Wright, Richard 1908–1960
A Black American novelist and short story writer, Wright is considered one of the most articulate spokesmen for the American Black man.
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright's novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.
A blow at the white man, the novel forced him to recognize himself as an oppressor. A blow at the black man, the novel forced him to recognize the cost of his submission. Native Son assaulted the most cherished of American vanities: the hope that the accumulated injustice of the past would bring with it no lasting penalties, the fantasy that in his humiliation the Negro somehow retained a sexual potency—or was it a childlike good-nature?—that made it necessary to envy and still more to suppress him. Speaking from the black wrath of retribution, Wright insisted that history can be a punishment. He told us the one thing even the most liberal whites preferred not to hear: that Negroes were far from patient or forgiving, that they were scarred by fear, that they hated every moment of their suppression even when seeming most acquiescent, and that often enough they hated us, the decent and cultivated white men who from complicity or neglect shared in the responsibility for their plight….
At first Native Son seems still another naturalistic novel…. Behind the book one senses the molding influence of Theodore Dreiser, especially the Dreiser of An American Tragedy who knows there are situations so oppressive that only violence can provide their victims with the hope of dignity. Like Dreiser, Wright wished to pummel his readers into awareness; like Dreiser, to overpower them with the sense of society as an enclosing force. Yet the comparison is finally of limited value, and for the disconcerting reason that Dreiser had a white skin and Wright a black one.
The usual naturalistic novel is written with detachment, as if by a scientist surveying a field of operations; it is a novel in which the writer withdraws from a detested world and coldly piles up the evidence for detesting it. Native Son, though preserving some of the devices of the naturalistic novel, deviates sharply from its characteristic tone: a tone Wright could not possibly have maintained and which, it may be, no Negro novelist can really hold for long. Native Son is a work of assault rather than withdrawal; the author yields himself in part to a vision of nightmare. Bigger's cowering perception of the world becomes the most vivid and authentic component of the book. Naturalism pushed to an extreme turns here into something other than itself, a kind of expressionist outburst, no longer a replica of the familiar social world but a self-contained realm of grotesque emblems.
That Native Son has grave faults anyone can see. The language is often coarse, flat in rhythm, syntantically overburdened, heavy with journalistic slag. Apart from Bigger, who seems more a brute energy than a particularized figure, the characters have little reality, the Negroes being mere stock accessories and the whites either "agit-prop" villains or heroic Communists whom Wright finds it easier to admire from a distance than establish from the inside….
The main literary problem that troubled Wright in recent years was that of rendering his naturalism a more terse and supple instrument. I think he went astray whenever he abandoned naturalism entirely…. Wright needed the accumulated material of circumstance which naturalistic detail provided his fiction; it was as essential to his ultimate effect of shock and bruise as dialogue to Hemingway's ultimate effect of irony and loss. But Wright was correct in thinking that the problem of detail is the most vexing technical problem the naturalist writer must face, since the accumulation that makes for depth and solidity can also create a pall of tedium.
Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 100-18.
When [Richard Wright] drew his self-portrait in Black Boy …, [he] went to some pains to make clear that his cultural alienation had begun in his black home and in a black community where, as a small child, he was scarcely aware of the existence of a white race. Writing in his early thirties, Wright insisted upon the fact that his family had tried to beat fear and submission into his nature years before interracial contacts made evident the rationale for a "nigger" identity. Creating the image of himself as a perceptive child, sensitive and imaginative and forever trying the conduct of his elders in the court of his innocent intellect, Wright seeks to demonstrate that from the start he was never able to accept the role being foisted upon him by the black community; that when the time came for participation in the Southern racist assumptions he could not make the instinctive adjustments which both black and white accepted as an inevitable way of life; and that his flight to the North was as much a flight from the black as from the interracial community. In fact he saw black and white as inseparably fused in their acceptance of a grotesque racial myth. What angered many black readers of Wright's autobiography [Black Boy] even more than the disclosure of Negroes as leading shabby, empty, fear-ridden, tyrannized lives was his portrayal of them as yielding mindlessly to such degrading tyranny and positively insisting on preparing their young by what Ralph Ellison termed the "homeopathic method" for submission to such a mythos….
Some criticism of Wright's Bigger Thomas has claimed that the almost subhuman nature of the character detracts from the realism of the work. But Wright's point is in the caricature, not only of Bigger, but of the whole black and white cultural context operative in the novel. The critics were thinking within the very plane of consciousness Wright wished to destroy. They believed in the monster Bigger, because the myth … was firmly lodged in their minds. The pathos of the situation, Wright suggested in his continuation of Black Boy that is reprinted as "The Man Who Went to Chicago" in Eight Men …, was in the sordid cultural objectives of white America.
Harold T. McCarthy, "Richard Wright: The Expatriate as Native Son," in American Literature (copyright 1972 by The Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1972, pp. 97-117.
In Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), we are shown the life of the black man in microcosm, when that life had begun to converge on a point that brought two irreconcilables together: abject docility and explosive rebellion. As for the latter—to paraphrase a slogan of a generation ago, it is better to die fighting on your feet than to live a slave on your knees—the implied slogan of today's black liberation movement makes an even more specific appeal: it is better to stand and fight for your human rights than to escape into the old condition—even at the cost of life itself….
[For] Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Wright's Native Son, escape takes place within the urban labyrinth that has come to be called the black ghetto. In effect, his escape has been blocked; it is doomed to failure even before it begins. In this sense Native Son is one of the few purely naturalistic novels that contains within it a strong escape motif. There are others—the novels of Dreiser, Norris, and Crane; but in them the escape is an ancillary rather than a major motif.
Yet Native Son is only superficially an escape novel in the usual sense—a novel in which the hero sets out on a geographical journey or quest in order to leave behind an untenable situation for one that promises improvement. At a deeper level, Bigger Thomas's escape—what there is of it—is an escape into the subterranean side of his own nature, an exploration into his own inner "heart of darkness," which has brought on the implosion of rage, and which finally explodes in an act of violence perpetrated on a world that Bigger has justifiably come to hate….
The book ends as it began. In the beginning, Bigger is caged within the labyrinth of his urban society; by the time we get to the end of the book, he is still caged, but now by his society. And although Native Son has been seen as crude in its technique—a black proletarian novel wherein the departure or escape lies in the hero's non-salvation—this work is probably the most powerful statement of rebellion and escape that has been made in the American novel in the first half of the twentieth century.
Sam Bluefarb, "Bigger Thomas: Escape into the Labyrinth," in his The Escape Motif in the American Novel (copyright © 1972 by the Ohio State University Press; all rights reserved), Ohio State University Press, 1972, pp. 134-53.
Here was a novelist [Richard Wright] powerful enough to break out of the narrow compartment previously occupied by Black writers. It did not take him long to conclude that the novel as he knew it was and had been for generations a projection of the value system of the dominant class in the society. Taking advantage of the panic into which that society had been dumped by the Depression, he allied himself with the critics of its basic assumptions, and demanded that it hear him out. The concensus of intelligent readers was that he made sense, that he handled his themes with authority, expressed himself with power and eloquence, and was entitled to the place he had won in the literary firmament of the Depression years….
That Wright was the most impressive literary talent yet produced by Negro America was rarely disputed in his time—at home or abroad. Nearly fifty translations and foreign editions of his books followed in the next decade and a half. His name was bracketed with the small handful of America's foremost writers.
James A. Page, in English Journal, May, 1973, p. 714.