. Thomas sings:

Life is like a mountain railroad
          With an engineer that's brave
We must make the run successful
          From the cradle to the grave …

(p. 9 [14])

which is far removed from dead rats, joblessness, and wayward children. The engineer in the song who has control over the perilous cliffs on his route has no counterpart in Mrs. Thomas's situation, for she is at the mercy of uncontrollable events that range from the seemingly minor inability to keep rats out of her apartment to the major setback of watching her children live and die in poverty. The city is one cliff to her; her children stand perched precariously on another; and the whites who control where she lives are yet another that she cannot maneuver successfully. Ultimately, the song reflects a pathetic helplessness on the part of those who reach beyond this world for solutions to their problems.

That point is no less graphically made when Mrs. Thomas stands washing a short time later, singing: “Lord, I want to be a Christian, / In my heart, in my heart” (p. 30 [37]). Even as she sings, Bigger enters the apartment to get his gun for the planned robbery of Blum's. She can escape through singing, but her escape has no real bearing upon the world that weighs her down. Her pursuit of religion, Wright suggests, is a fantasy, not a realistic dream.

Bessie's alcohol is no less a stick of support for her. She reaches for it whenever the circumstances of the world become too much for her. When Bigger introduces his ransom scheme and finally cajoles her into joining him, she turns to drinking once the matter has been settled. She had already been drinking at the Paris Grill when he broached the subject, before the crying scene in which she asserts that she is only going along because he wants her to. As he leaves her there in the dark, her assertion that she is “going to get a pint” leads Bigger to conclude that “that was all right; she was feeling as he knew she always felt” (p. 126 [140]). Looking back as he approaches the streetcar, he observes her “still standing in the snow; she had not moved. She'll be all right, he thought. She'll go along” (p. 127 [141]). Confronted with the possibility of acting against her inclination, of being caught in circumstances she is too weak to control, Bessie turns to the one thing that has sustained her when people have consistently failed her: alcohol. With the stimulus of alcohol she can remove herself from the world, forget about her problems, even if she, like Mrs. Thomas, cannot change them. Her tangible alcohol is just as effective as Mrs. Thomas's intangible religion in moving her beyond what exists and, for a short while, into something else. The stupor the alcohol produces, in which she does not think or feel, is as fantastic as the images of heaven to which Mrs. Thomas resorts in times of trouble. Both are temporary forms of purgation, no matter that Mrs. Thomas may be weighed down even more heavily when her singing or praying ceases, or that Bessie may have terrible hangovers after her stupor-inducing bouts of drinking.

At one point in the novel, Wright allows Bigger to compare Mrs. Thomas and Bessie: “What his mother had was Bessie's whiskey, and Bessie's whiskey was his mother's religion” (p. 204 [226]). Both women have developed coping mechanisms that anticipate the kind of comparison James Baldwin makes in “Sonny's Blues” between religion and heroin. For Sonny, whose problems are too acute for him to face without a crutch, the haze of heroin provides the necessary medium for making life bearable. However, it gives him a feeling of control that neither Bessie nor Mrs. Thomas seeks. Both women are looking for effects that dull, that soothe them out of contemplation of their misery instead of giving them a way of confronting it head on. Sonny can play his music, he believes, much better when he is high. Bessie drinks to forget the white households in which she works and Mrs. Thomas sings her religious songs in a similar effort to transport herself beyond the troubles of the world. Whiskey and religion are both forms of acquiescence, both forms of self-denial. Certainly whiskey can be viewed as a stimulant, but all it stimulates in Bessie's case is acceptance of the drudgery of her life. Mrs. Thomas's religion teaches that his world is a vale of tears, a plethora of troubles that one must endure while working in the vineyard of the Lord. If one suffers long enough, that suffering will eventually produce the desired reward—being carried in the arms of Death, after the manner of Sister Caroline in James Weldon Johnson's “Go Down Death: A Funeral Sermon,” and deposited upon the loving breast of Jesus, who will rock away the sorrows of the world and grant the long-awaited rest. Both Mrs. Thomas and Bessie are in the world, not of it. While Mrs. Thomas at least has a vague vision of the next world handed down through the folklore of the church, Bessie cannot imagine any place or any time beyond now. Her escapes through whiskey serve only to highlight how pathetically far she is from being able to make any real change in her life, which is set in a pattern of degradation and misery.

For Bessie, sex is second to alcohol in the escape mechanisms available to her. Bigger takes away her questions about how he has obtained the money he brings by seducing her. Judging by the relaxing moments they share together after their encounter, her enjoyment is presumably equal to his. This short release, however, leaves Bessie sober and inspired, perhaps because of the sexual encounter, to ask more questions about the money and the Daltons. Also, sex is the secondary release because it requires a partner, whereas alcohol does not. As long as she has money, Bessie can indulge her drinking, thereby escaping from the futility of her life and from the images of the white world that demands so much from her.

Religion, alcohol, and sex, as they relate to the black women in Native Son, are all reactive activities, indicative of the margin of safety and response to the status quo that are characteristic of their personalities. These crutches allow none of the women the creative urges associated with a desire to fly planes or to escape from the ghetto. For Mrs. Thomas, religion is a worn comfort pulled out for each new crisis. It never spurs her to do anything; it is only there waiting once something is done and she needs a way to cope with it. She can therefore call upon her God in reaction to Bigger's laziness or drop to her knees in prayer in reaction to his possible execution. She never uses religion—nor, according to Wright, is it something she could use—to contemplate the forging of a new life. The same is true with Bessie in relation to alcohol and sex. Bessie gets drunk in reaction to exploitation by her white employers. She also drinks in reaction to Bigger's absences, and when he visits and she cannot soberly face the troubles he brings with him. Although she wants sex with Bigger, that arena also shows her reacting; she responds to his advances rather than initiating her own.

Love, or those emotions designed to pass for it, similarly supports the white power structure in the novel by being used to pattern acceptable behavior. Mrs. Thomas, through her “love” for Bigger, really wants him to be a good little boy and not cause trouble, in the same way that Wright's mother wanted him to be a good little boy and not fight the white boys when he was growing up. Therein lies safety, which the larger world can applaud because it perpetuates the place defined for black boys. And poor Vera can only follow in Mrs. Thomas's footsteps, expressing love only when the actions of the beloved manifest themselves in adherence to the status quo. Bigger becomes a strange creature who cannot be shown love after he trespasses upon white territory and violates the ultimate taboo by killing Mary Dalton. Vera's reaction to him is comparable to that of Lucy in response to Big Boy after he kills the white man in Wright's story “Big Boy Leaves Home”: “Lucy gaped at her brother as though she had never seen him before.”3 Though Bessie allows Bigger to steal from the homes where she works, she does so with her own margin of safety. Her affection, or whatever feelings she has for Bigger, inspire her to keep him within bounds because that will keep her safe. She will be the occasional thief, but never the publicly destructive revolutionary.

Those basic character traits in Bessie override the fact that she initially responds somewhat favorably to Bigger's ransom plan, suggesting that they have to be careful and asking how they can get the ten thousand dollars. Her indecisiveness is clearly tied to her desire not to lose Bigger, thereby extending the initial perception of her character as insecure and malleable, whether by a Bigger Thomas or by the whites for whom she works. Bessie wants peace. Though she prefers it by unforced acquiescence, she is apparently accustomed to some physical abuse from Bigger. She does not convey undue surprise when he threatens to slap her for inquiring about what he has done to Mary, and she is not totally convincing in her show of fear when he threatens to kill her if she does not cooperate with him.

In her dealings with Bigger after the murder, Bessie is most clearly presented as the burden Wright implies all black women are to black men. She wants his body, but not his trouble; she wants his money, but not the responsibility that goes along with it. The ransom plot is not a situation in which the rightness or wrongness of Bigger's actions are the primary concern; instead, it is a situation in which a black man's quest for freedom is pitted against a black woman's seeming—perhaps subconscious—desire for his defeat. Her actions are a conscious drawing back from the historical circumstances Wright had depicted in earlier works, such as “Big Boy Leaves Home,” in which the entire black community joins with the black offender in spiriting him away from the avenging whites. Bessie, even before she is aware of everything that has happened, sets out to separate herself from Bigger. She tries to absolve herself of guilt by asserting that if she participates in the ransom plot it is because Bigger “wants” her to.

Once she knows all the details, her understandable whining and crying makes her even more of a burden, even more liable to be killed in Bigger's increasing inability to distinguish between oppressors and oppressed.

All my life's been full of hard trouble. If I wasn't hungry, I was sick. And if I wasn't sick, I was in trouble. I ain't never bothered nobody. I just worked hard every day as long as I can remember, till I was tired enough to drop; then I had to get drunk to forget it. I had to get drunk to sleep. That's all I ever did. And now I'm in this. They looking for me and when they catch me they'll kill me. … God only knows why I ever let you treat me this way. I wish to God I never seen you. I wish one of us had died before we was born. God knows I do! All you ever caused me was trouble, just plain black trouble.

(pp. 194-5 [215])

Through his characterization of Bessie as a simpering, weepy woman, Wright directs our sympathies so that her death does not evoke the outrage that might be anticipated in reaction to such graphic brutality. He creates a situation in which the horrible murder of Bessie, despicable though it may be, does not strike at our emotional core as does Mary's. First of all, murder the second time around is by that very sequence not as appalling—and we have seen enough of Bigger's character by the time of Bessie's death to believe that he is capable of almost anything. There is a numbing of reader response. The actual fact of Bessie's murder takes second place to Bigger's capacity for atrocity and to Mary's death. Indeed, readers are from one perspective less disturbed by the fact that Bessie is dead than they are calmed by the fact that her whining has ceased. Bessie's death, then, becomes another rape—this time by the author who created her. Instead of visceral human sympathy, Wright evokes an objective, distanced, intellectual reaction to her demise. She becomes the final, emphatic point in his argument about what the system has done to Bigger. In the early scenes, Wright has presented Bessie with all her embarrassing blemishes. He extends that public exposure in the courtroom scene, where even her remains are “raped” by the hungry eyes of the spectators, eagerly and vicariously reliving the scenes of her physical rape and murder. In this instance, Buckley leads the mob in “lynching” her in this voyeuristic way as assuredly as he lynches Bigger in a legal way.

Wright is so intent upon presenting his theme of Bigger being hemmed in by the black women in the novel that he fails to develop the potential he has almost unwittingly created in Bessie. Although he waits until Book Three to put forth his ideas of the Communist influence upon Bigger's life, Bessie has existed as an example of the proletariat throughout. She is representative of the oppressed working classes, the ones who, unlike Mrs. Thomas washing the whites' laundry in her own home, must go out every day and confront exploitation. Wright himself was perhaps so blinded by the treatment of males, particularly in relation to Communist ideology, that he failed to see that Bessie could carry out his theme just as effectively. In her comments to Bigger about her life, she makes a necessary step in the direction of self-revelation, but Wright stifles that potential by refocusing attention on Bigger and how Bessie is a burden to him. He will not allow Bessie's plight to develop to its full dramatic potential. She remains a fairly one-dimensional character whose brutal murder with a brick—which, as an extension of Communist proletarian symbolism, could suggest black and white skilled laborers building or working together—brings to ironic reversal an image central to the party's propaganda.

Ultimately, Bessie is victimized by everyone, including Wright, Bigger, Buddy, her employers, Buckley, and the reader. Wright does not respect his own creation enough to allow her to live up to her potential; Bigger and the whites for whom she works use Bessie to their own physical and emotional ends; Buckley negates her very humanity; Buddy maintains that because Bigger has a “good job” he can “get a better gal than Bessie” (p. 89 [100]); and readers are forced to dismiss Bessie as their attention is calculatedly focused on Bigger, Mary, and other white characters.

Obviously Bessie did not carry enough value for Wright to be entrusted with putting forth the central point of his novel. In fact, the value he generally places on black women and their world is initially significant by its absence, and then by a degrading comparison to white women. Like many other black writers, Wright uses the movies and the images of whites presented in them as a contrast to the struggling blacks and their everyday problems. The Gay Woman, the movie that Bigger and Jack attend while they are waiting to rob Blum's, is a typical example. The “cocktail drinking, dancing, golfing, swimming” world is light-years away from the rat-infested tenement. None of the black women in the novel will ever be a gay woman, will ever have the wealth, position, or leisure shown in that film. Even the gay woman's problems occur at a more sophisticated social and political level than could ever be the case with any of the black women in the novel. Those silver screen images, together with Mary Dalton, point out to Bigger how grossly lacking are the women he knows intimately. The clash of cultures intensifies the devaluing of the black women (and the movies' exaggeration of white reality serves merely to increase the devaluation of black women). In his encounters with black women, in his knowledge of their lives, and in his contrasting experiences with Mary Dalton, Bigger knows that black women are the lowest of the low. It is clear to him nobody cares about them, not even him. Because they do not inspire elevation to pedestals, they can never evoke the respect or distanced admiration that white women can. Bigger can wave a dead rat in Vera's face until she faints, but he becomes tongue-tied and withdrawn in the presence of Mary Dalton. Without even the possibility of being fairy princesses—in the sense of having care, concern, and protection shown them—black women can only occupy present, practical consciousness, not imagination. Bigger could perhaps be inspired to dream about Mary Dalton; Bessie would probably be wrapped in the smells of onion and cabbage, sending any possibility of a dream, as Gwendolyn Brooks suggests in “Kitchenette Building,” scurrying down corridors and out the door. In effect, Bigger makes Bessie invisible, from the time in Ernie's Kitchen Shack when he ignores her to the moment when he bashes in her head with a brick. She is to him what he is to the Daltons: someone who cannot be seen because she lacks value for him except as a kind of servant.

The value he places upon them, therefore, does not encourage Wright to lift black women from the realms of archetype and stereotype, to treat them as complex individuals. Mrs. Thomas is ever the mother figure, no matter how problematic that image may become. Bessie will remain a whore, no matter how sympathetic the reader may be to her plight. Little Vera will forever follow in the path of the domestic, eager to learn and use a skill that will keep her invisible.

Wright's manipulation of his black women characters for political purposes ultimately makes them act antithetically to their natural and social impulses. If not so negatively manipulated by Wright, Bessie would perhaps seek out other domestics or working women her age. If Wright were not so intent upon showing the ineffectiveness of religion, Mrs. Thomas could perhaps see that she needs to do more than pray, more than simply leave her son in the hands of racists for whom the cross of the Ku Klux Klan and the cross of Jesus are indistinguishable. If he were not so intent upon showing how pathetic black women can be, Wright would perhaps not allow Mrs. Thomas to pray to Mrs. Dalton as if she were the divinity. In forcing them to follow such paths, Wright limits his black female characters, judging them by a yardstick he does not apply to Bigger.

Bigger's desire to assimilate some of the values of the larger group makes him the native, while the women in their willingness to retain outsider status remain the “foreigners”; they will use what little skills they have to sacrifice their long-term future for short-term practicality, exhibiting a kind of Booker T. Washington mentality. The consequence of such behavior is that they become expendable to Wright—their plights become melodrama, their lives inconsequential. Wright indicts their lifestyles, their values, and, by implication, their very beings. Both the space he gives to them and the spaces he puts them in support this assertion.

Women seem to dominate the claustrophobic interiors of Native Son, while males inhabit the open spaces. Although the entire family is cramped in its one-room apartment, Bigger is made to feel that the space belongs more to his mother and his sister than to him. They cook and wash there; he merely sleeps there. They share bonds of domesticity that push him outward to the streets. If the stories we hear of Bessie are true—though she does not seem to verify them—then she would like to trap Bigger into the space represented by her room, into marriage and the very domesticity he tries to escape at the Thomas apartment. In public spaces such as Doc's pool parlor and the theater, Bigger is more at home, though he is afraid when he enters the Dalton yard and home. The things that matter to the women—good jobs, livable surroundings—center upon their cramped spaces, while the pursuit of individual goals that Bigger espouses is much more expansive and open-ended.

In his setting up of oppositions in the novel, Wright's assignment of action to Bigger Thomas and reaction to the women indicates another value-based preference. Bigger's killing of Mary Dalton results from a kind of outrage with the white world. That active kind of emotion is not something that black women in the novel are allowed to express. The feelings that lead Bigger to murder lead the women to religion, sex, and alcohol. Certainly murder would not be a logical response for them, but their lack of creative activity again suggests that they have made peace with the society in ways finally as objectionable to Wright as Bigger's killings are.

In presenting the operative dynamic between Bigger Thomas and the black women in Native Son, Wright finally sets up a dichotomy between individuality and conformity. Moving beyond the pattern carved out for him by the larger society, Bigger exhibits a break from convention that, in its healthier manifestations, could be compared to the likes of Huckleberry Finn. In the American system of values, applause is usually extended to the individual who goes against the grain; but such a scheme was never conceived with black individuals in mind. As a group, they have been admonished to conform, to adhere to the status quo if they desired to live, and to suffer the consequences—even to lynching and other violent deaths—if they did not. The black women in Native Son can see only the margin of safety inherent in conformity, not its obvious fallacy: that black men are susceptible to death whether or not they conform to the larger society's wishes. Bigger is indeed American and native, then, in his expression of individuality, but the paradox is that the structure was never intended to include him. The women, in their efforts to perpetuate native expectations, ultimately act in manners foreign to the creative, healthy survival of their own black community.


  1. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940), p. 7 [11]. Subsequent parenthetical references are to this edition; for the reader's convenience bracketed page references to the Perennial Classic edition will also be provided.

  2. Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper, 1945), pp. 182-198.

  3. Richard Wright, Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (New York: Harper, 1938), p. 34.

James W. Tuttleton (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4136

SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “The Problematic Texts of Richard Wright.” In The Critical Response to Richard Wright, edited by Robert J. Butler, pp. 167-72. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1992, Tuttleton reflects on Wright's place in American literature and his inclusion in The Library of America series.]

It is an event of great cultural importance to have, at last, the best of Richard Wright in The Library of America series.1 Thus far, with respect to black writers, only W. E. B. DuBois has been represented, although it is only fair to the Library to remark that the best black writers are modern, and considerations of copyright and high royalty fees have delayed the appearance of many twentieth-century writers—both white and black.

In a manner of speaking, the reprint of a writer's work in The Library of America may be perceived as a sign of greatness, even an admission to the “canon of classic texts.” At the very least it is a great honor, for most readers probably assent to the project's claim of offering “the only definitive collection of America's greatest writers.” Definitive is a loaded word, about which I shall say more, but whatever his flaws, Richard Wright belongs, in my judgment, in this distinguished group—which includes, at least in the Library series, such familiars as Twain, Crane, Parkman, William and Henry James, Lincoln, Cather, Wharton, Cooper, and Franklin, among others. Native Son is Wright's best novel; but Uncle Tom's Children and his autobiography Black Boy are also compelling narratives that served to revolutionize black writing in America. Irving Howe, in “Black Boys and Native Sons,” has even gone so far as to say that “the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” And so, in a sense it was. A new work of great imaginative power rearranged the tradition of American fiction; and, with respect to black writing, it made previous novels by black writers like Charles Chestnutt, DuBois, Nella Larsen, and Rudolph Fisher seem mild by comparison. Younger black writers also found a new model for the naturalistic representation of their experience; and in quick order other grim portraits of black life appeared in Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Ann Petry's The Street (1946), Curtis Lucas' Third Ward Newark (1946), and Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door (1947). Equally as important, after Native Son, white readers no longer found it possible to luxuriate in an illusion of black docility, passivity, and contentment.

Richard Wright, the grandchild of slaves and child of an illiterate sharecropper and backcountry schoolteacher, was born in 1908 on Rucker's Plantation near Roxie, Mississippi. He had all the disadvantages of being black in the Jim Crow Mississippi of that time; and the bitter effects of racial animosity toward blacks and legal segregation were compounded by a grinding poverty that would have stunted nearly anyone's development. Making ends meet required the family frequently split up, and Richard and his brother were placed for a while with their grandparents in Natchez while the parents searched for work. Eventually his father, a brutal man, abandoned the family, and his mother moved the boys about continually—to Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson, Mississippi, and Elaine and West Helena Arkansas—as she shifted from job to job, laboring as a cook or cleaning woman for white families. There was never enough money for rent or food. A dominant motif of Wright's autobiography is in fact the constant hunger he suffered. Again, for a time, Wright was placed in a Methodist orphanage in Memphis; and for a while he lived with his Uncle Silas Hoskins. (Hoskins was lynched in 1917 in Elaine—only because, it seems, he had a successful business coveted by whites.)

It would be tedious to rehearse the family's many moves, or Wright's chronic hunger as a child, his makeshift schooling in one town or another, or the menial labor and odd jobs—as delivery boy, salesclerk, dishwasher, and bellboy—by which the growing boy tried to help out his mother and grandmother, who were in continual ill health. For them the strict fundamentalism of Methodist and Seventh-day Adventist Christianity was completely sustaining, but the religious prohibitions of his family, their moral strictness, and the manifest hypocrisy of Southern racial relations alienated and estranged the boy, even while he was filled with a lifelong sense of anxiety and dread. Great curiosity and omnivorous reading—in thrown-away issues of the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and American Mercury—saved him from the common fate. Mencken's iconoclastic Prejudices and A Book of Prefaces taught him to see “words as weapons”; he began to haunt the public libraries and to cultivate a burning ambition to write.

Black poverty in the rural South is horrific enough in Wright's account of it in Black Boy. The North, with its more liberal racial attitudes and industrial capacity beckoned to the Wrights, as it did to the thousands of rural blacks. But the Wrights' move to Chicago in 1927 plunged young Richard into evils almost as great. And the urban poverty he experienced, particularly after the Crash of 1929, was equally as appalling. But he eked out a life of sorts, supporting his mother and aunt as a dishwasher, ditch digger, postal clerk, and insurance agent. He read extensively in Conrad, Twain, James, Proust, Dostoevsky, and others. But, as he told an interviewer for L'Express in 1960, “Theodore Dreiser first revealed to me the nature of American life, and for that service, I place him at the pinnacle of American literature.”

The Communist organizers in the League of Struggle for Negro Rights captured Wright's attention in the 1930s, and he quickly became an ardent member of the local John Reed Club. Joining the Communist Party in 1934, he developed friendships with many proletarian writers and social critics—including Nelson Algren, Jack Conroy, Arna Bontemps, and James T. Farrell. His literary talent opened opportunities for him in Left Front, Anvil, and New Masses, and between 1934 and 1937, Wright was an impassioned activist at writers' congresses and in Midwest literary groups. Wherever he went he argued for racial equality and espoused his Communist faith. Yet he cooled to the Chicago branch of the Party in 1937 when it tried to infringe on his personal freedom as a writer. Moving in that year to New York, he pursued his literary career as the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker, to which he contributed more than 200 articles. His first breakthrough came with the publication of Uncle Tom's Children in 1938. Native Son, a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, followed in 1940, and, with the many accolades it earned him, his career took off.

Wright's subsequent life seemed foreordained by his popular success in America. His works were translated into French, Italian, German, Dutch, and other languages. The power of the novel made him in constant demand as a spokesman for racial equality, and he toured the country as a platform speaker and panelist. His distinction as a portrayer of black life in America led naturally in 1941 to 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States; and, after some disagreement over its content, his best-selling autobiography Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth appeared in 1945.

Although he had quietly broken with the Communist Party in 1942, his political views brought him under FBI surveillance, which continued throughout most of his lifetime, and he had constant passport difficulties in traveling abroad. In 1946, he took a month-long trip to France, at the invitation of Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lévi-Strauss, where he formed friendships with Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beavoir, André Gide, and many others, In Paris he was introduced to the Négritude movement sponsored by Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire. What particularly pleased him about France was its greater racial tolerance and openness to new ideas. In 1947, racial prejudice in the Greenwich Village housing market provoked his ire, and he decided to move permanently to France, taking with him his wife Ellen and daughter Julia. In Paris he became a spokesman for the American colony of blacks (and for African blacks in Paris), and he founded and joined many literary and liberal political organizations. The Existentialism of Sartre and Camus was then all the rage, and Wright began to read in the philosophy of Heidegger, Husserl, and Jaspers. This Existentialism, in ill-digested clumps, unfortunately mars his novel The Outsider (1953).

At the same time, his friendship with George Padmore, the Trinidadian author of Pan-Africanism or Communism?, heightened his interest in Africa, and in 1953 he toured Ghana, Sierra Leone and other countries—producing in 1954, out of this experience, Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. As fascinated as he was by black Africa, it must be said that his reactions are those of a Western intellectual. During this period Wright's political and cultural interests interfered, in my view, with his imaginative work. Savage Holiday (1954), a novel about a white psychopathic murderer, was a weak performance. Harper rejected it, and he was obliged to bring it out as an original paperback by Avon. Somewhat like the later Faulkner, Wright saw himself as an important public spokesman on national and international issues. As a cultural reporter for the Congress of Cultural Freedom, he attended the Bandung (Indonesia) Conference of non-aligned nations and listened to Nehru, Sukarno, Sihanouk, Nasser, and others declaim on the state of international relations in the Cold War Era. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference appeared in 1956. Pagan Spain (1957), a travel book, White Man, Listen! (1957), a collection of essays based on his lectures about race, and The Long Dream (1958), a novel set in Mississippi, represent the final phase of his declining career. He was in ill health in the last years of his life, probably as a result of amoebic dysentery picked up in Africa, but he died in fact of a heart attack in Paris in 1960, as he was completing the proofs of Eight Men (1961), his last collection of stories.

Richard Wright: Early Works begins with Lawd Today!, a work not very well known—principally because it was not published in Wright's lifetime. Completed in 1935 and originally entitled Cesspool, the novel was rejected by several publishers. An account of one day—an anniversary of Lincoln's birthday—in the life of a black postal worker, it portrays in Jake Johnson an arrogant, irresponsible, vain and cruel man who begins the day by beating up his wife (the section is called “Commonplace”); he ends it, in a drunken rage, by nearly killing her (in “Rats' Alley”). In between, Jake is shown hanging out at Doc Higgins' Tonsorial Palace, overborrowing from a loan shark, malingering at the Post Office (the “Squirrel Cage” section), and drinking himself into a violent rage at a ghetto whorehouse, where he is rolled of the $100 he has just borrowed. No publisher would take the novel in 1936, and it languished in manuscript until it posthumously appeared in 1963. Professor Rampersad has thought it important enough to include here; and indeed, its structural form, rhythmic dialogue, contrapuntal themes, and suggestive symbolism give a clear foreshadowing of the Wright who would emerge, fully matured, in Native Son. As a reflection of the social and moral inferno in which these hollow men live, Lawd Today! is Wright's version of Eliot's The Waste Land, construed as the bitter end of Lincoln's dream of black emancipation.

Uncle Tom's Children, a fully achieved work of fiction, contains five long stories, preceded by an autobiographical sketch, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Wright was a dedicated Communist at the time he wrote these tales, and each introduces, more or less, the Marxist viewpoint. But they are by no means mere propaganda, which is no doubt why Wright got into trouble with the Chicago branch of the Party, which hinted, ominously, of purging the “bastard intellectuals” in their midst. (His troubles with Party orthodoxy are recounted in his essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” [1944], which was reprinted in The God That Failed.) Each of these stories focuses on a black protagonist who reacts against brutalization by whites not so much on the basis of ideology as on an instinctive desire for freedom from social oppression and on the intuition of a better way of life. As the children of Uncle Tom, each of them has learned “to lie, to steal, to dissemble,” to “play that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.”

“Fire and Cloud” is, in my view, the best of the five. It tells the Depression story of a black minister, the Rev. Taylor, whose people are starving but who cannot persuade the white power structure to provide relief in the form of food. When the Communist organizers urge a demonstration, the Mayor and Police Chief urge Rev. Taylor to discourage his people from attending. He is a Christian, has always been a “good nigger,” and is necessarily worried that if he leads his people into the town square, a bloodbath will await them. But before he can decide what to do, he is seized by Klan rednecks, taken out into the countryside, and horsewhipped until he is unconscious. On the following morning, having had a “vision,” he walks with most of the town's 10,000 blacks into the square—a multitude so numerous that the Mayor and the police back down, capitulate, and agree to provide food for the starving. While the story is meant to be an illustration of Lenin's saying—that “Freedom belongs to the strong!”—its literary power inheres in Wright's masterly presentation of the poignant helplessness of those who have nowhere else to turn. All of the tales suggest a complex grasp of racist social relations in the pre-World War II South, yet Wright's command of the nuances of emotion in his inarticulate characters, their impulses and bewildered striving, is equally compelling. His ear was true to the dialect of Mississippi blacks, at least as I knew it forty years ago, and his expert use of biblical symbolism and Christian allusion is richly counterpointed with his own idiosyncratic Marxist perspective.

In the writing of Uncle Tom's Children, Wright was later to claim that he had

made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.

The response of reader sympathy for his characters meant less to Wright than administering a shock that would stun readers into an amelioration of the conditions of black existence. In Native Son, he exploded a bomb.

This narrative of a deprived black boy living in a rat-infested tenement who commits two more or less unintended murders naturalizes Dostoevsky and Dreiser in a Chicago tenement setting. Bigger Thomas becomes the chauffeur for a rich white man and is sexually attracted to his promiscuous daughter. After a night on the town, when Mary Dalton and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone get drunk and make love in the back seat of the car, Bigger Thomas has to put the comatose Mary back to bed. In trying to keep her quiet, he accidentally smothers her, and, to cover up this crime, stuffs her body into the furnace. Framing the boyfriend, Bigger then fakes a kidnap note to mislead the police, but—when he is discovered—he runs. During the manhunt, he hides out in several abandoned buildings, murders his girlfriend, but is nevertheless caught and brought to trial. Modeling his narrative on An American Tragedy, Wright constructed a novel so as to rationalize the meaning of Bigger's experience through the speeches presented by the defense lawyer, a Communist named Boris A. Max. Needless to say, the sociological conditions of black urban poverty and white racism are invoked as the proximate cause of the murder of the two women. Thus white society is put on trial and Bigger Thomas is made out, at least implicitly, to be a victim of the social forces conspiring to diminish black life in America. But setting aside this unconvincing defense, the novel is still a work of horrifying and sobering import.

Wright was later to say, in “How Bigger Was Born” (reprinted here) that while his “contact with the labor movement and its ideology” (his euphemism for Communism) made him feel “the pinch and pressure of the environment” that produces a Bigger Thomas, he did not mean to say that “environment makes consciousness.” But Bigger has too little self-consciousness to have any comprehensible view of why he is a murderer. Like Drieser, Wright constructed his novel out of newspaper accounts of the trial of one Robert Nixon, who had murdered a white woman, Nixon was defended by two black lawyers. In the novel, Wright changes the defense to a Leftist white lawyer, for no black attorney would have mounted the sociological defense of Bigger that Max provides. Wright's attention to Bigger's shapeless inner life and the prolixity and dubiety of Max's courtroom speechifying have led some of Wright's defenders to transform the book into a psychological novel, of sorts, so as to deflect attention from its social message. Yet this maneuver robs the novel of its force as a document of social protest and misrepresents Wright's ideological sympathies in the late thirties.

In understanding Wright's development into a Communist, his autobiography is immensely illuminating, for its portrait of abject poverty and of racial prejudice in the South produced in him such smoldering rage that not even the ministrations of family or the consolations of religion could be adequate. In 1943, when he completed the manuscript, he intended to call his autobiography American Hunger. In the draft he sent to his agent Paul Reynolds, the manuscript contained two sections: “Southern Night,” dealing with his life in the South; and “The Horror and the Glory,” dealing with his Chicago life and membership in the Party. The Book-of-the-Month-Club was interested in it, but they recommended to Wright's editor at Harper, Edward Aswell, that only the first part be published. Wright agreed and renamed the autobiography Black Boy; it dealt with only his Southern years. Not until 1977 was the second part published by Harper and Row—under the title American Hunger. In the Library of America text, we now have the whole of Wright's original manuscript—presented under the title Black Boy (American Hunger).

As rich as is the content of Wright's autobiography (not to speak of The Outsider), some of the textual decisions by the Library of America deserve comment. As a first principle of professional editing, it ought to be the objective to present that form of the text that represents the author's final intention. According to this principle, then, a text editor should incorporate any changes on the manuscript, galleys, page proofs (and pages of already published editions) that reflect the last wish of the author with respect to the form in which his work should appear. Black Boy (American Hunger), in the Library of America edition, is not a form of the text of his autobiography that Wright ever approved. An argument can be made that Wright merely acquiesced, under pressure from Harper and the book club, in a change that otherwise he would not have made. And in fact Wright privately complained in his journal that “pressure from Communists” had induced the club to request deletion of the second part. (I have seen no evidence for this belief.) Yet in after years, when he had attained international fame, Wright never moved to reissue his autobiography in the form in which he had originally written it. The second part—already mined for magazine articles—only appeared posthumously, in 1977, as a separate text, with the approval of Mrs. Ellen Wright, who controls the literary estate.

These textual considerations also raise a question about the form of Native Son as well. Professor Rampersad remarks in a note that “This text of Native Son is the last version of the text that Wright prepared without external intervention, and in all the other cases these texts are the last, or last-known, versions that Wright approved.” His reference to external intervention deserves clarification. When Aswell sent a copy of the Harper proofs to the Book-of-the-Month Club, Dorothy Canfield Fisher (and perhaps other judges of the Club) objected to a passage, early in the novel, where Bigger and a friend masturbate in a movie theater, while watching a newsreel clip about Mary Dalton as a rich Chicago socialite and left-wing sympathizer. The Club was inclined to accept the novel if that passage were deleted. Wright then agreed to excisions deemed to be obscene. In the Library of America text, these excisions have been restored as instances of unwarranted external interference. But Wright approved the deletion, rewrote the scene, and modified later particulars (not always with perfect consistency) to harmonize with his changes. Do not these changes represent his final intention? Moreover, in later years, to my knowledge, Wright never complained of the editorial suggestions supplied by Aswell or the Club. And he never moved to reissue the novel in its manuscript form.

In reaction to the Library's editorial decision, James Campbell, in “The Wright Version,” has raised a question—in the Times Literary Supplement for 13 December 1991—about whether Wright “would have approved the work of re-editing which has been carried out on his two most famous books.” Rampersad, in his view, “appears to have overstepped his brief.” Rampersad has not, to my knowledge, replied to this accusation. But Mark Richardson, who describes himself as having assisted in the research for the Library edition, replied in the TLS for 24 January 1992 that the Library's decisions were sound because “Wright would not have revised the two books if the Book Club hadn't asked him to.” Likewise, Ellen and Julia Wright, the novelist's widow and daughter, announced rather grandly in a TLS letter of 31 January that

It is important to us that Bigger Thomas, who was “castrated” because deprived of his sexual life in the edited 1940 text, is made whole again—and made human—by the reinstatement of the masturbation scene at the beginning of Native Son and of references to his guilt-ridden desire for rich, white Mary prior to the panic which leads him to smother her accidentally. Likewise it is important to have reinstated American Hunger as an integral part of Black Boy because of the psychological importance of viewing Wright's account of his disillusionment with Communist Party politics as only one in a series of betrayals, the first of which takes place in Black Boy when young Richard is disowned by his father over the kitten episode.

There is no question that readers will want to know about these variant versions. The question, in relation to serious bibliographical and editorial practice, is where these variants belong—in a restored text or in footnotes? The fact is that Rampersad's restored passages are, in the lingo of professional text editors, rejected substantives. Wright agreed to reject them and did so. His reasons are not fully clear. He may have assented because he knew that Club sponsorship would vastly increase the book's sales. But he may just as well have felt that he did not wish to be judged an obscene writer. Just as possible, he might, on reconsideration, have concluded that the aesthetic merit of his text suffered from the scene in which Bigger masturbates. We really cannot know.

What we do know is that he agreed to make changes, did make them, and never afterward—to my knowledge—complained that he had been coerced by his publishers. We need to have these restored passages—but they belong in the notes, not in the text. When later editors, on their own authority, undertake to restore canceled material, they do not honor the author's final intention and do not produce “definitive texts.” While we now live in a more liberal age, where almost any obscenity can be claimed to have aesthetic merit or socially redeeming value, the imposition on a text of an editor's modern attitudes really serves to create a different book from the one the author finally intended, a book different from the one that made its impact on the reading public of his time.


  1. The set is in two volumes: RICHARD WRIGHT: EARLY WORKS. The Library of America. $35.00 includes Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, and Native Son. RICHARD WRIGHT: LATER WORKS. The Library of America. $35.00, includes Black Boy (American Hunger) and The Outsider. Arnold Rampersad, author of the acclaimed biography The Life of Langston Hughes, wrote notes for both volumes and oversaw (I presume) the text selection.

Horace A. Porter (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5751

SOURCE: Porter, Horace A. “The Horror and the Glory: Wright's Portrait of the Artist in Black Boy and American Hunger.” In Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, pp. 316-27. New York: Amistad, 1993.

[In the following essay, Porter suggests that Black Boy and American Hunger should be read in order, viewing the two autobiographies as a portrait of the artist.]

As the curtain falls on the final page of American Hunger, the continuation of Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, he is alone in his “narrow room, watching the sun sink slowly in the chilly May sky.” Having just been attacked by former Communist associates as he attempted to march in the May Day parade, he ruminates about his life. He concludes that all he has after living in both Mississippi and Chicago, are “words and a dim knowledge that my country has shown me no examples of how to live a human life.” Wright ends his autobiography with the following words:

… I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if no echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.1

American Hunger (1977) is the continuation of Black Boy (1945). Wright initially composed them as one book entitled The Horror and the Glory. Thus, a reading of the two volumes as one continuous autobiography is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of his portrayal of himself as a young writer. Wright achieves remarkable poetic closure by bringing together at the end of American Hunger several interrelated themes which he elaborately spells out in Black Boy. The passage cited above illustrates his concern for words, his intense and troubling solitude, and his yearning to effect a revolution in the collective consciousness of America through the act of writing. In a sentence, the end of American Hunger is essentially the denouement of Black Boy.

Although critics have discussed the effect of Wright's early life on his writings, none has shown systematically how Black Boy (and to a lesser degree American Hunger) can be read primarily as a portrait of the artist as a young man. Consequently, I intend to demonstrate how the theme of words (with their transforming and redeeming power) is the nucleus around which ancillary themes swirl. Wright's incredible struggle to master words is inextricably bound to his defiant quest for individual existence and expression. To be sure, the fundamental nature of the experience is not peculiar to Wright. Many, if not most writers, are marked by their experience with words during childhood. It is no accident that, say, [Jean-Paul] Sartre, a writer whom Wright eventually meets and admires, entitles his autobiography Les Mots. What one sees in Wright's autobiographies is how the behavior of his fanatically religious grandmother, the painful legacy of his father, the chronic suffering of his mother, and how his interactions with blacks and whites both in and outside his immediate community are all thematically connected to the way Wright uses words to succeed as a writer and as a man.

The first chapter of Black Boy, the first scene, foreshadows the major theme—the development of the young artist's sensibility—of the book. Wright begins his narrative by recounting how he set fire to his house when he was four years old. His is a conflagration sparked by an odd combination of boredom, curiosity, and imagination. One day Wright looks yearningly out into the empty street and dreams of running, playing, and shouting. First, he burns straws from a broom; then, his temporary pyromania getting the better of him, he wondered how “the long fluffy white curtains” would look if he lit them: “Red circles were eating into the white cloth; then a flare of flames shot out. … The fire soared to the ceiling. … Soon a sheet of yellow lit the room.”2 Then, most terrifying of all, Wright runs outside and hides in “a dark hollow of a brick chimney and balled [himself] into a tight knot.”3 Wright's aim in hiding under the burning house was to avoid the predictable whipping by his mother. Moreover, his four-year-old imagination is so preoccupied with the effect of his derring-do that he does not realize that his own life is on a burning line. Hiding beneath the house and thinking of the possible consequences of his actions—the death of family members—Wright states: “It seemed that I had been hiding for ages, and when the stomping and screaming died down, I felt lonely, cast forever out of life.”4

Wright may not have been completely aware of the psychological import of his opening scene. For, it appears that we must interpret young Wright's act of arson for what it really may have been. Perhaps even at that early age he was trying to free himself from the tyranny of his father's house in which his fanatically religious grandmother ruled: “I saw the image of my grandmother lying helplessly upon her bed and there were yellow flames in her black hair. …”5 The fact that young Wright has these thoughts while in “a dark hollow of a brick chimney … balled … into a tight knot,” raises more profound psychological issues. Does this image represent a yearning to return to the womb? Does it constitute symbolic parricide? Does it symbolize the possibility of a new birth? When Wright sets his father's house aflame, he also makes an eloquent statement against the world the Southern slaveholders had made. Wright's later anxiety and guilt over having turned his back on his father's world drives him to write. His autobiography is an act of self-assertion and self-vindication in which he fearlessly confronts his father. Moreover, he demonstrates his love for this mother. And he pays homage to the anonymous, illiterate blacks whose world he fled.

In the process of moving away from his family and community, Wright began experiencing the problem (a consuming sense of loss and abandonment) that was to become central to his life and his work. In certain primary respects, he was surely cognizant of the problem, but it operated on levels sufficiently profound as to be unfathomable later in his career. Numerous passages in Black Boy illustrate the phenomenon.

What has been characterized as ritual parricide comes readily to mind when Wright's father is awakened one day by the meowing of a stray cat his sons have found. Wright's father screams at him and his brother: “‘Kill that damn thing!’” His father shouts, “‘Do anything, but get it away from here!’” Ignoring the advice of his brother, Wright does exactly what his father suggests. He puts a rope around the cat's neck and hangs it. Why? Wright explains:

I had had my first triumph over my father. I had made him believe that I had taken his words literally. He could not punish me now without risking his authority. I was happy because I had at last found a way to throw criticism of him into his face. I had made him feel that, if he whipped me for killing the kitten, I would never give serious weight to his words again. I had made him know that I felt he was cruel and I had done it without his punishing me.6

Young Wright's cunning act of interpretation is the telling point here. If one were dubious about the meaning of the son's act of arson, the passage cited above demonstrates a full-blown hatred and contempt. But note how Wright focuses on his father's words, how he attempts to neutralize his father's psychological authority by a willful misinterpretation of his statement.

At the end of the first chapter of Black Boy, Wright banishes his father from the remaining pages of both volumes of his autobiography. His father eventually deserts his mother and she struggles to support her two sons. On one occasion when Wright and his mother pay his father and his “strange woman” a visit in order to obtain money for food, Wright's father hands him a nickel. Wright refuses to accept the nickel, his father laughs and puts the nickel back in his pocket, stating, “‘That's all I got.’” That image of his father was indelibly etched in Wright's memory. Wright states that over the years, his father's face would “surge up in my imagination so vivid and strong that I felt I could reach out and touch it; I would stare at it, feeling that it possessed some vital meaning which always eluded me.”7

Wright does not see his father for “a quarter of a century” after that encounter. His reunion with his father after a prolonged period leads to one of the more poignant and profound meditations of the autobiography. Staring at “the sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands,” Wright sees his biological father, but he also sees another man. The man standing before him is now both more and less than his father:

… My mind and consciousness had become so greatly and violently altered that when I tried to talk to him I realized that, though ties of blood made us kin, though I could see a shadow of my face in his face, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly different planes of reality. … I stood before him, pained, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, 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 … I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizon that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city, and who at last fled the city—that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed of shores of knowing.8

In the foregoing meditation, Wright depicts his father as a “sharecropper,” a “black peasant,” whose actions and emotions are “chained … to the direct, animalistic impulses of his body.” He and his father are “forever strangers, speaking a different language.” Even in this passage which ostensibly has little to do with language. Wright reminds us that his ability to use and understand words has transformed him. His mind and consciousness have been “greatly and violently” altered. So Wright finally achieves the kind of authority he longed for as a kid. His father is no longer the threatening figure who told him to kill the kitten. From Wright's point of view, he has become something other; now, he is more phenomenon than person. Thus, Wright is simultaneously compassionate and dispassionate. On the one hand, he forgives his father; on the other, he clearly indicates that certain bonds between him and his father have been irreparably severed.

Wright's mother also plays an important part in this psychological scheme of reconciliation and vindication. Despite the fact that his mother whipped him until he was unconscious after he set the house afire, he expresses tenderness toward her throughout Black Boy; Wright informs the reader that his mother was the first person who taught him to read and told him stories. After Wright had hanged the kitten in order to triumph over his father, he explains that his mother, who is “more imaginative, retaliated with an assault upon my sensibilities that crushed me with the moral horror involved in taking a life.”9 His mother makes him bury the kitten that night and makes him pray.

Wright's mother not only instructs him in the high moral values of civilized society, but she also teaches him how to survive in a hostile and impoverished environment. She teaches him “the ethics of living Jim Crow.” She frequently whips him because she knows that certain small gestures of self-pride and assertion would lead readily to brutality or death. Thus, if Wright's mother's arm is sometimes the arm of the oppressive social order, that same arm is, ironically, the tender, loving arm of the parent, nurturing and protecting her young. She instructs him in those traditions of black life that are sustaining—the necessity of learning to persevere, the ability to maintain grace under pressure, the practice of containing one's pain. Small wonder that Wright sees in his mother's suffering and in her will to live in spite of her rapidly declining health, a symbol of the numerous ills and injustices of the society in which they both live:

My mother's suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened. … A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother's unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.10

Wright, the loving son, feels powerless before the seemingly vast impersonal forces which break his mother's spirit and ruin her health. His mother's life becomes a psychological and emotional charge to him; the “vital meaning” inherent in her suffering is the unstated psychological instruction to dedicate his life to the amelioration of the ills and injustices of society in whatever manner he finds appropriate and effective. Had Wright become indifferent toward the symbol of suffering his mother's life represents, his indifference would have been in effect psychological and moral betrayal of the first order. However, his reflections on his mother's suffering profoundly changes his whole attitude at the tender age of twelve. The spirit he catches sharpens the edges of his inchoate, artistic sensibility. We witness the writer's personality assuming self-conscious definition:

The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the suffering of others, … made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives. … It made me love burrowing into psychology, into realistic and naturalistic fiction and art. … It directed my loyalties to the side of men in rebellion; it made me love talk that sought answers to questions that could help nobody, that could only keep alive in me that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life.11

Furthermore, the symbol of Wright's mother's suffering gives him hope. Long before he leaves the South he dreams of going North in order to “do something to redeem my being alive”:

I dreamed of going North and writing books, novels. The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet, by imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me. But where had I got this notion of doing something in the future, of going away from home and accomplishing something that would be recognized by others? I had, of course, read my Horatio Alger stories, and I knew my Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford series from cover to cover, though I had sense enough not to hope to get rich … yet I felt I had to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive.12

Note that Wright considers the writing of books or novels as the activity which would give his life meaning—“redeem my being alive.”

In the preceding pages, we discuss the subtle psychological question of Wright's relationship to his parents. The task now is to demonstrate specifically how Wright uses words to remove himself from the oppressive community which tries to stifle his imagination. Over the years, Wright becomes increasingly defiant and articulate. And the members of his Southern community become suspicious of his goals and motives.

Words lead to Wright's salvation and to his redemption. From the first pages of Black Boy, the reader witnesses Wright at the tender, impressionable age of six becoming a messenger of the obscene. One day a black man drags Wright, who is peering curiously through the doors of a saloon, inside. The unscrupulous and ignorant adults give him liquor and send obscene messages by him back and forth to one another. Wright goes from one person to the next shouting various obscenities in tune to the savage glee and laughter of the crowd. Surely, the incident makes Wright, inquisitive as he is, wonder about the odd effects of his words.

He later learns his first lesson on the power of the written word. Returning home after his first day of school during which he had learned “all the four-letter words describing physiological and sex functions,” from a group of older boys, he decides to display his newly acquired knowledge. Wright goes from window to window in his neighborhood and writes the words in huge soap letters. A woman stops him and drives him home. That night the same woman informs his mother of what Wright calls his “inspirational scribblings.” As punishment, she takes him out into the night with a pail of water and a towel and demands that he erase the words he had written: “‘Now scrub until that word's gone,’ she ordered.”

This comical incident may appear insignificant on the surface. Furthermore, one cannot know the nature or the degree of the psychological effect the incident had on Wright. However, it seems reasonable to assume that it had a significant psychological impact. As Wright presents it, it is the first occasion on which words he writes are publicly censored; the first incident during which family members and neighbors become angry, if amused, because of words he writes. Wright states: “Neighbors gathered, giggling, muttering words of pity and astonishment, asking my mother how on earth I could have learned so much so quickly. I scrubbed at the four-letter soap words and grew blind with anger.”13

Wright's first written words are not the only words to get him in trouble. His first exposure to imaginative literature also causes a scene. One day a young school teacher, who boards with his grandmother, read to him Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Wright describes the effect that the story has on him in visionary terms: “The tale made the world around me, throb, live. As she spoke reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled. …”14

Wright's visionary, enchanted state does not last. His grandmother screams “‘you stop that you evil gal!’ … ‘I want none of that devil stuff in my house!’” When Wright insists that he likes the story and wants to hear what happened, his grandmother tells him, “‘you're going to burn in hell. …’” Wright reacts strongly to this incident. He promises himself that when he is old enough, he “would buy all the novels there were and read them.” Not knowing the end of the tale fills Wright with “a sense of emptiness and loss.” He states that the tale struck “a profoundly responsive chord” in him:

So profoundly responsive a chord had the tale struck in me that the threats of my mother and grandmother had no effect whatsoever. They read my insistence as mere obstinacy, as foolishness, something that would quickly pass; and they had no notion how desperately serious the tale had made me. They could not have known that Ella's whispered story of deception and murder had been the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. No words or punishment could have possibly made me doubt. I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it somehow, some way. …15

This passage dramatizes one of the central conflicts of Wright's autobiography. It shows, on the one hand, Wright's literary precocity and illustrates on the other how his days with his grandmother led to one psychological scrimmage after another. The grandmother loathes what she considers to be Wright's impertinence. No matter, given Wright's thirst for knowledge, his longing to achieve a self-conscious, independent manhood, his intense desire to live in a world elsewhere, he proves to be extremely vigilant in his fight against those, including his grandmother, his uncle, his aunt, and his high school principal, whom he calls his “tribal” oppressors. To Wright, theirs is at worst the path to poverty and ignorance and at best a path to what Mann's Tonio Kröger calls “the blisses of the commonplace.” Wright wants neither.

Reflecting on his grandmother's insistence that he join the church and walk in the path of righteousness (as she sees it), Wright states: “We young men had been trapped by the community, the tribe in which we lived and which we were a part. The tribe for its own safety was asking us to be at one with it. …”16 Moreover, commenting on how the community views anyone who chooses not to have his soul saved, Wright asserts:

This business of saving souls had no ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feeling; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters.17

It is important to keep in mind that Wright's mother is an exception. To be sure, she shares many of the views of the community, but out of love, she aids Wright in his attempt to escape the tribe. Speaking of his mother after the Bluebeard incident, Wright says: “I burned to learn to read novels and I tortured my mother into telling me the meaning of every strange word I saw, not because the word itself had any value, but because it was the gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land.”18

Against the wishes of the community, Wright continues to read and develop as a young writer. His first real triumph comes when the editor of the local Negro newspaper accepts one of Wright's stories, “The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre.” The plot of the story involves a villain who wants a widow's home. After the story is published, no one, excepting the newspaper editor, gives any encouragement. His grandmother calls it “‘the devil's work’”; his high school principal objects to his use of “hell” in the story's title; even his mother feels that his writing will make people feel that he is “weak minded.” His classmates do not believe that he has written the story:

They were convinced that I had not told them the truth. We had never had any instruction in literary matters at school; the literature of the nation of the Negro had never been mentioned. My schoolmates could not understand why I had called it “The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre.” The mood out of which a story was written was the most alien thing conceivable to them. They looked at me with new eyes, and a distance, a suspiciousness came between us. If I had thought anything in writing the story, I had thought that perhaps it would make me more acceptable to them, and now it was cutting me off from them more completely than ever.19

Herein, Wright identifies another problem which menaces him throughout his writing life. The problem is the young artist's radical disassociation of sensibility from that of the group. In this regard, he is reminiscent of the young artist heroes of Mann and Joyce, of Tonio Kröger and Stephen Daedalus. However, Wright's plight as a young artist is significantly different in a crucial way. His is not simply the inability to experience, by dint of his poetic sensibility, “the blisses of the commonplace.” Not only is Wright pitted against his immediate family and community, the tribe, as he calls them. He must also fight against the prejudices of the larger society.

Wright wrote “The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre” when he was fifteen. He concludes:

Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing. …

I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness; I was acting on impulses that Southern senators in the nation's capital had striven to keep out of Negro life. …20

A telling example which brilliantly demonstrates what Wright means in the passage cited above involves his love for words and books once again. When Wright is nineteen, he reads an editorial in the Memphis Commercial Appeal which calls H. L. Mencken a fool. Wright knows that Mencken is the editor of the American Mercury and he wonders what Mencken has done to deserve such scorn. How can he find out about Mencken? Since blacks are denied the right to use the public libraries, he is not permitted to check out books. But Wright proves both ingenious and cunning.

He looks around among his co-workers at the optical company where he is employed and chooses the white person—a Mr. Falk—who he thinks might be sympathetic. The man is an Irish Catholic, “a pope lover” as the white Southerners say. Wright had gotten books from the library for him several times, and wisely figures that since he too is hated, he might be somewhat sympathetic. Wright's imagination and courage pays off. Although somewhat skeptical about Wright's curious request from the outset, Mr. Falk eventually gives Wright his card, warning him of the risk involved and swearing him to secrecy. Wright promises that he will write the kind of notes Mr. Falk usually writes and that he will sign Falk's name.

Since Wright does not know the title of any of Mencken's books, he carefully composes what he considers a foolproof note: “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger have some books by H. L. Mencken.21 The librarian returns with Mencken's A Book of Prefaces and Prejudices. His reading of Mencken provides him with a formidable reading list: Anatole France, Joseph Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevsky, George Moore, Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Twain, Hardy, Crane, Zola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Mann, Dreiser, Eliot, Gide, Stendhal, and others. Wright starts reading many of the writers Mencken mentions. Moreover, the general effect of his reading was to make him more obsessive about it: “Reading grew into a passion. … Reading was like a drug, a dope.”22

Mencken provides Wright with far more than a convenient reading list of some of the greater masters. He becomes an example of Wright—perhaps an idol—both in matters of style and vocational perspective or stance:

I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words. … Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon.23

A few months after reading Mencken, Wright finds the convenient opportunity to flee to the North. He closes Black Boy on an optimistic note.

American Hunger opens with Wright's arrival in Chicago and with the din of that windy city entering his consciousness, mocking his treasured fantasies. Wright had envisioned Chicago as a city of refuge. However, his first years are “long years of semi-starvation.” He works as a dishwasher, part-time post office clerk, life insurance salesman, and laboratory custodian. Since none of these jobs lasts long, finding adequate food and shelter becomes extremely difficult. At one point, Wright shares a windowless rear room with his mother and younger brother. But good luck occasionally comes in the guise of ill. Many of the experiences he has while working odd jobs supplies revelations which subsequently form the core of his best fiction. Wright probably would not have written Native Son if he had not seen and felt Bigger Thomas's rage.

The first half of American Hunger is primarily devoted to a sociopsychological portrayal of Wright's life and work among the black and white poor. Wright shows how ignorance and racial discrimination fuel prejudice and self-hatred. He gives us glimpses of les miserables, who are corrupted, exploited, and destroyed. While working as an insurance salesman, Wright himself aids in the swindling of the black poor. Yet we are aware throughout that his is a form of predatory desperation. His is the hard choice between honesty and starvation.

Communists dominate the second half of American Hunger. As Wright tells his story, he has strong reservations about the party from the outset and gets involved indirectly. He becomes a member of the party primarily because he is a writer and he leaves it for the same reason. Lacking intellectual communion and meaningful social contacts, he joins Chicago's John Reed Club. The members enthusiastically welcome him, and he is immediately given a writing assignment for Left Front. After only two months and due to internal rivalry, Wright is elected Executive Secretary of the club. He humbly declines the nomination at first, but, after some insistent prodding, reluctantly accepts the position. Thus, though not a Communist, he heads one of the party's leading cultural organizations. Given his independence of mind, however, he raises too many troubling questions for party officials and they soon begin to wage a war against him. They try to harness his imagination and whip it down the official ideological path. But Wright is already at work on the stories of his first book, Uncle Tom's Children. He writes: “Must I discard my plot ideas and seek new ones? No. I could not. My writing was my way of seeing, my way of living, my way of feeling, and who could change his sight, his notion of direction, his senses?”24

Wright dwells rather tediously on the Communist party in the six brief chapters of American Hunger. However, he does devote limited space to the story of how he “managed to keep humanly alive through transfusions from books” and the story of how he learned his craft: “working nights I spent my days in experimental writing, filling endless pages with stream-of-consciousness Negro dialect, trying to depict the dwellers of the Black Belt as I felt and saw them.”25 And ever conscious of the need to refine his craft, Wright moved into other realms. He read Stein's Three Lives, Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, and Dostoevski's The Possessed. He strove to achieve the “dazzling magic” of Proust's pose in A Remembrance of Things Past: “I spent hours and days pounding out disconnected sentences for the sheer love of words. … I strove to master words, to make them disappear, to make them important by making them new, to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional stimuli, each feeding and reinforcing the other, and all ending in an emotional climax that would drench the reader with a sense of a new world. That was the single aim of my living.”26

Finally Wright was able to redeem himself with words. They moved him from Mississippi to Chicago to New York and eventually made Paris his home town. Using words, he hurled himself at the boundary lines of his existence. Goethe's saying that “Man can find no better retreat from the world than art, and man can find no stronger link with the world than art” sums up the conundrum of Wright's life.


  1. Richard Wright, American Hunger (New York, 1977), 135. It is unfortunate that American Hunger is such a late arrival. Its chief value is that it brings together for the first time in book form the second half of Wright's original autobiography, most of which was published in essay form in the Atlantic Monthly (August and September 1944), in the anthology Cross Section (1945), and in the September 1945 issue of Mademoiselle. Therefore, American Hunger is hardly new and surely not a lost literary treasure and fortuitously blown into public view by heaven's four winds. In any case, whatever the reason for its belated, posthumous publication, it has been effectively robbed of its capacity to affect significantly the public's mind. For despite the power of Black Boy and Native Son, they are now part and parcel of a bygone era. For a thorough discussion of this matter, see Jerry W. Ward, “Richard Wright's Hunger,” Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter, 1978), 148-153.

  2. Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York, 1945), 4.

  3. Ibid., 4.

  4. Ibid., 5.

  5. Ibid., 5.

  6. Ibid., 10-11.

  7. Ibid., 30.

  8. Ibid., 30-31.

  9. Ibid., 11.

  10. Ibid., 87.

  11. Ibid., 87.

  12. Ibid., 147.

  13. Ibid., 22.

  14. Ibid., 34.

  15. Ibid., 36.

  16. Ibid., 134.

  17. Ibid., 134.

  18. Ibid., 135.

  19. Ibid., 146.

  20. Ibid., 148.

  21. Ibid., 216.

  22. Ibid., 218-19.

  23. Ibid., 218.

  24. Richard Wright, American Hunger (New York, 1977), 93.

  25. Ibid., 24.

  26. Ibid., 25.

“The Horror and the Glory: Richard Wright's Portrait of the Artist in Black Boy and American Hunger” by Horace A. Porter. Printed by permission of the author.

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date November 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4559

SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “‘Last Call to the West’: Richard Wright's The Color Curtain.” In South Atlantic Review 59, no. 4 (November 1994): 77-88.

[In the following essay, Folks asserts that Wright's The Color Curtain includes insight on the relationship between the Western and non-Western worlds.]

As the record of Richard Wright's travel to Indonesia in 1955 to attend the Bandung Conference of African and Asian nations, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956) reveals Richard Wright's effort to understand his own identity in relation to non-Western cultures. In his capacity as a free-lance observer rather than delegate, Wright was perhaps more independent ideologically than others, although his indirect State Department funding (through the Congress for Cultural Freedom) without Wright's knowledge “was actually financed in part by the CIA” (Cobb 233). Without overestimating Wright's understanding of his non-Western subject (James Baldwin charges: “[Wright's] notions of society, politics, and history … seemed to me utterly fanciful” [148]), I hope to establish that The Color Curtain, in addition to telling much about Wright's independence as a thinker and his autobiographical predilections, says much that is still worth considering about the relationship of the West to the non-Western world. As Michel Fabre writes after considering Wright's relationship to America and to the non-Western world, “[Y]ou have probably noticed how modern his attitude is and how relevant to our present concerns with freedom, the cultural revolution, and the making of a world civilization” (139). In contrast to the personal isolation that James Baldwin theorizes in his essay “More Notes of a Native Son”—a critique of Wright's individualistic personality as well as of his limitations as a political theorist—Wright's impulse in The Color Curtain, in Black Power, and perhaps in Pagan Spain and The Outsider as well, is toward a broadening of community and a search for cultural connection.

Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Wright did come to Bandung—on an arduous flight to Indonesia from Madrid, via Rome, Cairo, Baghdad, Calcutta, and Bangkok—a journey that in itself is evidence of this impulse. It may well be that Wright's decision to travel to Africa in 1953 and to Indonesia in 1955 was related to his repressed hope of finding a satisfying “connection” with humanity, a desire for shared closeness despite what others read as his air of defensive superiority. Wright's very decision to undertake the arduous plane trip to Jakarta and to attend the Bandung Conference implied an interest in the psychological identification with the largest possible groups—to counter the anxiety that Russell Brignano terms his “disquietude about his own figurative survival” (103) as one who, at least in his literary education, felt himself to be the “product” of Western civilization. The ambivalence of Wright's position at the Bandung Conference as a person of color who was also an American, with all that America's world position in the 1950s implied, is figured into his own record of the trip and into his stance as an independent and somewhat reserved observer. Nonetheless, the essential conclusion to be drawn from The Color Curtain is that Wright, envisaging a non-Western cultural and political course distinct from Western as well as from Communist models, is searching for identity beyond himself and his own cultural limitations. The crucial truth is that, even as Wright often parroted assumptions of Western scientific superiority, he identified with the colonized peoples who had been the victims of this technology. His attitude toward African and Asian cultures often reflected the deepest divisions in his own psyche, based on his bitter struggle to achieve his own position in a Western society. It is no wonder that he was drawn to Africa and Asia, for through their colonized histories Wright was conducting an exploration of his own most profound psychological divisions. Wright's psychological ambivalence, however, should be read not merely as the private turmoil of a complex intellectual but also, and more significantly, as reflections of a more generally experienced consequence of postcolonialism. All of Wright's “private” ambivalence—over Western technological dominance, over secularism versus religious fundamentalism, over the destructiveness of colonialism toward indigenous cultures—keenly reflect his enormous sensitivity to the major human problems traced to the devastating effects of colonialism.

As Jack B. Moore notes, Wright was by temperament “a prickly thinker who seemed to go out of his way to express his feelings and ideas even when these were not popular” (“Black Power Revisited” 162). In The Color Curtain Wright records the background of the Bandung Conference and dutifully notes its major speakers, but his interest centers on what one might term the novelistic, on the agency of character and psychology, rather than on the political forum. Clearly Wright is impressed by the collective aspects of the conference: the gathering of leaders from twenty-nine nations, a “conglomeration of the world's underdogs” (CC [The Color Curtain] 135) representing over a billion people, which Wright describes as “the human race speaking.” His emphasis on masses and on the gathering of different cultures (“every religion under the sun”), creates ambivalent possibilities either for apocalyptic conflict or unprecedented unity. As he had in Black Power, in The Color Curtain Wright recognizes that the social environment under colonialism had created structures of dependence that were not easily removed in newly independent countries. “There is a nervous kind of dependence bred by imperialism,” he wrote of neocolonial paternalism (CC 112). As Cobb notes, “According to Wright, the greatest crime that took place under the aegis of imperialism was not economic exploitation, but the creation of a servile personality structure in the native population” (231).

The neocolonial ambitions of leaders such as Chinese premier Chou En-lai threatened the independence of other newly independent peoples. Wright also foresaw the danger of civil anarchy and unrest represented by “millions of restless and demanding people” with unrealistic expectations brought about by the newly achieved freedom of Asian and African nations. Wright predicted the unleashing of old hatreds and ethnic divisions, and he believed in the West's obligation to “interfere”: “civilization itself is built upon the right to interfere” (CC 211). As the proclaimed champion of human freedom and secular, scientific culture, America should “educate people in how to build a nation” (CC 212). The positive value of the West lay in its “secular outlook grounded in the disciplines of science” and industrial knowledge (CC 218). In his controversial paper “Tradition and Industrialization” presented at the first world conference of black writers, meeting in September 1956 in Paris, Wright announced that his “position is a split one,” that is, Western and black. For Wright, Western political thought was the source for important ideals of political freedom, justice, and equality, but as an African American of his generation he also felt deeply alienated from Western institutions.

Because his political thought was based on his own ideals and not on any systematic knowledge of pragmatic politics, Wright has been criticized for his political naiveté, and indeed he seems to have been unaware of or simply uninterested in the subtle behind-the-scenes maneuvering at Bandung. For example, Wright interpreted Nehru's abstention from the opening remarks as a sign of his “neutrality,” a wise strategy of the “great man.” According to Carlos Romulo, the pro-Western representative from the Philippines, Nehru in fact abstained because of his anger at being outvoted after he had adamantly opposed permitting opening statements by all nations. Chou En-lai's stance of compromise, which Wright interpreted as a shrewd gesture of “good will,” should be attributed, according to Romulo, to his lacking the diplomatic skill to steer the meeting his own way (14). Chou's “conciliatory posture,” noted by George Kahin, was also apparently a deliberate attempt to defuse the mounting tension between mainland China and the United States over Taiwan. Certainly Chou did not support the statement in the conference's final communiqué “that the cultures of Asia and Africa rest on spiritual foundations.” Nor could Chou have been pleased with the communiqué decision to oppose “all forms of colonialism” (Romulo 15), including implicitly Communist expansion in eastern Europe and Asia. Only in so far as Chou was able to use the issue of nuclear arms control was he successful diplomatically, according to Romulo.

Wright was unaware of or simply not interested in the diplomatic subtleties of negotiation underlying the final communiqué. While many representatives privately expressed their bitter memories of colonial domination, the focus of public statements was the necessity of economic cooperation. The final communiqué stresses, as its first point, the need for economic cooperation with the West based on the employment of foreign capital, stabilization of commodity trade, elimination of mercantilist practices, and the like. A section on the problems of dependent people does appear in the communiqué, but it is focused narrowly on the struggle of French colonies in North Africa. The material superiority and arrogance of America, coupled with its unequal foreign aid for Africa and Asia relative to Europe and its assumption that American-style democracy was right for Asia, were other points of criticism. As a consequence of his disinterest in politics per se, the essentially individualistic gestures that Wright saw as the focus of the conference—its “call to the West” and the role of the “Westernized Asian” in its deliberations—correspond little with what political scientists have stressed. According to Kahin, the difficult work of the conference was “defining the kind of colonialism the Conference was to condemn or the principles it would recommend for promotion of peace” (30), especially “the principle that freedom and peace are interdependent” (31). The results of the conference, Kahin notes, included the expression of a new Asian “dignity” and independence vis-à-vis the West; Chou En-lai's participation also promoted China's break with the Soviet Union by expanding its ties with the rest of Asia. Looking back from 1965, the Indonesian Executive Command saw the significance of Bandung as strengthening nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, encouraging governmental cooperation among African and Asian states, and promoting nongovernmental cooperation, as in the 1958 African-Asian Writers' Conference that “urged all African-Asian writers to develop national literature” and to spurn “modern civilization” for its own sake (Revolutionary Flame 31).

Thus, from the perspective of many political observers, Wright's report on the Bandung Conference might well be termed subjective or idiosyncratic. If Moore's statement that “Wright sometimes creates his own Africa” in Black Power is accurate (“Black Power Revisited” 185), is the same true for his “creation” of Asia in The Color Curtain? Did Wright assume too readily that, as an African American, he could identify with the African and Asian peoples represented at Bandung? As Robert Felgar notes, such is the “essential Wrightian theme” that appears in White Man, Listen! (1957) and other books: “[Wright] had an obsession for seeing that the position of blacks in the Deep South is only the situation of all the dark races, of all the oppressed, on a global scale” (150). Wright may also have felt that his association with African writers and his earlier visit to the Gold Coast, out of which he published Black Power, had prepared him for Bandung. Certainly he had long shared a friendship with the Afro-Caribbean writer George Padmore (who had arranged his visit to the Gold Coast in 1953), with C. L. R. James, and with other Pan-Africanists living in London. His reading of the writings of Franz Fanon offered some theoretical framework for his understanding. After 1948, with his move to Paris, he was associated with the influential journal Presénce Africaine and developed friendships with French-speaking adherents of negritude and black power, including Alionne Diop, Aimé Cesaire, and Leopold Senghor. In a general sense, at least, Wright's background did in fact prepare him for the issues of class, race, religion, and colonialism underlying the conference. Certainly Wright had experienced poverty and racial oppression; he had also suffered from an intensely fundamentalist religious upbringing, and he understood from personal experience the economic and cultural restrictions of colonialism.

The sympathies that Wright brought to Bandung had been formed very early in his life. Margaret Walker goes so far as to single out Wright's early experiences in the South as the primary determinants of his personality. As Walker writes: “He reflects almost in totality the mirror image of racism in the South as it is seen in both black and white men” (181). As elsewhere in his writing, Wright both analyzes and reacts passionately to the racial issues he encounters at Bandung. Whether he suffered from a “flawed personality” as a result of “the psychic wound of racism” (Walker 295) is a question of interpretation; certainly, he struggled with and against his psychological ambivalence all his life. In both Black Power and The Color Curtain Wright in fact assumes a close analogy between his Southern experience and the colonial experience of Africa and Asia. In certain passages of Black Power it is difficult to determine whether he is writing about Africa or the American South, for Wright's views on Africa and Asia as well are often reminiscent of what he wrote concerning African American experience in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), where in his foreword he stressed the movement toward urbanization of twentieth-century African Americans. Socially conditioned by “what we see before our eyes each day,” African Americans inevitably become westernized (12 Million 48) yet they have at the same time “never been allowed to be a part of western, industrial civilization” (127).

The psychological alienation resulting from colonization is shared by Wright and by many Bandung representatives of formerly colonized peoples. Following the African diaspora, Wright states, American life is “the only life we remember or have ever known” (12 Million 146), yet tragically Wright himself felt alienated from both Africa and European America. As he wrote in Black Boy: “In all my life—though surrounded by many people—I had not had a single satisfying, sustained relationship with another human being” (Later Works 249). He wrote in The Outsider (projecting his autobiographical feelings into the character of Damon Cross) that “he needed these people and could become human only with them” (Later Works 509). The intensity of Wright's desire to establish connection with others—and its relationship to Wright's situation as an African American living in exile—is underlined in The Outsider when he analyzes Cross: “What really obsessed him was his nonidentity which negated his ability to relate himself to others” (Later Works 525).

Because of his own sensitivity as an outsider to much of postwar African American culture and to American culture in general, Wright fixes on an apparently minor aspect of the Bandung Conference: the “westernized Asian” also alienated from his own culture. It should be no surprise, given the consistent focus on such a character throughout his fiction and travel writing, that a major theme of The Color Curtain becomes the plight of the alienated intellectual, separated from his traditional roots but not accepted by modern Western culture. One example of the westernized Asian is the educated Indonesian whom Wright meets and who feels “that Western contact has had an emancipating effect upon him and his people, smashing the irrational ties of custom and tradition” (CC 47). Wright notes the constant self-consciousness of the cultural hybrid who, like Wright himself (a life-long sufferer from gastrointestinal disorders and associated ailments) experiences chronic anxiety resulting from cultural insecurity. Wright finds that “the classical conception of the East is dead even for the Easterner” (CC 70) and that “the Asian elite was, in many ways, more Western than the West” (CC 71), yet cultural leadership has passed from the West to a future that non-Western culture will shape. Without considering the possibilities for new forms of exploitation, Wright predicts that cheap non-Western labor will break Western economic power.

In his consideration of the economic potential of formerly colonized nations, Wright showed a great deal more perception and independence than did the Western journalistic media, yet he shared the fear of “racism in reverse” expressed in the Western press. The pervasive sense in the American and European press was that the Bandung Conference, at which whites were excluded, was a “planning stage” for an African-Asian “combination” impelled by bitterness toward the West, a perspective that is also reflected in contemporary reviews of The Color Curtain (see Reilly 273-85). As Wright notes: “Everyone read into it his own fears” (CC 93). The very numbers that arouse Wright's interest also contain the potential for a misuse of power. When Wright receives his press card ahead of a white journalist, he experiences the disturbing power of racism: “[I]t was simply a question of color, which was an easy way of telling friend from foe” (CC 114). Interestingly, the official representatives at Bandung did not stress their numbers in the same way that Wright and the Western press did. Rather, as Carlos Romulo stated in the conclusion of his opening speech at the conference (from which he quotes in his 1956 book), “Our strength flows not out of our number though the numbers we represent are great. It flows out of our perception of history and out of vital purpose for tomorrow” (58).

What Wright most feared was not the newfound power of the formerly colonized nations—a changing order that he accepted and celebrated—but the potential misuse of power through an irrational combination of ethnic and religious emotionalism. In the postcolonial world Wright observed that “a racial consciousness, evoked by the attitudes and practices of the West, had slowly blended with a defensive religious feeling: here, in Bandung, the two had combined into one: a racial and religious system of identification manifesting itself in emotional nationalism which was now leaping state boundaries and melting and merging, one into the other” (CC 140; Wright's emphasis). In Black Power and in The Color Curtain he “demonstrate[s] his suspicions of political leaders whose control of the masses seemed based on religious fervor and mysterious impulses” (Moore, “Dream of Africa” 235).

The characterization of passionate religion as non-Western indicates that Wright believed that in his own fundamentalist upbringing he had been victimized by the proselytizing force of Christianity. As Cobb points out, Wright applied the same lesson to non-Westerners dominated by custom and mysticism that he had drawn from his own rebellion: “The rural, religious milieu that he rejected spelled poverty and degradation” (238), and only secular humanism could secure progress. Margaret Walker notes that Wright “was adamant against all religious faiths,” including African religion (231). Felgar may be correct in noticing that Wright saw that Moslems “could use their strict, life-pervading religion to help themselves” (145), but Islam was especially troubling to Wright, in part because of his close personal associations with Jewish radicals in Chicago, and in part owing to his marriage to a Jewish woman. In Moslem belief he saw “the firm rejection by the Asian mind of a division between the secular and the sacred” (Felgar 124). Wright's distaste for all forms of religious passion is captured in his scornful characterization of “the men of the East” as “religious animals” (CC 80).

It is curious, given his friendship with a number of African writers and his interest in African and Asian culture, including the cultures of Japan and China, that Wright should be so often seen as wanting to impose Western culture on non-Western societies. Yet the interpretation that Wright believed “the culturally subjugated country's vacuum can be filled in some way by such Western values as individualism, rationality, technology, science” (Felgar 143) can certainly be supported by passages in Wright's writing, if not by his work as a whole. Felgar states the “paradox” in Wright's attitude toward Africa: “[T]hey should throw the West out and then become as Western as possible” (Felgar 155). The irrevocable “triumph” of Western over Pakistani culture (CC 70; qtd. in Felgar 143) is representative of Wright's view of the lack of cultural vitality in Africa and Asia, at least outside of India, China, and Japan. In Black Power, to cite another example, Wright repeats a common misconception that the products of material culture cannot survive long in the hot, humid climate of West Africa. Combined with the effects of five hundred years of colonialism, much of Africa and Asia were, in Wright's opinion, left without a vital indigenous culture. The same traumatizing process had, in Wright's view, affected African Americans, so that in Native Son, despite Bigger's relationships to family and to a few others, “Wright intended [him] to be a man without a culture” (Ochshorn 387).

Despite Wright's belief that the process of colonization has destroyed much of non-Western culture, it is not accurate to say that he believed that Western culture could, or should, fill the vacuum left by this destruction. Wright obviously admired many aspects of Western culture, particularly its technological prowess and its tradition of secular humanism. Nonetheless, he recognized the need for self-determination as the first requirement of developing countries, and he looked toward a future in which Africa and Asia would take the lead in economic and political terms. Given Wright's tendency toward dramatic generalizations, it is difficult to achieve a balanced and fair view of his writing in relationship to the developing world. First of all, Wright's psychology was itself that of a complicated genius projecting into the minds of characters his own inner divisions and of entire cultures. His most vivid responses to Bandung were to human feelings rather than to political arguments. (One should note that he imagines a world “without ideology” in ideal terms, as he says that “maybe ideology was a weapon that suited only certain hostile conditions of life” [CC 176].) Wright was rarely inaccurate in capturing the human motives and fears of the characters he created, but these created personae could hardly correspond to the objective observations of less creative observers. Furthermore, Wright did not have the advantage of recent cultural studies discrediting Western hegemony; he wrote at the very moment in history when Western power and wealth, especially American power and wealth, appeared most imposing.

Perhaps, however, even given his limitations, Wright saw more clearly than many of his contemporary critics. He may have intuitively understood that cultural nationalism of the kind that romanticizes the past simply promotes further colonial domination. As Wimal Dissanayake writes, Wright prodded non-Westerners “to scrutinize and reject those aspects of their culture and personality which conformed to the terms defined by the regnant discourse and thereby pave the way for the assertion of their own identity” (484). Wright did not accept the simplistic notion that modernization was inimical to non-Western cultural identity. Industrialization, in Wright's view, presented formerly colonized nations with an opportunity for creative endeavor that would be meaningful in a modern context and would thereby help those peoples regain belief in themselves (Dissanayake 486).

Wright's analysis is perhaps even more controversial today than when he published his conclusions in Black Power and The Color Curtain, for Wright clearly had little patience with the kind of interest in mystical and irrational forces that is now asserted as an alternative to Western linear thinking. Clyde Taylor effectively summarizes a certain direction in non-Western writing toward a “transrational consciousness” with emphasis on oral culture, ritual, sacred symbology, nonlinear organization of time and space, and magic (795). This conception of the non-Western, which Taylor traces in recent post-colonial fiction and which John Edgar Wideman invokes in speaking of “a powerful, indigenous vernacular tradition” in African American culture (vii), is certainly very far from the future Wright envisaged.

To the extent that he does feel hopeful, Wright places his faith in the interrelationship of cultures. The West must learn from and respect non-Western cultures, but Africa and Asia may also learn from the West. Wright's appreciation for American technology and comfort, noted by Margaret Walker (209), reflected his lifelong regard for the value of science and technology, as well as his personal discomfort with disorder and squalor of any sort, yet one should not dismiss the sincerity or extent of Wright's interest in non-Western societies. The future, as Wright envisages it, involves a new leadership on the part of African, Asian, and African American cultures. Admittedly Wright's knowledge of these cultures, even (as Baldwin charges) of postwar African American society, was at times superficial and his pronouncements tactless, yet his fundamental vision of the relationship of Western and non-Western cultures should not be dismissed out of hand.

Indeed, Wright's very first publication, a poem appearing in Left Front, had, in his own words, “linked white life with black, merged two streams of common experience,” and he had discovered his ambition, to “make these lives merge with the lives of the mass of mankind” (Later Works 303, 316). The effort to find a common humanity, to “bind men together in a common unity” (CC 24), reflects Wright's overriding fear of a primal violence that he sees rooted in racism and religious passion. In literary terms, Wright promotes a “broadening” of postcolonial writing toward “the common themes and burdens of literary expression which are the heritage of all men” (White Man, Listen! qtd. in Brignano 111). As Margaret Walker noted perceptively, “Mind and body he wandered over the earth seeking always a common ground of humanity” (212). She sees Wright's dream as moderate, not radical; it is “to have an ordered, rational world in which we all can share” (202).

Underlining his plea with capitalization, Wright characterizes Bandung as “THE LAST CALL OF WESTERNIZED ASIANS TO THE MORAL CONSCIENCE OF THE WEST!” (CC 202). A “de-Occidentalized world” in which non-Western societies will develop autonomously need not reject the humanistic political tradition of human dignity and individual freedom that Wright valued so highly. It is significant that Wright's last public speech, delivered on 8 November 1960 at the American Church in Paris, dealt with the policies of the West toward developing nations. To the very end of his life, Wright carried his dream of a world governed by ideals of reason and individual dignity in which all cultures would contribute and from which all would benefit. Standing almost alone against the reigning climate of bitterness and global distrust in which he lived, Wright continued to uphold those values of reason, progress, and humanity he believed could be shared by all cultures.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Dell, 1963.

Brignano, Russell Carl. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970.

Cobb, Nina Kressner. “Richard Wright and the Third World.” Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani. Boston: Hall, 1982. 228-39.

Dissanayake, Wimal. “Richard Wright: A View from the Third World.” Callaloo 9.3 (1986): 481-91.

Fabre, Michel. “Wright's Exile.” Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. Ed. David Ray and Robert T. Farnsworth. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1973. 121-39.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Hall, 1980.

Kahin, George. The Asian-African Conference. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1956.

Moore, Jack B. “Black Power Revisited: In Search of Richard Wright.” Mississippi Quarterly 41 (1988): 161-86.

———. “Richard Wright's Dream of Africa.” Journal of African Studies 2 (1975): 231-46.

Ochshorn, Kathleen. “The Community of Native Son.Mississippi Quarterly 42 (1989): 387-92.

Reilly, John M., ed. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. New York: Franklin, 1978.

The Revolutionary Flame of Bandung. Jakarta: The Executive Command, n.d.

Romulo, Carlos. The Meaning of Bandung. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1956.

Taylor, Clyde. “Black Writing as Immanent Humanism.” Southern Review 21 (1985): 790-99.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man; A Critical Look at His Work. New York: Warner, 1988.

Wideman, John Edgar. Preface. Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. Ed. Terry McMillan. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Wright, Richard. Black Power. New York: Harper, 1954.

———. Later Works. New York: Library of America, 1991.

———. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland: World, 1956.

———. Pagan Spain. 1956. London: Bodley Head, 1960.

———. 12 Million Black Voices. 1941. New York: Arno, 1969.

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11359

SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Nature, Haiku, and ‘This Other World’.” In Richard Wright and Racial Discourse, pp. 261-91. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hakutani chronicles Wright's interest in the haiku during his later years, contending that his experiments with this poetic form “poignantly express a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature.”]


In 1960, less than a year before his death, Wright selected, under the title This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner, 817 out of the about four thousand haiku he had composed since the summer of the previous year.1 His motive for writing so many haiku in the final years of his life is not entirely known, but he told Margrit de Sablonière, his Dutch translator and friend: “During my illness I experimented with the Japanese form of poetry called haiku; I wrote some 4,000 of them and am now sifting them out to see if they are any good.”2 It is also known that a young South African who loved haiku described the form to Wright, who in turn borrowed from him the four volumes of Haiku by R. H. Blyth, a well-detailed study of the genre and a commentary on the works of classic and some modern Japanese haiku poets.3

A reading of the haiku in This Other World, as well as the rest of his haiku, indicates that Wright, turning away from the moral, intellectual, social, and political problems dealt with in his prose work, found in nature his latent poetic sensibility. Above all, his fine pieces of poetry show, as do classic Japanese haiku, the unity and harmony of all things, the sensibility that man and nature are one and inseparable. In his prose work, despite the social and racial conflicts described, he had an insatiable desire to find peace and harmony in society. Bigger Thomas's muted protest before execution and Cross Damon's last message to his fellow human beings as he lies dying are meant to unite division in human life. Only when Fred Daniels in “The Man Who Lived Underground” achieves Zen-like enlightenment, his peace of mind with the world, is he shot dead by police. It is in another country that Fishbelly Tucker's quest for manhood, his dream of happiness and love, can be fulfilled. Although Wright wanted to belong to two cultures, American and African, as Black Power demonstrates, he was at times torn between the two worlds and remained an exile in Europe. His haiku, on the other hand, poignantly express a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature. While his prose exhibits a predilection for a rational world created by human beings out of their narcissistic image of themselves, the humanism expressed in his haiku goes beyond a fellowship of human beings. It means an awareness of what human beings share with all living things. The human images in his haiku represent life at its deepest level.

The genesis of Wright's poetic sensibility is clearly stated in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” even though his theory is Marxist and hence political rather than literary. An African American writer's perspective, Wright defines, “is that part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon paper. It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.”4 Wright established this vantage point in Black Boy, a nonfictional, autobiographical prose work. Yet he consciously created a poetic vision through and against which racial conflict could be depicted. The first chapter contains a long series of images from nature:

There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.

There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.

There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.

There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.

There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.

There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.

There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can. …

There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound. …

There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father's wrist. …

There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed. …

There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.

There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks. …

There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.

There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.

And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights.

(BB [Black Boy], 14-15)

Two kinds of natural images are intermingled. On the one hand, those representing harmony and tranquillity in nature are presented as simple descriptions: “rows of red and green vegetables,” “dew … on to my cheeks and shins,” “wild geese winging south,” “the tingling scent of burning hickory wood,” “green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound,” “the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks,” “clay dust potted with fresh rain,” “vast hazes of gold.” On the other hand, those representing stressful and violent events in nature relate to human conflict and violence: “the petty pride of sparrows,” “a solitary ant carrying a burden,” “a [tortured] delicate, blue-pink crawfish,” “a chicken [leaping] about blindly after its neck [is snapped],” “sugar cane being crushed,” “a hog stabbed through the heart,” and “the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.” What Wright calls a writer's perspective is not only a juxtaposition of the images of harmony with those of conflict, but also a use of images of conflict and violence in nature to allude to those same elements in society. In fact, one of Wright's haiku, “Don't they make you sad, / Those wild geese winging southward, / O lonely scarecrow?” (OW [This Other World], 581), originates from a passage quoted above: “There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.”

Another series of poetic images is included in the second chapter of Black Boy in the aftermath of a beating the young Wright has sustained after his bath for telling Granny, “When you get through, kiss back there” (BB, 49). Unlike the first series, this one predominantly consists of images from nature that generate feelings of joy and happiness, a sense of harmony between man and nature. “The days and hours,” Wright recalls, “began to speak now with a clear tongue. Each experience had a sharp meaning of its own” (BB, 53). Of the eighteen sentences beginning with “There was,” fourteen of them feature images of nature, harmony, and joy: “the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies”; “the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias”; “the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass”; “the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton”; “the pitying chuckle … when I watched a fat duck waddle across the back yard”; “the suspense I felt when I heard the taut, sharp song of a yellow-black bee hovering … above a white rose”; “the drugged, sleepy feeling that came from sipping glasses of milk”; “the slow, fresh, saliva-stimulating smell of cooking cotton seeds”; “the excitement of fishing in muddy country creeks with my grandpa on cloudy days”; “the puckery taste … when I ate my first half-ripe persimmon”; “the greedy joy in the tangy taste of wild hickory nuts”; “picking blackberries … with my fingers and lips stained black with sweet berry juice”; “the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich”; “the long, slow, drowsy days and nights of drizzling rain” (BB, 53-55).

Even the two sentences that contain images of unfriendly nature basically differ from those in the first series that contain images of society and conflict. The second series includes the following: “There was the fear and awe I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant whirring steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet green logs. … There was the morning when I thought I would fall dead from fear after I had stepped with my bare feet upon a bright little green garden snake” (BB, 54-55). But in these passages his feelings of anxiety have little to do with nature itself, since nature is not to blame for such feelings. Indeed, the poetic passages in Black Boy signify Wright's incipient interest in the exaltation of nature and the usefulness of natural images for his poetic sensibility.

The primacy of the spirit of nature over the strife of man is further pronounced in his later work, especially Black Power. In “Blueprint,” one of the theoretical principles calls for the African American writer to explore universal humanism, what is common among all cultures. “Every iota of gain in human thought and sensibility,” Wright argues, “should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications.”5 After a journey into the Ashanti kingdom in West Africa in 1953, when he was forty-five, he wrote in Black Power:

The truth is that the question of how much of Africa has survived in the New World is misnamed when termed “African survivals.” The African attitude toward life springs from a natural and poetic grasp of existence and all the emotional implications that such an attitude carries; it is clear, then, that what the anthropologists have been trying to explain are not “African survivals” at all—they are but the retention of basic and primal attitudes toward life.

(BP [Black Power], 266)

Wright's exploration of the Ashanti convinced him that the defense of African culture meant renewal of Africans' faith in themselves. He realized for the first time that African culture was buttressed by universal human values, such as awe of nature, family kinship and love, faith in religion, and honor, that had made the African survival possible. This primal outlook on life that he witnessed in Africa had a singular influence on his poetic vision.

Before discussing Ashanti culture, he quotes a passage from Edmund Husserl's Ideas that suggests that the world of nature is preeminent over the scientific vision of that world, that intuition is preeminent over knowledge in the search for truth. This relationship of human beings to their world is somewhat remindful of Emerson, who emphasizes the preeminence of the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical. As Emerson urges his readers to realize their world rather than to attain material things, Wright defines the primal vision in African culture as the preeminence of spirit over matter.

Similarly, Wright's interpretation of African philosophy recalls a teaching in Zen Buddhism. Unlike the other sects of Buddhism, Zen teaches that every individual possesses Buddhahood and all he or she must do is realize it. One must purge one's mind and heart of any materialistic thoughts or feelings and appreciate the wonder of the world here and now. Zen is a way of self-discipline and self-reliance. Its emphasis on self is derived from the prophetic admonishment Gautama Buddha is said to have given to his disciples: “Seek within, you are the Buddha.” Zen's emphasis on self-enlightenment is indeed analogous to Emersonian transcendentalism, in which an individual is taught to discipline the self and look within, for divinity resides not only in nature but also in human beings.

But there are differences between Zen and Emerson. Fascinated by the mysticism of the East, Emerson adapted to his own poetical use many allusions to Eastern religions. From time to time, however, one is surprised to find in his essays an aversion to Buddhism. This “remorseless Buddhism,” he wrote in his Journals, “lies all around, every enterprise, every sentiment, has its ruin in this horrid Infinite which circles us and awaits on dropping into it.” Although such a disparaging remark may betray the young Emerson's unfamiliarity with the religion, as Frederic Ives Carpenter has suggested, this passage may also indicate Emerson's aversion to the concept of nirvana. For Emerson, the association of this Buddhistic enlightenment with an undisciplined state of oblivion to the self and the world is uncongenial to his stoicism and self-reliance.6Satori in Zen is an enlightenment that transcends time and place and even the consciousness of self. The African primal outlook upon existence, in which a person's consciousness, as Wright explains, corresponds to the spirit of nature, has a closer resemblance to the concept of enlightenment in Zen than it does to Emersonian transcendentalism. To the African mind and to Zen, divinity exists in nature only if the person is intuitively conscious of divinity in the self. To Emerson and Whitman, for example, God exists in nature regardless of whether the person is capable of such intuition.

Just as, in Zen, a tree contains satori only when the viewer can see it through his or her enlightened eyes, Wright saw in African life a closer relationship between human beings and nature than between human beings and their social and political environment:

Africa, with its high rain forest, with its stifling heat and lush vegetation, might well be mankind's queerest laboratory. Here instinct ruled and flowered without being concerned with the nature of the physical structure of the world; man lived without too much effort; there was nothing to distract him from concentrating upon the currents and countercurrents of his heart. He was thus free to project out of himself what he thought he was. Man has lived here in a waking dream, and, to some extent, he still lives here in that dream.

(BP, 159)

Wright thus created an image of the noble black man: Africa evokes in one “a total attitude toward life, calling into question the basic assumptions of existence,” just as Zen teaches one a way of life completely independent of what one has been socially and politically conditioned to lead. As if echoing the enlightenment of Zen, Wright says: “Africa is the world of man; if you are wild, Africa's wild; if you are empty, so's Africa” (BP, 159).

Wright's discussion of the African concept of life is also suggestive of Zen's emphasis on transcending the dualism of life and death. Just as Zen master Dogen taught that life and death are beyond human control and not separate, the funeral service Wright saw in an Ashanti tribe showed him that “the ‘dead’ live side by side with the living; they eat, breathe, laugh, hate, love, and continue doing in the world of ghostly shadows exactly what they had been doing in the world of flesh and blood” (BP, 213), a portrayal of life and death reminiscent of Philip Freneau's “Indian Burial.”

Wright was moreover fascinated by the African reverence for nonhuman beings, a primal African attitude that corresponds to Buddhist belief. He thus observed:

The pre-Christian African was impressed with the littleness of himself and he walked the earth warily, lest he disturb the presence of invisible gods. When he wanted to disrupt the terrible majesty of the ocean in order to fish, he first made sacrifices to its crashing and rolling waves; he dared not cut down a tree without first propitiating its spirit so that it would not haunt him; he loved his fragile life and he was convinced that the tree loved its life also.

(BP, 261-62)

The concept of unity, continuity, and infinity underlying life and death is what the Akan religion and Buddhism share. Interviewed by L'Express in 1955 shortly after the publication of Black Power, Wright was asked, “Why do you write?” He responded, “The accident of race and color has placed me on both sides: the Western World and its enemies. If my writing has any aim, it is to try to reveal that which is human on both sides, to affirm the essential unity of man on earth.”7 When Wright was among the Ashanti, he was not conscious of an affinity between the two religions, but as he later read Blyth's explanation of Zen and its influence upon haiku, he found both religious philosophies fundamentally alike. Indeed, his reading of the African mind conforms to both religions in their common belief that mankind is not at the center of the universe. It is this revelatory and emulating relationship between nature and human beings that makes the African primal outlook upon life akin to Zen Buddhism.


Like transcendentalists such as Emerson and Whitman, Japanese haiku poets were inspired by nature, especially its beautiful scenes and seasonal changes.8 Although the exact origin of haiku is not clear, the close relationship haiku has with nature suggests the ways in which the ancient Japanese lived on their islands. Where they came from is unknown, but they must have adapted their living to the ways of nature. Many were farmers; others were hunters, fishermen, and warriors. While they often confronted nature, they always tried to live in harmony with it: Buddhism and Shintoism constantly taught them that the soul existed in them as well as in nature, the animate and the inanimate alike, and that nature must be preserved as much as possible. Interestingly, haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism—ugly aspects of nature. Instead haiku poets were attracted to such objects as flowers, trees, birds, sunsets, the moon, and genuine love. Those who earned their livelihood by labor had to battle with the negative aspects of nature, but noblemen, priests, writers, singers, and artists found beauty and pleasure in natural phenomena. Since the latter group of people had the time to idealize or romanticize nature and impose a philosophy on it, they became an elite group of Japanese culture. Basho (1644-1694) was an essayist, Buson (1715-1783) was a painter, and Issa (1762-1826) was a Buddhist priest, and each of them was also an accomplished haiku poet.

The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka, or Japanese song, the oldest verse form of thirty-one syllables in five lines (5-7-5-7-7). As an amusement at the court one person would compose the first three lines of a waka and another person was challenged to provide the last two lines to complete the verse. The haiku form, a verse of seventeen syllables arranged 5-7-5, with such exceptions as 5-7-6 and 5-8-5, thus corresponds to the first three lines of the waka. Hyakunin Isshu (One hundred poems by one hundred poets), a waka anthology compiled in 1235 by Fujiwara no Sadaiye, contains haikulike verses, such as Sadaiye's “Chiru Hana wo” (The Falling Blossoms):

Chiru hana wo
Oikakete yuku
Arashi kana
The falling blossoms:
Look at them, it is the storm
That is chasing them.(9)

The focus of this verse is the poet's observation of a natural object, the falling blossoms. To a beautiful picture Sadaiye adds his feeling about this phenomenon: it looks as though a storm is pursuing the falling flower petals.

This seventeen-syllable verse form was preserved by noblemen, courtiers, and high-ranked samurai for more than two centuries after the publication of Hyakunin Isshu. Around the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, the verse form became popular among the poets. It constituted a dominant element of another popular verse form called renga, or linked song. A renga consisted of a continuous chain of verses of fourteen (7-7) and seventeen (5-7-5) syllables, each independently composed, but connected as one poem. The first collection of renga, Chikuba Kyogin Shu, contains over two hundred tsukeku (adding verses) linked with the first verses of another poet. As the title of this renga collection suggests, the salient characteristic of renga was a display of ingenuity and coarse humor. Chikuba Kyogin Shu also collected twenty hokku (starting verses). Because the hokku was considered the most important verse of a renga series, it was usually composed by the senior poet attending a renga session. The fact that this collection included fewer hokku in proportion to tsukeku indicates the poets' interest in the comic nature of the renga.10

By the 1680s, when Matsuo Basho wrote the first version of his celebrated poem on the frog jumping into the old pond, haikai, an older poetic genre from which haiku evolved, had become a highly stylized expression of poetic vision. Basho's poem was totally different from most of the haikai poems written by his predecessors: it was the creation of a new perception and not merely an ingenious play on words. As most scholars observe, the changes and innovations brought about in haikai poetry were not accomplished by a single poet.11 Basho and his contemporaries attempted to create the serious haikai, the verse form known in modern times as haiku. The haiku, then, was a unique poetic genre that was short but could offer more than wit or humor: a haiku late in the seventeenth century became a crystallized expression of one's vision and sensibility.

To explain Basho's art of haiku, Yone Noguchi, a noted bilingual poet and critic, quoted “Furu Ike ya” (“The Old Pond”):

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobi komu
Mizu no oto
The old pond!
A frog leapt into—
List, the water sound!(12)

One may think a frog an absurd poetic subject, but Basho focused his vision on a scene of desolation, an image of nature. The pond was perhaps situated on the premises of an ancient temple whose silence was suddenly broken by a frog plunging into the deep water. As Noguchi conceived the experience, Basho, a Zen Buddhist, was “supposed to awaken into enlightenment now when he heard the voice bursting out of voicelessness, and the conception that life and death were mere change of condition was deepened into faith.”13 Basho was not suggesting that the tranquillity of the pond meant death or that the frog symbolized life. He was describing the sensation of hearing the sound bursting out of soundlessness. A haiku is not a representation of goodness, truth, or beauty; there is nothing particularly good, true, or beautiful about a frog's leaping into the water.

It seems as though Basho, in writing the poem, carried nature within him and brought himself to the deepest level of nature where all sounds lapse into the world of silence and infinity. Although his vision is based upon reality, it transcends time and space. What a Zen poet like Basho is showing is that man can do enough naturally, enjoy doing it, and achieve his peace of mind. This fusion of man and nature is called spontaneity in Zen. The best haiku, because of their linguistic limitations, are inwardly extensive and outwardly infinite. A severe constraint imposed on one aspect of haiku must be balanced by a spontaneous, boundless freedom on the other.

From a Zen point of view, such a vision is devoid of intellectualism and emotionalism. Since Zen is the most important philosophical tradition influencing Japanese haiku, the haiku poet aims at understanding the spirit of nature. Basho thus recognizes little division between man and nature, the subjective and the objective; he is never concerned with the problems of good and evil. The satori that the Zen poet seeks is defined as the state of mu, nothingness, which is absolutely free of any thought or emotion; it is so completely free that such a state corresponds to that of nature. For a Zen-inspired poet, nature is a mirror of the enlightened self; one must see and hear things as they really are by making one's consciousness pure and clear. Classic haiku poets like Basho, Buson, and Issa avoided expressions of good and evil, love and hate, individual feeling and collective myth; their haiku indeed shun such sentiments altogether. Their poetry is strictly concerned with the portrayal of nature—mountains, trees, flowers, birds, waterfalls, nights, days, seasons. For the Japanese haiku poet, nature reflects the enlightened self; the poet must always make his or her consciousness pure, natural, and unemotional. “Japanese poets,” Noguchi wrote, “go to Nature to make life more meaningful, sing of flowers and birds to make humanity more intensive.”14

The haiku poet may aim not only at expressing sensation but also at generalizing and hence depersonalizing it. This characteristic can be shown even by one of Basho's lesser-known haiku:

Hiya hiya to
Kabe wo fumaete
Hirune kana(15)
How cool it is,
Putting the feet on the wall:
An afternoon nap.

Basho was interested in expressing how his feet, anyone's feet, would feel when placed on a wall in the house on a warm summer afternoon. His subject was none other than this direct sensation. He did not want to convey any emotion, any thought, any beauty; there remained only poetry, only nature.

Because of their brevity and condensation, haiku seldom provide details. The haiku poet delineates only an outline or a highly selective image, and the reader must complete the vision. Above all, a classic haiku, as opposed to a modern one, is required to include a clear reference to one of the four seasons. In Basho's “The Old Pond,” said to be written in the spring of 1686, a seasonal reference to spring is made by the frog in the second line: the plunging of a single frog into the deep water suddenly breaks the deadly quiet. Although the frog traditionally is a kigo, a seasonal reference, to spring, Yone Noguchi interprets “The Old Pond” as an autumnal haiku: “the Japanese mind turns it into high poetry (it is said that Basho the author instantly awoke to a knowledge of the true road his own poetry should tread with this frog poem; it has been regarded in some quarters as a thing almost sacred although its dignity is a little fallen of late) … because it draws at once a picture of an autumnal desolation reigning on an ancient temple pond.”16 As a result, the poet's perception of the infinitely quiet universe is intensified. It is also imperative that a haiku be primarily concerned with nature; if a haiku deals with man's life, that life must be viewed in the context of nature rather than of society.

The predilection to portray man's life in association with nature means that the poet is more interested in genuinely human sentiments than in moral, ethical, or political problems. That haiku thrives upon the affinity between man and nature can be illustrated by this famous haiku by Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775), a foremost woman poet in her age:

Asagao ni
Tsurube torarete
Morai mizu(17)
A morning glory
Has taken the well bucket:
I'll borrow water.

Since a fresh, beautiful morning glory has grown on her well bucket overnight, Chiyo does not mind going to her neighbor to borrow water. Not only does her action show a desire to preserve nature, but the poem also conveys a natural and tender feeling for nature. A classic haiku, while it shuns human-centered emotions, thrives upon such a nature-centered feeling as Chiyo's. Nor can this sensibility be explained by logic or reason. Longer poems are often filled with intellectualized or moralized reasoning, but haiku avoid such language.

Because the haiku is limited in its length, it must achieve its effect through an internal unity and harmony. Feelings of unity and harmony, indicative of Zen philosophy, are motivated by a desire to perceive every instant in nature and life: an intuition that nothing is alone, nothing is out of the ordinary. One of Basho's later haiku displays this sense of unity and relatedness:

Aki fukaki
Tonari wa nani wo
Suru hito zo(18)
Autumn is deepening:
What does the neighbor do
For a living?

Although a serious poet, Basho was enormously interested in the commonplace and in common people. As autumn approaches winter and he nears the end of his life, he takes a deeper interest in his fellow human beings. His observations of the season and his neighbor, a total stranger, are separate, yet they intensify each other. His vision, as it is unified, evokes a deeply felt sentiment. In haiku, two entirely different things are joined in sameness: spirit and matter, present and future, doer and deed, word and thing, meaning and sensation. Basho's oft-quoted “A Crow” depicts a crow perching on a withered branch, a moment of reality:

Kare eda ni
Karasu no tomari taruya
Aki no kure(19)
A crow
Perched on a withered tree
In the autumn evening.

This image of the crow is followed by the coming of an autumn nightfall, a feeling of future. Present and future, thing and feeling, man and nature, each defining the other, are thus unified.

The unity of sentiment in haiku is further intensified by the poet's expression of the senses. Basho's “Sunset on the Sea,” for instance, shows the unity and relatedness of the senses:

Umi kurete
Kamo no koe
Honoka ni shiroshi(20)
Sunset on the sea:
The voices of the ducks
Are faintly white.

The voices of the ducks under the darkened sky are delineated both as white and as faint. Interestingly, the chilled wind after dark evokes the whiteness associated with coldness. The voices of the ducks and the whiteness of the waves refer to two entirely different senses, but, each reinforcing the other, the images create a unified sensation. This transference of the senses may occur between color and mood, as shown in a haiku by Usuda Aro, a contemporary Japanese poet:

Tsuma araba
Tozomou asagao
Akaki saku(21)
Were my wife alive,
I thought, and saw a morning glory:
It has blossomed red.

The first line conveys a feeling of loneliness, but the red morning glory reminds him of a happy life they spent when she was living. The redness—rather than the whiteness or blueness—of the flower is transferred to the feeling of happiness and love. The transference of the senses, in turn, arouses a sense of balance and harmony. His recollection of their happy marriage, a feeling evoked by the red flower, compensates for the death of his wife, a reality.

Well-wrought haiku thrive upon the fusion of man and nature and upon the intensity of love and beauty this fusion creates. A haiku by Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), Basho's first disciple and one of the most innovative poets, is exemplary:

Meigetsu ya
Tatami no ue ni
Matsu no kage(22)
The harvest moon:
Lo, on the tatami mats
The shape of a pine.

The beauty of the moonlight here is not only humanized by the light shining on the man-made object but also intensified by the shadows of a pine tree that fall upon the mats. The beauty of the shadow reflected on the man-made object is far more luminous than the light itself, for the intricate pattern of an ageless pine tree as it stamps the dustless mats intensifies the beauty of the moonlight. Not only does such a scene unify an image of man and an image of nature, but it also shows that man and nature do interact.


As the haiku has developed over the centuries, certain aesthetic principles have been established. To define and illustrate them is difficult since they refer to subtle perceptions and complex states of mind in the creation of poetry. Above all, these principles are governed by the Japanese national character as it developed over the centuries, and they do not necessarily mean the same today as they did in the seventeenth century. Discussion of these terms, furthermore, proves difficult simply because poetic theory does not always correspond to what poets actually write. It has also been true that the aesthetic principles of the haiku are often applied to other genres of Japanese art such as Noh drama, flower arrangement, and the tea ceremony.

One of the most delicate principles of Eastern art is called “yugen.” Originally yugen in Japanese art was an element of style pervasive in the language of Noh. It was also a philosophical principle that originated in Zen metaphysics. In Zen, as noted earlier, every individual possesses Buddhahood and must realize it. Yugen, as applied to art, designates the mysterious and dark, what underlies the surface. The mode of expression is subtle as opposed to obvious, suggestive rather than declarative. In reference to the works of Zeami, the author of many of the extant Noh plays, Arthur Waley expounds this difficult term:

It is applied to the natural grace of a boy's movements, to the gentle restraint of a nobleman's speech and bearing. “When notes fall sweetly and flutter delicately to the ear,” that is the yūgen of music. The symbol of yūgen is “a white bird with a flower in its beak.” “To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hid by far-off islands, to ponder on the journey of wild-geese seen and lost among the clouds”—such are the gates to yūgen.23

Such scenes convey a feeling of satisfaction and release, as does the catharsis of a Greek play, but yugen differs from catharsis because it has little to do with the emotional stress caused by tragedy. Yugen functions in art as a means by which man can comprehend the course of nature. Although yugen seems allied with a sense of resignation, it has a far different effect upon the human psyche. A certain type of Noh play like Takasago celebrates the order of the universe ruled by heaven. The mode of perception in the play may be compared to that of a pine tree with its evergreen needles, the predominant representation on the stage. The style of yugen can express either happiness or sorrow. Cherry blossoms, however beautiful they may be, must fade away; love between man and woman is inevitably followed by sorrow.

This mystery and inexplicability, which surround the order of the universe, had a strong appeal to a classic haiku poet like Basho. His “The Old Pond,” as discussed earlier, shows that while the poet describes a natural phenomenon realistically, he conveys his instant perception that nature is infinitely deep and absolutely silent. Such attributes of nature are not ostensibly stated; they are hidden. The tranquillity of the old pond with which the poet was struck remained in the background. He did not write “The rest is quiet”; instead he wrote “The sound of water.” The concluding image was given as a contrast to the background enveloped in quiet. Basho's mode of experience is suggestive rather than descriptive, hidden and reserved rather than overt and demonstrative. Yugen has all the connotations of modesty, concealment, depth, and darkness. In Zen painting, woods and bays, as well as houses and boats, are hidden; hence these objects suggest infinity and profundity. Detail and refinement, which would mean limitation and temporariness of life, destroy the sense of permanence and eternity.

Another frequently used term in Japanese poetics is sabi. This word, a noun, derives from the verb sabiru, to rust, implying that what is described is aged. Buddha's portrait hung in Zen temples, as the Chinese painter Liang Kai's Buddha Leaving the Mountains suggests, exhibits the Buddha as an old man in contrast to the young figure typically shown in other temples.24 Zen's Buddha looks emaciated, his environment barren: his body, his tattered clothes, the aged tree standing nearby, the pieces of dry wood strewn around—all indicate that they have passed the prime of their life and function. In this kind of portrait the old man with a thin body is nearer to his soul as the old tree with its skin and leaves fallen is nearer to the very origin and essence of nature.

Sabi is traditionally associated with loneliness. Aesthetically, however, this mode of sensibility smacks of grace rather than splendor; it suggests quiet beauty as opposed to robust beauty. Basho's “A Crow,” quoted earlier, best illustrates this principle. Loneliness, suggested by a single crow on a branch of an old tree, is reinforced by the elements of time indicated by nightfall and autumn. The picture is drawn with little detail and the overall mood is created by a simple, graceful description of fact. Furthermore, parts of the picture are delineated, by implication, in dark colors: the crow is black, the branch dark brown, the background dusky. The kind of beauty associated with the loneliness in Basho's poem is in marked contrast to the robust beauty depicted in a poem by Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704), Basho's disciple:

Hana mori ya
Shiroki kashira wo
Tsuki awase
The guardians
Of the cherry blossoms
Lay their white heads together.(25)

The tradition of haiku established in the seventeenth century produced eminent poets like Buson and Issa in the eighteenth century, but a revolt against this tradition took place toward the end of the nineteenth century under the banner of a young poet, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). On the one hand, Basho's followers, instead of becoming innovators, as was their master, resorted to an artificiality reminiscent of the comic renga. On the other hand, Issa, when he died, left no disciples. The Meiji restoration (1868) called for changes in all aspects of Japanese culture, and Shiki became a leader in the literary revolution. He launched an attack on the tradition by publishing a controversial essay, “Criticism of Basho.” In response to a haiku by Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), Basho's disciple, Shiki composed his own. Ransetsu's haiku had been written two centuries earlier:

Ki giku shira giku
Sono hoka no na wa
Yellow and white chrysanthemums:
What other possible names?
None can be thought of.

To Ransetsu's poem, Shiki responded with this one:

Ki giku shira giku
Hito moto wa aka mo
Yellow and white chrysanthemums:
But at least another one—
I want a red one.

Shiki advised his followers to compose haiku to please themselves. To Shiki, some of the conventional poems lacked direct, spontaneous expressions: a traditional haiku poet in his adherence to old rules of grammar and devices such as kireji (cutting word) resorted to artificial twisting of words and phrases.

A modernist challenge Shiki gave to the art of haiku, however, kept intact such aesthetic principles as yugen and sabi. Classic poets like Basho and Issa, who adhered to such principles, were also devout Buddhists. By contrast, Shiki, while abiding by the aesthetic principles, was regarded as an agnostic: his philosophy of life is demonstrated in this haiku:

Aki kaze ya
Ware ni kami nashi
Hotoke nashi(27)
The wind in autumn
As for me, there are no gods,
There are no Buddhas.

Although his direct references to the divinities of Japanese culture smack of a modernist style, the predominant image created by “the wind in autumn,” a conventional kigo (seasonal word), suggests a deep-seated sense of loneliness and coldness. Shiki's mode of expression in this haiku is based upon sabi.

Some well-known haiku poets in the twentieth century also preserve the sensibility of sabi. The predicament of a patient described in this haiku by Ishida Hakyo arouses sabi:

Byo shitsu ni
Su bako tsukuredo
Tsubame kozu(28)
In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows never appear.

Not only do the first and third lines indicate loneliness, but the patient's will to live suggested by the second line also evokes a poignant sensibility. To a modern poet like Hakyo, the twin problems of humanity are loneliness and boredom. He sees the same problems existing in nature, as this haiku by him illustrates:

Ori no washi
Sabishiku nareba
Hautsu ka mo
The caged eagle;
When lonely
He flaps his wings.(29)

The feeling of sabi is also aroused by the private world of the poet, the situation others cannot envision, as this haiku by Nakamura Kusatao, another modernist, shows:

Ka no koe no
Hisoka naru toki
Kui ni keri(30)
At the faint voices
Of the flying mosquitoes
I felt my remorse.

Closely related to sabi is a poetic sensibility called wabi. Traditionally wabi has been defined in sharp antithesis to a folk or plebeian saying, “Hana yori dango” (Rice dumplings are preferred to flowers). Some poets are inspired by the sentiment that human beings desire beauty more than food, a sentiment lacking in animals and other nonhuman beings. Wabi thus refers to the uniquely human perception of beauty stemmed from poverty. Wabi is often regarded as religious, as the saying “Blessed are the poor” suggests, but the spiritual aspect of wabi is based upon an aesthetic rather than a moral sensibility.

This mode of expression is often attributed to Basho, who did not come from a well-to-do family. Basho's life as an artist was that of a wandering bard, as recorded in his celebrated diaries and travelogues, the most famous of which is Oku no Hoso Michi (The narrow road of Oku). Nozarashi Kiko (A travel account of my exposure in the fields), one of Basho's earlier books of essays, opens with this revealing passage with two haiku:

When I set out on my journey of a thousand leagues I packed no provisions for the road. I clung to the staff of that pilgrim of old who, it is said, “entered the realm of nothingness under the moon after midnight.” The voice of the wind sounded cold somehow as I left my tumbledown hut on the river in the eighth moon of the Year of the Rat, 1684.

Nozarashi wo
Kokoro ni kaze no
Shimu mi ka na
Bones exposed in a field—
At the thought, how the wind
Bites into my flesh.
Aki too tose
Kaette Edo wo
Sasu kokyoo
Autumn—this makes ten years;
Now I really mean Edo
When I speak of “home.”(31)

The first haiku conveys a sense of wabi because the image of his bones suggests poverty and eternity. Although Basho has fallen of fatigue and hardship on his journey, he has reached a higher state of mind. The expression of wabi in this verse is characterized by the feelings of agedness, leanness, and coldness. Basho's attachment to art rather than to provision on his travel is shown in this haiku:

Michinobe no
Mukuge wa uma ni
Upon the roadside
Grew mallow flowers: my horse
Has eaten them all.(32)

Rikyu (1521-1591), the famed artist of the tea ceremony, wrote that food that is enough to sustain the body and a roof that does not leak are sufficient for man's life. For Basho, however, an empty stomach was necessary to create poetry. Among Basho's disciples, Rotsu (1651?-1739?), the beggar poet, is well known for having come into Basho's legacy of wabi. This haiku by Rotsu best demonstrates his state of mind:

Toridomo mo
Neitte iru ka
Yogo no umi
The water-birds too
Are asleep
On the lake of Yogo?(33)

Rotsu portrays a scene with no sight or sound of birds on the desolate lake. The withered reeds rustle from time to time in the chilly wind. It is only Rotsu the beggar and artist who is awake and is able to capture the beauty of the lake.

The sensibilities of yugen, sabi, and wabi all derive from the ways in which Japanese poets have seen nature over the centuries. Although the philosophy of Zen, on which the aesthetics of a poet like Basho is based, shuns emotion and intellect altogether, haiku is nonetheless concerned with one's feeling and thought. If haiku conveys the poet's feeling, that feeling must have been aroused by nature. That the art of haiku comes from man's affinity with nature is best explained by Basho in his travelogue Oi no Kobumi (Manuscript in my knapsack):

One and the same thing runs through the waka of Saigyō, the renga of Sōgi, the paintings of Sesshū, the tea ceremony of Rikyū. What is common to all these arts is their following nature and making a friend of the four seasons. Nothing the artist sees but is flowers, nothing he thinks of but is the moon. When what a man sees is not flowers, he is no better than a barbarian. When what he thinks in his heart is not the moon, he belongs to the same species as the birds and beasts. I say, free yourselves from the barbarian, remove yourself from the birds and beasts; follow nature and return to nature!34

Basho not only had great confidence in his art but he also believed that, though the form of haiku differs from that of any other art, the essence of haiku remains the same.


In trying his hand at haiku, Wright initially modeled his work after classic Japanese poets such as Moritake (1472-1549), Basho, Kikaku, Buson, and Issa. Two of the haiku in This Other World—“Off the Cherry Tree” (OW, 626) and “A Leaf Chases Wind” (OW, 669)—have a thematic resemblance to Moritake's famous hokku:

Rakka eda ni
Kaeru to mireba
Kochō kana
Fallen petals
Seemed to return to the branch,—
A butterfly!(35)

Both of Wright's haiku, “Off the Cherry Tree” and “A Leaf Chases Wind,” create an illusion similar to that in Moritake's poem. In “Off the Cherry Tree” a twig with its red blossom flies into the sun as if a bird flew off the cherry tree. Likewise “A Leaf Chases Wind” captures a scene in which a leaf seems to be chasing wind and shaking a pine tree rather than the other way around. (A literal translation of Moritake's first two lines would be, “A fallen flower appears to come back to its branch.”)

Interestingly enough, it is this hokku by Moritake that influenced Ezra Pound's composition of the famous metro poem, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals, on a wet, black bough.” Pound acknowledged for the first time in his career his indebtedness to the spirit of Japanese poetry in general and the art of haiku in particular. In the “Vorticism” essay, he quoted Moritake's hokku just before discussing his famous “In a Station of the Metro,” often regarded as the first published haiku written in English.36 According to Margaret Walker, Wright was fascinated by the American Imagists, including Pound, but Pound was not likely the original source of Wright's interest in haiku.37

Another pair of Wright's haiku in This Other World—“In the Silent Forest” (OW, 316) and “A Thin Waterfall” (OW, 569)—in their style and content are reminiscent of two of Basho's most celebrated haiku. Wright's “In the Silent Forest” echoes Basho's “It's Deadly Quiet”:

          It's deadly quiet:
Piercing into the rocks
          Is the shrill of cicada.

As Basho expresses the awe of quietude, Wright juxtaposes silence in the forest to the sound of a woodpecker. Similarly, Wright's “A Thin Waterfall” is akin to Basho's “A Crow,” quoted earlier. Basho, as noted earlier, focuses upon a single crow perching on a branch of an old tree,38 as does Wright upon a thin waterfall. In both haiku, the scene is drawn with little detail and the mood is provided by a simple, reserved description of fact. As parts of the scene are painted in dark colors, so is the background. Both haiku create the kind of beauty associated with the aesthetic sensibility of sabi that suggests loneliness and quietude as opposed to overexcitement and loudness.

It is legend that Basho inspired more disciples than did any other haiku poet and that Kikaku is regarded as Basho's most innovative disciple. Two of Wright's unpublished haiku, “Beads of Quicksilver” (OW, 106) and “A Pale Winter Moon” (OW, 671), bear some resemblance to Kikaku's “The Harvest Moon,” quoted earlier, since both poets emphasize an interaction between man and nature in the creation of beauty. In Kikaku's haiku, as pointed out earlier, the beauty of the harvest moon is intensified by the tatami mats, man-made objects, on which the shape of a pine tree is reflected as if it were a beautifully drawn painting. In Wright's first poem, an element of nature, “Beads of quicksilver,” is reinforced by a man-made object, “a black umbrella.” In “A Pale Winter Moon,” while the second line portrays the loneliness of a doll, a pale winter moon, a beauty of nature, is intensified by the presence of a man-made object.

This Other World includes a number of haiku that depict seasonal, climatic changes in nature, as do those by classic Japanese haiku poets. Wright's published “I Would Like a Bell” (OW, 13), for instance, is comparable to Buson's well-known “On the Hanging Bell” in the simple depiction of a spring scene:

          I would like a bell
Tolling in this soft twilight
          Over willow trees.
          On the hanging bell
Has perched and is fast asleep,
          It's a butterfly.

Buson was well known in his time as an accomplished painter, and many of his haiku reflect his singular attention to color and its intensification. Wright's unpublished “A Butterfly Makes” (OW, 82), for example, is reminiscent of Buson's “Also Stepping on”:

          Also stepping on
The mountain pheasant's tail is
          The spring setting sun.

For a seasonal reference to spring, Buson links an image of the bird with a spring sunset, because both are highly colored. As a painter he is also interested in an ambiguous impression the scene he has drawn gives him; it is not clear whether the setting sun is treading on the pheasant's tail or the tail on the setting sun. In any event, Buson has made both pictures beautiful to look at, just as Wright in his haiku draws pictures of a butterfly and the sunshine, themselves highly colorful and bright, which in turn intensify each other.

Although some of Wright's haiku in This Other World read like senryu, humorous, often graceless poems related to haiku in form, rather than like genuine haiku, a great majority of them are serious compositions in accordance with the basic principles and requirements of haiku. Many of his pieces show that one of his chief aims as a haiku poet is to create beauty in his perception of nature. These haiku illustrate his attempts to express newly perceived sensations in his close contact with nature. “The Path in the Woods” (OW, 76), portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. Similarly, “After the Parade” (OW, 262) expresses the pleasant sensation that the snow, a representation of nature, has absorbed the flags, a representation of society. And “I Wonder How Long” (OW, 662) expresses a surprising awareness that nature perpetually creates beauty whether man notices or not.

In “On the Pond's Green Scum” (OW, 84), “Spring Dawn Is Glinting” (OW, 177), and “On a Bayonet” (OW, 477), for example, the beauties of nature are intensified by contrast. “On the Pond's Green Scum” is a haiku of balance and harmony, which is characteristic of some classic and modern haiku. Not only does a yellow butterfly, an image of beauty, counterbalance the pond's green scum, an image of ugliness, but the entire scene becomes beautiful because of two yellow butterflies, perhaps a couple, instead of one. In “Spring Dawn Is Glinting” it looks as though the beauty of nature is toning down the ugly aspects of human life. Similarly, in “On a Bayonet,” the beauty of a spring moon at dawn mitigates the turmoil and suffering in human life.

Some of Wright's haiku, such as “The First Day of Spring” (OW, 173) and “A Blindman's Eyebrows” (OW, 241), as do some Japanese haiku, intensify an image of beauty through a sense of paradox. “The First Day of Spring” depicts the arrival of spring with winter lingering on the mountains. The bright sun intensifies the beauty of snow; as a paradox, the poem extols winter while celebrating spring. In “A Blindman's Eyebrows,” the autumn fog, while keeping the living from seeing, creates beads of light, a beautiful image, for a man who unfortunately cannot see.

Because Wright was deeply concerned with the creation of beauty in his haiku, he quite consciously used such aesthetic modes of expression as yugen, sabi, and wabi. Haiku criticism has traditionally apotheosized Basho's “The Old Pond,” the frog poem, for his manner of yugen, of describing what is hidden and hence mysterious. Interestingly enough, Wright's haiku “The Fog's Density” (OW, 318) and “Above Corn Tassels” (OW, 798) both focus on a frog's croaking, which sounds mysterious. In both poems the object depicted is hidden by a hazy mist as the croaking underscores a scene of mystery and nebulosity. In Wright's “Faint in Summer Haze” (OW, 388), green hills are hidden and nebulous because of a haze and clouds of flies.

Many of Wright's haiku also suggest the feeling typical of yugen that nothing in nature or human life remains the same and nothing is immortal. In “A Falling Petal” (OW, 83) the common destiny of a falling petal and a floating petal exhibits inevitable change in nature, as do the color and odor of a rose in “How Could This Rose Die?” (OW, 650). Similarly, in “Under the First Snow” (OW, 657), the color and sound of yellow leaves recall this change in nature.

Many of Wright's haiku are also composed in the manner of sabi, expressing loneliness, as does this published haiku by Wright:

          An autumn sunset:
A buzzard sails slowly past,
          Not flapping its wings.

(OW, 141)

Both “The Road Is Empty” (OW, 136) and “An Autumn Sunset,” quoted above, express loneliness, as does Basho's famous “A Crow,” with a reference to autumn. In Wright's unpublished “Yellow Petals Gone” (OW, 125), the third line, “a drizzling rain,” makes a clear reference to autumn, as do the other two pieces, and the second line, describing the sunflower with its yellow petals fallen off, reinforces a vision of loneliness. In “The Road Is Empty” and “An Autumn Sunset,” one empty road leading into hills and a single buzzard sailing slowly in the open sky without flapping its wings, respectively, convey loneliness and isolation.

Wright's “Don't They Make You Sad” (OW, 581), “From the Rainy Dark” (OW, 584), and “O Cat with Gray Eyes” (OW, 594) also exhibit modes of expression characteristic of sabi and yugen. As pointed out earlier, the middle line of “Don't They Make You Sad” originates from a passage in Black Boy. These three poems, with their dark backgrounds, all express feelings of loneliness as well as of mysteriousness.

Some contemporary Japanese haiku, though characterized by the sensibility of sabi, convey a sense of balance and harmony in human life. Such a mode of expression is also characteristic of some of Wright's haiku. In “While Convalescing” (OW, 224), a feeling of happiness suggested by red roses compensates for the loneliness suggested by convalescing, as the color of the flowers compensates for the absence of smell. In “Leaving the Doctor” (OW, 243), a feeling of isolation and loneliness, a modernist theme, is balanced by the presence of the doctor just as night is by day and sadness by happiness. Likewise, “In a Bar's Doorway” (OW, 405) depicts a scene in which spring wind counterbalances loneliness in human life.

As the sensibility of sabi produces an effect of balance and harmony, so does that of wabi, “the ‘beauty’ of poverty”;39 it is a reflection of self-discipline and self-reliance in Zen Buddhism. The sensibility of wabi also has an affinity with Emerson in his belief in the primacy of nature over materialism. Many haiku in This Other World are characteristic of wabi, as this published haiku by Wright indicates:

          Merciful autumn
Tones down the shabby curtains
          Of my rented room.

(OW, 174)

Rotsu's haiku “The water-birds too / Are asleep / On the lake of Yogo?” depicts, as discussed earlier, the experience of a poet in which he could capture the beauty of the lake, a natural beauty only the beggar and artist saw. In the same way Wright's haiku, while describing his poverty and isolation, intimates the transcendence of materialism and the creation of beauty. The beauties of nature—as represented by one more winter in “In This Rented Room” (OW, 412), one buzzing fly in “This Tenement Room” (OW, 421), the moonlight in “I Am Paying Rent” (OW, 459), and the autumn sun in “My Decrepit Barn” (OW, 695)—not only compensate for one's plight of existence but fulfill the ultimate goal of an artist.


While emulating the techniques of classic haiku poets, Wright also composed his own haiku by focusing on the spirit of nature. The great majority of his haiku constitute various representations of nature, as well as concise expressions of what nature means to human life. Many of his pieces simply express unity in nature in poignant contrast with disunity in society. As the unpublished “An Apple Blossom” (OW, 78), “Would Not Green Peppers” (OW, 527), and “From a Cotton Field” (OW, 725) show, the poet's vision has little to do with human life. “An Apple Blossom” describes not only a sense of unity and harmony between bees and flowers, but also an interaction between them that creates a beautiful scene of nature. “Would Not Green Peppers,” as do many of Wright's haiku on nature, finds unity in the world of nature with a sense of humor. In “From a Cotton Field,” as in the other two haiku, nature exists in its own unity and harmony.

Some of the haiku included toward the end of This Other World, such as “From the Cherry Tree” (OW, 730), “In Deep Deference” (OW, 791), and “A Tolling Church Bell” (OW, 795), provide images of unity both in nature and between man and nature. Because these poems depict the relationship not only between natural objects but also between man and nature, the mode of expression is not as simple as that in the three haiku described above. In “From the Cherry Tree,” as a simple image created in the first two lines signals unity of man and nature, a metaphor in the third line alludes to unity of the living and the nonliving. “In Deep Deference” shows the unity that exists between the living and the nonliving on the basis of an interaction of the senses occurring between the softness of snowflakes and the gentleness of birds' cheeping. In showing an affinity between natural and human sounds, this haiku conveys an intuition that nature itself performs a concert. In “A Tolling Church Bell,” the tolling of a church bell and the moonlight above, an interaction between man and nature, sound and sight, create a spell over a rat, part of nature.

A number of haiku in Wright's selection focus their poetic vision on man's union with nature. In some of these pieces, Wright offers simple, direct scenes in which man and nature exist in harmony, in contrast with those complex, intriguing scenes in society where man is always at strife. “Seen from a Hilltop” (OW, 42) finds unity in man and nature: a man, a mule, a rain, a meadow, and a hill. “In the Winter Dusk” (OW, 377), like “Seen from a Hilltop,” is a direct description of a scene in which a girl lives in harmony with nature. It is not clear whether a girl leads a cow or a cow her: creating such an ambiguous image intensifies the unity and harmony between them. In “After the Sermon” (OW, 541), the seasonal reference is ambiguous, but Wright finds unity and an analogy between man and nature, “the preacher's voice” and “the caws of crows.”

As Wright's finely composed haiku show, the manner of expression relies on an interaction and transference of the senses. In “The Cathedral Bell” (OW, 220), the interaction between the bell and the spring moon reflected on the river points to man's union with nature. Similarly, “From a Tenement” (OW, 253) creates an interaction between the sound of a trumpet and mists. In “From a Green Hilltop” (OW, 428), a transference of the senses between the tolling of a cathedral bell and the blue sky creates a harmonious picture of man and nature. In “Putting Out the Light” (OW, 539), the union of man with nature suggested by a transference between the light and the sound of sleet intensifies the natural phenomenon.

Whether perceiving nature for its own sake or in its relation to man, Wright's haiku thrive upon subtle interactions of the senses captured in seventeen syllables. For instance, in this published haiku the poet seems to detach himself from a natural scene:

          The spring lingers on
In the scent of a damp log
          Rotting in the sun.

(OW, 47)

The feeling of the warm sun, the scent of a damp log, the sight and silence of an outdoor scene—all coalesce into an image of spring. In the process the overall image evolves from the separate visual images of the sun, of the log, and of the atmosphere. The three images of sight, moreover, are intertwined with the images of warmth from the sun and the rotting log, as well as with the image of smell from the log, all five images interacting with one another. In another finely wrought haiku, Wright portrays man's relationship with nature in terms of art:

          From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
          Faint sounds of a flute.

(OW, 571)

Unlike “The Spring Lingers On,” this haiku admits a human involvement in the scene: someone is playing the flute as the poet listens from the other side of the lake. Through a transference of the senses between the faint sounds of a flute and the black winter trees, an interaction of man and nature takes place. As the sound of man and the sight of nature affect each other, Wright has created beautiful images of man as well as of nature.

Traditionally, the haiku in its portrayal of man's association with nature often conveys a kind of enlightenment, a new way of looking at man and nature. In some of his haiku, Wright follows this tradition. “A Wilting Jonquil” (OW, 720) teaches the poet a lesson that nature out of its environment cannot exhibit its beauty. In “Lines of Winter Rain” (OW, 722), the poet learns that only when an interaction between man and nature occurs can natural beauty be savored.

This revelatory tradition derived from Zen philosophy, which underlies much of the thirteenth-century Chinese art by such painters as Liang Kai and Mu-chi40 and much of the Japanese traditions of flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and haiku. Several of the pieces Wright selected and included toward the end of This Other World reflect his interest in Zen. For example, in “As My Anger Ebbs” (OW, 721) Wright tries to attain a state of mind called mu, nothingness, in Zen by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power “a total attitude toward life” (BP, 159). “So violent and fickle,” he writes, “was nature that [the African] could not delude himself into feeling that he, a mere man, was at the center of the universe” (BP, 262). In this haiku, as Wright relieves himself of anger, he begins to see the stars “grow bright again” and “the wind” return. Only when he attains a state of nothingness and “a total attitude toward life” can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses.

Similarly, in “Why Did This Spring Wood” (OW, 809), Wright echoes questions posed by a Zen master: why nature remains silent and what nature is. A student of Zen, Wright in the haiku learns that he must attain mu, a state of nothingness that is absolutely free of any human-centered thought or emotion, of human selfishness and egoism. He also learns that this enlightenment is so completely free that such a consciousness corresponds to that of nature. Here he tries to give an admonition, as he does in many of his other haiku, that only by paying nature the utmost attention can human beings truly see themselves.

The four thousand haiku Wright wrote at the end of his life were a reflection of changes that had occurred during his career as a writer. But, more important, the new point of view and the new mode of expression he acquired in writing haiku suggest that Wright was convinced more than ever that materialism and its corollary, greed, were the twin culprits of racial conflict. Just as his fiction and nonfiction directly present this conviction, his haiku as racial discourse indirectly express the same conviction.


  1. The manuscript consists of a title page and eighty-two pages, page 1 containing the first seven haiku and each of the other pages ten. The manuscript, dated 1960, is deposited among the Wright collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. I have numbered each of the haiku consecutively 1 through 817. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text as OW, using these numbers.

  2. See Fabre, Unfinished Quest, 505.

  3. See R. H. Blyth, Haiku and A History of Haiku.

  4. “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” 45.

  5. Ibid.

  6. See Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1872, 318; Carpenter, Emerson and Asia, 150.

  7. See “Richard Wright: I Curse the Day When for the First Time I Heard the Word ‘Politics,’” in Conversations with Richard Wright, 163.

  8. See Hakutani, “Emerson, Whitman, and Zen Buddhism.”

  9. The translations of this verse and other Japanese poems quoted in this chapter, unless otherwise noted, are by Yoshinobu Hakutani.

  10. Donald Keene, World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1868, 13.

  11. A group of poets including Ito Shintoku (1634-1698) and Ikenishi Gonsui (1650-1722) of the Teitoku school, and Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738), Konishi Raizan (1654-1716), and Shiinomoto Saimaro (1656-1738) of the Danrin school, each contributed to refining Basho's style (ibid., 56-70). A detailed historical account of haikai poetry is given in ibid., 337-55.

  12. The translation of this haiku is by Noguchi, in Selected English Writings of Yone Noguchi: An East-West Literary Assimilation, 2:73-74.

  13. Ibid., 74.

  14. Ibid., 69.

  15. The original is quoted from Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, 49.

  16. Selected English Writings of Noguchi, 2:74.

  17. The original is quoted from Fujio Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 23.

  18. The original is quoted from Noichi Imoto, Basho: Sono Jinsei to Geijutsu, 231.

  19. The original is quoted from ibid., 86. The English version is quoted from Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:xxix. The middle line in a later version of the poem reads: “Karasu no tomari keri” (Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 18). The earlier version has a syllabic measure of 5-10-5 while the later one has 5-9-5, both unusual patterns.

  20. The original is quoted from Imoto, Basho, 117.

  21. The original is quoted from Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 200.

  22. The original is quoted from “Meigetsu ❙ ya ❙ tatami-no ❙ ue ❙ ni ❙ matsu-no-kage” (Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 58).

  23. The No Plays of Japan, 21-22.

  24. See Max Loehr, The Great Paintings of China, 216.

  25. Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:vii.

  26. The originals of both haiku are quoted from Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 160.

  27. The original is quoted from ibid., 164.

  28. The original is quoted from Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 222.

  29. Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:347.

  30. The original is quoted from ibid., 2:322.

  31. Quoted and translated by Keene, World within Walls, 81.

  32. The original is quoted from ibid., 81.

  33. See Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:viii-ix.

  34. Quoted and translated by Keene, World within Walls, 93.

  35. The third line in Moritake's hokku, “Kochō kana,” has five syllables since the long o consists of two syllables in Japanese. The original and the translation are quoted from Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:56.

  36. Pound, “Vorticism.” For the influence of haiku on Pound's imagism, see Hakutani, “Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, and Imagism.”

  37. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, 313.

  38. A literal translation of Basho's “A Crow” (the original given earlier) is “On a withered branch / A crow is perching: / Sunset in autumn.” In Blyth's translation (History of Haiku, 2:xxix), “A crow” is in the first line instead of the second.

  39. Ibid., 2:viii.

  40. See Loehr, The Great Painters of China, 215-25.

Desmond Harding (essay date March 1997)

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SOURCE: Harding, Desmond. “The Power of Place: Richard Wright's Native Son.CLA Journal 40, no. 3 (March 1997): 367-79.

[In the following essay, Harding investigates Wright's utilization of architectural determinism in his novel Native Son.]

The theory of architectural determinism, which has been linked to theories of environmental and physical determinism, is the assertion that the three-dimensional layout of the physical environment has a direct effect upon human behavior, that changes in “built form” can result in changes in human behavior.1 The degree to which this deterministic theory has been held over from the nineteenth century by twentieth-century architects is clear from the design philosophies of individuals such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Contemporary studies supporting a theory of architectural determinism have, among other things, focused on the relationship between architectural environment(s) and human behavior. Architect Romaldo Guirgola, for example, writes: “The structure of the building articulates the interior spaces with a clear rhythm that reinforces rather than obscures the progress toward a coordination of a larger architectural environment,”2 while the work of Charles Holahan and Susan Sagert concludes that where people have more clear-cut territories and opportunities to personalize them—“sociopetal” as opposed to “sociofugal” communal settings—more interaction occurs.3 Further support for a determinative relationship between environment and human behavior can be found outside the design professions in the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who has coined the term “proxemics” for the study of human behavior in space as part of a larger argument which points to culture and personal space as the behavioral bases of design.

Architectural determinism, however, also has its critics. Architect Brent Bolin writes: “[A]rchitectural determinism is a classic example of the simplistic cause and effect relationship between behavior and environment that still dominates planning and architecture, and that lulled modern architects into believing that they could change the way people live by modifying the physical surroundings.”4 Similarly, John Lang has argued that the theory delimits the agency of human behavior, both spatial and mental (a complex function of our intentions and habits), as well as the affordances of the physical and social environment.5 In spite of the fact that the theory has been—indeed, continues to be—criticized as a simple behaviorist model, a conceptually clear statement of how the physical environment affects human behavior remains to be conceptualized. While many critics agree that the physical environment is a determining factor in the functioning of human behavior, commentators continue to maintain that it is not the determining factor: Social as well as spatial variables are just as important in determining patterns in human behavior.

In Native Son (1940) I would like to suggest, primarily, that Richard Wright confronts powerfully the theory of architectural determinism with regard to the ghettoized African-American community of Chicago's South Side. Indeed, for Wright the social and economic forces that inform the physical matrix of Chicago are inextricably linked to a Marxian correlation between material surroundings and human consciousness. Unlike the city's prosperous white eastern sector, the dilapidated, monolithic tenement buildings of the Black Belt—a cityscape composing “tall buildings holding black life”6—is an environment consisting of active and passive signifiers of flux and stasis. These structures embody historical layers of metropolitan life, palimpsests that have played host to the patterns of escape and assimilation within black and immigrant working-class experiences of the city. Furthermore, this is an environment controlled by a dominant white culture, and it is this social order that constricts and denies determinative control of the boundaries of both space and place, not only for Bigger Thomas but for the marginalized communities of the South Side.

While keeping this first proposition in mind, I would like to offer the following counter-argument: Though a powerful framework of reference is at work in the novel, Wright is careful not to foreground external environmental and social factors as sole causative agents of Bigger's tragic arc of development. Though certainly exacerbated by white social, cultural, economic, and political exploitation, Wright's Marxian formula cannot fully liberate Bigger from the complex articulation of an independent and destructive agency—what critic Houston J. Baker calls “conscious history,”7 a menacing sense of self which Bigger possesses from the beginning of the novel. I would like to argue, ultimately, that it is precisely this sense of conscious history, with all its tragic repercussions, that is progressively and independently developed outside the template of Wright's seemingly determinative dialectic.

In his provocative essay “Richard Wright and the Dynamics of Place in Afro-American Literature,” Houston Baker, Jr., focuses on the concept of “place” in a new historicist treatment of African-American male and female roles in Native Son against the background of Wright's own interpretation of Afro-American history in 12 Million Black Voices (1941). In the course of the argument, Baker cites scholar Yi-Fu Tuan's own interpretation of the quality of “place” as a function of “space” and value thus:

In experience the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is often more abstract than “place.” What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. … The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security of and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa.


It is clear from Tuan's work—as well as Baker's interpretation of it—that the essential valuing of human agency within the construction of place as a valued locale demands the setting and maintenance of boundaries. For Tuan, the limitlessness of “space” represents possibility (we can also read this to also signify “desire”), while “place” (the achievement and/or frustration of that “desire” as signified), on the other hand, is a singular point invested by human agency with value. Developing the metaphor, Baker goes on to argue that in the context of the New World, “Afro-America was a PLACE assigned rather than discovered” (91). In the course of conscious [black] history, this “‘second birth’” of experience was marked by “the closure of the hole experience, of the first floating instability and suffocation below deck at the hands of the European slave traders” (91). However, with regard to a theory of the semantics of place, this “‘second birth’” was but another “deep hole of temporary placelessness” (91) within the system of American plantation agriculture. Extending the argument one step further, Baker, citing Charlotte Pierce-Baker's evocative image of the honeycombed tenements of Chicago's South Side as suggestive of “vertical slaveships,” lays the foundation for the assertion that out of this hole a “‘third birth’—a new Afro-American” was born, a generation that, like Wright's protagonist Bigger Thomas, rejects the “brittle tenuous folk family of black America” (97) as represented by his mother, Vera, and the pastor, in an attempt to ally itself with the forces of Western technological power and modes of social activism.

In Native Son African-American experience, as such, is denied determinative control of the boundaries of space and place across the urban aggregate. Bigger, like his family and the black community at large, is confined, ghettoized in a prescribed corner of the city, an area “tumbling down from rot” (NS [Native Son] 164). In this part of the city the urbanization of capital dictates that the vector's desires are controlled, consequently, by the “interlocking institutional arrangements” (Baker 87) of corporations such as Mr. Dalton's “SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY” (NS 164), which owns the Thomases' rat-infested tenement.

In the opening chapter, entitled “Fear,” Wright immediately establishes the boundary between these discrete units of mutually exclusive space/place—that of the South Side (African American/poor) and the eastern sector (white/affluent)—with Bigger's odyssey “across the line” (NS 164) to the Dalton home on Drexel Boulevard. Bigger quickly realizes that this privileged bastion is radically different from the intoxicating images of white America mythologized by cinema and the media (pop-culture fodder that he and his gang, Gus, Jack, and G. H. have consistently dieted upon). Far from being glamorous and alluring, Wright tells us that this eastern sector was a “cold and distant world; a world of white secrets carefully guarded. He [Bigger] could feel a pride, a certainty, and a confidence in these streets and houses” (45).

Bigger's tension and frustrations mount further as he enters the Dalton home: In the sumptuous surroundings of a domain geometrically constructed around principles of space and light, Wright tells us, “He [Bigger] had not expected anything like this; he had not thought that this world would be so utterly different from his own that it would intimidate him” (NS 47). Given all that Wright unveils thus far, it comes as no surprise that this epiphanic experience evokes in Bigger a concrete realization of the absence of any notion of benign space or light in his own family's squalid tenement. Returning home,

He [Bigger] looked round the room, seeing it for the first time. There was no rug on the floor and the plastering on the walls and ceiling hung loose in many places. There were two worn iron beds, four chairs, an old dresser, and a drop-leaf table on which they ate. This was much different from the Dalton's home. … He hated this room and all the people in it, including himself.

(NS 100)

Bigger's developing sense of “conscious history”—an awareness of the fractured nature of his existence which dictates that he forever be aware of “that black skin” (NS 67) trapped in the “strange labyrinth” and “chaos” (225) that is Chicago—is further elaborated upon later in the novel during the climactic chase sequence over the South Side rooftops. Following the discovery of Mary Dalton's incinerated remains, and with the fury of the white mob closing around the derelict tenement in which Bigger is hiding, Wright explicitly enunciates a sense of the deterministic forces that have allegedly contributed to Bigger's tragic condition. In a world of fear, hate, and brutality, it was

only under the stress of hate that the conflict was resolved. He had been so conditioned in a cramped environment that hard words or kicks alone knocked him upright and made him capable of action—action that was futile because the world was too much for him. It was then that he closed his eyes and struck out blindly, hitting what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back.

(NS 225)

In the frenzy of Bigger's futile effort to escape the hate of this white world, it is inevitable that the attempt to establish a contained and stable space is denied by the steady and methodical uncovering of the unstable, marginalized ghetto—one of the two major principles around which the text has been constructed. In time, Bigger is caught, tried, and executed.

In the space of one day, the Dalton killing paradoxically catapults Bigger into “another life” (NS 100) of “terrifying pride,” one with a “hidden meaning” (101) beyond the fear of myths constructed and supported by a dominant white culture, the gang, and his own family: “They might think he would steal a dime, rape a woman, get drunk, or cut somebody; but to kill a millionaire's daughter and burn her body?” (108). Released from blindness into insight, Bigger believes that, along with his family, “Jan was blind. Mary had been blind. Mr. Dalton was blind. And Mrs. Dalton; yes, blind in more ways than one” (102)—blind to the fact that it was now possible to “act like other people thought you ought to act, yet do what you wanted” (108).

At this point, I would like to pick up an earlier argumentative thread with the suggestion that our awareness of a concept of agency with regard to Bigger's psychological character, independent of a theory of architectural determinism, can tell us much about Wright's protagonist and, indeed, the work as a whole. Such an understanding can do much to isolate Bigger's actions from a behaviorist model in that his increasing sense of self-empowerment—Baker's “conscious history”—is evident from the very beginning of the novel.

In the role of omniscient narrator, Wright informs us of Bigger's psychological character thus: “These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger” (NS 31). In the course of the novel these twisted forces of Eros and Thanatos are energizing principles; they comprise the “invisible force” of Bigger's sense of Self and, consequently, manifest themselves as agents in the construction of a particular brand of “conscious history.” Wright's point-of-view narration justifies this violent strain of soul-destroying schizophrenia:

He was bitterly proud of his swiftly changing moods and boasted when he had to suffer the results of them. It was the way he was, he would say; he could not help it, he would say, and his head would wag. And it was his sullen stare and the violent action that followed that made Gus and Jack and G. H. hate and fear him as much as he hated and feared himself.

(NS 31)

As the novel progresses, this nascent sense of black Self reveals itself in two very different ways: First, in pathological acts of violence and sadism; and secondly, performatively, with Bigger's keen sense of masquerade. With reference to the latter, as the Daltons attempt to provide a new environment for Bigger as part of his “fresh start,” Bigger responds by projecting the image of a docile Negro. The subtext of this masquerade, however, is quite different: In proffering a stereotypical facade, Bigger, in fact, successfully structures a diametrically opposed and aggressive self-awareness which runs counter to the “identity” perceived proposed by the Daltons:

He [Bigger] stood with his knees slightly bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that only went to the surface of things. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence; none had ever told him that in so many words, but their manner had made him feel that they did.

(NS 50)

Indeed, the connection between Bigger's developing dramatic sense and his repeated use of the word “idea” at points in the text where that agency manifests most clearly as a terrifying logic of progression, is of paramount importance as the novel progresses. For example, on the night of Mary Dalton's murder, Bigger is faced with two problems: The disposal of the corpse and—in spite of the fact that he is ignorant of Jan's personal brand of Communist ideology—successfully implicating Jan in Mary's murder. In the case of the first problem, the knowledge that Mary was expected to leave for Detroit early the following morning initially fills Bigger with “another idea” (NS 87), that of hiding Mary's corpse in her own trunk.

However, seeing the basement furnace ablaze, Bigger decides to follow the logic of a more expedient and horrifying alternative: “He stared at the furnace. He trembled with another idea. He—he could, he—he could put her, he could put her in the furnace. He would burn her!” (NS 89). Furthermore, as the plan to incriminate Jan unfolds, the Communist pamphlets given to Bigger by Jan the same night of the murder take on a dramatic importance. Wright tells us that, once more, Bigger was “filled with a cunning idea” to “show them to the police if ever he were questioned” (94), for he “knew the things that white folks hated to hear Negroes ask for. … And he knew that white folks did not like to hear these things asked for even by whites who fought for Negroes” (184). It is with the ransom attempt, finally, that Bigger's developing sense of Self reaches apocalyptic fruition in the desire to “be an idea in their minds; that his black face and the image of his smothering Mary and cutting off her head and burning her could hover before their eyes as a terrible picture of reality which they could see and feel and yet not destroy” (123).

In Native Son I would like to suggest further that, with obvious exception taken to the sensationalistic “hack” rhetoric of the Chicago newspapers regarding Mary Dalton, Bigger Thomas commits two acts of brutal, premeditated rape in the space of the novel, the first homosexual, the second heterosexual. In the case of the former, as the gang looks on in the fight scene in Doc's poolroom, it is Gus, Bigger's alleged friend and fellow gang member, who first succumbs to Bigger's frenzied psychosexual violence. Standing triumphantly erect over the defeated figure of Gus and holding a knife to Gus's open lips, Bigger forces him to symbolically perform fellatio on his blade-as-phallus:

“You want me to slice you?”

He [Bigger] stooped again and placed the knife at Gus's throat. Gus did not move and his large black eyes looked pleadingly. Bigger was not satisfied; he felt his muscles tightening again.

“Get up! I ain't going to ask you no more!”

Slowly, Gus stood. Bigger held the open blade an inch from Gus's lips.

Lick it,” Bigger said, his body tingling with elation.

Gus's eyes filled with tears.

Lick it, I said! You think I'm playing?”

Gus looked round the room without moving his head, just rolling his eyes in a mute appeal for help. But no one moved. Bigger's left fist was slowly moving to strike. Gus's lips moved toward the knife; he stuck out his tongue and touched the blade. Gus's lips quivered and tears streamed down his cheeks. …

Bigger watched Gus with lips twisted in a crooked smile. … His eyes gleamed hard again, pregnant with another idea.

(NS 40-41; my italics)

In this particular instance, Wright frames Bigger's sadistic agency within the signifying framework of a rape scenario, with the knife-as-phallus representing the dominant power position in the act of Gus's psycho-sexual humiliation. Wright, however, gives the scene an interesting “twist” in that as Bigger's desire to further humiliate Gus gathers momentum toward “climax,” Wright “inverts” the structure of the brutal scenario—and it is at this point in particular that the phenomenon of Bigger's conscious agency manifests itself most clearly. In short, after forcing Gus to symbolically perform fellatio on the blade, there is a sudden slippage in Bigger-as-signifier: The position of Bigger-as-male-violator is transplanted or attributed metaphorical connotations of female gendering (“eyes gleamed hard again, pregnant …”). In the act of sadistic psycho-sexual plaisir, Gus's reactions—his fear—symbolically “inseminates” Bigger's violent agency further, rendering it symbolically androgynous, thus producing “another idea.” But with Gus's escape, Bigger fails to consummate (and/or conceive of) his desire—the idea—to “slice” his victim. This frustration of desire, I would like to add, can be seen again metaphorically, as a case of “coitus interruptus”: Sexual failure, coupled with the fear of both the gang and of breaking taboo by robbing the white man Blum, induces, therefore, a characteristic act of violence in the damage that Bigger does to the pool table with the knife. It is this strain of pathological behavior—which finds its root in sadistic pleasure—that, ultimately, hallmarks Bigger's distorted sense of “conscious history” from very early on in the novel.

In marked contrast to the castrating figure of the “valued” white Mary Dalton—the apex of inaccessibility to potential black experience—Bessie, the black domestic, Houston Baker, Jr., argues, is the “unprotected,” the “accessible woman who institutes folk history as opposed to conscious modernism” (Baker 111). Bessie, like Gus, is a victim of rape, only in her case, the act is followed by murder. Throughout the novel she has come to symbolize a naturalistic force that is incongruent with both Wright's and Bigger's conception of black urban modernism. As Bigger makes love to Bessie, Wright variously describes her as a “fallow field,” “cloudy sky,” rain,” “warm night sea,” and a “fountain” (NS 128). Bigger uses Bessie as a repository for sexual appetite, and there is a menacing self-satisfaction with regard to this economy of desire in that as far as Bigger is concerned, the relationship is one based on commercial relations: “Most nights she was too tired to go out; she only wanted to get drunk. … So he would give her the liquor and she would give him herself” (132). Scaling his operations one step higher, Bigger brutally implicates Bessie in the megalomaniac plan to ransom the missing body of Mary Dalton. However, dissatisfied with merely mutilating and burning Mary's corpse, Bessie is used by Bigger as part of the ransom attempt in order to further “deny” the Daltons a “security he [Bigger] had never known”—to “even the score” (155).

Bigger's “terrible picture of reality” is such that he rapes and murders Bessie Mears in a delapidated South Side tenement which is much like the home that his family rents from Mr. Dalton. What contributes to the totality of Bigger's brutal action is that Bessie's forced compliance in the act of distortion is repaid by Bigger's premeditated decision to dispose of her presence before Mary's body is discovered. Wright informs us: “He [Bigger] was afraid that he would have to kill her before it was all over. She would not do to take along, and he could not leave her behind” (NS 170). Bessie's murder marks the death of the folk trace in the novel and Bigger's complete and tragic embracing of his own tragically constructed fate in the chains of Western urban culture.

Richard Wright's Native Son is an act of ideological defiance that articulates a profound sense of fear, deprivation, and hatred toward white America. However, as Wright points out in the preface “How ‘Bigger’ was Born,” his protagonist could just as easily have been white as opposed to black. For Wright, the dimension of class added to that of caste through contact with Marxist thought was of profound importance: “The extension of my sense of the personality of Bigger was the pivot of my life; it altered the complexion of my existence. … It was as though I had put on a pair of spectacles whose power was that of an x-ray enabling me to see deeper into the lives of men.”9 It would seem, therefore, that Wright's position as laid out in the “Bigger” article denies, to a certain extent, a reading of the novel as a black nationalist repudiation of Marxism. As Keneth Kinnamon states: “Wright's effort in the novel is to reconcile his sense of black life with the intellectual clarity and the possibility of social action provided by Communism, to interpret each group to the other.”10

However, in privileging my remarks in this paper that Bigger Thomas possesses an individual consciousness in all its subjectivity independent of existential qualities of “primal fear and dread”11 as well as the theory of architectural determinism, the final section of the novel plays a significant part. For Bigger, attorney Boris Max's arid theorizing in the courtroom scenes and beyond is redundant. Not only does Bigger consciously and consistently reject all notions of African-American “communitas”; he also denies the potential of social activism as evinced by Communist ideology. Bigger's final and irrevocable statement is a plain: “What I killed for must've been good! I feel all right when I look at it that way” (NS 358). Wright is surely correct when he states that Bigger's destructive desire is not necessarily a “white” one, nor, indeed, even a “black” appropriation of white desire. Bigger's agency is unique in its own fearful autonomy, its anger, and its blindness. As such, his attempt to separate the Self from the community in order to come into a new sense of conscious history is nothing more than a tragic fallacy.


  1. John Lang. “The Built Environment and Social Behavior: Architectural Determinism Reexamined,” Via: Culture and the Social Vision, vol. 6, ed. Russell Versaci (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1980) 147.

  2. Romaldo Guirgola, “Reflections on Buildings and the City: The Realism of the Partial Vision,” Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 9.10 (1965): 110.

  3. See Charles J. Holahan and Susan Sagert, “Behavioral and Attitudinal Effects of Large Scale Variations in the Physical Environment of Psychiatric Wards,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 82 (1968): 454-62.

  4. Brent Bolin, The Failure of Modern Architecture (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1976) 162.

  5. Lang 149.

  6. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper, 1966) 70. Hereafter cited as NS in the text.

  7. Houston Baker, Jr., “Richard Wright and the Dynamics of Place in Afro-American Literature,” New Essays on Native Son, ed. Keneth Kinnamon (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990) 98. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  8. See Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1974).

  9. Richard Wright, “How Bigger Was Born,” Native Son (Harper, 1966) xi.

  10. Keneth Kinnamon, ed., New Essays on Native Son (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990) 3.

  11. Wright, “How Bigger Was Born,” xviii.

Stephen K. George (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: George, Stephen K. “The Horror of Bigger Thomas: The Perception of Form without Face in Richard Wright's Native Son.African-American Review 31, no. 3 (fall 1997): 497-504.

[In the following essay, George explores Bigger Thomas's inability to interact and make connections with others by applying the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.]

Richard Wright's depiction of Bigger Thomas, a young African American whose social environment moves him to murder and rape, is meant to be both sympathetic and shocking. We, as readers, are to feel compassion for Bigger as he is caught up in economic and racial forces he can neither comprehend nor control, but we are also to be horrified at his retaliatory answer: the gaining of freedom and identity through brutally unfeeling acts of violence. At once we are both compelled and repelled by Bigger; he is both a lonely individual robbed of dignity and hope in a world where “‘you [as a black man] ain't a man no more’” (326), as well as a monstrous symbol of what could happen nation-wide if society refuses to make the American dream of freedom and opportunity open to all. As Wright later wrote in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” his protagonist looms “as a symbolic figure of American life, a figure who would hold within him the prophecy of our future” and “the outlines of action and feeling which we would encounter on a vast scale in the days to come” (xx-xxi). As such, this 1940 novel served as a disturbing wake-up call to a nation on the verge of the Civil Rights Movement (Rampersad i).

However, rather than focusing on the racial and economic forces that shape and provoke Bigger (a review of which can be found in Jerry Bryant's “The Violence of Native Son”), this study will instead examine what these forces have made of him and his relationships with others when combined with Bigger's own natural disposition. Specifically, Bigger Thomas, throughout most of the novel, is an individual who can no longer see or make connections with other people; as Robert Butler notes concerning the whole work, “In its most basic terms, Native Son dramatizes a bleak environment in which people touch each other only in violence, almost never in love or friendship” (15). Hence, instead of real communication and interaction with others, Bigger's world is one of stereotypes and mere surfaces as he categorizes other people (who have previously categorized him) in order to gain some semblance of control over his own life. Or, as Louis Tremaine observes, “Bigger sees only what his fear allows him to see, Bigger's interactions with others are conditioned by his efforts to meet expectations by conforming to type. [And] … he can do this only by first typing those for whom he must play his various roles” (69).

Thus, for Bigger Thomas, a person whose “tangled duality has damaged him at the very center of his being” (Butler 14), the people of his life, both black and white, are no longer people but things: his mother someone to deceive and put off concerning his employment, his girlfriend Bessie someone to “use” (Native Son 131) for sex and as a partner in crime, and white people another entity altogether:

To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people [at all]; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it … [and] acknowledged its reality … [and] paid mute tribute to it.


In this sense, Bigger Thomas and “his kind” are as racist as anyone else, for their fear and anger blind them to the humanity and individuality of those around them, and especially of the white people, the tiny drops in that “deep swirling river.” This is not to say that Bigger is to blame for this “fear of both himself and of others [that] is an obstacle to” real interaction and intimacy (Tremaine 66); as Native Son shows with shocking force, a society that denies one's individuality—that, in Bigger's words, won't “‘even let you feel what you want to feel’” (327)—through economic and racial restraints must bear at least some of the responsibility for the “wheel of blood” that follows (362). But this lack or lessening of blame in no way alleviates the awful effects on Bigger (and on others, especially Mary and Bessie) of his racism. As Tremaine writes, “All of this typing, both of self and of others, takes its toll” by “continually” frustrating Bigger's longings “for genuine acceptance and understanding” (69), a frustration which finally explodes in violence as his only means for expression and control.

While the source of this frustration in Bigger Thomas has been discussed previously by critics (who have understood it as a “dissociated sensibility” that prevents the expression of “emotional experience” [Tremaine 64], on the one hand, and a “tangled duality” of Bigger's “romantic” and “naturalistic” selves [Butler 14], on the other), what Bigger and his human interactions have actually become can be better understood by applying the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish Lithuanian born in 1906 who was himself a prisoner during World War II (Hand 1-2). In his monumental ethical work, Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the purest and most basic human relationship as the face-to-face encounter of the same and the other, in which the face or expression of the other breaks through its own limited form and speaks to me (the same) in a way that ultimately transcends any of my attempts to define, categorize, or totalize it for my own egocentric purposes. In this pure and even sacred encounter, the other refuses any reduction to a totality comprised of my own expectations and definitions, my feeble attempts to grasp his or her “otherness.” Rather, the other standing before me remains “transcendent” to myself and “absolutely other,” a being with an identity beyond the demands of any philosophical or organizing system of the same (39, 198).

This infinite aspect of the other, however, does not preclude a relationship with the same, for this is possible through what Levinas terms “language” or “conversation,” in which “the same, … as a particular existent unique and autochthonous, leaves itself” in order to face the other (39). This facing of the other, in which the very “otherness” of that person breaks through in a “revelation: a coinciding of the expressed with him who expresses,” is the purest and most ethical of all human interactions. It is the “privileged manifestation … of a face over and beyond form,” a sublime experience in which “the face [itself] speaks” and its very expression “is already discourse” (66). Levinas argues further that, in this most basic metaphysical relationship, the face of the other ultimately demands respect and moral responsibility from the same, the person viewing the other's face in all its infinite nakedness and need. This most moral plea from the other is described by Levinas as an “epiphany”:

This gaze that supplicates and demands, that can supplicate only because it demands, deprived of everything because entitled to everything, and which one recognizes in giving[,] … this gaze is precisely the epiphany of the face as a face. The nakedness of the face is destituteness. To recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give. But it is to give to the master, to the lord, to him whom one approaches as “You” [the “you” of majesty] in a dimension of height.


The “demand” in this face-to-face encounter arises because an ethic of responsibility lies at the core of all human relations, an ethic which requires an obligation to the other from which we can never escape (Hand 1) and which turns the ordinary dynamic of slave/master on its head, for it is the vulnerable other who is really the “master.” From the same's position of responsibility and from the other's position of both vulnerability and “height,” the “presence of the Other” inevitably calls “into question … my joyous possession of the world” (Totality 75-76). And if I, the same, in turn recognize this questioning, this inherent moral responsibility found in the face-to-face relationship, then I am obligated to respond, for “to recognize the other is therefore to come to him [or her] across the world of possessed things, … [and] at the same time to establish, by gift, community and universality” (76). This is what Levinas describes as “the ultimate fact”: the “relationship between the same and the other, [and] my welcoming of the other, … not as what one builds but as what one gives” (77). I have an inherent moral obligation, expressed in the face of the other, to respect and serve the other before me.

Totality and Infinity also describes those relationships that are not the purest or most ethical, and which often end in violence to the other. As Levinas notes, the separation between the same and the other, while allowing a relation between the two through language (220), also allows an ignoring of the face as well, a “process of being that … remains separated and capable of shutting itself up against the very appeal that has aroused it” (216). Within this context of ignoring the face, or the infinite and unique essence of the other person, totalization (or categorization) of and violence toward the other often occurs, for the other is seen not as infinite but as a totality, a “thing” to be acted upon for the sole purposes of the same. This violence can consist of making others “play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, [and/or] making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action” (21). Such violence has clearly been perpetrated against Bigger by his own repressive society, which demands that he play the role of the good black boy while at the same time leaving him powerless and without hope—as if “living in a jail” (Native Son 23).

Moreover, this violence can also aim to annihilate the other altogether, a seeming paradox in that, as Levinas notes, “violence bears upon only a being both graspable and escaping every hold” (223). For example, violence toward a rock is meaningless because of its finiteness, for violence demands both something that can be objectified and yet is beyond objectification, something inhuman as well as human. Still, despite this irrationality and the “moral resistance of the face to the violence of murder” (225), such perversions of human interaction occur, and thus the ethical command found in the face of the other, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ethics 89), is ignored in a “violence [that] can aim only at a face” (Totality 225) while simultaneously denying its humanity.

This perversion of the face-to-face relationship describes Bigger Thomas's interactions with others throughout most of Native Son (perversions to which Bigger himself has been subjected, as his own humanity has been denied). As noted earlier, Bigger is so filled with fear and hate that he can only see people as types “for whom he must play various roles” (Tremaine 69). Concerning Mary and Bessie, the two women Bigger murders, his totalization of them as “things” to use or be used by is especially significant, for it enables him to dispose of Mary's body and to smash Bessie's head with little feeling of remorse or conscience; instead, he blames and categorizes them both as obstacles to his own plans for freedom and future happiness. After Mary Dalton's accidental death, Bigger reflects:

Hell, she made me do it! I couldn't help it! She should've known better! She should've left me alone, god-dammit! He did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified by the fear and shame she had made him feel.


Later, Bigger reveals an awareness that Mary is more than a mere cause for his “fear and shame”; deep down he knows that these feelings have another source and that “Mary had [merely] served to set off his emotions” (108). But he still does not recognize her as “real,” as a unique “human being.” Rather, she is just one of the “many Marys” who have “conditioned” him to react with violence, a part of that “great natural force” that stands as his totalizing concept for “white people” as a whole (109).

Bigger's perception of his street-smart girlfriend is no better. Like Mary, Bessie Mears is never really an individual to Bigger, but merely a means of sexual escape and a tool in extorting money from the Daltons, an object to use rather than a person to respect. This objectification of Bessie and complete denial of her humanity is seen most clearly in the rape scene preceding her murder, in which Bigger, “swept by a sudden gust of passion,” is “conscious of nothing” but “what he want[s]”; “the loud demand of the tensity of his own body [i]s a voice that drown[s] out” Bessie's “urgent” pleas of “‘don't don't don't Bigger.’” In this moment of violence, Bigger is still aware of Bessie's own desires for power over her “self” and her own “body”; he does feel “acutely sorry for her as he gallop[s] a frenzied horse down a steep hill in the face of a resisting wind” (219). But for Bigger, the “resisting wind” (as a personification of Bessie) is not enough to prevent him from forcing his will anyway. In the end, Bessie (like Mary) becomes merely an object to blame for his predicament, someone he can neither take with him in his flight nor leave behind, and hence the provocation of her murder. As Bigger sees it, “… it was her own fault. She had bothered him so much that he had had to tell her” about the murder (220), leaving him no choice but to kill her “to keep her from talking” (326). As with Mary Dalton, Bessie Mears has been reduced from a living, breathing, aspiring individual to an excuse and cause for Bigger's own pain.

Significantly, when Bigger Thomas kills these two women, he does so without seeing their faces: Mary's visage is covered by a pillow (oddly paralleling Othello's murder of Desdemona) as Bigger frantically tries to keep her silent (84-85), while Bessie's face is covered with darkness when Bigger smashes it with a brick (222). True, with Bessie's murder Bigger does turn on a flashlight to locate her face before striking, but then he “switche[s] it off again, [only] retaining as an image before his eyes her black face calm in deep sleep” (222). In neither case is the ethical imperative of the face, specifically its “moral resistance … to the violence of murder” (Totality 225), allowed to be given. Mary's only expression is her resisting body fighting for air, while Bessie's “calm” expression reigns supreme in Bigger's mind during the brutal act. Neither has the chance to express the most primal ethical command of the other, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ethics 89), a command which it is doubtful Bigger would have submitted to anyway, given his emotional state. Clearly this physical turning away from or covering of the face during these acts of violence stands as a metaphor for the large-scale perversions of Levinas's face-to-face relationship that fill both this novel and Wright's current social context.

Is there hope for Bigger as this novel progresses? By beginning to recognize and “develop a fuller, more substantial self which transcends the polarities and divisions which Bessie and Mary suggest,” is Bigger able to start to “touch others” and “reach out to the world in love rather than violence,” as Butler maintains (19-20)? Or, as Levinas would say, is Bigger starting to approach the other face-to-face rather than “obliquely” (Totality 70), or by ignoring it altogether (216)? Is he, by “welcoming” the other, starting the “exercise” of calling into question his own “freedom” and beginning, by so doing, to develop a “conscience” (100)? Such would seem to be the case, particularly in Book Three and the jailroom scene in which Jan Erlone, the communist sympathizer and boyfriend of Mary, openly reveals to Bigger his own pain and grief while confessing his responsibility in the murder—that Bigger had a “right” to hate him (and, by implication, Mary as well) because he “‘couldn't do anything else but that’” given the social circumstances (267). Here Jan, in transcending his own grief for Mary's death and in knowing he “‘can't take upon … [himself] the blame for what one hundred million people have done’” (267), has decided to let go of his pain and reach out to Bigger. He implores, “‘Let me be on your side, Bigger. … I can fight this thing with you, just like you've started it. I can come from all of those white people and stand here with you’” (268). In essence, Jan is answering the supplication of the other to give, “to come to him [or her] across the world of possessed things … [and] to establish, by gift, community and universality” (Totality 76). Jan, for the first time, has begun to see the infinity of Bigger's being, as well as the inescapable ethical responsibility he owes to him.

And it is this turning of Jan's face to Bigger's—in a face-to-face relationship that manifests Jan's own vulnerability and transcendence—which begins the process of changing Bigger's perception of both himself and his world, and particularly of that white “natural force” that has always filled him with “feelings of shame and fear” (Native Son 109). Bigger's emotional response to Jan's proffered friendship is telling:

Was this a trap? He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face. This white man believed in him, and the moment he felt that belief he felt guilty again; but in a different sense now. Suddenly, this white man had come up to him, flung aside the curtain and walked into the room of his life. Jan had spoken a declaration of friendship that would make other white men hate him; a particle of white rock had detached itself from that looming mountain of white hate and had rolled down the slope, stopping still at his feet. The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan's humanity came in a stab of remorse: he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him. He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan's face.


This face-to-face encounter between Jan and Bigger, so Levinasian in vocabulary and import—Bigger seeing not a “white face” now but “an honest face,” the “reality of Jan's humanity” as if a “mask” had been “snatched” from his “face,” the “particle” detaching itself from the “looming” totality of “white hate,” the emergence of a conscience or “stab of remorse” in Bigger—marks the beginning of a fundamental change in Bigger Thomas's perception of himself and others. From this point on, Bigger begins to see the interconnectedness of human beings: “He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer” because “his family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit” (277). And with this understanding of relationships and their consequences comes the desire to express himself and “make his feelings known,” “to reach out with his bare hands and carve from naked space the concrete, solid reasons why he had murdered” (323).

Such a “hunger for self-expression” (Tremaine 64), coupled with the hope of being understood, reveals the new world Bigger now envisions for himself and others, a world not based on iron “walls” (Native Son 14) of fear and hatred, but a world in which “white men and black men and all men” stand together in a “strong blinding sun” whose “rays melted away the many differences, the colors, the clothes, and drew what was common and good upward” toward it. This longing for a “union” and “identity” and “a wholeness which had been denied him all his life,” for communing with the other and feeling through the “stone walls … other hands connected with other hearts” and “to know that they were there and warm” (335), is made possible by the revelation (begun with Jan earlier) that “the white looming mountain of hate” was “not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan.” It is this revelation of the face of the other in his former enemy—as he tries “to see himself in relation to other men, a thing he had always feared to try to do”—that allows Bigger to finally sympathize with others, to see that “he too would hate [because of his violent acts], if he were they, just as now he was hating them.” Bigger Thomas, to at least some extent, can now see beyond himself into the larger possibilities of communing with others without any regard to race, a prospect that fills him with a “hope the like of which he had never thought could be, and a despair the full depths of which he knew he could not stand to feel” (334). Such a vision finally leaves him wanting to live the life that his own blindness and fear and hate have denied him: “He wanted to live now … in order to find out … if [this ‘whole’ life] were true, and to feel it more deeply; and, if he had to die, to die within it.” But Bigger, in despair, admits that “there was no way now” with his coming execution; it is now “too late” (336).

The degree to which Bigger Thomas is finally able to relate to others in Levinas's face-to-face relationship remains difficult to assess. Obviously a lifetime of living behind walls in order to protect himself and maintain some semblance of control is a rigid pattern to break; perhaps this “walled” Bigger is implied when the novel ends with Thomas smiling “a faint, wry, bitter smile” (392)—a sign that his faith in an ultimate wholeness of human experience and relation has been dashed by the “brutal irony” that “death comes at the threshold of … [this] most deeply human experience” (Butler 23). Louis Tremaine denies any final hope that Bigger is able to make “contact with others” by pointing to his “solipsistic acceptance of his own feelings” (75) when he exclaims to a horrified Max:

But what I killed for, I am! … What I killed for must've been good! … It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something. … I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. … It's the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, 'cause I'm going to die. I know what I'm saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I'm all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way.


Tremaine argues that “this final pathetic utterance, so triumphant in Bigger's mind, isolates him forever and leaves him clinging with a kind of desperate joy to the fear and hate that have destroyed his life” (75). Thus, in the end there is no connection for Bigger with the outside world, but only a distorted and twisted connection within himself concerning the rightness of what he did as the steel of his own imprisoned being clangs shut. If Tremaine is right, it is this monstrous Bigger who finds identity in violence and whose entire “life” has been “controlled … by his hatred and his fear” (Baldwin 22) that Max recoils from when he exclaims in horror, “‘Not that!’” (394). In the end, Bigger remains a terrifying reflection of his own dark society, a society marked by its inability to embrace the other and accept his or her humanity regardless of race.

To me, such a final dismissal of Bigger as little more than a “narcissistic” woman hater (Mootry 117-18) or the angry flip side of Uncle Tom (Baldwin 22) is both too harsh and too simplistic, especially given the ambiguity of this exchange with Max and, more importantly, Bigger's last three concerns before his execution. We need to remember, in light of Levinas's relation between the same and the other, that Bigger's last words are ones of concern and reaching out beyond his “self,” and not of blame and “fear and hate” (Tremaine 75) as they are throughout most of the novel. Bigger's final messages are to his mother (“‘… tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn't crying none’”), to Max (“‘Mr. Max. … I'm all right. For real, I am’”), and to Jan (“‘Mr. Max! … Tell … Tell Mister … Tell Jan hello’”) (392). The last of these messages, that to Jan Erlone—the man who by forgiving and siding with Bigger had enabled him to see “a white man” become “a human being … for the first time in his life” (268)—is the most significant of all, for not only is it Bigger's final attempt to connect with someone outside himself, but it also shows the range and depth of Bigger's change. Remember, this is the same liberal communist activist who initially grabs Bigger's hand and forces a closeness that engenders only “a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate” in Bigger, who only wants to be rid of the consciousness “of his black skin” that such contact inspires (67-68). This relationship of complete disconnection has progressed to the point that Bigger can now, with his near last words, call Jan by his first name, deliberately addressing him both as a human being and as a personal friend.

The significance of this last attempt to connect—“‘Tell Jan hello’”—should not be discounted, despite the dark intonations of Bigger's previous affirmation that what he “‘killed for must've been good!’” (392), for while Bigger in all likelihood remains an emotionally disturbed person, he has learned something, and that something seems to be that people are more than types or things to use or attack or shield oneself from. Richard Wright's use of violence in Native Son, far from being gratuitous evidence of Bigger's dissolution, in effect allows us to measure this moral progress, for by the novel's end Bigger Thomas has changed from a brutal rapist and murderer to someone who ultimately sees others as human beings like himself. Perhaps this transcendent insight is the “faint, wry” part of Bigger's final “bitter smile” (392), a smile that can now find a face within the human form that confronts him.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Butler, Robert James. “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright's Native Son.Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 9-25.

Hand, Sean. “Introduction.” The Levinas Reader. By Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Hand. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 1-8.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1982.

———. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Mootry, Maria K. “Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright.” Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1984. 117-27.

Rampersad, Arnold. “Introduction.” Native Son. By Richard Wright. New York: Harper, 1993. xi-xxviii.

Tremaine, Louis. “The Dissociated Sensibility of Bigger Thomas in Wright's Native Son.Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 63-76.

Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940. vii-xxxiv.

———. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940.

Timothy P. Caron (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8581

SOURCE: Caron, Timothy P. “‘The Reds Are in the Bible Room’: The Bible and Political Activism in Richard Wight's Uncle Tom's Children.” In Struggles over the Word: Race and Religion in O'Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright, pp. 112-40. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Caron underscores the importance of African American religiosity and political radicalism in Wright's Uncle Tom's Children.]

When Israel was in Egyptland,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses …
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

The genius of these preachers lay in their ability to adapt what they had learned to the existing needs and circumstances of their people and to transpose the white man's message of subservient obedience into a confident awareness that things were not as they should be, or as they would be.

—C. Eric Lincoln

Like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright recognized that African-American religiosity provided psychic health for blacks by assuring them that they would not always be oppressed in the “Egyptland” of the Jim Crow South. He also recognized the black church's radical potential and its ability to equip Southern blacks with an indigenous belief system for hastening and contributing to their own liberation.1 Realizing the degree to which Wright viewed black folk culture, particularly the black church, as a source of cultural strength helps to facilitate the kind of reconciliation between Hurston and Wright advocated by June Jordan. She argues that “the functions of protest and affirmation are not, ultimately, distinct: … affirmation of Black values and lifestyles within the American context is, indeed, an act of protest. Therefore, Hurston's affirmative work is profoundly defiant, just as Wright's protest unmistakably asserts our need for an alternative, benign environment.”2 Both artists viewed African-American religiosity as a source of black vitality and as an integral component of their art, Hurston to promote racial solidarity and Wright to help to stir Uncle Tom's Children to action.

Despite Ralph Ellison's proclamation that Wright “found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity,”3 Richard Wright could not help but “discover” the forms of his African-American heritage. Ellison's pronouncement regarding Wright's involvement with American Communism overlooks his own role within the CPUSA and its allied fronts during the 1930s. This comment probably has as much to do with disagreements between the two authors as with the prevalent anti-Communist attitude of the nation during the Cold War, the period during which this essay was first published. Reviewers and critics have been suspicious of Wright's communist affinities throughout his career, however. Upon the publication of Uncle Tom's Children, Zora Neale Hurston wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature that Wright's work presented “the picture of the South that the communists have been passing around of late. … Mr. Wright's author's solution, is the solution of the PARTY—state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing.”4 As Ellison has also said, quoting Heraclitus, “geography is fate.”5 While the first volume of Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, does claim “the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes” and the “cultural barrenness of black life,”6 it also catalogues many of the joys and strengths of that same black life: the Thomas Wolfe-like lists of beautiful sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of Southern black rural life; the lyrical catalogues of black folk beliefs that he recognized as vital to African-American survival in the South; the indomitable will that Wright inherited from his mother; and, perhaps most importantly for Wright as an artist, his imaginative quest through language for insight into his own lived experience.7 It is important to remember that Wright's “geographic destiny” also included a thorough indoctrination into the black South's religiosity, a fact also documented in Black Boy but often overlooked. His initiation into the symbolism of stories and the power of verbally constructed images as taught to him in the black church formed a vital part of his literary apprenticeship.

If Zora Neale Hurston was born with “God in the house” and quickly “tumbled” right into the Missionary Baptist church, Wright proved not to be such a willing participant in Southern black religion. Some of the earliest and most intense exposure he had with the black church came in his childhood when his mother's poor health (brought on by a stroke) forced him to live with his maternal grandmother, Margaret Wilson. Grandmother Wilson was a staunch Seventh Day Adventist, and as a member of her household, Wright was forced to attend services with his grandmother and perform daily pieties such as reciting Bible verses before every meal, much as William Faulkner was made to do at his grandfather's breakfast table. During his childhood, Wright grumbled about the numerous church services he was forced to attend with his mother and grandmother, resented the required family prayers and Bible readings, and resisted every attempt made to save his soul.

In Black Boy, Wright recalls the sermons he heard in his grandmother's church, a conversion centered gospel

clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dry bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth, of a wooden staff being transformed into a serpent, of voices speaking out of clouds, of men walking upon water, of God riding whirlwinds, of water changing into wine, of the dead rising and living, of the blind seeing, of the lame walking; … a cosmic tale that began before time and ended with the clouds of the sky rolling away at the Second Coming of Christ. …8

Wright claims in Black Boy to have “remained basically unaffected”9 by the emotional appeals to save his soul made during these colorful sermons of his early childhood, perhaps because he did not want to compromise his narrative persona's carefully cultivated sense of uncompromising independence. The Wright of Black Boy is virtually self-created. But, as Michel Fabre notes, Wright was tremendously influenced by these sermons' vivid images and stories,10 learning early lessons in story-telling and narrative technique and later harkening back to them as he intertextually invokes them in his mature fiction. However, while making this observation, Fabre mentions only “Big Boy Leaves Home” as a noteworthy example of a work from Uncle Tom's Children that draws upon Wright's early biblical and religious training at the hands of his Grandmother Wilson.

Wright most clearly and extensively explains his ideas about the radical nature he perceived within the black church in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” an essay originally published in The New Challenge in 1937. Written while composing Uncle Tom's Children and during the early stages of his relationship with communism, Wright is filled with the ardor of the newly converted in this essay. He shows how his Marxist faith informs his view of the black church's role in the upcoming inevitable revolution. The black communist artist will be in the vanguard of this struggle as if to receive the baton passed on from the black church: “With the gradual decline of the moral authority of the Negro church, and with the increasing irresolution which is paralyzing Negro middle-class leadership, a new role is devolving upon the Negro writer. He is being called upon to do no less than create values by which his race is to struggle, live, and die.”11 Despite his criticism of the black church, Wright does not dismiss it as having no value in the revolutionary struggle for full participation in American democracy. Elsewhere in this essay, Wright asserts that “there is … a culture of the Negro which is his and has been addressed to him; a culture which has … helped to clarify his consciousness and create emotional attitudes which are conducive to action. This culture has stemmed from two sources: 1) the Negro church; 2) and the folklore of the Negro people”12 (emphasis added).

In Wright's vocabulary, action almost always means collective, political action as in Uncle Tom's Children, particularly, “Fire and Cloud.” The Reverend Dan Taylor struggles over whether or not he should help the local communist organizers stage a demonstration to petition the city's power brokers for help in feeding the town's poor, both black and white. In this gesture of racial unity, Wright's invocation of the South's response to the Bible sets his intertextual practice apart from Faulkner, Hurston, and O'Connor's. There are no examples of biracial congregations in Light in August, Moses, Man of the Mountain, or Wise Blood. In Light in August, the white character Doc Hines enters into black churches, but he goes only to preach sermons of white superiority; in Moses, Moses and the liberated Southern blacks keep to themselves to insure that they will not become victimized again by the Jim Crow South; and in Wise Blood, the novel's single black character, a Pullman porter, delivers the worldly-wise message to Hazel that Jesus is long dead. But, when Taylor is finally galvanized into action, he feels a part of a “many-limbed, many-legged, many-handed” and multi-colored organism as he participates in the march. Taylor has discovered a new and deeper relationship with his community and with God through his commitment to social justice. And Wright advocates much the same in “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” Folklore and the church have been the African-American's medium for expressing what Wright labeled African-American “racial wisdom” (although “cultural wisdom” might be a more accurate phrase). In turn, this wisdom has given meaning to American blacks' experiences and suffering. In Wright's opinion, the black church has done much to crystallize and shape the collective “meaning” of the African-American experience because black religiosity has long served as an “antidote for suffering and denial.”13 The “meaning [of] their suffering” is crucial for producing activism in African-Americans because “at the moment when a people begin to realize a meaning in their suffering, the civilization that engenders that suffering is doomed.”14 To continue Wright's metaphor, if the black church had traditionally functioned as an “antidote” for racial oppression, he believed it was time for it to become politically active in the fight against Jim Crow and to act as a “prevention” against further racial injustices.

James H. Cone has described the black church's theology as a type of “liberation theology.”15 After all, the black church has been about liberation since its earliest beginnings: in its adopting the pregeneric myth of Moses delivering God's children from bondage; in its embracing a biblical hermeneutic grounded in the here and now; in its serving as one of the earliest outlets for black creativity and community advancement, African-American religiosity has served “roles of both protest and relief.”16 Wright's contribution to the cultural conversation on the Bible in the South is outlined in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and even more forcefully in the stories of Uncle Tom's Children. He insists that the black church must become even more political and must fully actualize its revolutionary potential to evolve into an even greater agent for dramatic action in righting the social wrongs committed against African-Americans.

Crucial to Wright's involvement with the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) was the party's endorsement of full civil and equal rights for African-Americans. Yet, Wright detected a flaw in the party's strategy for winning the support of large numbers of African-Americans. For Wright, the CPUSA's emphasis upon enlisting the masses made them too inflexible in meeting the particular demands of the specific people they sought to help. In American Hunger, he writes, “The Communists, I felt, had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner.” In Wright's opinion, American communism was not responsive enough to black culture, and he saw himself as a mediator between the new dispensation of communism and the vitality and specific needs of African-Americans. Elsewhere in American Hunger, Wright expresses the depth of the communist convictions he held during the writing of Uncle Tom's Children when he says that “with the exception of the church and its myths and legends, there was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist party.”17 Of his mediating role, Wright goes on to say, “I would make voyages, discoveries, explorations with words and try to put some of that meaning back. I would address my words to two groups: I would tell Communists how common people felt, and I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them.”18 Essential to communicating the feelings and hopes of the Southern blacks he knew first-hand and interviewed while writing Uncle Tom's Children was Wright's demonstration of the church's principal role in the community—its Bible, its strong, determined congregations, and its devotion to civil equality.

The CPUSA helped Wright insist upon political activism from the black church. In many ways, communism was Wright's church. While he later withdrew from the party and became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to international communism,19 Wright was a committed member of the party when he wrote Uncle Tom's Children. What Wright initially found so appealing about communism was the highly spiritual sense of community it inspired in him. “[M]y attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred people into a whole. … Out of the [communist] magazines I read came a passionate call for the experiences of the disinherited, and there was none of the lame lisping of the missionary in it.”20 He went so far as to use Protestantism's discourse to underscore his youthful commitment to the CPUSA by describing his joining as a “total commitment of faith.”21

As Cornel West reminds us, “the classical Marxist critique of religion is not an a priori philosophical rejection of religion; rather, it is a social analysis of, and historical judgment upon, religious practices.”22 Much the same could be said of Wright's investigation of the black church in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” as he never faults the church as an institution, but exhorts it toward greater political participation. In “On the History of Early Christianity,” Frederick Engels writes: “The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights. … Both Christianity and the workers' socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery. …”23 In “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Wright credits the black church with being informed by a quest for freedom.24 Wright explored these similarities and possibilities for tactical alliances between Marxism and Christianity in “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star,” the last two stories from Uncle Tom's Children. These alliances were not explicitly explored by black theologians and historians until the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Wright celebrates the real-life Moses figures of African-American history—Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth—by creating the Moses-like freedom fighters of “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star.”

As Abdul JanMohamed has noted, the cohesion of Uncle Tom's Children derives from its incremental repetition of themes,25 with Wright's concerns progressing outward from individual survival toward community solidarity and eventual political activism. Wright even revised the collection for its subsequent 1940 publication by adding an introductory essay, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” and a fifth and concluding story, “Bright and Morning Star,” to make this expansion more explicit. Wright explained his revision in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” the introduction to Native Son. He says, “I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Children [in 1938]. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about.”26 Wright wanted to deprive his readers of the consolation of tears and challenge them with an unmistakably political work in the revised book. Whites were stripped of their stereotypical views of blacks as contented workers and were faced with the unsettling specter of increased CPUSA activity in their region. Blacks were faced with a radical challenge that called upon its strongest cultural institution—the church—to increase its political activities. Wright maintained that “Big Boy Leaves Home” and all of the stories of Uncle Tom's Children posed one central question: “What quality of will must a Negro possess to live and die with dignity in a country that denied his humanity?”27 By the collection's (revised) conclusion, there is no mistaking Wright's answer to this question—African-Americans must use the legacy of the black church, which has always maintained the worth and dignity of its members, but they must employ that spiritual legacy within the collectivization of Marxist politics to press toward the goal of civil equality.

Wright's 1940 version of Uncle Tom's Children included the autobiographical introduction, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” The essay's focus upon Wright's search for employment in an economic system controlled by whites reinforces the entire collection's demand for a revolutionary opposition to Southern Jim Crowism. As autobiography, the essay establishes the book as a physical object outside of the narrative world and evokes a historical context—Wright's own life as it was lived in the Jim Crow environment of the racist South.28 Wright's documentation of the violence and day-to-day humiliations of living Jim Crow exposes the falsity of popular conceptions of Southern tranquility, the propaganda behind songs like the one which serves as the book's epigraph:

Is it true what they say about Dixie?
Does the sun really shine all the time?
Do sweet magnolias blossom at everybody's door,
Do folks keep eating ’possum, till they can't eat no more?
Do they laugh, do they love, like they say in ev'ry song? …
If it's true that's where I belong.

Wright makes it clear that he never knew this Edenic South, that land flowing with milk and honey so reminiscent of Hurston's Eatonville, Florida. Instead, he was confronted with the same racial violence experienced by his literary characters. Unlike most of the characters from Uncle Tom's Children, however, Wright would never surrender himself to the black church, despite the powerful pull of its symbols and its “dramatic vision of life.”29

In “Big Boy Leaves Home,” the collection's first story, biblical intertextuality evokes the hopes and dreams of a life lived free from the horrors of Jim Crow. The Bible was revoiced in the black church's spirituals and social structure, sustained the African-American community, and offered shelter from the white South's racist fury, but its use in this story offers no means of successfully overcoming that racism. For instance, as Big Boy and his friends make their way to the fateful water hole on old man Harvey's property, they sing the spiritual “This Train Bound for Glory” about the “freedom train” that they hope will one day deliver them to the Promised Land. Spirituals have always spoken with a double voice, promising heavenly rewards for faithful service to God and deliverance here in this life. The boys sing of these promises when they hear an actual train heading North toward greater freedom than they know in the Jim Crow South. The dual nature of the spirituals is even clearer when the boys hear another north-bound train whistle after they reach the swimming hole. Their speech reinforces the association of the “freedom train” with spiritual and social liberty outside of the South:

Far away a train whistled.
“There goes number seven!”
“Headin fer up Noth!” …
“Lawd, Ahm goin Noth some day.”
“Me too, man.”
“They say colored folks up Noth is got ekual rights.”(30)

Their song and speech are vaguely prophetic because the social network of the black church engineers Big Boy's escape after he shoots the white soldier in self defense. Everything about this escape evokes the Underground Railroad which delivered escaped slaves to the North: Big Boy hides in a kiln in the side of the hill where the boys used to play as if they were train conductors, and he escapes in the pre-dawn darkness. A church elder's son is a truck-driver who makes regular deliveries to the North, and Big Boy will hide until morning and catch a ride to Chicago.

In later stories, the church becomes an organ of political action that advances against the South's Jim Crow laws, but it is powerless to stop Bobo's lynching in this story and can only provide Big Boy's escape. After the murders of Lester and Buck, Big Boy manages to flee to his house where his parents assemble the church elders to plot his escape; however, this same congregation seems powerless to stop the white mob from burning down Big Boy's parents' house in retribution. Just like when Big Boy squeezes Bobo's neck so that Lester and Buck will abandon their friendly wrestling match, the white South realized that in the absence of a politically unified and active black church “a little heat,”31 as in a well-timed cabin burning or lynching, will often dissuade others from opposing Jim Crow.

Biblical intertextuality provides ironic commentary in “Down By the Riverside” by contrasting the church's otherworldly promises with the horrors of political disfranchisement and second class citizenship. As neighbors and fellow church-members gather in his house during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to pray for his wife, who is in the throes of child labor, Mann considers the problem of transporting his wife to the hospital in a stolen rowboat. As he sets off rowing against the current of the flooded river and the tide of Southern white racism, the story accelerates with a nightmarish speed. Mann kills the boat's original owner in self defense and delivers his wife to the Red Cross only to find that she died in childbirth. He then confronts the family of the man he killed when he helps to evacuate stranded families in town, and he finally forces the armed soldiers to shoot him when they discover that he killed a white man. Mann stakes everything on his faith in a supernatural deliverance, yet the soldiers and their guns prove to be powerful reminders of the necessity for political action. The refrain of the spiritual sung at Mann's house, “Ah ain gonna study war no mo,” is the story's strongest ironic indictment of the militarily enforced Jim Crow system that eventually costs Mann his life. What endows him with the superhuman strength he displays is his faith in God. As he says in one of his interior monologues, “Nobody but God could see him through this. … He would have to trust God and keep on and go through with it, that was all.”32 Mann's prayers for deliverance, however, are answered only with his death. As Abdul JanMohamed argues, death becomes Mann's “only viable, but highly paradoxical, route of escape from [the] radical liminality” of a Jim Crow existence because African-American religiosity offers little hope (in this story, at least) of providing a weapon for fighting against the “social death” of Southern racial oppression.33

“Long Black Song,” the middle story of Uncle Tom's Children, is the fulcrum upon which the collection pivots. Here Wright addresses more explicitly his larger, societal concerns. The New Testament Silas renounces worldly gain to proclaim the early church's gospel with the apostle Paul, but Wright's pursues money and property to the exclusion of everything else. So strong is his commitment to material gain that Silas often neglects Sarah, his wife, and their child. While listening to a spiritual on a gramophone, Sarah succumbs to the advances of the white college-boy salesman who tries to interest her in buying the fancy combination clock and record-player.34 Silas refuses to accept what he sees as a betrayal with the easy tolerance demanded by the Jim Crow South. As John Lowe notes, “Like his biblical counterpart, Silas refuses flight, and elects to stay where he is, letting the enemy come to him.”35 In his violent and inarticulate struggle against white racism, Silas bears a strong resemblance to another of Wright's literary characters, Native Son's Bigger Thomas. Both characters are filled with a similar murderous rage and refuse to abide by the pervasive racist mores of their environments. Both grapple with a language inadequate to express their anger and to achieve their greatest eloquence in their violent refusal to tolerate America's color prejudices.

Wright's commentary upon the forces that could produce a Bigger Thomas ring equally true of Silas: the creation of such an individual is, in Wright's opinion, largely attributable to a person's becoming “estranged from the religion and folk culture of his race.”36 Bigger estranges himself from his culture when his desire to be like the glamorous, flickering shadows of the movie screens and his immersion in petty thievery and anger and indignation of ghetto-life. Silas, on the other hand, estranges himself by pursuing material gain in the same ruthless manner as the white landowners. Silas is isolated even in death, unlike the other characters of Uncle Tom's Children who force confrontations with the Jim Crow society such as Dan Taylor from “Fire and Cloud” and Aunt Sue from “Bright and Morning Star.” While the Jim Crow system deprived him of his wife and child, Silas temporarily masters oppressive whites with their own weapons, the material emblems of the white South's Jim Crow ideology, i.e., a gun and a whip. Unfortunately, his lynching effects no appreciable change in the political realities of the Jim Crow South. Like Joe Christmas' actions before his death in Light in August, the white South has no glimpse into Silas' decision to become a “hard” man and resist the social system that has taken everything for which he has worked so hard. Also like Christmas, his lynching serves as another buttress and sanction for the white South's racist ideology.

Uncle Tom's Children moves through the stages of African-American responses to the oppressive white South. “Fire and Cloud” is the collection's first story to fully marshal the black church's latent political energy within its religious discourse. The collection explores the elements within African-American religiosity that deflect concerns for social justice and emphasize survival by means of escape (“Big Boy Leaves Home”). Then it moves to those components of the black church that stress heavenly rewards for enduring seemingly inescapable racial tribulations here on earth (“Down By the Riverside”). Next it depicts the ineffectual anger of a man cut off from the social network of the black church by the white South's racist economic and social system (“Long Black Song”). But Dan Taylor is the first character in Uncle Tom's Children to reconcile the aims of communism and the black church.

Wright would go on to have his well-documented break with the CPUSA, but his commitment to communism was at its height in the 1930s, the period in which he drafted the stories of Uncle Tom's Children, and it was also a period which held great promise for combining the efforts and energies of the black church with the CPUSA, which reached the zenith of its influence in this era. In 1931, the CPUSA provided legal counsel for the defendants in the Scottsboro case, and their advocacy of these young men proved to be a major factor in gaining a sympathetic audience among Southern blacks. As a result of their efforts, the communists succeeded in making the case an international cause celebre and gained invitations to speak in many black pulpits.37 A year after the Scottsboro case the in-roads of the CPUSA (which were extremely hard won considering the rabid anticommunist sentiment of the white South) were reflected in the opinions expressed by participants in a symposium of leading black newspaper editors printed in The Crisis. While Roscoe Dunjee expressed skepticism toward but a willingness to listen to radical whites with apparent “love in [their] heart[s]” for Southern blacks, Carl Murphy said that “the Communists appear to be the only party going our way. They are as radical as the NAACP were 20 years ago.”38

“Fire and Cloud” opens with Reverend Dan Taylor debating what role he should take in resolving a tense stalemate over food distribution during the Depression. Whereas Hurston's intertextual figuration of Moses relies only upon a distinctive African-American religiosity, Taylor struggles to decide if he will support the Party's agenda. Should he endorse the direct action and public demonstration advocated by local communist organizers, Hadley and Green, or should he instruct his congregation to maintain their faith in God's eventual deliverance and not participate in the planned communist march? On one hand, the direct confrontation advocated by Hadley and Green seems to offer hope through the strength possible in their numbers. He thinks that a large, organized assembly “could do something, awright! Mabbe ef fiv er six thousan of us marched downtown we could scare [the white city administration] inter doin something! Lawd, mabbe them Reds is right!”39

On the other hand, Taylor still maintains a firm faith in God the Deliverer, the God who liberated His People from Egypt and destroyed Pharaoh for daring to contradict His will. He longs for divine retribution, “The good Lawds gonna clean up this ol worl some day! Hes gonna make a new Heaven n a new Earth! N Hes gonna do it in a eye-twinkle change; Hes gotta do it! Things cant go on like this ferever!”40 Wright quickly reconciles these two courses of action when he likens Taylor to Moses. Before the Depression's economic hardships and a reduction in land available for black farmers, Taylor had been “like Moses leading his people out of the wilderness into the Promised Land.”41 Invoking Moses assures a hallowed sanctioning of his eventual alliance with Hadley and Green because, like his biblical predecessor, Taylor is working to liberate God's people. Using the figure of Moses suggests a reconciliation of the story's opening dichotomy: Moses is both man of God and man of action, serving Jehovah by liberating his chosen people.

But Moses is not the only biblical character intertextually evoked in this story; Deacon Smith plays both Judas and Satan to Taylor's Christ because, to fulfill a kind of typology within “Fire and Cloud,” Taylor must be both Moses and Jesus. Like Christ, Taylor is presented with the temptation to abandon his mission—Jesus refuses the worldly temptations of Satan in the Wilderness, and Taylor politely deflects the mayor's bribe to “take care of him” if he “does the right thing.”42 Following Taylor's rejection of this offer, the mayor sounds suspiciously like Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair when he tells the reverend that compromise is no longer an option. Mayor Bolton says, “Ive done all I could, Dan. You wouldn't follow my advice, now the rest is up to Mister Lowe and Chief Bruden here.”43 Like Christ who was persecuted and bore his tribulations “without a mumblin' word” but will, according to the spirituals, implement God's plan of divine justice, the reverend is beginning to realize the necessity of undertaking his own liberating mission. These New Testament evocations suggest parallels between Taylor and the Gospel accounts of Jesus. As James Cone reminds us, associating Christ with liberation is a cornerstone of what he calls “black theology” and is an association that can trace its roots back at least as far as Nat Turner who was inspired by Jesus to “the spirit of violent revolution against the strictures of slavery.”44 Wright's characterization of Taylor fluctuates between these two affiliations, sometimes invoking Moses and sometimes Jesus, but always evoking their emancipating missions. Drawing upon the liberating legacy of these two biblical figures, Taylor adopts the communist's plan and leads the march, synthesizing black political power and the black church.

Taylor's faith in the righteousness of his mission shines through the prayer he offers to comfort some of his church members. Narrative tension is at its height as the preacher juggles the demands of everyone who has crowded into his house to meet with him. He must calm his flock's fears (stirred up by the “snake in the grass,” Deacon Smith), deliver a decision to the Party organizers, and pacify the white civic leaders who have come to demand that he not lead the march. Despite this chaos, Taylor takes time to edify the assembled believers and assure them that they play a key role in God's intricate plan. Throughout the call and response format of Taylor's prayer, he invokes numerous examples of God's benevolence, outlining the Bible's course of sacred history from Genesis to Revelation, particularly emphasizing the constancy and fidelity God shows toward His Chosen People. Beginning with the Creation, Taylor lists God's intercessions on behalf of His people—the Exodus out of Egypt, the deliverance of the Hebrews from the fiery furnace, the victory of the Israelites over their enemies at Jericho. He concludes the prayer with a specific request, asking for direction in guiding his flock: “Speak t our hearts n let us know what Yo will is! … Try us, Lawd, try us n watch us move t yo will!” Just like previous generations of faithful servants, Taylor and his church will comply with God's will once they discern what He would have them do. In contrast, the avaricious white landowners are depicted as violating God's divine plan. If the black church is seeking to serve God, the dominant white South is guilty of controverting God's wishes: “The white folks say we cant raise nothin on Yo earth! They done put the lans of the worl in their pockets! They done fenced em off n nailed em down! Theys a-tryin t take Yo place, Lord!”45 Underscoring the common concerns of the CPUSA and the black church, Taylor's prayer is issued on behalf of the entire African-American community and indicts greedy whites for attempting to disrupt God's sacramental plan. In his prayer, the doctrines of both Christianity and Marxism assure that everyone should have equal rights. Taylor and, by extension, the black church have turned the tables on Southern whites who appeal to the Bible to characterize African-Americans as sub-human; in this cosmogony, these racist interpretive communities have clearly violated God's promises.

To inscribe Marxist doctrine within the black church and activate what he saw as the revolutionary potential within black religiosity, Wright insists upon a new dispensation. Whereas the white Southern church viewed Christ's sacrificial death as superseding the rituals of the Hebrew Law, the South's Jim Crow oppression of Southern blacks demands a new system of promises. In the Gospels, Jesus states that his intention is to realize the writings of the Hebrew Bible, not to destroy them in any way: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”46 Jesus proclaims himself the fulfillment of the Law, its ultimate, truest expression. In a similar fashion, Wright's fiction maintains that the truest and most politically committed expression of the black church's love and concern for its members can be voiced with the aid of communist doctrine. Wright symbolizes this inscription of the CPUSA's goals into the black church by placing the communists Hadley and Green within the Bible Room. Their political agenda should suffuse the Scriptures. Even though Taylor initially distances himself from the organizers by referring to them as “them Reds,” which is the same pejorative label affixed by the white civic leaders, Taylor later calls the communist organizers “Brother Hadley” and “Brother Green.” Most notably, Taylor even extends this title of love and respect normally reserved for other Christians to Hadley, a man whose white skin would ordinarily make the reverend view him at least with suspicion, if not outright animosity.

As a result of his refusal to abandon the demonstration, Taylor is kidnapped and tortured by the city council's henchmen, and he undergoes a metaphorical “death and rebirth.”47 As he makes his way home, he must cross through a white neighborhood, which, as Wright reminds us in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” was a particularly dangerous situation for a black man in the Jim Crow South.

Negroes who have lived South know the dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set. In such a simple situation as this the plight of the Negro in America is graphically symbolized. While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro's skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.48

Caught in this dangerous situation, Taylor views these white houses as emblems of the unjust system he has struggled against. The pain of his beating has transformed Taylor into a “pillar of fire.” God directed the Hebrews to follow a pillar of fire out of Egyptian bondage, and Taylor likewise longs to lead his people out of the bondage of the white South's racial injustices. Taylor looks at the white homes and thinks, “Some days theys gonna burn! Some days theys gonna burn in Gawd Awmightys fire!”49 Filled with a fervent desire to fulfill this prophesy, to render some miraculous service to his people, Taylor pleads, “Gawd, ef yuh gimme the strength Ahll tear this ol buildin down! Tear it down, Lawd! Tear it down like ol Samson tore the temple down!”50 Like an Old Testament deliverer, Taylor longs to be an instrument of God's divine will, but he desires to fulfill a New Testament-like apocalyptic vision where a new heaven and earth of economic and political equality replaces the reality of the Jim Crow South.51

Taylor succeeds in this role of deliverer and leads his people to the Promised Land of political participation. The crowd is conscious of parallels between their struggle for liberation and the struggle of their Old Testament predecessors, singing as they march:

So the sign of the fire by night
N the sign of the cloud by day
A-hoverin oer
Jus befo
As we journey on our way.(52)

Drawing strength from his gathered congregation, Taylor realizes the validity of the communist imperative of collective action. In fact, the reverend achieves his greatest sense of strength while in the midst of the protesters: “Taylor looked ahead and wondered what was about to happen; he wondered without fear; as though whatever would or could happen could not hurt this many-limbed, many-legged, many-handed crowd that was he.”53 Singing God's promise in the spiritual while massed together for collective political action, Taylor senses their unified strength. As the white civic leaders acquiesce and agree to give the demonstrators food, Taylor is filled with a religious ecstasy. “A baptism of clean joy”54 sweeps over him and his faith in God the Deliverer is affirmed, for Taylor's God is one who shows His strength in the arms and legs of His active children and who delivers upon His promises of liberation. “Fire and Cloud” ends on this hopeful note of baptizing “clean joy” as all the institutions of Jim Crow oppression seem to topple in Taylor's tear-filled eyes. This new heaven and earth can be accomplished when the black church at large learns the same lesson that Taylor has learned via Lenin, “Freedom [economically, politically, and spiritually] belongs t the strong!”55

Uncle Tom's Children originally concluded with this Marxist benediction, but Wright amended the collection to emphasize the black church and the CPUSA's common goals of liberation by concluding with “Bright and Morning Star.” Aunt Sue's heroic sacrifice at the story's conclusion is made possible only by the new dispensation of communism, which converts her Christian endurance into a political commitment to overturning Jim Crow. Aunt Sue grew up in the bosom of the black church, “feeling buoyed with a faith beyond this world,” and she had viewed “the cold white mountain” of Southern racial oppression as “a part of the world God had made in order that she might endure it and come through all the stronger.”56 It was in this spirit of perseverance—akin to the stamina O'Connor felt was necessary after a redemptive encounter with Christ to endure the trials and tribulations of this life—that Sue formerly sang the spirituals, particularly “The Lily of the Valley.”

Before her conversion to the CPUSA, Sue often sang in moments of depression or during hard labor.

Hes the Lily of the Valley, the Bright n Mawnin Star
Hes the Fairest of Ten Thousan t ma soul …
He walks wid me, He talks wid me
He tells me Ahm His own …(57)

She was convinced of God's love and her own self-worth. These assurances provided her with the strength to endure the injustices of the Jim Crow South because her tribulations would be forgotten after her heavenly union with Christ. But Aunt Sue's convictions change, and her faith dramatically alters as she accepts her sons' “new and terrible vision,”58 which results from their communist commitment. Wright underscores the religious intensity of Sue's new faith by describing it in the Christian rhetoric of the black church.

[D]ay by day her sons had ripped from her startled eyes her old vision, and image by image had given her a new one, different, but great and strong enough to fling her into the light of another grace. The wrongs and sufferings of black men had taken the place of Him nailed to the Cross; the meager beginnings of the party had become another Resurrection; and the hate of those who would destroy her new faith had quickened in her a hunger to feel how deeply her new strength went.59

(emphasis added)

In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is O'Connor's invocation of the New Testament's Saul/Paul who responds to his conversion with a furious introspection, subjecting himself to scourges of the flesh to atone for his spiritual unworthiness. Hazel's faith turns his vision violently inward, and he studies his soul and to make the refinements necessary for salvation. On the contrary, Sue learns, like Dan Taylor, that God can be found in politicized groups of people. Her faith demands that she focus upon her fellow sufferers in an unjust economic/social system and forsake her previous other-worldly musings to devote her full strength to the CPUSA's this-worldly objectives. In Sue's new belief system, Jesus' assurance in Revelation 22:16 that He is “the root and the off-spring of David, and the bright and morning star” is subsumed within her certainty that the CPUSA will instigate a political revolution that will fulfill Revelation's apocalyptic vision.

The courage and conviction inspired in her by this “new and terrible vision” allow Sue to confront white oppression, even in her own kitchen. When the white sheriff and his deputies barge into her house looking for her son, Johnny-boy, they find no obsequious old black nanny but a proud woman willing to make any sacrifice for her new faith. As she tells the sheriff, “White man, don yuh Anty me!”60 For her resistance, Sue is beaten unconscious. What sustains Sue during her first confrontation with white vigilantes is the “grace” bestowed upon her by her new “faith.”61 The depth of her new faith is demonstrated even more fully when she out-races Booker, the white traitor of the communist cause, to the clearing where Johnny-boy is being tortured. She must get there first to ensure that Booker does not reveal the party membership to the sheriff, and once she gets to the clearing, Sue acts with the resolve of a determined martyr.

Sue does not pursue vengeance for her beating or even for her son's life. In her mind, Johnny-boy has already been sacrificed for the greater good of the party; likewise, she will sacrifice herself for a new heaven on earth—the racial and social equality promised by the CPUSA. Sue arrives at her fatal confrontation with a shotgun wrapped in a sheet, telling the white vigilantes it is a shroud for her son.62 After she kills Booker and is shot herself, Sue feels her life slowly ebbing away, and Wright again closes with a Marxist benediction. Through her sacrificial death, Sue is “focused and pointed …, buried in the depths of her star, swallowed in its peace and strength.”63 Sue's conversion is complete as the former devout believer and churchgoer, now communist activist, no longer identifies the “Bright and Morning Star” with the Christ of Revelation but with the red star of communism.

While the 1938 version of Uncle Tom's Children garnered Wright a large national audience and a lucrative publishing contract, that incarnation of the collection left him unsatisfied, feeling as if he let his white readers escape through the emotional loophole of pity.64 Wright felt that characters such as Big Boy, Mann, and Silas could easily elicit a condescending charity from white readers. Even Reverend Taylor might be misread by a white audience as a heroic example of a Southern black who endured. Instead of functioning as the hallmark of a newly politicized black church's struggles for economic and social equality, Taylor possibly might be made to reinforce stereotypical (and wishful) depictions of extraordinarily patient Southern blacks who wear down kind-hearted but tradition-bound Southern whites. However, there is no mistaking the call to action of “Bright and Morning Star.”

The revised Uncle Tom's Children assured Wright that the white South would have to confront his work without pity. Yet even without the escape of sympathy, few critics have followed his apocalyptic vision of a politically committed black church toward “the place where the different paths of [African-American society's] religious-centered culture … and its need for a working-class political vision can meet.”65 While Wright explored the violence resulting from African-American resistance, the white South remained absorbed in its dominant religiosity: either demanding a violent submission to Christ's call to sinners, a submission documented in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, or to propagating its racist gospel, which is critiqued in Light in August.


  1. Several critics have touched upon Wright's relationship with and influence from the black church, most often when discussing Black Boy. Michel Fabre's biography, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, does an outstanding job of detailing Wright's complex relationship with the black church. See also Robert L. Douglas's “Religious Orthodoxy and Skepticism in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son” and Thomas Larson's “A Political Vision of Afro-American Culture: Richard Wright's ‘Bright and Morning Star,’” both included in C. James Trotman's Richard Wright: Myths and Realities, for two insightful discussions of Wright's indebtedness to African-American religiosity in the creation of his early fiction.

  2. June Jordan, “Notes Toward a Black Balancing of Love and Hatred,” 87.

  3. Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” 120.

  4. Zora Neale Hurston, “Stories of Conflict,” 10.

  5. Ralph Ellison, “Remembering Richard Wright,” 198.

  6. Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, 45.

  7. See Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil on the importance of the pursuit of literacy upon Wright's career as detailed in Black Boy and in African-American literary history in general.

  8. Wright, Black Boy, 13.

  9. Ibid, 124.

  10. Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, 35.

  11. Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” 398-99.

  12. Ibid, 396.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid, 396-97.

  15. James H. Cone, “Black Theology as Liberation Theology,” 178. The title of Cone's essay is a clear allusion to the work of Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Guttiérrez and other pioneers in the development of liberation theology.

  16. Joseph R. Washington, Jr., “Folk Religion and Negro Congregations: The Fifth Religion,” 52.

  17. Richard Wright, American Hunger, 122.

  18. Ibid, 65-66.

  19. See Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, 165-70, for a discussion of Wright's increasing disillusionment with communism, particularly after leaving the United States. See also Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism and its discussion of Wright's critique of Marxism (416-40), wherein Robinson quotes Wright as saying, “Marxist ideology … is but a transitory makeshift pending a more accurate diagnosis. … Communism may be but a painful compromise containing a definition of man by sheer default” (433).

  20. Richard Wright, “I Tried To Be A Communist,” 118.

  21. Wright, American Hunger, 133.

  22. Cornel West, “Religion and the Left,” 199.

  23. Frederick Engels, “On the History of Early Christianity,” 316.

  24. Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” 397.

  25. Abdul JanMohamed, “Rehistoricizing Wright: The Psychopolitical Function of Death in Uncle Tom's Children,” 192.

  26. Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” (introduction to Native Son) 31.

  27. Wright, American Hunger, 88-89.

  28. See C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow for an account of how the white South gradually enacted Jim Crow legislation throughout the region.

  29. Wright, Black Boy, 123.

  30. Uncle Tom's Children, 27.

  31. Ibid, 23.

  32. Ibid, 71.

  33. JanMohamed, “Rehistoricizing Wright,” 192.

  34. Some critics maintain that Sarah was raped by the white salesman. See, for example, C. James Trotman's introduction to Richard Wright: Myths and Realities, entitled, “Our Myths and Wright's Realities” (xii). Sarah initially resists the young man's advances, but her longing for her first lover, Tom, and the memory of the spiritual played on the gramophone combine to produce a sexual ecstasy in her that Wright describes in rapturous tones. See Myles Raymond Hurd's “Between Blackness and Bitonality: Wright's ‘Long Black Song’” for a thorough examination of the sexual politics between Sarah and the white salesman. Hurd sees parallels between their encounter at the well and the New Testament story, recounted in John 4:5-19, of Jesus and a Samaritan woman who discuss her infidelity at a well.

  35. John Lowe, “Wright Writing Reading: Narrative Strategies in Uncle Tom's Children,” 62.

  36. Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” 15.

  37. Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade, 335-36.

  38. Roscoe Dunjee and Carl Murphy, “Negro Editors on Communism: A Symposium of the American Negro Press,” 154, 147.

  39. Uncle Tom's Children, 130.

  40. Ibid, 131.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid, 151.

  43. Ibid, 152.

  44. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 114.

  45. Uncle Tom's Children, 138.

  46. Matthew 5:17-18.

  47. JanMohamed, “Rehistoricizing Wright,” 221.

  48. Richard Wright, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” 10.

  49. Uncle Tom's Children, 167.

  50. Ibid.

  51. For a different reading of “Bright and Morning Star,” see JanMohamed's “Rehistoricizing Wright: The Psychopolitical Function of Death in Uncle Tom's Children,” perhaps the most thorough, sophisticated, and engaging treatment of this collection as a whole. In his essay, JanMohamed argues that “religion becomes the potential source of rebellion, but the final transformation of Taylor does not occur until that source of power is ridiculed and seems to have failed.” He goes on to argue that Taylor's prayer during his lynching falls upon deaf ears because of the “void left by God's absence” (222, 223).

  52. Uncle Tom's Children, 178.

  53. Ibid, 179.

  54. Ibid

  55. Ibid, 180.

  56. Ibid, 184.

  57. Ibid, 181-82.

  58. Ibid, 184.

  59. Ibid, 185.

  60. Ibid, 194.

  61. Ibid, 206.

  62. In Black Boy, Wright recounts a similar story he heard in his childhood “of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband's death and she took a shotgun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she be allowed to take her husband's body for burial. It seemed that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed, looked on. The woman … knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet; and, before the white men realized what was happening, she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees” (83).

  63. Uncle Tom's Children, 215.

  64. Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” 31.

  65. Thomas Larson, “A Political Vision of Afro-American Culture: Richard Wright's ‘Bright and Morning Star,’” 158.

James Smethurst (essay date spring 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7302

SOURCE: Smethurst, James. “Invented by Horror: The Gothic and African American Literary Ideology in Native Son.African American Review 35, no. 1 (spring 2001): 29-40.

[In the following essay, Smethurst examines the role of the gothic in Native Son.]

Richard Wright's Native Son is still usually taken as one of the foremost examples of late American naturalism, and much is made of the impact of modern sociology, particularly what became known as the Chicago School of Sociology, on the conception and shape of the novel.1 Yet numerous scholars, at least in passing, have remarked on the influence of the gothic tradition on Wright's novel, arguing to one degree or another whether his usage of the gothic undermines or supports the sociological “realism” of the work.2 However, the crucial importance of gothic literature and what might be thought of as the gothic sensibility to the representation of political consciousness and political development (and the relation of the gothic to contemporary mass culture) in Native Son has not received much sustained scholarly attention. The primary question here is not whether Native Son is a gothic novel, but how the gothic functions within the novel and how it relates to the African American folk culture of the South as well as the mass culture associated with the urban North. In fact, Native Son is not a gothic novel, but an anti-gothic in which the gothic figures an American consciousness, particularly the consciousness of black Americans, which is the product of the particular social relations of American capitalism and hence something to be transcended. Wright's use of the gothic is also implicitly a critique of the African American writers who preceded him, and their handling of the actual and symbolic journeys from and to the African American folk and constructions of the folk inheritance. Wright's use of the gothic is not in conflict with his ideological stance as a black male Communist writer of the mid-twentieth century, but in fact follows from this stance.

As Teresa Goddu points out (133-40), it is not hard to see why black writers (and such white writers as Herman Melville and Theodore Weld) in the nineteenth century, particularly during the antebellum era, would find such works attractive literary models for the representation of slavery and American race relations. Generally speaking, classic European gothics, such as Walpole's Castle of Otranto or Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho—not to mention such later American gothic-influenced texts as Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and the short fiction of Poe—contain a past event involving an unrightful and violent usurpation which constrains the actions of succeeding generations. This familial original sin is often passed down through the bloodlines of both the sinners and the sinned against. There is a strange doubling in which the two families strangely come to resemble each other. One also sees in the classic gothic novel patriarchal tyranny, transgressive sexuality which generally accompanies relations of power, and an instability of markers of social identity, such as family, class, race, gender, and nationality.

Slavery also involved a moment of usurpation in which the birthright of the enslaved individual was stolen. As in the gothic, the results of this usurpation are transmitted through the bloodlines of the enslaved. One finds in the novels and fugitive slave narratives by such nineteenth-century black writers as William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, and Harriet Jacobs a patriarchal tyranny and a concomitant transgressive sexuality in which the slave master coerces or attempts to coerce female slaves into unwanted sexual relations. One also often sees a flight from tyranny on the part of the female slaves which resembles that of the typical gothic heroine from the typical gothic villain. There is a foregrounding of the instability of the normative markers of social identity such as those of nationality, family, class, citizenship, and so on, insofar as such markers exist, at the sufferance of the slave master. Finally, there is within many of these texts a strange doubling of the slave and the enslaver. Perhaps the most ubiquitous figure of nineteenth-century black literature is that of the “mulatto,” a person of equal African and European ancestry. This “mulatto” is almost always the offspring of the female slave and the slave master and, though legally a slave, stands as a sort of the double of the slave owner's white offspring. In fact, this figure, often female, is typically paired explicitly with the slave owner's wife and/or the slave owner's white daughter.

The point here is not to claim that the gothic is the most important single influence on African American literature or to attempt to show every shared concern and trope, but simply to suggest that the gothic, along with other genres such as the spiritual autobiography, the captivity narrative, and the sentimental novel, was extremely important in the development of a rhetoric that allowed black authors who preceded Wright to reach an essentially white audience while figuring their particular social and aesthetic concerns. This use of a gothic rhetoric and a gothic sensibility obviously did not end with slavery. For example, much of the terminology of W. E. B. Du Bois could be said to be gothic, particularly his use of the term veil as that which hides the black world from the white world and vice versa—or perhaps more accurately that by which the white ruling class of America conceals the black subject as human, much like a concealed skeleton in a classic gothic novel. Similarly, Du Bois's notion of “double-consciousness,” which was largely drawn from the work of William James, proposes a version of Spencer Brydon's split consciousness in Henry James's gothic-influenced short story “The Jolly Corner” as a more or less permanent condition for African Americans. Some prominent uses of the gothic in African American fiction of the early twentieth century would include Jean Toomer's Cane (particularly in the concluding “Kabnis” section which opens with the wind whispering ominously to Ralph Kabnis) and, to a lesser extent, Nella Larsen's Quicksand (especially in the section set in Chicago when Helga Crane confronts her “white” family).

As strange as it seems, the Marxism with which Wright became engaged in the 1930s also drew on the gothic tradition—though, as with Wright, this tradition was invoked in order to critique and transcend it. This Marxism was the “Marxist-Leninist” version propounded by the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and the Communist International, or as some might say, a Stalinist model. This is not to demonize Wright's ideology, but only to remind us that Wright's Marxism is quite different from that of his contemporary and friend C. L. R. James, a black Trotskyist, or from that of the various neo-Marxists of contemporary literary studies, and is based on the particular practices of certain political organizations of that time. The Communist International and the CPUSA made an argument, more or less unique among radicals of the 1930s and 1940s (and their immediate socialist and anarchist predecessors), that the struggle for Negro Liberation was at the heart of the possibility for the revolutionary transformation of the United States.3

A crucial text for the Communists of the 1930s was Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Eighteenth Brumaire was considered a key text because it was taken to most clearly and concretely apply to actual historical events the methods of “dialectical materialism,” the Marxist “science” which was supposed to allow the scientist to analyze historical events and determine the general historical laws underlying those events.4 In that book Marx wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.


Marx here of course is referring to the tendency of all politicians, and not just revolutionaries, to invoke the past to justify their present political positions. As Marx says, such claims to the past are usually more than a little ludicrous and never adequate to the needs of the present moment. Marx goes on to write later in the Eighteenth Brumaire that “the social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past” (18).

While one can debate the truth of Marx's words, particularly the second quote, which sounds like a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and a French surrealist manifesto, the problem of the revolutionary in the first quote is remarkably similar to that of a character in a gothic novel in which “the dead generations” also “weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” And the solution proposed in the second quote, the stripping off of all superstition in regard to the past, can also be seen as a solution to the problems of the gothic character. Without such a solution, both gothic characters and social revolutionaries are doomed to replay the dramas of the past over and over without any fully satisfactory resolution. This solution is fundamentally one of consciousness in which the subject refuses to obsessively, and one might say gothicly, interpret the present through a narrative of the past—a narrative which distorts both past and present, and instead constructs a new and forward-looking narrative.

For the Marxist Wright, the gothic represents the old consciousness of capitalism, particularly of capitalism in the crisis of the Great Depression, which is retailed to the masses through mass culture. Like most gothic texts, Native Son is obsessively intertextual. One sees allusions to and revisions of the works of Dostoevsky, Stowe, Flaubert, Zola, Poe, James, Hawthorne, Dreiser, and, despite Wright's disclaimers about the value of earlier black writers, such writers of fugitive slave narratives as Douglass, to name a few. Though many of these works are not thought of as gothic per se, virtually all of them draw on the gothic, especially those of Poe, James, and Hawthorne. For instance, a number of critics have noted the obvious invocation and revision of Poe's “The Black Cat” in Bigger's supervision by the Daltons' white cat as he tries to dispose of the body of Mary Dalton.5 Many of the invoked texts, particularly those of James, Hawthorne, Flaubert, and Poe, connect the gothic to the popular and, as in Native Son, regard the beginnings of mass culture with considerable ambivalence, if not hostility.

While Poe, with some justification, is most frequently cited as the primary model for the gothic moments of Native Son, Hawthorne is even more important in terms of the larger design of Native Son, since the gothic in The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter represents a certain social consciousness or mode of social relations which is ultimately transcended, allowing a reintegration of what had previously been intractably conflicting elements. Despite Wright's obvious differences with the essentially conservative politics of Hawthorne, that underlying Hawthorne's gothic conflicts was a sectional antagonism left over from chattel slavery based on race that threatened to tear the nation apart no doubt contributed to his attractiveness as a literary model for Wright.

Beyond such “high” literary ancestors for Native Son as the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and James, mass culture is also a crucial conduit for the gothic in Wright's novel. After all, most Americans were familiar with gothic conventions and sensibilities through mass culture at the time Wright wrote Native Son. Though British, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) established the model for the modern American popular gothic romance sold in drug stores and the emerging institution of the supermarket. Perhaps more importantly for Wright, the 1930s saw the blossoming of the American horror film, often based on such classic gothic works as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Poe's “The Black Cat” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue”—though the movies allegedly based on the Poe stories retained little of the originals beyond the titles.

In fact, while Native Son is most often connected to melodrama, the first two sections of the book resemble a typical horror movie of the 1930s. The 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which underwent a major revival in a double-bill with Dracula (also first released in 1931) as Wright was working on his novel in 1938, is a particularly important subtext.6 The thousands of police officers with flashlights and searchlights who pursue Bigger through an urban gothic landscape of abandoned tenements on the South Side at the end of the second section of Native Son closely resemble the villagers with torches who chase Frankenstein's monster through an expressionist landscape. The final fight scene at an old windmill between Frankenstein and the cornered monster also resembles the battle between Bigger and the policeman he knocks unconscious. During the last struggle in the film one of the villagers looks up and, seeing the monster with Frankenstein on the windmill, shouts, “There he is, the murderer.” Particularly significant for Wright's novel is this moment where the line between the monster and the man who created him is blurred. Bigger, then, is a monster created by a murderous society, initially marked not by an “unnatural” origin so much as by his physical appearance.

Wright's novel is also filled with allusions to what might be called the topoi or landmarks of the gothic: premonitions, curses, prophecies, spells, the subterranean, paintings, veils, trapdoors, demonic possession, graves, returns from the dead, skeletons, hauntings, ghosts, confinement, doubles, gothic mansions, visions, conspiracies, premature burial, and so on. Yet despite this use of the terminology of the supernatural and the uncanny, there is nothing supernatural in Native Son.7 What these terms represent is both an instinctual understanding of the results of the capitalist system in the United States and a mystification of the laws of that system. For example, Mrs. Thomas foretells her son's future:

“Well, I'm telling you agin! And mark my word, some of these days you going to set down and cry. Some of these days you going to wish you had made something out of yourself, instead of just a tramp. But it will be too late then.”

“Stop prophesying about me,” he said.


Mrs. Thomas's prophecy turns out to be correct in the extreme—just as Bigger's own premonitions about his tragic ending come true. However, there is nothing magical in these predictions; rather, they are realistic, if instinctual, assessments of what the results of straining against the limits of life set for someone like Bigger will be. However, because these predictions are expressed in supernatural terms, they offer no understanding of why these limits are set or, once understood, how these limits might be changed. It is worth noting that this incomprehension is not limited to the black characters of the novel. Mrs. Dalton is described as a “blind” and ineffectual, though well-meaning, “ghost” because she is a sort of ghost of good intentions, unable to understand the real causes of poverty and degradation in the ghetto and unwilling to undertake the sort of actions to change society fundamentally so that such conditions are no longer possible.

The gothic also mystifies the social system in other ways, most notably through a type of transference. Thus we see a sort of doubling in which an African American character, generally Bigger, becomes a double or stand-in for a white character, allowing the black character unconsciously to reenact and control a formerly uncontrollable situation. For example, Bigger, psychologically unable to rob the white storekeeper Blum, recasts his fellow gang member Gus as Blum and beats up, and symbolically rapes, Gus. Likewise, Bessie becomes a double of Mary Dalton in that her rape by Bigger is actual and her murder intentional, whereas the rape of Mary was a half-formed desire and her murder accidental. Other moments of black-white doubling include the pairing of Bigger's brother Buddy with the young white Communist Jan Erlone, Mrs. Thomas with the Dalton's Irish servant Peggy, and in a very telling scene the doubling lifestyles of the rich and famous in the film The Gay Woman with a stereotypically savage Africa in Trader Horn, which Jack and Bigger watch in a double feature. And, of course, there is the opening moment of terrifying and uncanny doubling in which Bigger kills a version of himself: a monstrous black rat filled with rage and fear.

A similar sort of doubling also takes place in which Bigger posits two Biggers—one who is in control of himself and one who is controlled by gothic terror: “There were two Biggers: one was determined to get rest and sleep at any cost; and the other shrank from images charged with terror” (237). In much the same way Bigger also sees two bizarrely dissociated Bessies—a corporeal Bessie entirely under his control and a consciousness who contests that control and demands things of him: “As he walked beside her he felt that there were two Bessies: one a body that he had just had and wanted badly again; and the other was in Bessie's face; it asked questions; it bargained and sold the other to best advantage” (233).

Both of these doublings—the pairing of black and white and the bifurcation of the individual—are aspects of a sort of gothic vision by which Bigger attempts to interpret and control his environment. Or at least these doublings allow Bigger to control himself enough to be able to act in some manner which validates him as a person—at least in his own view—within that environment. Needless to say, this vision is severely distorted, not to say psychotic.

Though this doubling or identification between apparently disparate people and things allows Bigger at least an imagined control of his situation, there is another side to this projection. This side is the further mystification of the social system when uncontrollable or inescapable elements of that system are projected onto various objects. There is a constant reference to the whiteness of things that Bigger sees: walls, smoke, clouds, snow, cigarettes, hair, and so on. This white hems Bigger in just as violence, real estate covenants, gentlemen's agreements, and so on hem in Chicago's African Americans behind the veil of the South Side “Black Belt.”

Perhaps the most notable example of this projection is onto the Dalton's white cat, an obvious intertextual allusion to Poe's “The Black Cat,” in which the Dalton's cat embodies the white supervision of the black subject. This sense of being watched might be displaced onto a weird object by Bigger, but it could hardly be called paranoid since the reader gets to see the whole machinery of supervision—the police, the press, the State's Attorney, the detective, and various other witnesses and experts as well as the self-supervision which has been ideologically induced largely by mass culture in Bigger—in some detail. (In this regard, the projection of white supervision onto the cat is the flip side, so to speak, of the projection of a certain black self-policing onto the black rat from the novel's opening.) But to say that Bigger's vision, or narrative if you will, is not paranoid does not mean that this projection, though emotionally or psychologically powerful, helps him understand how the system works. Quite the contrary, it makes such an understanding impossible. In short, while the virtual blizzard of whiteness is a powerful metaphor for a system of supervision and control and its effect on the black subject, what is required is the examination and understanding of that system through some scientific method, say dialectical materialism, not simply a representation of that system.

Again, it should be noted that such mystification and misunderstanding are not restricted to Bigger. They are characteristic of virtually everyone the reader encounters in Native Son. Once again Wright utilizes a central gothic convention, a terror of incomprehension. This is the terror that the world one inhabits is guided by rules other than those one is able to see, or that within one's world or very close to it are contained secrets—deeds, other selves, sisters, explanations—of crucial importance to us if only one could find them.

In Native Son, particularly in the first two sections, nearly all the major characters look for a certain meaning in the other characters which they are sure is there, but which they are unable to understand or which they misconstrue. Bigger is constantly saying that he is unable to make out what various white characters, particularly the Daltons and Jan Erlone, are talking about. Mary Dalton says that she wants to know black people and that she knows so little despite the fact that her family's house in Hyde Park is an easy walk from the South Side black community. In this regard, perhaps the most painful moment of an extremely gruesome book for the reader is not either the grisly murder of Bessie or that of Mary, but when Mary sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to what Bigger recognizes as the wrong tune. Jan Erlone's demand that Bigger take Jan and Mary to an “authentic” black restaurant on the South Side rates a close second. For that matter, the mystery of the Daltons is not solved when the skeleton in their basement is revealed, leading eventually to Bigger Thomas, because it is clear that they will never understand the secret behind the veil of the black belt where people live in houses the Daltons own. Thus, like the gothic dance of the Maules and the Pyncheons in The House of the Seven Gables before they give up their twin obsessions of property and revenge, Native Son intimates that the Daltons of the world will continue to encounter the Biggers. And neither will be able to understand the other because the rules which guide their world are hidden in a web of gothic figuration. In fact, that both the Biggers and the Daltons perceive each of their worlds as largely disjunct from that of the other is actually another form of mystification which will hinder them from objectively apprehending the nature of their social order.

The fundamental reason that none of the characters that we see in the first two sections of the novel understands the underlying rules of society is that they are caught up in various narratives the function of which is to perpetuate the power relations of American society and, again, to mystify the true nature of those relations. Some of these narratives are basically ghosts of a past era of American society. These narratives are not simply accounts of the past which make sense of the present and offer a guide to conduct—this is implicitly or explicitly true of all the narratives in the text—but are holdovers from the past. This category of ghosts would include both Mrs. Thomas's stoic and accommodationist Christianity, which has its ultimate origin in the slave South, as well as the older Daltons' paternalistic narrative of philanthropy. Both of these older narratives no longer have the desired impact on a new generation of uprooted and marginalized young people represented by Bigger and his gang: They have no desire to defer desire until the next world or go to night school in order to become better educated servants. Of course, the Daltons have an interest in not demystifying these narratives despite the death of their daughter.

Wright sees virtually all black literature before Native Son as essentially part of these mirroring narratives of stoic deference and paternalism.8 It is also interesting, though disturbing, to see how Wright, like Claude McKay in the novels Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), assigns gender to these narratives so that the conservatism of the black folk culture and its accommodation to white paternalism are seen as feminine, as opposed to an implicit masculine narrative of rebellion and liberation.9 Even in the case of the equally uprooted and marginalized Bessie, her response to her confinement in the face of extravagant mass culture narratives of desire is basically passive, whereas Bigger's is active. It is also notable that Bigger's greatest sense of validation comes from acts of extreme misogyny which are not fully repudiated by the novel.

Bigger and his gang are alienated from the folk culture that his mother represents, from the black politicians of the South Side who hold their positions through accommodation with the white power structure, and from the white power structure itself, whether in its more blatantly corrupt and hostile form, as represented by State's Attorney Buckley, or in the more apparently benign and unconscious form represented by the Daltons. Bigger and his peers are caught in narratives of mass culture and the hungers and fears inculcated by those narratives which glamorize the lifestyles of the rich and famous while demonizing the poor, particularly African Americans, and the politically radical, especially the Communists. For example, the first of the two movies that Bigger and Jack see, The Gay Woman, titillates them with the possibility of a chaotic modern world of unlimited gratification, represented as threatening in the figure of a Communist assassin, which ultimately is repelled with a return to a mythic past of “family values.” The second movie, Trader Horn, is an equally eroticized narrative of a mythic Africa in which Africans, and by extension African Americans, are shown to be “savage” and therefore terrifying as well as “natural” and therefore desirable. In both cases, what is seen is ultimately a justification of the present social order through narratives of the past which are literally projections of the present. The problem for society is that the desire that these mass culture products incite to attract consumers is not so easily sated or repressed.

Practically all Bigger's knowledge of the world, particularly outside the ghetto, and of how to conduct oneself in that world whether as a lover or as the writer of a ransom note, comes from mass culture—tabloids, newsreels, movies, detective stories, and so on. Like Emma Bovary, and in a less tragic manner Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Bigger is the victim of these mass culture narratives. As models of how to act, they cannot help but lead him to disaster.

And as models of normative desire, desire that he can never satisfy, they are equally disastrous. Of course, African Americans are not the only ones caught in such narratives. The posse of the 8,000 racist white police and the racist mob screaming for Bigger's blood outside the courthouse in the third section are clearly inflamed by a narrative of black bestiality retailed by the popular press. Ironically, this mob is comprised largely of people who might be categorized as white Biggers, other uprooted and marginalized people whom—along with marginalized blacks such as Bigger—Wright sees as the potential basis for a mass fascist movement in America.

One could argue that what makes Bigger's existence truly gothic is the wild terror and the extravagant desire that are produced when these narratives of mass culture act on an individual for whom the normative markers of identity—markers of class, race, gender, sexuality—have broken down and who is confined within the rigid and narrow limits of the ghetto. It is this intersection of fear, desire, and confinement that produces the doubling, the projection, the transference, the transgressive sexuality—which includes rape—both real and imagined, followed by murder, real and imagined miscegenation, symbolic homosexual coupling and the possibility of incest, the anxiety about who one is and how one should act, the apprehension and misapprehension of possible meanings, and the sense of an inescapable past which is also the future so common to the gothic genre.

Perhaps the most telling moment of Native Son is the book's opening. First, an alarm clock goes off. The alarm clock ostensibly is a reminder of linear time. But in fact the alarm clock is a symbol of cyclical time marking the beginning of a day, a journey that will be almost exactly like yesterday and tomorrow. Immediately after the bell goes off, we are introduced to themes of confinement and transgressive sexuality. This transgressive sexuality is present explicitly in the shame that Bigger and his family feel about having to dress and undress in such close quarters. It is also present implicitly in the difference in skin color between the “black” Buddy and Bigger and the “brown-skinned” Vera, reminding the reader that repressed behind the hysterical fear of “miscegenation” between black men and white women is a massive number of often coercive sexual couplings between white slave masters and black slave women. Then a black rat appears, both terrified and terrifying. In the first moment of doubling in the text, Bigger kills his rat double, who attacks Bigger in a fit of terror, hunger, and defiance. Bigger goes on to terrify his sister with the dead rat, enjoying her fear. Bigger's mother prophesies a tragic end for him. End of story. But not really. There will be more rats. The slum buildings of the ghetto produce an endless stream of hungry and fearful rats. Bigger and his mother foresee Bigger's ending even if they don't grasp why such an ending is inevitable. But there will be more Biggers. (This is made even clearer in Wright's essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” appended to the novel by Harper and Brothers in 1942, in which Wright describes five different Biggers who represent many other Biggers he knew.) There will also be more Bessies, more Mary Daltons, more Mr. and Mrs. Daltons, more State's Attorney Buckleys, and so on. In essence the past is destiny. Again, what we see is some notion of a cyclical journey in which no destination is really reached, a migration which brings no real material or spiritual improvement.

Native Son, then, would seem to be a gothic text in which history is destined to repeat itself as both tragedy and farce. In fact, if the book ended with Bigger's capture and the signing of the confession the State's Attorney gives him, then it would be a sort of gothic. Why is it an anti-gothic? Bigger, primarily through his interaction with the Communist lawyer Boris Max and the particular Marxist-Leninist ideology that Max embodies, attains a genuine self-consciousness or at least recognizes his ability to attain some sort of true self-consciousness, even if his execution will cut the process short. Of course, it is important to note that it is not merely Max's ideas that begin to move Bigger in a new direction away from the gothic, but also Max's willingness to act on those ideas:

Bigger was not at that moment really bothered about whether Max's speech had saved his life or not. He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech for him, to save his life. It was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it. That in itself was something.


This willingness to act on his stated ideals, as well as to expound them directly and clearly, are at least as important in distinguishing Max from the other white speakers who either disassociate their acts from their ideals (as in the case of the slumlord Mr. Dalton) or conceal the real significance of their acts with appeals to allegedly commonly held ideals (as does the corrupt State's Attorney Buckley, who invokes God and civilization in his opening statement at Bigger's trial).

Bigger begins to understand the motivations for his actions and the social laws which have shaped his actions, or at least he sees that such an understanding may be possible. The way Wright represents the process is not as a simple linear progression—and how far the process has moved by the end is ambiguous.10 Rather it is a process that moves in fits and starts. Neither is it a process by which the Communist Party simply gives Bigger the truth: The white Communists Boris Max and Jan Erlone learn at least as much from Bigger as Bigger learns from them.11 In fact, Bigger's vision of himself at the end may well be clearer than Max's own self-knowledge. Ultimately, Bigger rejects the various narratives which have shaped his life and his self-perception and takes responsibility for his actions. He no longer feels terror, even about his impending execution. In essence, he takes control of his own narrative, basing it on himself rather than trying to conform himself to the various narratives of mass culture.

This of course is still a moment of tragedy. Bigger is still going to die. And what he has accepted about himself is his identity as a murderer:

“What I killed for must've been good!” Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something. … I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. … It's the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, 'cause I'm going to die. I know what I'm saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I'm all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way. …”


Bigger has a clearer sense of why he killed, but this does not comfort us (or Boris Max) very much. Nonetheless, we can see in the last section of the book the possibility of an escape from the gothic consciousness or gothic vision that characterizes the first two sections of the book. Wright posits the possibility of a more fully developed consciousness as to self and society on the part of the marginalized black subject. He raises the possibility of an alliance of the oppressed across racial lines. Moreover, the author proposes the possibility of the black subject's control of his or her own voice, of producing his or her own narrative which draws not, as Marx puts it, “on the poetry of the past,” but the poetry of the future. In this respect, it is important to remember the congruence of the trajectory of much of Wright's early life with that of Bigger Thomas's. Wright was also a product of the migration of African Americans to the urban North—though we are also reminded of the disjunctures between the fictional character and the figure of the author in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” since the author lived to tell the tale and since the author claims that he was even more a prisoner of fear than Bigger Thomas. We are shown that such a narrative control is possible because we are holding the product in our hands. It is worth noting here that, despite the dismissal of earlier black literature in both Wright's introduction and in the court speech he has Boris Max give, this emphasis on the importance of control of voice by the black speaking and writing subject has been, as many scholars have shown, a hallmark of African American literature since the eighteenth century.12

The gothic then is crucial to Wright's project because it is the perfect literary analogue to what Wright sees as the ideology and psychology guiding the relations between black and white Americans under what he viewed as late capitalism. The highly developed gothic rhetoric of extreme social anxiety or terror on the part of the individual subject with respect to social identity as well as the repression of that anxiety by the subject with the concomitant return of the repressed as the uncanny allowed Wright graphically to represent the pathology of American racism. Yet as in the Communist critique of Freudianism which gothic literature prefigured and influenced, it is in part rejected because of its focus on individual terror rather broader social forces—a limitation that remains even when the gothic is used to figure social conflict and anxieties. Also, because of the relation of black literature to the gothic genre, the representation of the gothic and its limitations can also be seen as a critique of black expressive culture, particularly literature, and a statement of the need for a new type of African American literature of which Native Son was to be the forerunner. As Wright concluded the essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” (sounding much like Jean Toomer and Claude McKay): “We have only a money-grubbing industrial civilization. But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him” (881). The problem for Wright, however, was not simply to represent the world, but to change it.


  1. For a discussion of Wright with respect to his connection to the field of sociology in the 1930s and 1940s, see Cappetti (182-210). See also Bone.

  2. Scholars have connected gothic literature in the United States to slavery and the subsequent ideologies and practices that descended from slavery since, at least, Leslie Fielder's 1960 book Love and Death in the American Novel (though Fielder's work is almost entirely concerned with white writers, other than a brief mention of Ralph Ellison at the expense of Wright). For Fiedler's most focused treatment of the relation between race and the American gothic, see 370-414.

    For a recent investigation of the relation of the African American narrative to the gothic in which Native Son is connected to nineteenth-century slave narratives at some length, see Goddu (131-52)—though Goddu ultimately sees Wright's take on the ability of the gothic to represent historical experience as being more positive than I do here. For a more extended study of gothic novels by women and the fugitive slave narrative, albeit one which strangely treats the female gothic and the slave narrative as parallel universes rather than genres that significantly intersect, see Winter. For another examination of the subject of the gothic as a form of consciousness in Native Son—albeit an account that assigns the gothic to “primitive racial enmity” as opposed to being generated organically from modern industrial urban American society—see Bodziock. See also McCall 75-76.

  3. For an analysis of the Communist ideological approach to the “Negro Question” and its impact on African American writing in the 1930s and 1940s, see Smethurst 16-42. See also Foley, Radical 170-212.

  4. The first easily available translation of The Eighteenth Brumaire into English appeared in 1914. The translator was Daniel De Leon, the founder and long-time leader of the Socialist Labor Party. However, the edition first issued in the 1930s by CPUSA publishing house International Publishers as part of its Marxist Library series was the one most current in Communist circles.

  5. For the most extended treatment of Poe's considerable influence on Wright, see Fabre 27-33.

  6. For a discussion of the making of Frankenstein, and Dracula, the significance of the two movies for the emergence of the horror film as a major genre, and their revival as a double-bill in the late 1930s (including a photograph of the theater marquée in Brooklyn Heights presumably taken at the time Wright was living in Brooklyn and working on Native Son), see Skal 113-59. For a study of the importance of film, primarily melodrama, to Native Son, see Pudaloff. For a recollection of Wright's love of film, including horror movies, see Walker 220-21.

  7. This ultimate appearance of a “rational” explanation for an apparently supernatural phenomenon is often true of the classic gothic romance, also. However, in the classic gothic, both European and American, the supernatural or “unnatural” often remains a possibility even when a “rational” explanation is offered—as in James's “Turn of the Screw,” for example. However, in Wright's novel the supernatural is rigorously exposed and rejected even as the language of the supernatural is employed. For a consideration of space and confinement in which Wright's novel is seen as a mediation between the Left and the African American urban folk, see Irr 121-41.

  8. Wright was notoriously critical of his African American predecessors. For Wright's most complete and pointed critique of earlier black writers (and most of his black contemporaries), see his “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937).

  9. However, McKay, an early African American Communist who was moving away from the CPUSA as he wrote these novels, gives his black male protagonists much greater individual agency than does Wright in Native Son. McKay also associates women far more with modern urban industrial society and far less with the folk. Perhaps one reason that Wright does not make an exception in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” for McKay, who after all first made his reputation as a literary militant, is due to McKay's representation of the possibility of the African American intellectual's return to the folk and of an escape from European and North American “civilization”—at least ideologically.

  10. For an argument that Max's didactic courtroom speech (and Bigger's response to it) is an essential part of the novel's design rather than a relatively extraneous artistic mistake (as many critics have claimed), see Foley, “Politics” 194-96.

  11. Though it is outside the purview of this essay, it is worth noting that Bigger is not the only person transformed by Bigger's encounter with the CPUSA. The impact of Bigger on Max and Erlone and Wright's representation of the meaning of this impact for the revolutionary movement are subjects worth further consideration.

  12. For seminal studies in which the intersection of orality, literacy, and the control of the black subject's voice is seen as being at the heart of African American literature, see Baker; Gates; and Stepto.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston, Jr. “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of Southern Slave.” The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 242-61.

Bodziock, Joseph. “Richard Wright and Afro-American Gothic.” Richard Wright: Myths and Realities. Ed. C. James Trotman. New York: Garland, 1988. 27-42.

Bone, Robert. “Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance.” Callaloo 9.3 (1986): 446-68.

Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1993

Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1985.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.

Foley, Barbara. “The Politics of Poetics: Ideology and Narrative Form in An American Tragedy and Native Son.” Gates and Appiah 188-99.

———. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Irr, Caren. The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada during the 1930s. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International, 1963.

McCall, Dan. The Example of Richard Wright. New York: Harcourt, 1969.

McKay, Claude. Banjo. New York: Harper, 1929.

———. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper, 1928.

Pudaloff, Ross. “Celebrity as Identity: Native Son and Mass Culture.” Gates and Appiah 156-70.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993.

Smethurst, James E. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner Books, 1988.

Winter, Kari J. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Wright, Richard. Early Works. New York: Library of America, 1991.

Dennis F. Evans (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Evans, Dennis F. “The Good Women, Bad Women, Prostitutes and Slaves of Pagan Spain: Richard Wright's Look Beyond the Phallocentric Self.” In Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections, edited by Virginia Whatley Smith, pp. 165-75. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Evans argues that Wright's travel book Pagan Spain offers valuable insights into Richard Wright as a writer and a person through his sympathetic treatment of Spanish women.]

I wanted to go to Spain, but something was holding me back. The only thing that stood between me and a Spain that beckoned as much as it repelled was a state of mind.

—Richard Wright, Pagan Spain

Every native feels himself to be more or less a “foreigner” in his “own and proper” place, and that metaphorical value of the word “foreigner” first leads the citizen to a feeling of discomfort as to his sexual, national, political, professional identity. Next it impels him to identify—sporadically, to be sure, but nonetheless intensely—with the other.

—Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves

Stephen Butterfield's idea that autobiography “lives in the two worlds of history and literature, objective fact and subjective awareness,” and that the product of autobiography “asserts that human life has or can be made to have meaning, that our actions count for something worth being remembered, that we are conscious of time, [and] that we not only drift on the current of our circumstances but we fish in the stream and change the direction of the flow” (1), serves to illuminate and define the work of Richard Wright. Wright's fiction is almost universally accepted as being autobiographical in nature; yet, part of this acceptance is the understanding that his works are fictionalized accounts of incidents that occurred in Wright's life and the lives of other people as well. Wright's travel books, however, pose a different problem for literary historicists and critics because, while the genre traditionally dictates the use of a less poeticized style, and a less politicized message, Wright uses the genre as a forum for a highly poetic social and political dialectic. Thus, for a time, Wright's travel texts eluded the gaze of critics because they did not fit the literary molds of either travelogue or fiction comfortably. Our own current ability to critically distance ourselves from Wright's travel books, as well as our ability to be distanced from them due to passage of time, allows us the luxury and liberty to view them now as integral parts of the Wright autobiographical canon—parts that are indicative of the type of autobiography that Butterfield describes. For it is in Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), Pagan Spain (1957), and White Man, Listen! (1957) that Wright finally goes outside of his homeland, his own land, in search of himself, “fishing in the stream and changing the direction of its flow”; and it is in these same works that Wright is both surprised and disappointed to discover that he was wrong about how other cultures lived, and how he felt about those cultures. The focus of this paper is on Wright's travel book Pagan Spain, and how aspects of that work allow us to expand our understanding of Richard Wright as a writer, and as a human.

Even after Gertrude Stein and several friends' admonishments that he “go to Spain to see what the Western world [was] made of,” Richard Wright resisted, claiming Spain to be “the one country of the Western world about which, as though shunning the memory of a bad love affair, [he] did not want to exercise his mind” (1-2). But Wright, himself, was unsure of the reasons why he had not gone, stating: “I had been born under an absolutistic racist regime in Mississippi; I had lived and worked for twelve years under the political dictatorship of the Communist Party of the United States; and I had spent a year of my life under the police terror of Peron in Buenos Aires. So why avoid the reality of life under Franco?” (1). Finally, in the summer of 1954, unable to further justify the prolonged avoidance, Wright went to Spain seeking answers to a question that had interested him all of his life: “How did one live after the death of the hope of freedom?” (2). When we look at much if not all of Wright's other work—from his isolated and angry fictionalized characters such as Bigger Thomas, Jake Jackson, and Cross Damon, to his disillusioned and dissatisfied portrait of African life in Black Power—we can see that Pagan Spain is merely a continuation of many of the same themes that interested Wright throughout his career: a search for identity and a clear view of his place in the world, combined with his desire to inform and enlighten Westerners, and in particular white Westerners, of the systemic oppression of peoples of color throughout the world.

Yet, Pagan Spain is more than a mere continuation of these themes for two fundamental reasons. The first reason is that, for only the second time in his career, Wright critically examines the lives of a people he considers to be white.1 While he witnesses, appreciates, and documents the lives of the people of Spain as being severely oppressed, he does not, however, see them as people of color. The second reason, and one I consider to be more significant, is that, in Pagan Spain, Wright gives us his first, and possibly only, sympathetic treatment of women. Several critical and biographical accounts of Wright's life and work indicate clear misogynistic tendencies, and many scholars regard the portrayals of female characters in his works as little more than the objectification and denigration of women.2 Wright's other travel books tend to show little if any interest in or regard to the roles and status of women. However, in Pagan Spain, Wright's report on the treatment of Spanish women—their social, political, and religious indoctrination and subjugation, and their stigmatized, yet, unavoidable participation in prostitution and white slavery—is uncharacteristically empathetic and gives us a view of Wright that is unavailable in any of his other works, both travel and fictional. It is my contention that the unusually harsh and inhumane treatment of Spanish women, by a society that advertised itself to be deeply and morally religious, caused Wright to (for the first time in print, at least) observe, acknowledge, and finally sympathize with the plight of these women.

There are two fundamental strategies Wright uses in his various depictions of female characters, both pertaining to matters of geographic space. One strategy is what I classify as “Wright at Home,” where the Bigger Thomases, the Cross Damons, and other various fictionalized heroes of Richard Wright's treat women as “‘degraded,’ … she is whore, cunt, and bitch-the-fallen woman. … She is never a real human being. She is stupid, hysterical, emotional, silly, evil, and low-class” (Walker 247). The other strategy involves “Wright as foreigner,” a concept defined by Julia Kristeva in her book Strangers to Ourselves,3 where Wright and women are themselves foreigners, and they “attempt at all cost [either] to merge into that homogenous texture that knows no other, to identify with it, to vanish into it, to become assimilated. … Or else [to] withdraw into isolation, humiliated and offended, conscious of the handicap of never being able to become [a native]” (39). Generally speaking, in Wright's fiction the authorial characters portray a version of “Wright at Home” writing his “American autobiography” (truly a native son); he is like a man in his favorite chair outwardly projecting his self-confidence and self-assuredness. The level of understanding, and even comfort, of this environment distorts any sensitivity he might possess regarding the status of women.4 Conversely, in Wright's travelogues—“Wright as foreigner,” or his “Continental autobiography”—Wright's authorial voice is mindful of the fact that he is not sure of his way home, that he could easily become lost, and that he needs allies. The level of uncertainty and even discomfort of this environment allows him the distance necessary to “see” the various cultural worlds he is visiting in a new and different light. And it is “Wright as foreigner,” in Spain, that permits him to witness, appreciate, and comment on the doubly horrible oppression women were made to endure.

The book opens with Wright's aforementioned indecisiveness over entering the country and progresses through various episodes and encounters that he has with a diverse sampling of Spanish people. Readers of the book are treated to Wright's characteristically unassuming, yet, descriptive prose as he encounters border guards and bank clerks, and one gets more of a sense that Wright the outsider is on a vacation rather than on an investigative sojourn. Wright, then, quickly moves the narration from standard documentary form into a dialogue between himself and two youths he meets on the streets of Cataluña, and this is the first indication we have that this work is not written in the traditional form of a travelogue, but in a more expressive and inquisitive manner. Utilizing dialogue interspersed among descriptive and interpretive commentaries, Wright begins to establish a dialectic between his own preconceived notions of a Fascistic Spain and the reality of his surroundings: the living, breathing, loving people of Spain. He asks the two boys if they know of a room he might rent, and having been told “yes,” he follows them into a church. The boys ask him if he is Catholic and when he replies “no,” they express surprise. At first, Wright the non-native is confused as to why they have brought him to a church, but he writes:

I was a stranger and they were taking me into their Christian fellowship even before they knew my name, their solicitude cutting across class and racial lines. … It was beginning to make sense; I was a heathen and these devout boys were graciously coming to my rescue. In their spontaneous embrace of me they were acting out a role that had been implanted in them since childhood. I was not a stranger, but a “lost” one in dire need of being saved. Yet, there was no condescension in their manner; they acted with a quiet assurance of men who knew that they had the only truth in existence and they were offering it to me. … If André's and Miguel's reactions were genuine examples of Spanish feeling, then Spain possessed a shy sweetness, an open-handed hospitality that no other people on earth could match.


Even as he walks streets that are filled with civil guards carrying machine guns, Wright is struck by the life-loving, peaceful men and women of Spain, and he realizes that there is much more mystery to the Spanish people than he had previously considered.

As Wright begins to describe the two boys in detail, readers become aware of the paradoxical but typical attitudes that Spanish men have for their women.

Both were shy about women. André had a fiancé, but Miguel would not commit himself. To their minds, the feminine half of mankind was divided into two groups: “good” women and “bad” women. “Good” women were women like their mothers, sisters, and sweethearts; “bad” women were the women who could be bought, or who could be slept with for nothing. Since they had to have women and could not have the “good” ones, they frequented the “bad” ones. And since going to bed with either a “good” or a “bad” woman was a sin, it was necessary to be forgiven. Both boys went to confession regularly.


Here, Wright has successfully illuminated the female condition within a traditional patriarchal society, a forced condition. Writing before any of the current radical feminist or womanist theories were in place, Wright portrays André and Miguel's attitudes toward women as being common and acceptable. But, unlike his own descriptions of black women—what Mootry describes as a “collection of bitches and whores”—Wright's description of André and Miguel's beliefs utilizes a tone that suggests a certain ironic awareness of that patriarchal paradox: a polysemousness that simultaneously describes and questions the ethos of the very act. Wright asks the boys how they know when a woman is a “bad woman,” to which he gets no real answer, aside from the fact that they “know where to find them,” and this further compounds the irrational attitudes that are at work here. The decisions Spanish men make regarding the social status of their women (whether they are “good” or “bad”) are often made in relation to notions of place, or where these women are. Women are regarded, like Wright himself, as foreigners in their own land. Women do not have full access to their homeland; they are kept distanced from it through its laws, education, and economic powers—they are a product of what Michel Foucault describes in The Use of Pleasure, a “male ethics, in which women figured only as objects or, at most, as partners that one had best train, educate, and watch over when one had them under one's power, but stay away from them when they are under the power of someone else” (22). Indicative of this male ethics and the tightrope it forces women to walk is Wright's encounter with a young woman named Carmen. Wright arranges a harmless meeting with her, in a public place; yet, she is visibly uncomfortable being seen with him. He asks:

“Had I been a Spaniard you would not have come?”

“I couldn't have come. It's only in an American hotel that I could meet you without a scandal. You don't know what it means to be a girl in Spain.”

“And what does it mean?”

“I'm supposed to stay home and have babies,” she said grimacing.

“Who says you must do that?”

“Tradition,” she said. “I wish I were a man; … They can do as they like. They are strong. We women are nothing.”


Wright could easily identify and sympathize with this condition—this native foreigner—because he struggled under the same burdens as a citizen of America. It is only when Wright is able to move outside of his role as native to that of foreigner, that he is able to begin to appreciate the doubly marginalized position women had to endure. In his role as foreigner, Wright, thus, sustains Butterfield's notion of “self” in black autobiography as being “conceived as a member of an oppressed social group, with ties and responsibilities to the other members.” It is a conscious political identity, drawing sustenance from the past experience of the group, “giving back the iron of its endurance … for the use of the next generation of fighters” (3).

Later in the book, Wright is asked by another American woman to come to her pensión and stand guard while she packed her things to leave. Wright is again confused about motives, this time about those surrounding her request. He asks her why she is so frightened of her landlord and she answers with the question:

“How long have you been in Spain?”

“Just a few days.”

“Then you don't know what it means to be a woman alone in Spain,” she said.

Holy Moses. Here it is again. I remembered the terror that had come over Carmen's face when I suggested that she meet in a bar. She had reacted as though I had proposed a trip to perdition.

“Is it that bad?” I asked.

“You have to see it to believe it,” she sighed.

“All right. I'll come with you. I want to see this,” I said. “Now what do you want me to do?”

“Nothing. You just stand there. If a man is there, he'll act differently.”

There was no doubt in my mind now of her terror. But how could such a thing be? Who had the right to throw gratuitous terror into lonely women? We finished our coffee and headed toward her pension.


Wright is shocked to discover that a woman traveling alone in Spain is often subjected to harassment and ridicule. Having himself experienced the humiliation and indignation of having lived under “Jim Crow” rule in America, Wright is able to understand and empathize with the frustration these women are feeling. His awareness of the rampant phallocentrism as well as his concern for the silent suffering women of Spain grows with each passing page.

When he meets André's family and shares a meal with them, Wright acknowledges the injustice and even the absurdity of the situation without passing judgement. Yet, one is inclined to think that Wright could do no more at this time than to chronicle the events he witnessed as a means of leading up to some kind of future indictment: “Spain being a man's world, we men were served first by André's mother; the women had to wait meekly for their turn. No nonsense here about priority of women, of the mothers of the race, not even if they were certified virgins. The women ate silently with one eye cocked in the direction of their men, ready at a moment's notice to drop their knives and forks and refill the half-empty masculine plates” (90). There is an obvious mocking tone in this passage that causes the reader to think that Wright is witnessing something both horrible and absurd, and that he is making fun of the absurdity while condemning the horrible. His allusions to “the mothers of the race” remaining oppressed even if they were “certified virgins” is sadly, doubly ironic, first for its literal comment on Spanish social conditions, and because of the more accepted notions of Wright's hatred toward his own mother. In the role of foreigner, Wright is able to begin a process of understanding that is unavailable to him at home. In Spain he sees phallocentrism staring him in the face—sees how it divides and oppresses—and he understands that, as a foreigner, he must recognize his membership in the group of oppressed and help to affect change. Wright's goal in life was to, like Mencken, use “words as weapons”; in fact, when he was asked “for whom he writes,” he replied, “I'd like to hurl words in my novels in order to arouse whites to the fact that there is someone here with us, Negroes, a human presence” (qtd in Charbonnier 224). So it is no great leap of faith to assert that Wright is chronicling these separate but contiguous events as a means of commenting on the state of oppression in which women exist.

I previously suggested that Wright documented these various incidents with women as a means of working his way toward some future indictment of Spanish society. Wright presents the culmination of this effort in the book's penultimate chapter titled “Sex, Flamenco, and Prostitution.” It is here that the cyclopean monster is both fully exposed and condemned. He begins the chapter with the bold assertion that “In Spain sex has been converted into a medium of exchange for almost all kinds of commodities and services to a degree that cannot be found in any other European country” (150), and refers to the vast numbers of prostitutes as a “‘wall of flesh.’”

Wright contends that women are forced into this commodified position because of a most basic and brutal need: hunger, and more specifically the hunger of their children. He lays the blame for their hunger squarely in the lap of Franco's Falangist government; he places the burden of guilt for their commodified status solely on the shoulders of the Catholic Church. Wright argues that:

Growing out of this curious intertwining of archaic cultural values and endemic poverty [his indictment of Franco's government] is still another facet that anchors prostitution in the social structure: a religion whose outlook upon the universe almost legitimizes prostitution: The Spanish Catholic concept of sin. Sin exists, so declares this concept. Prostitution is sin, and proof of sin. So prostitution exists. To account for prostitution in economic or political terms is to be guilty of … a mortal sin.


Women are taught in the home and by the church—a church that is socially all-pervasive—that they must care for their young; yet they are unable, because of economic hardships, properly to feed these children. But, “if a woman … sells her body to feed her hungry children, that in itself is almost a justification of what she is doing” (152). Wright sees these women as victims of the inherent paradox that church and state, both phallocentric organizations, have created for them and forced upon them. In fact, in that same mocking yet disbelieving tone, Wright comments that the phrase “Para los niños (for the children) is a slogan among Spanish prostitutes that is almost as prevalent as Arriba España! (Spain—Arise!), the slogan of totalitarian Spanish men” (152). The juxtaposition of the feminine giving of the self—a sacrifice made for the children (stereotypically a women's responsibility)—with the masculine imperative to “Arise”—or to project one's self (stereotypically a masculine decision)—allows Wright to begin his condemnation of the phallocentric institutions that are responsible for this hunger that is sin.

Wright brings his condemnation to a boiling point when he suddenly and violently realizes the depth and breadth of the Spanish woman's commodification when he discovers first-hand that these women are being sold into slavery.

Four girls were at our tables now. The orchestra played and they wriggled their shoulders, rolled their eyes, and snapped their fingers. Most of them were in their twenties. And they kept looking expectantly to me.

“I you go Africa,” a young girl said to me.

S. bent over with laughter, enjoying my bewilderment. …

“What's the joke,” I demanded, nettled.

“Brother, you would never have thought this would happen to you,” he told me.

“But what's happening to me?”

“Look, I'm organizing these girls to take them to Africa next week,” he explained. “They think that you are the boss. You see, you are dark.

“But—w-what are you going to do with the girls in Africa?” I asked him stammeringly.

“What the hell do you think? I'm going to put them to work in the houses,” he snapped, still laughing.

It hit me like a ton of rock. White Slavery … I was doing a quick laundering job on the moral notions in my brain and the moral feelings of my body. This was white slavery, and how simple and open and jolly it was! The women and girls were begging to go; they were hungry.


Here was past and present personified, staring him back in the face, because, while he was not a slave, he was being confronted with the very issue that he had spent all his life trying to understand and rectify—the injustice he had been fighting against—alive and flourishing in the twentieth century. Wright, understandably, uses restraint in his realization of the fact that these women, like the slaves of the American South, were only separated by distance and time from him. As a foreigner, he chose exile to escape the racist hatred that was a product of his own feelings of foreignness at home. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, his going away from America allows him to experience elsewhere and first-hand what he had been witness to all of his life: repressed hatred and the inhumane oppression of slavery. He finds little comfort in the knowledge that Spain has been this way for hundreds of years, as he remarks: “given the conditions, the moral attitude of the Church toward sex, the poverty, the ignorance, this was bound to be. It was all socially determined. The Church could call it sin, but it was something far more awful than that” (186). Here is all Wright can do to condemn the oppression that Spanish men have brought to bear on their women. His statements do not share the searing heat that he exhibits in Native Son, and my own contention is that Wright was feeling and fulfilling his role as foreigner. Kristeva argues that the foreigner possesses “a secret wound, often unknown to himself, that drives [him] to wandering. Poorly loved, however, he does not acknowledge it: with him, the challenge silences the complaint” (5). I contend that “Wright as foreigner” is a more quiet, less contentious commentator than the Native Son. His remarks are caustic in their ironic content and his observations are methods of discovery for himself and for others. For Wright, the inhumane and unjust treatment of Spanish women is so self-evident that he does not need to make his condemnations overly vocal.

Does Wright propose any changes for the Spanish people? Does he think there is hope for the future? I would argue that Wright is optimistic, but guardedly so. Wright's final tribute to the Spanish woman is indicative of this projected hope:

The daily striving and suffering of Spanish women make what little structure there is to Spanish society, knitting together in a web of care and love what would otherwise be a landscape of senseless anarchy. They are a proud women, … women of easy laughter and easy tears. The mighty maternal instinct of the Spanish woman is the anchor of responsibility that holds the ship of Spanish life steady while the Spanish man babbles abstract nonsense in the countless smoky coffee houses.


And he then proceeds to catalog the diversity of women who bring color, life, and direction to an otherwise bleak environment. Wright recognizes that it is the Spanish man who has caused this suffering, and he realizes that Spanish men have placed Spanish women into their oppressed and marginalized positions. The Spanish woman is damned if she does and damned if she does not, and the Spanish man only sits in a sidewalk café and watches her walk past. Yet, Wright sees and understands that the guilt rests with some thing that is beyond either gender, or race.

All that Wright witnessed and learned changed his thinking about Spain. He writes, “Before going into Spain my ideas about its problems had been mainly political. But my journey and the nature of the reality that I had seen had provoked other and different questions in my mind, questions that went far beyond mere economic and political considerations. … Frankly, I had not been prepared for what I had encountered” (191). What Wright encountered was a society so phallocentric in its totalitarianism that it caused him, for the first time, to realize and empathize with women. Wright shared, and realized he shared, a sense of foreignness with these women; he realized that he, like they, could not escape his heritage, a Western heritage that allowed him to condemn the actions of a church and a state. If we look at the corpus of Wright's work, what do we find? I contend that we find this same inability to disregard his heritage—both a sense of foreignness, or otherness—as well as an ability to condemn the actions of a church and a state. Where I see a difference between Wright's previous offerings, and those in Pagan Spain, is Wright's ability to find some small piece of ground on which to stand in empathy with women; this is a new land for Wright, one he has not visited before, and one that complements his other travels.

Richard Wright was a wanderer; but that desire to wander was rooted in a sense of wonderment. Wright was asked by a young Spanish girl: “You love freedom?” to which he answered, “I do, with all of my heart.” She asked, “You will tell the people in America about us?” and he replied, “I'll try; I'll do my best” (170). This is the Richard Wright who told his story to us in everything he wrote; the Richard Wright who believed it was the “sacred duty of creative artists to speak and write ceaselessly about [freedom]” (Kinnamon 226). Pagan Spain began as a travelogue, and has managed to transcend this role to become one more piece in the large puzzle that the work of Richard Wright comprises. What is unique about Wright's visit to Spain and the subsequent chronicle of that journey is that it allowed Wright to see that there is more to life than the story of man; there is a story of woman, too, and that story is filled with both suffering and hope. I do not contend that Wright was in any way a feminist, but I do contend that for one brief moment he understood the suffering of women—suffering he had experienced himself—and he empathized and suffered, too. Pagan Spain is an integral piece of Wright's puzzlement as a person because it helps us to appreciate Wright as more than the one-dimensional man that he has been made out to be.


  1. The only other instance in which Wright consciously portrays one of his anti-heroes as a white character is in Savage Holiday. Margaret Walker, in her critical biography, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, considers Wright's portrayal of Erskine Fowler to be Wright's own autobiographical desire to be white (245).

  2. See for instance, Maria K. Mootry's essay, “Bitches, Whores, and Women Haters: Archetypes and Topologies in the Art of Richard Wright,” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, eds., Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984, 117-27; Nagueyalti Warren's essay, “Black Girls and Native Sons: Female Images in Selected Works by Richard Wright,” in C. James Trotman, ed., Richard Wright: Myths and Realities. New York: Garland, 1988, 59-77; or Margaret Walker's critical biography, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner, 1988, 117-18, 184-85, and 246-48.

  3. Kristeva creates a dense multilayered metaphor focusing on the role of the foreigner in life and in literature. Her most basic point is that we are all, at one time, exposed to the hatred and objectification that is often aimed at foreigners:

    Foreigner: a choked up rage deep down in my throat, a black angel clouding transparency, opaque, unfathomable spur. The image of hatred and of the other, a foreigner is neither the romantic victim of our clannish indolence nor the intruder responsible for all the ills of the polis. … Strangely, the foreigner lies within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared in detesting him in himself. A symptom that precisely turns “we” into a problem, perhaps makes it impossible, the foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference disappears, unamenable to bonds and communities.


    Wright can appreciate the hatred aimed at women in Spain because he, like they, knows what it feels like to be “the image of hatred and of the other.” The irony lies in Wright's experiencing less overt hatred when he is away from his native land; he and the women of Spain both experience more oppression as foreigners at home than they do abroad. Yet, both Wright and the women he empathizes with can never escape this burden of being the foreigner.

  4. In fact, many critics, including Wright's own agent Paul Reynolds, assert that it is Wright's fiction, and more specifically, his American fiction that is most creative. Michel Fabre in The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright quotes from a letter Reynolds sent to Wright in January, 1956:

    Why was that the most creative period in your life up till now, and why, since then, have the sources of your creativeness seemed to dwindle? It seems to me—and of course I am only guessing now—that as you have found greater peace as a human being, living in France, and not been made incessantly aware that the pigmentation of your skin sets you apart from other men, you have at the same time lost something as a writer. To put it another way, the human gain has been offset by a creative loss.


    Reynolds's claim is that “Wright at Home” is a more forceful, politically motivated, creative artist than is “Wright as foreigner,” and that his creativity and forcefulness are directly related to Wright's having been oppressed by his own native society. In other words, Wright is made foreigner in his own country, and this gives him the creative incentive necessary to create the forceful sociopolitical fiction that he produced. Yet, there is a price to be paid for this literary forcefulness, and that price includes the subordination and subjugation of women.

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Richard Wright Long Fiction Analysis


Wright, Richard (Vol. 1)