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Richard Wright 1908–1960
Black American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Wright is considered the most esteemed spokesman for the oppressed black American in the late 1930s and 1940s. His earliest fiction, Uncle Tom's Children, portrayed the violent mechanics of Southern racial bigotry with unprecedented realism. Two of the stories, "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star," contain Wright's first explicit use of communism as a subject of his fiction and, in this way, anticipate his next work, Native Son.
Native Son chronicles the effects of racism and bigotry on the mind and life of Bigger Thomas, a young Northern black man. It is at once, and with varying degrees of success, a thriller, a psychological novel, and a social and political indictment. The violence in Native Son is intense and explicit and presented as the inevitable outcome of the black experience in America. Such a presentation was extremely radical for its time and verified the fact that Wright did not want sympathy or, in his words, "banker's daughter's tears," from his mostly white audience. Because of the book's implication that society has created and is responsible for the tragedy of Bigger Thomas, Native Son was read with great emotion and quickly became one of the most controversial books of its time.
Although Wright's interest in communism was evident in his early fiction, these works were mainly recreations of the experiences of his childhood and young manhood in the South. Of these early works, Black Boy is considered Wright's masterpiece. Unlike the sometimes didactic Native Son, it is thought to be one of America's most eloquent and effective protest autobiographies.
Wright seemed to experience a creative crisis after his break with the Communist party in 1944 and his move to France in 1946. While in France, he published several works of fiction and nonfiction that were considered inferior to his earlier work. Many critics attribute Wright's literary decline to his attempt to incorporate existential and Freudian tenets into his fiction.
The Outsider was the first novel Wright wrote after Native Son. Using an existential framework, the novel is the story of a black man who becomes involved with a Marxist group, murders several of its members, and is then murdered himself. The Outsider met with lukewarm reception; critics called it ambitious but poorly executed. Wright's next novel, Savage Holiday, pointedly avoids racial issues. Its white protagonist is symbolic of alienated modern humanity, caught in a tangle of despair and neuroses. Few American critics reviewed the book, and those who did were not complimentary. In The Long Dream, the last novel Wright wrote before his death, he studies the relationship between a black man and his son and black/white relations in a small Mississippi town. The Long Dream received mixed reviews from white critics and generally unfavorable notices from black critics who felt that Wright had lost touch with the black American experience.
In spite of Wright's poor critical success in the 1950s, he has without question made an important contribution to American literature. Critics continue to debate the literary merits of Native Son, but most concede that the book was a watershed in the evolution of black protest fiction. Black Boy is considered an American classic. Interest in Wright was revived in the militancy of the 1960s; Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rap Brown, among others, claim Wright as an influence and an inspiration. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9, and 14.)
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["Black Boy"] tells a harsh and forbidding story and makes one wonder just exactly what its relation to truth is. The [subtitle], "A Record of Childhood and Youth," makes one at first think that the story is autobiographical. It probably is, at least in part. But mainly it is probably intended to be fiction or fictionalized biography. At any rate the reader must regard it as creative writing rather than simply a record of life….
Not only is there [a] misjudgment of black folk and the difficult repulsive characters among them that he is thrown with, but the same thing takes place with white folk. There is not a single broad-minded, open-hearted white person in his book….
One rises from the reading of such a book with mixed thoughts. Richard Wright uses vigorous and straightforward English; often there is real beauty in his words even when they are mingled with sadism….
Yet at the result one is baffled. Evidently if this is an actual record, bad as the world is, such concentrated meanness, filth and despair never completely filled it or any particular part of it. But if the book is meant to be a creative picture and a warning, even then, it misses its possible effectiveness because it is as a work of art so patently and terribly overdrawn.
Nothing that Richard Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is not convincing.
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, "Richard Wright Looks Back," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, March 4, 1945, p. 2.
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In this poignant and disturbing book ["Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth"] one of the most gifted of America's younger writers turns from fiction to tell the story of his own life during the nineteen years he lived in the South. The book is poignant because Richard Wright as a child and adolescent was a highly sensitive individual subjected to a series of cruel and almost unbearable shocks. It is disturbing because one wonders how many similarly sensitive individuals have been crushed by the circumstances which did not crush Richard Wright….
It is not easy for those who have had happier childhoods, with little restraint or fear in them, to face up to the truth of this childhood of Richard Wright. One doesn't like to think that the world in which he lived was an American world. How many Negroes saw that world in the same way, to what extent Richard Wright's experience was exceptional, one doesn't know….
Mr. Wright does not idealize either his relatives or his race. The reader will come to understand that the family troubles and dissensions were intensified by the fact of race and racial discrimination, but Mr. Wright does not make a thesis of this point. They were what they were…. Mr. Wright does not even believe in the passionate quality sometimes attributed to Negroes in America, the depth of feeling behind the mask. He came to think that "what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure."
Mr. Wright does not, in fact, speak for all Southern Negroes. Some of them, intellectual, highly educated and of unimpaired dignity, have managed to survive in the Southern environment. But this Mr. Wright, conditioned as he was by the circumstances in which he found himself, could not do. He did not feel himself inferior, yet in order to survive he had to act the part of an inferior. A human sense of dignity—not a black or white sense—was born in him….
Wright could have been a poet and possibly, in his realistic way, is one. The question as to what extent his grim childhood and youth developed his creative power, or to what extent it twisted it, must remain unanswered. Certainly it did not kill it, for the power remains. But what would Richard Wright have been in a more genial social climate? In France, perhaps?
The Negro has his real as well as his merely self-acclaimed friends in the South. There is a movement there, not against segregation but against privileges for one race that are denied to the other. There are Southerners who are not afraid to preach the human dignity of the Negro, knowing that the abasement of any individual degrades in some degree all others. To such Southerners Richard Wright's book will be a challenge and an occasion for searching of hearts.
R. L. Duffus, "Deep-South Memoir," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1945, p. 3.
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["Black Boy"] has tremendous power. Its intensity of feeling, sustained drama, and sheer eloquence make reading it an unforgettable experience. This is because it is the product of a remarkable combination: an author of superb talent, a life story of pathos and tragedy, and a human theme of monumental significance.
The story of Wright's own life in the South during his childhood and youth is a true document of race relations in America, for, although as autobiography it is highly personalized, the author's eyes and ears and emotions were vibrantly sensitive, so that he missed as little of what went on around him as what went on inside him. Man and milieu, as described by Wright, demonstrate certain truths about the South, and about Negroes in the South, which seldom strike the consciousness of the American public—certainly not with the impact of this book.
"Black Boy" has been criticised by some reviewers for painting an unrelieved picture of misery, terror, and degradation among the masses of Negroes in the Southern States. Yet this is, in my judgment, the reality, as anyone who has come to know the situation intimately can testify. (pp. 762-63)
Probably the most common criticism of this book by reviewers is that there are no half-tones in the author's picture of Negro life in the South, that the scene is sketched entirely in stark black and white. Here again, in my opinion, the accusation of overdrawing is little justified. This, with few exceptions, is precisely how race relations are in the Southern States: clean-cut black and white. The Negroes must either surrender and allow themselves to be spiritually stunted and deformed, or they must get out of the South. To a sensitive and high-spirited Negro like Wright, surrender was impossible. ("I was not made to be a resigned man…. I could submit and live the life of a genial slave, but that was impossible.")
And so Wright left the South. His book ends at the moment of flight, and in a magnificent passage he delivers his valedictory beginning with these lines: "I was not leaving the South to forget the South, but so that some day I might understand it, might come to know what its rigors had done to me, to its children." (p. 764)
Raymond Kennedy, "A Dramatic Autobiography," in The Yale Review (© 1945, copyright renewed © 1973, by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, June, 1945, pp. 762-64.
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["Uncle Tom's Children," "Native Son," and "Black Boy"] not only made it clear that Mr. Wright was the most eloquent spokesman for the Negro people in his generation; they suggested that his was one of the important literary talents of our time. How important it is, and how little limited to a particular group of people, is demonstrated by his fourth book and second novel "The Outsider."…
"The Outsider," [like "Native Son,"] is concerned with the quest for meaning: not, however, in terms of racial discrimination nor in any sociological terms whatever, but in purely philosophical terms. The leading character is, to be sure, a Negro, but his principal problems have nothing to do with his race. They are pre-eminently the problems of the human being as such, for this is, so far as I can recall, one of the first consciously existentialist novels to be written by an American….
[The] true climax of the novel is in the realm of ideas, not that of violent deeds. Questioned about his attitude toward communism by a party leader after the murders, Cross sets forth his philosophy of history in a long speech that is comparable, as an expression of Mr. Wright's thinking to Mr. Max's speech … in "Native Son." (p. 1)
"The Outsider" is both melodrama and novel of ideas, attempting to render Mr. Wright's "sense of our contemporary living" in both emotional and intellectual terms. If the ideas are sometimes incoherent, that does not detract from the substance and power of the book. It is in the description of action, especially violent action, that Mr. Wright excels, not merely because he can make the reader see but because he compels him to participate. There is not a murder in the book that the reader, at the moment of reading about it, does not feel that he would have committed under the same circumstances. Nor is the sense of participation limited to the dramatic scenes: the expression of ideas, even in the long and more or less incoherent speeches, becomes a form of action in which one is swept along. And Mr. Wright achieves all this in spite of a persisting clumsiness of style.
He has always been a demonic writer, and in the earliest of his stories one felt that he was saying more than he knew, that he was, in a remarkable degree, an unconscious artist. He has grown in awareness since then, and in "The Outsider" he has made his most valiant and his most successful effort to come to terms with his feelings about the human condition. But there are still unrecognized compulsions and one suspects that they have a great deal to do with the power of the book. No one who has read "Black Boy" can be surprised that Mr. Wright is preoccupied with violence, but almost certainly the causes of this preoccupation lie even deeper than the experiences he has described. The preoccupation would be less significant if this were a less violent world.
It must be clear that "The Outsider"—like [Ralph Ellison's] "The Invisible Man," which it resembles in several ways—is only incidentally a book about Negroes. Being a Negro helps Cross Damon to understand that he is an outsider, as it helps Ralph Ellison's hero to understand that he is an invisible man, but there are many invisible men and many outsiders. "The Outsider" is, as it was intended to be, a book about modern man, and because of Mr. Wright's irresistible driving force, it challenges the modern mind as it has rarely been challenged in fiction. It is easy to disagree with, impossible to disregard. (p. 35)
Granville Hicks, "The Portrait of a Man Searching," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1953, pp. 1, 35.
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Richard Wright's new novel [The Long Dream] is not a book to be studied from a distance, to gain perspective on a work of art. It should be examined myopically, close to the page, as one reads the chart of a strange and dangerous passage….
The structure of The Long Dream is the step-by-step progress of Fishbelly, a shy black boy, from the safe, warm world of the Negro ghetto into the lawless world between the races where a few Negroes, preying on black and white alike, have the arrogance to live by their wits. It opens up aspects of the South not covered by dictionary words like "segregation" or "miscegenation." Its key words are "rape" and "blood," "lynch" and "hide," "lie" and "scream." And above all, "run." (p. 297)
But structure is not what you should look at in this book. Richard Wright is a man of considerable literary ability, a man who has made a living for twenty years or more with his writing, but who nevertheless is not primarily a writer. Many literary men have fought crusades; Wright is a crusader who fights with words. It makes a difference and it accounts for the special quality of his fiction. The Long Dream is not a badly-made book, as you will discover if you try to pull it to pieces. It is very strong, but its workmanship is careful only where care is needed for Wright's purpose. Elsewhere the book is boldly hammered together—not as a work of art but as the scaffolding for an idea.
Thus, in a given scene, the characters are so vivid that the noise and smell of them come straight to your senses. But how they get from scene to scene, how they develop in understanding and experience from episode to episode, is another matter. The fact is that, having made a point, Wright packs his people up and carts them to where they are needed for the next demonstration. What will throw you off, if you approach The Long Dream with the usual instruments of critical measurement, is that the narrative is a palpable machine, but the people are real. You do not often find flesh and blood thus contending on a stage for puppets; it happens this way because Wright spends his talent, not for art, but for an idea.
I do not doubt that if he were a greater artist, he would carry his idea with still greater power. On the other hand, if he concerned himself more with art, he might well fail of the great rough-hammered platforms he erects.
And he does polish his work as the years pass. He writes now with much more control than he once showed, his ear is wonderfully acute and his judgment of emotional degree and balance is subtle, varied and exciting. Still more he grows in understanding of the problem to which he has devoted his life. Wright is an advocate, not a judge, he sees race from the viewpoint of the Negro, and one does not look to him for any withdrawn, balanced appraisal of issues. But he is not bemused, either, by the sufferings of his people. He does not think that suffering is ennobling or that the Negro is a pure creature in an evil land. Corruption is corruption and Wright exposes it. (pp. 297-98)
There is real sorrow in this and an approach to love. It is in the poignant vision of the two races locked in terrible, degrading embrace that Wright, a truly proud Negro, has isolated the essence of the tragedy. (p. 298)
Robert Hatch, "Either Weep or Laugh," in The Nation (copyright 1958 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 13, October 25, 1958, pp. 297-98.
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[The Long Dream is] a novel throbbing with the same racial traumas that have done much to compel for its author a large interracial audience ever since Native Son, the classic Negro novel of social protest. That book appeared in 1940, and, judging by his latest, Richard Wright is angrier than he was then.
The color motif dominates all of Mr. Wright's novels to the extent that the social-historical context outweighs the literary. It is not only because The Long Dream is a more uneven work than the poignant Native Son that it is so disappointing. Hot with the fumes of an incendiary counterracism, it could not have chosen a less propitious time to be "timely." Certainly it is the most racist of all of this author's anti-racist fiction.
Richard Wright's work has in general been more race-conscious than social-conscious; its crusading timbre has helped to placard him for some as the spokesman of the American Negro. For the last ten years he has been in Paris, yet the time of this novel, which is set in the Black Belt of a fictive Clintonville, Mississippi, is exactly this past decade of his absence.
Besides taking Jim Crow in their stride, the Negroes in this story incur virtually every indignity and injustice known to their kind in fact or literature. Yet Wright is not martyrizing them nor exposing their forbearance to easy sympathy; he is deprecating their compliant submission as equivalent to conspiring in their own abasement. As he proceeds to hammer out his thesis, his writing, measured against its earlier attainments, registers loss in narrative sweep, gain in psychological acumen, with these factors operating at cross purposes.
Through the boy "Fishbelly," six when the novel begins, eighteen when it ends, the psyche of the contemporary Deep South Negro is explored; he is the chief medium for the almost incessant editorializing, which all too often entails scrubby prose like: "The emotionally devastating experiences … hung suspended in his psychological digestion like stubborn, cold lumps." Mr Wright means to see that the niceties get home. There is even "aside" comment on dialogue directly following much of it, making it look staged; more is the pity because Wright is very strong on dialogue. Actually the pervading feeling is theatrical: Wright is always on top of his material, always at the top of his voice.
The onus does not wear well on the unfledged hero. Never in his speech and seldom in his behavior does Fishbelly substantiate the restive, questioning, introspective boy of the author's exposition. His "sensitivity" is not projected from himself, rather is imposed through the numerous abuses he suffers at white hands. In effect his white tormentors are the plot's activators, though they are seldom onstage and when so are no more than hypothetical actors. Thus the novel's focus is not the black-white conflict in itself but the divisions it creates within and among the blacks; and this is telescoped by the friction between the boy and his father.
Just as he is being brutally awakened to the ghetto reality in which the Negroes around him live, Fishbelly begins to see Tyree, his father, as he really is: a man desperately trying to buy a cynical respectability and independence from the white folks.
William Dunlea, "Wright's Continuing Protest," in Commonweal (copyright © 1958 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIX, No. 5, October 31, 1958, p. 131.
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[Wright] told us the one thing even the most liberal and well-disposed 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 humiliation 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. No Negro writer had ever quite said this before, certainly not with so much force or bluntness, and if such younger Negro novelists as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, were to move beyond Wright's harsh naturalism and toward more subtle modes of fiction, that was possible only because Wright had been there first, courageous enough to release the full weight of his anger….
The bitterness and rage that poured out of Wright's books form one of the great American testaments, a crushing necessity to our moral life, forever to remind us that moderate analyses of injustice are finally lies.
And now, after fourteen years of voluntary exile in Paris, chosen, as he once told me, because he could no longer bear to live in the United States and see his children suffer the blows of race hatred, Richard Wright is dead…
Eight Men, Wright's most recent and apparently last book, is a collection of stories written over the last 25 years. Though they fail to yield any clear line of chronological development, these stories do give evidence of Wright's literary restlessness, his wish to keep learning and experimenting, his often clumsy efforts to break out of the naturalism which was his first and, I think, necessary mode of expression. The unevenness of his writing is extremely disturbing: one finds it hard to understand how the same man, from paragraph to paragraph, can be at once so brilliant and inept—though the student of American literature soon learns to measure the price which the talented autodidact pays for getting his education too late. Time after time the narrative texture of the stories is broken by a passage of jargon borrowed from sociology or psychology: perhaps the later Wright read too much, tried too hard, failed to remain sufficiently loyal to the limits of his talent.
The best stories are marked by a strong feeling for the compactness of the story as a form, so that even when the language is scraggly or leaden there is a sharply articulated pattern of event. (p. 17)
The main literary problem that troubled Wright in recent years was that of rendering his naturalism a more supple and terse instrument. I think he went astray whenever he abandoned naturalism entirely; there are a few embarrassingly bad experiments with stories written entirely in dialogue or self-consciously employing Freudian symbolism. 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 [Ernest] 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 of detail that makes for depth and solidity can also create a pall of tedium. In "The Man Who Lived Underground" Wright came close to solving this problem, for here the naturalistic detail is put at the service of a radical projective image—a Negro trapped in a sewer—and despite some flaws, the story is satisfying both for its tense surface and its elasticity of suggestion. (pp. 17-18)
The reality pressing upon all of Wright's work is a nightmare of remembrance, and without the terror of that nightmare it would be impossible to render the truth of the reality—not the only, perhaps not even the deepest truth about American Negroes, but a primary and inescapable one. Both truth and terror depend upon a gross fact which Wright faced more courageously than any American writer: that for the Negro violence forms an inescapable part of his existence….
The present moment is not a good one for attempting a judicious estimate of Wright's achievement as a novelist. It is hard to suppose that he will ever be regarded as a writer of the first rank, for his faults are grave and obvious. Together with [James T.] Farrell and [John] Dos Passos, he has suffered from the changes of literary taste which occurred during his lifetime: the naturalist novel is little read these days, though often mocked, and the very idea of a "protest novel" has become a target for graduate students to demolish. The dominant school of criticism has little interest in the kind of work Wright did, and it rejects him less from a particular examination than from a theoretic preconception—or to be more precise, from an inability to realize that the kind of linguistic scrutiny to which it submits lyric poetry has only a limited value in the criticism of fiction….
But I believe that any view of 20th-Century American literature which surmounts critical sectarianism will have to give Wright an honored place, and that any estimate of his role in our cultural life will have to stress his importance as the pioneer Negro writer who in the fullness of his anger made it less possible for the American society to continue deceiving itself….
Richard Wright died at 52, full of hopes and projects. Like many of us, he had somewhat lost his intellectual way during recent years, but he kept struggling toward a comprehension of the strange and unexpected world coming into birth. In the most fundamental sense, however, he had done his work: he had told his contemporaries a truth so bitter that they paid him the tribute of striving to forget it. (p. 18)
Irving Howe, "Richard Wright: A Word of Farewell" (© 1961 by Irving Howe; reprinted by permission of the author), in The New Republic, Vol. 144, No. 7, February 13, 1961, pp. 17-18.
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[The] fact that [Richard Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult. In [his last book,] Eight Men, the earliest story, "The Man Who Saw the Flood," takes place in the deep South and was first published in 1937. One of the two previously unpublished stories in the book, "Man, God Ain't Like That," begins in Africa, achieves its hideous resolution in Paris, and brings us, with an ironical and fitting grimness, to the threshold of the 1960's. It is because of this story, which is remarkable, and "Man of All Work," which is a masterpiece, that I cannot avoid feeling that Wright, as he died, was acquiring a new tone, and a less uncertain esthetic distance, and a new depth.
Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright's death, a Negro woman who was re-reading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been read in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today's racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many different languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago's South Side had been conveyed.
I think that my friend may prove to be right. Certainly, the two oldest stories in [Eight Men], "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," and "The Man Who Saw the Flood," both Depression stories, both occurring in the South, and both, of course, about Negroes, do not seem dated. Perhaps it is odd, but they did not make me think of the 1930's, or even, particularly, of Negroes. They made me think of human loss and helplessness. (pp. 182-83)
It is strange to begin to suspect, now, that Richard Wright was never, really, the social and polemical writer he took himself to be. In my own relations with him, I was always exasperated by his notions of society, politics, and history, for they seemed to me utterly fanciful. I never believed that he had any real sense of how a society is put together. It had not occurred to me, and perhaps it had not occurred to him, that his major interests as well as his power lay elsewhere…. I always sensed in Richard Wright a Mississippi pickaninny, mischievous, cunning, and tough. This always seemed to be at the bottom of everything he said and did, like some fantastic jewel buried in high grass. And it was painful to feel that the people of his adopted country were no more capable of seeing this jewel than were the people of his native land, and were in their own way intimidated by it.
Even more painful was the suspicion that Wright did not want to know this. The meaning of Europe for an American Negro was one of the things about which Richard Wright and I disagreed most vehemently. He was fond of referring to Paris as the "city of refuge"—which it certainly was, God knows, for the likes of us. But it was not a city of refuge for the French, still less for anyone belonging to France; and it would not have been a city of refuge for us if we had not been armed with American passports. It did not seem worth while to me to have fled the native fantasy only to embrace a foreign one. (pp. 184-85)
But now that the storm of Wright's life is over, and politics is ended forever for him, along with the Negro problem and the fearful conundrum of Africa, it seems to have been the tough and intuitive, the genuine Richard Wright, who was being recorded all along. It now begins to seem, for example, that Wright's unrelentingly bleak landscape was not merely that of the Deep South, or of Chicago, but that of the world, of the human heart. The landscape does not change in any of these stories. Even the most good-natured performance this book contains, good-natured by comparison only, "Big Black Good Man," takes place in Copenhagen in the winter, and in the vastly more chilling confines of a Danish hotel-keeper's fears.
In "Man of All Work," a tight, raging, diamond-hard exercise in irony, a Negro male who cannot find a job dresses himself up in his wife's clothes and hires himself out as a cook. ("Who," he demands of his horrified, bedridden wife, "ever looks at us colored folks anyhow?") He gets the job, and Wright uses this incredible situation to reveal, with beautiful spite and accuracy, the private lives of the master race. The story is told entirely in dialogue, which perfectly accomplishes what it sets out to do, racing along like a locomotive and suggesting far more than it states.
The story, without seeming to, goes very deeply into the demoralization of the Negro male and the resulting fragmentization of the Negro family which occurs when the female is forced to play the male role of breadwinner. It is also a maliciously funny indictment of the sexual terror and hostility of American whites: and the horror of the story is increased by its humor.
"Man, God Ain't Like That," is a fable of an African's discovery of God. It is a far more horrible story than "Man of All Work," but it too manages its effects by a kind of Grand Guignol humor, and it too is an unsparing indictment of the frivolity, egotism, and wrong-headedness of white people—in this case, a French artist and his mistress. It too is told entirely in dialogue and recounts how a French artist traveling through Africa picks up an African servant, uses him as a model, and, in order to shock and titillate his jaded European friends, brings the African back to Paris with him.
Whether or not Wright's vision of the African sensibility will be recognized by Africans, I do not know. But certainly he has managed a frightening and truthful comment on the inexorably mysterious and dangerous relationships between ways of life, which are also ways of thought. This story and "Man of All Work" left me wondering how much richer our extremely poor theater might now be if Wright had chosen to work in it.
But "The Man Who Killed a Shadow" is something else again; it is Wright at the mercy of his subject. His great forte, it now seems to me, was an ability to convey inward states by means of externals: "The Man Who Lived Underground," for example, conveys the spiritual horror of a man and a city by a relentless accumulation of details, and by a series of brief, sharply cut-off tableaus, seen through chinks and cracks and keyholes. The specifically sexual horror faced by a Negro cannot be dealt with in this way. "The Man Who Killed a Shadow" is a story of rape and murder, and neither the murderer nor his victim ever comes alive. The entire story seems to be occurring, somehow, beneath cotton. There are many reasons for this. In most of the novels written by Negroes until today … there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence.
This violence, as in so much of Wright's work, is gratuitous and compulsive. It is one of the severest criticisms that can be leveled against his work. The violence is gratuitous and compulsive because the root of the violence is never examined. The root is rage. It is the rage, almost literally the howl, of a man who is being castrated. I do not think that I am the first person to notice this, but there is probably no greater (or more misleading) body of sexual myths in the world today than those which have proliferated around the figure of the American Negro. This means that he is penalized for the guilty imagination of the white people who invest him with their hates and longings, and is the principal target of their sexual paranoia. Thus, when in Wright's pages a Negro male is found hacking a white woman to death, the very gusto with which this is done, and the great attention paid to the details of physical destruction reveal a terrible attempt to break out of the cage in which the American imagination has imprisoned him for so long.
In the meantime, the man I fought so hard and who meant so much to me, is gone. First America, then Europe, then Africa failed him. He lived long enough to find all of the terms on which he had been born become obsolete; presently, all of his attitudes seemed to be historical. But as his life ended, he seems to me to have been approaching a new beginning. He had survived, as it were, his own obsolescence, and his imagination was beginning to grapple with that darkest of all dark strangers for him, the African. The depth thus touched in him brought him a new power and a new tone. He had survived exile on three continents and lived long enough to begin to tell the tale. (pp. 185-89)
Not until the very end of his life, judging by some of the stories in his last book, Eight Men, did his imagination really begin to assess the century's new and terrible dark stranger. Well, he worked up until the end, died, as I hope to do, in the middle of a sentence, and his work is now an irreducible part of the history of our swift and terrible time. Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which you began in me. (p. 199)
James Baldwin, "Alas, Poor Richard: 'Eight Men'" (originally published as "The Survival of Richard Wright," in The Reporter, March 16, 1961) and "Alas, Poor Richard: 'The Exile'" (originally published in Le Preuve, February, 1961), in his Nobody Knows My Name (copyright © 1961 by James Baldwin; reprinted by permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1961, pp. 181-89, 190-99.
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Wounded as he was by southern birth and upbringing, Richard Wright fought back blindly with the nearest weapon at hand—in his case, anger. Anger mounting to rage rushes across the pages of his work; too often it overflows and drowns it before it can take shape. And it is the terrible anger of a man who accepts and can see no way out, for his rage is thrust in against himself. That is the greatest irony of all, that a man should be guilty in America by reason of his difference from the majority and acquiesce in his guilt. But Wright is involved in guilt, not irony.
There is a further irony in the fact that the shaping tools he used for his work were first Communism and later, after his self-exile in France, existentialism. Both philosophies had the ultimate effect of weakening his work. (p. 110)
The irony of this lies precisely in the fact that the Negro is an existentialist, living as it were in a perpetual limbo. The Negro is forever outside seeking entry, the intellectual existentialist is inside looking for an exit. Wright, an emotional writer, could paint a stunning picture of the Negro's plight but when he attempted to intellectualize it he embraced it from the wrong angle, from the inside out rather than in terms of his own characters….
While Communism failed him and existentialism provided only a weak adjunct to his writings, he was sustained by an overwhelming sense of guilt, an earlier age would have called it sin. It became increasingly clear to him as he wrote and as we read his work that lying at the bottom of every Negro soul is crushing guilt. For him Negro life took on the proportions of expiation for crimes committed, known and unknown. (p. 111)
Guilt and fear like some crazy quilt pattern themselves through his work. In the story "The Man Who Lived Underground" … an innocent Negro escapes from the law into the sewers. Fear motivates his flight underground, fear that he may be found guilty of an unknown crime. His miniature odyssey assumes symbolic as well as literal proportions as he views the world from his shelter of invisibility and acquires an anonymous identity paralleling that of Negroes above ground. From his underground vantage point he is able to participate anonymously in a series of social and unsocial acts peculiar to our society. Gradually he moves from fear to self-accusation ending in surrender to the police and death. But even at his death we are no closer to knowing the sort of man he really was. Whether he had family, friends, sweetheart, convictions to sustain him, how he lived till then we have no clue. The protagonist is merely presented as an instrument for the author's ideas moving from a lesser to a greater madness. One does not feel the sharp intelligence, the planned anarchy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a theme of similar dimensions. Ellison's man goes from naivete to wide-eyed awareness and ends as a sniper against the society that made him. He adopts consciously the fate thrust upon him and lives by outsmarting the forces that would keep him down. Wright's man, on the other hand, performs the deeds of theft and murder as a child rebelling against an overstern parent, only to return "home" at the end for the punishment he feels he merits. This inverse paternalism constitutes a major weakness of Wright's as an artist, but at the time of his earlier work it undoubtedly helped his popularity. Today Americans are more sophisticated and more likely to approve Ellison's action as he strips society's pretentions bare, laughs at it and himself, and mocks its attempts to destroy him. Wright was never far enough removed to do more than suffer and articulate that suffering incompletely—for without objectivity it must be incomplete—but powerfully enough to touch us. And he is merciless in the presentation of that suffering. Never will all the platitudes uttered about the Negro had one imagined it to be quite like this. It fascinated, it horrified, it aroused, it even repelled, but its force was undeniable. It has the hypnotic force of the most brutal of nightmares from which we cannot wake voluntarily. On waking finally while we lie there sweating and telling ourselves it is only a dream, our heart beats madly as we keep remembering. He articulated as no other an American nightmare. That he could not waken out of it himself is our loss. (pp. 111-12)
Gloria Bramwell, "Articulated Nightmare," in Midstream (copyright © 1961 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1961, pp. 110-12.
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Richard Wright is dead now and I have no intention of belaboring his memory; but he was simply not a good writer, not even a competent one, and it might be useful to make a notation upon what the sources of his reputation were. I think it clear that he was one of those authors about whom circumstances gather to distill extraliterary excitement and interest, in his case of course the circumstance being the fact that he was Negro and the first of his race to write about what that meant, in full acceptance of its terrors, frustrations and imposed shame.
I haven't read Native Son in many years. But if I say that I remember fairly vividly how it jolted me, as it did so many others, it is also true that the jolt was of the sociological order, not the esthetic, impelling me into recognitions that were certainly important, perhaps more important than literary ones, but nevertheless entering a different order of experience and therefore subject to another kind of judgment.
Eight Men has not even the advantage that Native Son had. We are long past the stage of shock and recognition….
[It] is a dismayingly stale and dated book. Its tales of Negroes struggling to survive in a white world or being defeated by it creak with mechanical ineptitude; its attempts at humor, at tragedy, at pathos all fail; its two experiments—stories written entirely in dialogue—are painful to read; and the sensibility at work in it is so self-conscious, so liable to lapses of taste, so unsubtly enamored of literary effects, that all the pain and the earnestness, all the angels that hover over the "right side" cannot rescue it. (p. 130)
Richard Gilman, "The Immediate Misfortunes of Widespread Literacy," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXIV, No. 5, April 28, 1961, pp. 130-31.∗
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[Lawd Today] is less powerful than either Native Son or Black Boy, but it has its own kind of interest.
It is the story of one day in the life of Jake Jackson, a Negro post office clerk in Chicago. (p. 37)
The day is described in unsparing detail. More than two pages, for instance, are devoted to Jake's combing of his recalcitrant hair…. The bridge game, with three sample hands, runs to nine pages. A medicine man's spiel takes six. Wright gives a full account of the processes by which mail is sorted, together with pages of the aimless conversation with which the four friends accompany their work.
Growing up in Chicago, and starting out as a writer in the middle Thirties, Wright 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. At this point he was clumsier than Farrell, but he had found a way of expressing his vision of life in the Chicago he knew.
What interests me is that, although Wright was a Communist sympathizer and very possibly a member of the Communist Party when he wrote the novel, he did not make it a piece of direct Communist propaganda. Jake is no Communist; on the contrary, he denounces and ridicules the only Communist who appears in the novel. Nor does Wright portray Jake simply as a victim of the capitalist system. He is a victim, to be sure; but of a great complex of forces. Whatever Wright's political opinions may have been, his vision as a creative artist went far beyond them.
If the novel would have been disturbing to most orthodox Communists in the Thirties, it would have been equally distressing to many Negroes. Far from setting an example to members of his race, Jake is a contemptible person…. Although hatred of white discrimination is bred in his bones, he has no sense of racial solidarity … and he regards as fools those Negroes who work for the betterment of their people.
I have used so many negatives that one might get the impression that Jake has no positive qualities, but this is not true. He has a capacity for the enjoyment of life, and even in the dreary day Wright describes there are moments of excitement and satisfaction. At the end, when he is reflecting ruefully on the loss of his hundred dollars, he thinks, "But when I was flying I was a flying fool."
Jake, on this Lincoln's Birthday, is a slave—of an unjust economic system, of racial prejudice, of faulty education—but he is not merely a slave, any more than he is merely a Negro. He is a man, erring but alive. (pp. 37-8)
Wright, as [James] Baldwin says, was not made to be a political thinker, and it was his misfortune that he lived in a time that cast him in that role. He outgrew his Communism, of course; but he continued to think of himself as a novelist of ideas, and in 1953, under the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he attempted an existentialist novel, The Outsider, which was weak precisely where he wanted it to be strong….
Lawd Today was an apprentice work, and Wright soon learned to handle externals more adroitly, but even here what Baldwin says is applicable. Clumsy as the massing of detail sometimes is, we do come to know not only the society in which Jake lives but also Jake himself, and, despicable as he is, we come to feel with and for him.
We often have occasion to wonder why this American writer or that was frustrated and failed to fulfill his promise. With Wright we can make a good guess. It was his misfortune that he became first a Communist and then a self-appointed spokesman for the Negro people of the world. What he was capable of as a writer is evident even in so imperfect a work as Lawd Today. (p. 38)
Granville Hicks, "Dreiser to Farrell to Wright," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1963 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVI, No. 13, March 30, 1963, pp. 37-8.∗
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[Why] is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis? Why is it that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project? Finally, why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?
These questions are aroused by "Black Boys and Native Sons," an essay by Irving Howe, the well-known critic and editor of Dissent, in the Autumn 1963 issue of that magazine [see CLC, Vol. 3]…. [In] addition to a hero, Richard Wright, [the essay] has two villains, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, who are seen as "black boys" masquerading as false, self-deceived "native sons." Wright himself is given a diversity of roles (all conceived by Howe): He is not only the archetypal and true-blue black boy—the "honesty" of his famous autobiography established this for Howe—but the spiritual father of Ellison, Baldwin and all other Negroes of literary bent to come. Further, in the platonic sense he is his own father and the culture hero who freed Ellison and Baldwin to write more "modulated" prose.
Howe admires Wright's accomplishments, and is frankly annoyed by the more favorable evaluation currently placed upon the works of the younger men. His claims for Native Son are quite broad….
There are also negative criticisms: that the book is "crude," "melodramatic" and marred by "claustrophobia" of vision, that its characters are "cartoons," etc. But these defects Howe forgives because of the book's "clenched militancy." One wishes he had stopped there. (p. 22)
In his loyalty to Richard Wright, Howe considers Ellison and Baldwin guilty of filial betrayal because, in their own work, they have rejected the path laid down by Native Son; phonies because, while actually "black boys," they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament….
Wright believed in the much abused idea that novels are "weapons"—the counterpart of the dreary notion, common among most minority groups, that novels are instruments of good public relations. But I believe that true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.
In Native Son Wright began with the ideological proposition that what whites think of the Negro's reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be. Hence Bigger Thomas was presented as a near-subhuman indictment of white oppression. He was designed to shock whites out of their apathy and end the circumstances out of which Wright insisted Bigger emerged. Here environment is all—and interestingly enough, environment conceived solely in terms of the physical, the nonconscious. Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty! Kill my parents and throw me on the mercy of the court as an orphan! Wright could imagine Bigger, but Bigger could not possibly imagine Richard Wright. Wright saw to that.
But without arguing Wright's right to his personal vision, I would say that he was himself a better argument for my approach than Bigger was for his. And so, to be fair and as inclusive as Howe, is James Baldwin. Both are true Negro Americans, and both affirm the broad possibility of personal realization which I see as a saving aspect of American life. Surely, this much can be admitted without denying the injustice which all three of us have protested. (p. 24)
Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork. Wright is his hero and he sticks with him loyally. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read of what is going on out there; to make identifications as to values and human quality…. I was freed not by propagandists or by the example of Wright … but by composers, novelists and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life….
No, Wright was no spiritual father of mine, certainly in no sense I recognize—nor did he pretend to be, since he felt that I had started writing too late. It was Baldwin's career, not mine, that Wright proudly advanced by helping him attain the Eugene Saxton Fellowship, and it was Baldwin who found Wright a lion in his path. Being older and familiar with quite different lions in quite different paths, I simply stepped around him….
I felt no need to attack what I considered the limitations of [Wright's] vision because I was quite impressed by what he had achieved…. Still I would write my own books and they would be in themselves, implicitly, criticisms of Wright's; just as all novels of a given historical moment form an argument over the nature of reality and are, to an extent, criticisms each of the other.
While I rejected Bigger Thomas as any final image of Negro personality, I recognized Native Son as an achievement; as one man's essay in defining the human condition as seen from a specific Negro perspective at a given time in a given place. And I was proud to have known Wright and happy for the impact he had made upon our apathy. But Howe's ideas notwithstanding, history is history, cultural contacts ever mysterious, and taste exasperatingly personal. (p. 25)
Wright, for Howe, is the genuine article, the authentic Negro writer, and his tone the only authentic tone. But why strip Wright of his individuality in order to criticize other writers. He had his memories and I have mine….
Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different? Or because for me keeping faith would never allow me to even raise such a question about any segment of humanity? Black Boy is not a sociological case history but an autobiography, and therefore a work of art shaped by a writer bent upon making an ideological point. Doubtlessly, this was the beginning of Wright's exile, the making of a decision which was to shape his life and writing thereafter. And it is precisely at this point that Wright is being what I would call, in Howe's words, "literary to a fault."…
How awful 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. I could not and cannot question their existence, I can only seek again and again to project that humanity as I see it and feel it. To me Wright as writer was less interesting than the enigma he personified; that he could so dissociate himself from the complexity of his background while trying so hard to improve the condition of black men everywhere; that he could be so wonderful an example of human possibility but could not for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative or as dedicated as himself.
In his effort to resuscitate Wright, Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician—and for the best of reasons. We must express "black" anger and "clenched militancy"; most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities. And between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy.
Well, it all sounds quite familiar and I fear the social order which it forecasts more than I do that of Mississippi. Ironically, during the 1940s it was one of the main sources of Wright's rage and frustration. (p. 26)
Ralph Ellison, "The World and the Jug," in The New Leader (© 1963 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 25, December 9, 1963, pp. 22-6.∗
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[In] Native Son Wright almost succeeds in achieving the imaginative liberation he sought by writing it. The book eventually runs aground in the author's own intellectuality, a quality which, for the novel's sake, he had succeeded in suppressing both too well and not well enough.
The first two-thirds of Native Son constitute one of the most exciting stretches of melodrama in American literature. (p. 33)
From [the moment of Mary Dalton's death] until Bigger's capture by the police on a snow-covered tenement rooftop some two hundred pages later the novel is pure movement, the kind of overwhelming narrative torrent that Wright had already made into a trademark in a story like " Down By the Riverside." In Native Son this narrative flow serves the additional function of showing what has happened to Bigger's existence. Every one of his acts now, in contrast with the torpor that had prevailed in the descriptions of his life prior to the murder of Mary Dalton, is swift, vigorous and meaningful, another element in a headlong process of self-definition.
Wright spares no horror in this unfolding of the hidden meaning of his protagonist's existence; Bigger's ultimate and most completely unforgivable act of violent self-assertion is his murder of his mistress Bessie, with whom he has shared his secret and whose life has therefore become intolerable to him. According to Constance Webb, Wright wanted to include this episode in the novel so that there would be no mistaking Bigger's stark responsibility for his acts, no catering to the sensibilities of bankers' daughters. In retrospect, it seems also to be another of the novel's prophetic glimpses of the ghetto revolt of the sixties, ultimately turning against itself and burning down homes with black women and children inside. This, then, is the culminating act of Bigger's self-emancipating revolt, his one unequivocally wilful act of annihilation—performed upon a poor black working-girl. Did Wright mean for the irony to read this way? Is it an intended qualification to his vision of a black revolutionary apocalypse, or an inadvertent prophecy? Miss Webb does not tell us, but this much must be said: if this is ultimately the outcome of Bigger's revolt, then it is not so likely to disturb the sensibilities of bankers' daughters after all.
The last third of the novel, dealing with Bigger's imprisonment and trial, is Wright's final bout with the Communist world-view, and the narrative moves slowly and indecisively again…. He seems to want to give what he can back to the Communists after the heresy he has committed in the first two-thirds of the book; it is only they, for example, who show compassion and some understanding towards Bigger, and he is deeply appreciative of this despite his refusal to be categorized by them as a mere phenomenon of the oppressed part of mankind…. The old lawyer Max tries to defend Bigger from the death sentence in a long courtroom summation indicting society's injustices. Max is even able to see, beneath the blanket of Communist myth, the more unruly revolutionary force that Bigger represents…. But ultimately it is Max who comes forth, not only in the courtroom but within Wright's internal moral dialectic, as the last defender of the old vision of a coalition of the oppressed…. (pp. 34-5)
The spirit of Max, partly consumed in a European nostalgia shared by every American Jewish intellectual, was never completely exorcised by Wright. He had absorbed this nostalgia as part of his education, and his vision of black revolt was as blurred by it as his pursuit of the vision was spurred by a passion to shake it off. This is the meaning of Bigger's final but somehow inconclusive show of defiance before Max in his death cell, ending with "a faint, wry, bitter smile" through the bars as the lawyer walks down the corridor. Here is the way Wright's revolt ends, not with a bang but a smirk….
In his search after a certain notion of the primitive, Wright had come dangerously close to creating a character who was a mere vehicle for ideas. Bigger still works despite the ambiguity, but Wright's growing preoccupation with the metaphysics of blackness turned many of the characters he subsequently created into hardly more than metaphors…. ["The Man Who Lived Underground"] is an interesting attempt to use blackness as a metaphor for the condition known in Jewish literature as that of "one who sees but is not seen"; but the idea—originally inspired by a reading of Dostoyevsky—is more appealing than the realization is successful…. (p. 36)
[Black Boy] is his masterpiece, and yet it would seem, from Miss Webb's narrative, that it was written almost inadvertently, after Wright's agent surprised him by suggesting that he try an autobiography. Persuaded to drop the mantle of a writer of fiction for a moment (although he uses the techniques of the novel here most effectively), Wright has recourse in this book to "telling it like it is" without drawing upon his arsenal of symbolism and melodramatic plot-making. A simple and powerful account of his boyhood and young manhood in the South, it is his one book-length narrative that does not border on solipsism but contains a whole array of real characterizations. Even the whites that appear, almost all of them as persecutors, are more real and hence human than such caricatures as Dalton or the private detective in Native Son. Focusing more resolutely on real experience than he had ever done before, Wright had lighted upon conventions that were, for the first time, entirely his own. Evoking, as Ellison says, "the paradoxical, almost surreal image of a black boy singing [the blues] lustily as he probes his own grievous wound," the book suggests possibilities for a whole genre of Negro writing, signs of which we are now beginning to see today.
But in Wright's own life and work, Black Boy proved to be the swan song of his struggle to achieve his own identity as a writer and a man in America. In the latter half of 1946 he visited France as the guest of its government, and in the summer of the following year he brought his wife and five-year-old daughter to Paris to settle there for good…. By merely trading in the lilt with which he once had sung the blues, Wright became eligible to put on the French-made mantle of Negritude, whose graceful and classic lines obscured the homely contours of Mississippi and Chicago. In other words, his color became in France what he had always sought to make it: a kind of metaphor.
This transmutation is reflected in Wright's next book, The Outsider…. It is a novel laden with language and concepts borrowed from French existentialism…. Cross Damon, a new variant of Bigger Thomas perceived through the French philosophical sensibility, commits a series of murders that read like ritual metaphors for the series of rejections Wright had made in his own life…. In the end it is not the law but the Communists who destroy him, shooting him down in the street.
The thrust of Wright's work had now brought him to a point of extreme alienation. His next novel, Savage Holiday … is a suspense thriller about a retired white insurance executive who, stepping out of the shower to pick up his newspaper in the hallway one Sunday morning, finds himself trapped there naked when his door accidentally slams shut. Caught naked in the hallway—this is what had become of Wright's creative metaphor, of his very inner identity!
During the next few years, Wright made strenuous efforts to recover roots for a theme that had now become, in literary terms, a mere abstraction…. [Pagan Spain] was a recapitulation of his old quest on for a primitive reality behind the mask of Communist myth. Pagan Spain, whose border with France marks "the termination of Europe and the beginning of Africa," was the dark truth that had reposed beneath the right-left conventions of the Spanish Civil War era. So also, at the Bandung Conference, did Wright perceive an underlying reality—formed out of race and religion—that was "beyond left and right." He was thus moving in the direction of what was in fact another left-wing myth—that of the Third World—which was being generated in France during this period. It was a possible outcome of the logic of his own development: in a sense, Bigger Thomas could be viewed retrospectively as a representative of Frantz Fanon's theories about the self-realization of the colonized through violent revolt. But this, in the end, would tend to make Bigger as much a creature of Jean-Paul Sartre's universe as the lawyer Max had wanted to make him of the universe of American Communism in the nineteen-thirties.
Wright did not seem content with this resolution, either; he had been very keenly aware, for example, of the gulf between himself and the black man of Africa during his trip there. The short time that now remained of his life was filled with what seems to have been a frantic struggle to recover his themes, as he thrashed about through possibilities both old and new. He tried writing again about the Negro in the American South, but the resulting novel, The Long Dream, published in 1958, was severely criticized for its manifest remoteness from reality; it was far more popular in France than in the United States. His short stories, mere fanciful creations, were better because they were able to bear up somehow under the weight of being intellectual constructs. A story published in 1957, "Big Black Good Man," suggests the possibility that the course of Wright's sensibility was seeking to come full circle…. Does the similarity of name to those of Big Boy and Bigger suggest what Wright was trying to do? It is one of his few stories displaying some of the sunniness and humor for which he was apparently well known in person. Was he making his peace at last, and if so, where was it to take him? No one will ever know, for he was dead three years later, in the fall of 1960. (pp. 36-9)
Ronald Sanders, "Richard Wright and the Sixties" (reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc.; copyright © 1968 Ronald Sanders), in Midstream, Vol. XIV, No. 7, August/September, 1968, pp. 28-40.
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Wright at his best was master of a taut psychological suspense narrative. Even more important, however, are the ways Wright wove his themes of human fear, alienation, guilt, and dread into the overall texture of his work. Some critics may still today stubbornly cling to the notion that Wright was nothing more than a proletarian writer, but it was to these themes that a postwar generation of French writers responded, and not to Wright's Communism—and it is to these themes that future critics must turn primarily if they wish to re-evaluate Wright's work. (p. 3)
Wright not only wrote well but also he paved the way for a new and vigorous generation of Negro authors to deal with subjects that had hitherto been regarded as taboo. [His] portraits of oppressed Negroes have made a deep impression on readers the world over. (p. 4)
Wright's existentialism as it was to be called by a later generation of French authors, was not an intellectually "learned" process (although he had been reading Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard in the thirties) but rather the lived experiences of his growing years. The alienation, the dread, the fear, and the view that one must construct oneself out of the chaos of existence—all elements of his fiction—were for him means of survival. There were, of course, externals he grasped for as well. (p. 6)
In general, Wright's nonfiction takes one of two directions. The first concerns itself with the devastating emotional impact of centuries of exploitation on its individual victims. The second is the overall cultural characteristics of oppressed peoples. The first is largely psychological; the second socio-anthropological. Obviously no such absolute division obtains since it is impossible to discuss one without making reference to the other, but for purposes of analysis it may be said that Wright lays greater or lesser stress on one or the other of these issues in each of his works of nonfiction. Black Boy (1945), Wright's autobiography of his Southern years, serves perhaps as the best point of reference from which to make an examination of his ideas, since, as we have seen, Wright generalizes from his own experiences certain conclusions about the problems of minorities everywhere. (p. 15)
Possibly the problems presented by Black Boy are insoluble since the environment in which Black Boy operates is so alien to the average reader that it is almost essential for Wright to hammer home in little digressive essays the mores of the caste system so that Black Boy's psychology and behavior may be better understood. As a result, its authority as autobiography is reduced—Wright frequently appears to stand aside and analyze himself rather than allow the reader to make inferences about his character and emotions from his actions—and its strength as sociology seems somewhat adulterated by the incursions of the narrative. Yet, despite these failures—or possibly because of them—the impact of the book is considerable and this perhaps is Wright's artistic triumph. (p. 16)
Wright's theme is freedom and he skillfully arranges and selects his scenes in such a way that he is constantly made to appear the innocent victim of the tyranny of his family or the outrages of the white community. Nowhere in the book are Wright's actions and thoughts reprehensible. The characteristics he attributes to himself are in marked contrast to those of other characters in the book. He is "realistic," "creative," "passionate," "courageous," and maladjusted because he refuses to conform. Insofar as the reader identifies Wright's cause with the cause of Negro freedom, it is because Wright is a Negro—but a careful reading of the book indicates that Wright expressly divorces himself from other Negroes. Indeed rarely in the book does Wright reveal concern for Negroes as a group. Hence Wright traps the reader in a stereotyped response—the same stereotyped response that Wright is fighting throughout the book: that is, that all Negroes are alike and react alike. (p. 18)
[It] is in [Uncle Tom's Children] that the reader may find the theme, the structure, the plot, and the ideational content of all his later fictional work. Although Wright, when he wrote these stories, was a convinced Communist, it is revealing how related they are to the later phases of intellectual and political development. Here, for example, one finds Wright's incipient Negro nationalism as each of his protagonists rises to strike out violently at white oppressors who would deny him his humanity. More significantly his Negro characters imagine whites as "blurs," "bogs," "mountains," "fire," "ice," and "marble." In none of these stories do his heroes act out of a sense of consciously arrived at ideology (most of them, as a matter of fact, are ignorant of Marxism), but rather out of an innate, repressed longing for freedom—or sometimes merely as an instinctive means of self-survival. Often the act of violence carries along with it a sudden revelatory sense of self-awareness—an immediate knowledge that the world in which the protagonist dwells is chaotic, meaningless, purposeless, and that he, as a Negro, is "outside" this world and must therefore discover his own life by his lonely individual thoughts and acts. We find thus in these first short stories a kind of black nationalism wedded to what has been called Wright's existentialism—the principal characteristics of Wright's last phase of political and philosophical thinking.
Paradoxically, Wright's Marxism seldom intrudes in an explicit didactic sense…. To be sure, Communists are viewed in a kindly light in the last two of Wright's stories, but they are only remotely instrumental in effecting his heroes' discovery of themselves and their world. Oddly enough, in three of the stories ("Down by the Riverside," "Fire and Cloud," and "Bright and Morning Star"), Wright's simple Negro peasants arrive at their sense of self-realization by applying basic Christian principles to the situations in which they find themselves. In only one ("Bright and Morning Star"), does a character convert to Communism—and then only when she discovers Communism is the modern translation of the primitive Christian values she has always lived. There is a constant identification in these stories with the fleeing Hebrew children of the Old Testament and the persecuted Christ—and mood, atmosphere, and settings abound in Biblical nuances. Wright's characters die like martyrs, stoic and unyielding, in their new-found truth about themselves and their vision of a freer, fuller world for their posterity…. The spare, stark accounts of actions and their resolution are reminiscent in their simplicity and their cadences of Biblical narrations. The floods, the songs, the sermons, the hymns reinforce the Biblical analogies and serve, ironically, to highlight the uselessness and inadequacy of Christianity as a means of coping with the depression-ridden, racist South. Even the reverse imagery of white-evil, black-good is suggestive in its simple organization of the forces which divide the world in Old Testament accounts of the Hebrews' struggle for survival. (pp. 57-9)
There is a thematic progression in these stories, each of which deals with the Negro's struggle for survival and freedom. In the first story ["Big Boy Leaves Home"] flight is described—and here Wright is at his artistic best, fashioning his taut, spare prose to the movements and thoughts of the fugitive. (p. 61)
Although "Big Boy" is a relatively long story, the rhythm of events is swift, and the time consumed from beginning to end is less than twenty-four hours. The prose is correspondingly fashioned to meet the pace of the plot. The story is divided into five parts, each of which constitutes a critical episode in Big Boy's progress from idyll, through violence, to misery, terror, and escape. As the tension mounts, Wright employs more and more of a terse and taut declaratory prose, fraught with overtones and meanings unspoken—reminiscent vaguely of the early [Ernest] Hemingway. (pp. 62-3)
"Down by the Riverside," the next story in the collection, is not nearly so successful. If flight (as represented by "Big Boy Leaves Home") is one aspect of the Negro's struggle for survival in the South, Christian humility, forbearance, courage, and stoic endurance are the themes of Wright's second piece. But here the plot becomes too contrived; coincidence is piled upon coincidence, and the inevitability of his protagonist's doom does not ring quite true. (p. 63)
Yet, there is a certain epic quality to the piece—man steadily pursuing his course against a malevolent nature, only to be cut down later by the ingratitude of his fellow men—that is suggestive of [Mark] Twain or [William] Faulkner. And Mann's long-suffering perseverance and stubborn will to survive endow him with a rare mythic Biblical quality. Wright even structures his story like a Biblical chronicle, in five brief episodes, each displaying in its way Mann's humble courage against his fate. But if Mann's simple Christian virtues failed to save him, it was in part because the ground had not yet been laid on which these virtues might flourish. The recognition that the bourgeois ethic is incapable of providing men with the possibility of fulfilling themselves is an element of Wright's next story ["Long Black Song"]. (p. 65)
The success of the story, perhaps Wright's best, lies in the successful integration of plot, imagery, and character which echo the tragic theme of Silas's doomed awareness of himself and the inadequacy of the bourgeois values by which he has been attempting to live. Silas's recognition is his death knell, but he achieves a dignity in death that he had never known in life. (pp. 65-6)
It is Sarah, though, who is the most memorable portrayal in the story. The narrative unfolds from her point of view—and she becomes, at the end, a kind of deep mother earth character, registering her primal instincts and reactions to the violence and senselessness she sees all about her. But for all that, she remains beautifully human—her speech patterns and thoughts responding to an inner rhythm, somehow out of touch with the foolish strivings of men, yet caught up in her own melancholy memories and desires…. Wright conveys her mood and memories and vagaries of character in sensuous color imagery—while certain cadences suggest perhaps Gertrude Stein whom Wright regarded as one of his chief influences. (pp. 66-7)
Sarah is Wright's most lyrical achievement, and Silas, her husband, Wright's most convincing figure of redemption. (p. 67)
Wright's militant Negroes, despite their protestations to the contrary, often sound more like black nationalists than Communist internationalists. It was perhaps this facet of Wright's work, in addition to the obvious, extreme, and frequent isolated individualism of his heroes that [began] to disturb Communist Party officials. Yet regardless of whether Wright had been at heart a Communist, an outsider, or a nationalist when he wrote these pieces, there can be little doubt that they draw a good deal of their dramatic strength from the black and white world Wright saw. There is little the reader can do but sympathize with Wright's Negroes and loathe and despise the whites. There are no shadings, ambiguities, few psychological complexities. But there are of course the weaknesses of the stories as well.
How then account for their overall success? First of all, they are stories. Wright is a story teller and his plots are replete with conflict, incident, and suspense. Secondly, Wright is a stylist. He has an unerring "feel" for dialogue, his narrations are controlled in terse, tense rhythms, and he manages to communicate mood, atmosphere, and character in finely worked passages of lyric intensity. But above all they are stories whose sweep and magnitude are suffused with their author's impassioned convictions about the dignity of man, and a profound pity for the degraded, the poor and oppressed who, in the face of casual brutality, cling obstinately to their humanity. (pp. 72-3)
Unlike the pieces in Uncle Tom's Children, [the stories in the posthumously published Eight Men] are not arranged along any progressively thematic lines; instead the order in which they are assembled indicates that Wright was more concerned with showing a variety of styles, settings and points of view. To be sure, they all deal in one way or another with Negro oppression, but they do not point, as Wright's previous collection of stories did, to any specific social conclusion. (p. 73)
The only significant work of fiction Wright produced in the decade of the forties was his long story, "The Man Who Lived Underground." (p. 76)
Here Wright is at his storytelling best, dealing with subject matter he handles best—the terrified fugitive in flight from his pursuers. Like Wright's other fugitives, Fred Daniels exercises a kind of instinct for survival that he perhaps never knew he possessed. But what makes him different from the others is that he is not merely a victim of a racist society, but that he has become by the very nature of his experiences a symbol of all men in that society—the pursuers and the pursued. For what the underground man has learned in his sewer is that all men carry about in their hearts an underground man who determines their behavior and attitudes in the aboveground world. The underground man is the essential nature of all men—and is composed of dread, terror, and guilt. Here then lies the essential difference between Wright's Communist and post-Communist period. Heretofore dread, terror, and guilt had been the lot of the Negro in a world that had thrust upon him the role of a despised inferior. Now they are the attributes of all mankind. (pp. 78-9)
Fred Daniels is then Everyman, and his story is very nearly a perfect modern allegory. The Negro who lives in the underground of the city amidst its sewage and slime is not unlike the creature who dwells amidst the sewage of the human heart. And Fred Daniels knows that all of the ways men attempt to persuade themselves that their lives are meaningful and rational are delusions…. But paradoxically despite Fred's new found knowledge of the savagery of the human heart and the meaninglessness of the above-ground world, he recognizes its instinctive appeal as well, and he must absurdly rise to the surface once more. (pp. 79-80)
The dread, the terror, the guilt, the nausea had always been basic thematic elements in Wright's fiction—and now in "The Man Who Lived Underground," they are made the explicit components of the human personality. Like Wright's heroes, the characters of existentialist authors move about in a world devoid of principles, God, and purpose—and suffer horror at their awesome godlike powers as they create their own personalities and values out of the chaos of existence. But in some respects Wright's heroes are different. They are alienated often enough not from any intellectually reasoned position (at this stage in Wright's career), but by chance happenings in their lives or an accident of birth—race, for example. (In Fred Daniels' case, for instance, he is a Negro who quite by chance happened to be near the scene of a crime.) They arrive then accidentally at their insights, and as a result of having discovered themselves outside the rules of conventional social behavior recognize that they are free to shape (and are therefore responsible for) their own lives. But this is not primarily why they suffer guilt. Wright seems to prefer a Freudian explanation; guilt is instinctively connected with the trauma of birth. Hence, for Wright, a man's freedom is circumscribed by his very humanity. In ways he cannot possibly control, his nature or "essence" precedes his existence. But however different the routes French existentialist authors and Wright may have taken, they meet on common ground in regard to their thrilled horror at man's rootlessness—at the heroism of his absurd striving.
"The Man Who Lived Underground" undoubtedly owes something in the way of plot and theme to [Victor Hugo's] Les Miserables, and to what Camus called the "Dostoevskian experience of the condemned man"—but, above all, Fred Daniels' adventures suggest something of Wright's own emotions after ten years in the Communist underground. The air of bitterness, the almost strident militancy are gone—momentarily at least—and in their place a compassion and despair—compassion for man trapped in his underground nature and despair that he will ever be able to set himself free. (pp. 80-1)
The fifties saw Wright experimenting with new subject matter and new forms. Problems of race remain the central issue, but are now dealt with from changing perspectives. For the first time there are two stories with non-American settings, and race neurosis is treated more as the white man's dilemma than as the black man's burden. This shift in emphasis from black to white is accompanied by corresponding shifts in social viewpoint. Racial antagonisms do not appear to be immediately—or for that matter remotely—traceable to compelling class interests. It is clear that Wright was trying to broaden the range and scope of his fiction—that he was trying to move away somewhat from the psyche of the oppressed Negro peasant or proletariat toward characters of varying social and ethnic backgrounds. The three novels Wright produced in this ten year period bear out this conclusion. In the first, The Outsider (1953), he wrote of his hero that though a Negro "he could have been of any race." Savage Holiday, written the following year, contains no Negro characters and deals with the misfortunes of a white, "respectable" middle-aged retired insurance executive. The Long Dream (1957) is written from the point of view of an adolescent, middle-class Negro boy. Wright was apparently reaching for a universality he felt he had not yet achieved—but his craft was not quite equal to the tasks he had set for himself. Too often, as before, his whites appear as stereotypes, and his Negroes are a bit too noble or innocent. In the 1930's Wright's social vision lent his stories an air of conviction, a momentum all their own; in the 1950's Wright's quieter catholicity, his wider intellectuality, perhaps removed his stories from this kind of cumulative dread tension, the sense of urgency, that made his earlier works so immediately gripping.
Nonetheless it cannot be said that Wright's new stories do not possess their own narrative qualities…. What these stories sorely lack are the charged, vibrant rhythms and vivid lyric imagery that so rounded out character and theme in his earlier works. Perhaps Wright wanted to pare his prose down to what he regarded as bare essentials—just as he may have fancied his idol, Gertrude Stein, had done. Whatever the reasons, the results are only occasionally successful. (pp. 82-3)
Native Son possesses many of the characteristic failings of proletarian literature. First, the novel is transparently propagandistic—arguing for a humane, socialist society where such crimes as Bigger committed could not conceivably take place. Secondly, Wright builds up rather extensive documentation to prove that Bigger's actions, behavior, values, attitudes, and fate have already been determined by his status and place in American life. Bigger's immediate Negro environment is depicted as being unrelentingly bleak and vacuous—while the white world that stands just beyond his reach remains cruelly indifferent or hostile to his needs. Thirdly, with the possible exception of Bigger, none of the characters is portrayed in any depth—and most of them are depicted as representative "types" of the social class to which they belong. Fourthly, despite his brutally conditioned psychology, there are moments in the novel when Bigger, like the heroes of other proletarian fiction, appears to be on the verge of responding to the stereotyped Communist version of black and white workers marching together in the sunlight of fraternal friendship. Finally, Wright succumbs too often to the occupational disease of proletarian authors by hammering home sociological points in didactic expository prose when they could just as clearly be understood in terms of the organic development of the novel.
Yet if Native Son may be said to illustrate some of the more flagrant conventions of proletarian fiction, there are aspects of this novel that reveal Wright exploring problems of character portrayal, prose style, and theme…. [There] is first of all the sympathetic presentation of perhaps one of the most disagreeable characters in fiction. That Wright had to a large degree achieved this may be attested to as much by the loud protests of his critics as by the plaudits of his admirers. Second, although Native Son makes its obvious sociological points, one should bear in mind that for well over two thirds of the novel Wright dwells on the peculiar states of mind of his protagonist, Bigger, which exist somehow outside the realm of social classes or racial issues…. Hence if categorizing terms are to be used, Native Son is as much a psychological novel as it is sociological, with Wright dwelling on various intensities of shame, fear, and hate…. To require of his readers that they identify themselves with the violent emotions and behavior of an illiterate Negro boy is no mean feat—but Wright's success goes beyond the shock of reader recognition with its subsequent implications of shared guilt and social responsibility. A rereading of Wright's novel some twenty-five odd years after its publication suggests that Wright was probing larger issues than racial injustice and social inequality. He was asking questions regarding the ultimate nature of man. What indeed are man's responsibilities in a world devoid of meaning and purpose?… The contradiction is never resolved, and it is precisely for this reason that the novel fails to fulfill itself. For the plot, the structure, even the portrayal of Bigger himself are often at odds with Wright's official determinism—but when on occasion the novel transcends its Marxist and proletarian limitations the reading becomes magnificent. (pp. 104-07)
The entire action described in Book I totals fewer than seventy-seven pages. Bigger's character and circumstances are related in a few quick almost impressionistic episodes—but the real plot movement does not actually commence until Bigger confronts the Daltons. Yet Wright has forecast Bigger's doom from the very start. Bigger knows deep in his heart that he is destined to bear endless days of dreary poverty, abject humiliation, and tormenting frustration, for this is what being a Negro means. Yet should he admit these things to himself, he may well commit an act of unconscionable violence…. Hence, Bigger's principal fear is self-knowledge—and this, of course, is the theme and title of Book I. The other kinds of fear that constitute Bigger's life are by-products of this basic error. (pp. 108-09)
[Bigger opts for] the identity of a murderer. In an absurd, hostile world that denies his humanity and dichotimizes his personality, Bigger has made a choice that has integrated his being; "never had he felt [such] a sense of wholeness." Ironically, Bigger has assumed the definition the white world has thrust upon the Negro in order to justify his oppression. If the Negro is a beast at heart who must be caged in order to protect the purity of the white race, Bigger will gladly accept the definition. It is at least an identity—preferable to that of someone obsequious, passive, and happily acquiescent to his exploitation. Bigger's choices are moral and metaphysical—not political or racial. He might have chosen love or submission, instead he has elected violence and death as a sign of his being, and by rebelling against established authority—despite the impossibility of success—he acquires a measure of freedom. None of the above is intended to deny that oppressive environmental factors do not limit the modes of Bigger's actions; nonetheless, environment by itself does not explain Bigger. (pp. 110-11)
The chief philosophical weakness of Native Son is not that Bigger does not surrender his freedom to Max's determinism, or that Bigger's Zarathustrian principles do not jibe with Max's socialist visions; it is that Wright himself does not seem to be able to make up his mind. There is an inconsistency of tone in the novel—particularly in Book III, "Fate," where the reader feels that Wright, although intellectually committed to Max's views, is more emotionally akin to Bigger's. Somehow Bigger's impassioned hatred comes across more vividly than Max's eloquent reasoning. (p. 113)
The failures of Native Son do not then reside in the proletarian or naturalistic framework in which Wright chose to compose his novel. Any great artist can after all transcend the limitations of form—if he so wishes. In any event if Wright had stuck closer to an organic naturalistic development, his novel might have achieved more consistent artistic results. The basic problems of Native Son lie elsewhere. There is an inconsistency of ideologies, an irresolution of philosophical attitudes which prevent Bigger and the other characters from developing properly, which adulterate the structure of the novel, and which occasionally cloud up an otherwise lucid prose style. There are three kinds of revolutionism in Native Son—and none of them altogether engages the reader as representing Wright's point of view. Max's Communism is of course what Wright presumes his novel is expressing—yet this kind of revolutionism is,… more imposed from without than an integral element of Bigger's being….
A second kind of revolutionism is of a Negro nationalist variety—and this is far more in keeping with Bigger's character. (p. 115)
But Bigger's nationalism, whatever its components, is nothing compared to what Camus has subsequently described as metaphysical revolution. "Human rebellion ends in metaphysical revolution," Camus writes in The Rebel—and it is in the role of the metaphysical revolutionary that Bigger looms most significantly for modern readers. The metaphysical revolutionary challenges the very conditions of being—the needless suffering, the absurd contrast between his inborn sense of justice and the amorality and injustice of the external world. He tries to bring the external world more in accord with his sense of justice, but if this fails he will attempt to match in himself the injustice or chaos of the external world. (p. 116)
Bigger's crimes then signify something beyond their therapeutic value. In a world without God, without rules, without order, purpose, or meaning, each man becomes his own god and creates his own world in order to exist. Bigger acts violently in order to exist and it is perhaps this fact, rather than his continued undying hatred of whites, that so terrifies Max at the close of the novel. It is possible that Max senses that as a Communist he too has worked hard to dispense with the old social order—but the metaphysical vacuum that has been created does not necessarily lead men like Bigger to Communism, but may just as easily lead to the most murderous kind of nihilism. (pp. 116-17)
James Baldwin writing of Native Son says every Negro carries about within him a Bigger Thomas—but that the characterization by itself is unfair in that there are complexities, depths to the Negro psychology and life that Wright has left unexplored. To depict Bigger exclusively in terms of unsullied rage and hatred is to do the Negro a disservice. In Baldwin's view Bigger is a "monster." This, of course, is precisely the point Wright wishes to make—and herein lies its most terrible truth for the reader. Wright is obviously not describing the "representative" Negro—although he makes clear that what has happened to Bigger can more easily befall Negroes than whites. He is describing a person so alienated from traditional values, restraints, and civilized modes of behavior, that he feels free to construct his own ethics—that for him an act of murder is an act of creation…. But do such "monsters" as Baldwin calls them exist? Our tabloids could not exist without them. But even supposing they do not commit murder, their sense of isolation and alienation is growing in the face of an increasingly impersonal, industrialized mass society. And in mass, the isolated, the alienated, are capable of consent or indifference to nuclear holocaust or extermination camps. It is perhaps in this respect that Native Son is so much more disturbing a novel today than when it was first published. It is not that Bigger Thomas is so different from us; it is that he is so much like us. (pp. 119-20)
Edward Margolies, in his The Art of Richard Wright (copyright © 1969 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, 180 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2587
One would like to think that the recent flurry of interest in Richard Wright (I write in the unquiet spring of 1969) is not just a by-product of the fashionable enthusiasm for "Black American Literature," but rather an effort to render at last his due to a man praised too soon for the wrong reasons and too soon dismissed for more wrong reasons. One doubts, however, that this man who so much longed to be recognized as an individual would be freshly honored except as a racial symbol. In death as in life, Wright has been forced to win as a Negro who happened to be a writer the recognition that he desired as a writer who happened to be a Negro.
Although much of Wright's best work was done during the 1930s, he was virtually unknown outside the cliquish ranks of the native Communists until 1940 when Native Son exploded over the literary landscape, first as a hauntingly controversial novel, then (under the aegis of Orson Welles—another abused genius) as a grimly powerful play. (p. 125)
Native Son was an extraordinary success not just because it was an exciting novel by a Negro writer, not just because its sensational episodes fed the public appetite for violence, not just because its flights of rhetoric wrung the hearts of the champions of the oppressed, but most of all because it was that rarest of coups—a work that was familiar in form but unfamiliar in content. Wright had managed to produce an innovation within the nearly exhausted framework of the twentieth-century liberal literary tradition. He had written the Negro equivalent of [Theodore] Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Wright consolidated his triumph with his next major work, Black Boy (1945), an account of his childhood in Mississippi, which, even with some final chapters deleted, became an emblem of America's shame and a kind of universal history of the genius frustrated by discrimination.
What few noticed in the hubbub over Wright's powerful apologia is that: (1) a great many Negroes and members of other minority groups had suffered as he had without ever being able to find an adequate vehicle for the articulation of their personal grievances; (2) Wright's account had many similarities to other non-Negro portraits of the artist as a young man, including [James] Joyce's famous novel. While the torments that a white man with Wright's sensibility would have suffered would probably have been different—more subtle, more genteel—they would have been none-the-less mortifying because Wright was doubly different from his complacent countrymen. Actually his fellow Communists and fellow Negroes probably understood him only slightly better than his white oppressors and not nearly so well as the few of any color or persuasion who possessed his capacity to respond to life.
Wright seemed, nevertheless, firmly established as the most articulate literary spokesman for the oppressed Negro minority in the United States, the first Negro novelist of really major stature. Then about the same time that John Steinbeck left California for New York, Wright left America for France. This parallel is, I think, more than coincidental. Steinbeck is, in many ways, the fellow artist that Wright most nearly resembles. Wright was actually doing in his work for the American Negro what Steinbeck was doing for the little less despised and little more secure white rejects in our society—those who had been left behind in the shift from an agrarian to an urban society. (pp. 126-27)
Although some critics have labored to find merits in The Outsider and other fictional products of Wright's French period, there seems no reason to deny that his career as a serious creative artist ended with his departure from this country in 1946. Like Steinbeck, he can best be described during these later years as a provocative and increasingly querulous journalist. He became as firmly identified with the Negro struggle for political freedom and self-identification throughout the world as Steinbeck became associated with Adlai Stevenson's sophisticated folksiness as the basis for a democratic society. Steinbeck managed to remain at least a small force in American politics; whereas Wright was scorned by the Time-Life empire and other mass-media taste-makers for his tart-tongued pushiness. Both, however, were generally and justifiably considered to have ceased to have any artistic significance. (p. 128)
My theory is that Richard Wright (like John Steinbeck) produced his best imaginative work when he was in immediate, daily contact with the people whose behavior he tried to recreate in his writings—when he wrote about Chicago Negroes as he did in Lawd Today and the first two parts of Native Son. The further he drifted away from an intimate relationship with his subject, the more contrived and artificial his work became. The fiction that he wrote in France had no relationship to the world of his daily experience. He was able to avoid capitulating to Communism in Chicago and New York because his immediate experience made him aware of the shortcomings of a narrowly ideological response to life, and he sought to write of individual people and their agonies rather than intellectual constructs. In France, however, he succumbed to the enchantment of existentialism, because of his failure to establish the kind of rapport with his total environment that he had in the United States. (pp. 134-35)
Lawd Today shows that Wright had a talent for objective, critical fiction that he never had a chance to exhibit publicly during his lifetime. In view of the cool reception that greeted the books Lawd Today most nearly resembles (like Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, which theoreticians complained misrepresented the programs prescribed for labor organizers), it is unlikely that Wright's novel could have been valued on its own terms. The people of the 30s did not want to see things as they were or to read a work about a Negro which was only in a very limited sense a "Negro novel" (because the principal character's problems would not have been basically different regardless of his race, color, or residence).
Wright did not make the mistake of treating violence and oppression in the "muted form" that [Edward] Margolies says he did in Lawd Today when he wrote the short stories collected under the title Uncle Tom's Children [see excerpt above]. Certainly no one would have suspected that the author of these harrowing stories was much interested in literary experimentation, for they were traditional in structure…. As opposed to the stories of [Anton] Chekhov and Joyce, which have been the most influential models in the twentieth century, "a good deal 'happens' in Wright's short stories."… Wright operated—possibly at the behest of his Communist mentors—in the mode acceptable to the popular magazines and the radical theorists of the day. Although the grim vividness of these stories has caused them to be hailed as outstanding examples of protest literature, they have rarely received attention as examples of the art of the short story.
Native Son was at the time of its publication and has remained such a powerful emotional shock that few people have been able to control their responses well enough to observe that it is a very uneven novel. (p. 136)
Again Margolies' comments make it apparent that Wright had an extraordinary talent for the reporting of events that allowed the reader to reconstruct them kinesthetically, but that the novelist had little ability to maintain stylistic consistency in his work when he began to present purely intellectual arguments. What Margolies does not point out is that one of Wright's main concerns—that Bigger's crime goes undiscovered as long as it does because as a Negro Bigger is literally "invisible"—is announced, but never effectively dramatized. Ralph Ellison, on the other hand, who is one of the few successful intellectual novelists in recent years, succeeds in communicating this same idea of "invisibility" allegorically in Invisible Man. It is an ironic evidence of the inadequacy of much recent criticism that Ellison's involved and intricate allegory is often dismissed as an episodic, picaresque tale, whereas Wright's engrossing picaresque that might have the most powerful impact if the long ideological dialogues were eliminated is regarded as a "novel of ideas."
The uncritical enthusiasm for Native Son probably did as much as anything else—except probably the move to France—to doom Wright as a creative artist. His activities during the next decade suggest, in fact, that either he had written himself out or he had no encouragement to produce further work in his most effective vein. He turned from fiction to autobiography and produced what is quite possibly his most valuable work, Black Boy…. Black Boy is an outstanding account of a particularly sensitive type of artistic personality striving for identity, but it is as erroneous to read it as an account of the representative Negro experience as it would be to read Winston Churchill's memoirs as an account of the representative British schoolboy's "making his way."
Black Boy probably did, however, have the effect of committing Wright after its publication to maintaining a public stance as a defender of the Negroes' aspirations rather than as an explorer of his own unique situation. Coupled with the move to France that put him out of touch with the physical realities of the Negro situation in America, this attitude meant that until very nearly the end of his life his new works drew upon only a small facet of his vast talent. (pp. 137-38)
In the original version at least …, "The Man Who Lived Underground" is not [contrary to the opinion of Margolies] an allegory at all, because allegory is an art form in which one thing (character or event) stands for another. The story, however, is an account in the spare style of the second section of Native Son of how a man who had been rejected by society might behave given the ideal opportunity to secrete himself from the world. The story is fantastic, but not allegorical, and what Wright succeeds in communicating to the reader is the exultant feeling of the singular individual who has made good his retreat. While Margolies seems more impressed with the second published version of the story—in which the "underground man" comes forth to lead others to his retreat and is shot by a suspicious policeman—than the first, I feel that the second ending is "thought" rather than "felt."… (p. 139)
Certainly the penchant for allegory overwhelmed Wright in the ill-conceived Savage Holiday, in which he attempted to write of a world with which he had no direct experience. Toward the end of his life he began to recover something of his original strength in The Long Dream, in which he returns to the still kinesthetically vivid memories of his childhood; but, as Margolies observes, in the last section of the novel, Wright's feeling for "social detail and concrete physical setting" seems "rather perfunctory." Clearly Wright had not deeply felt nor carefully meditated upon his Paris experiences; or else—once more like Steinbeck—he could not bring himself to discuss his adult experiences like marriage and parenthood with the kinesthetic precision he could his childhood and adult memories of deprivation.
The parallels with Steinbeck that I have several times emphasized deserve to be pressed, because some are remarkable. Wright got off to a later and slower start; there is nothing in his career to compare with the novels from Cup of Gold to Of Mice and Men that won Steinbeck a hearing and are still responsible for much of his reputation. Beginning with In Dubious Battle and Lawd Today, however, the parallels are strong. Both novels are remarkable for a cool objectivity in dealing with human tragedy that neither author was able again to achieve. Uncle Tom's Children and The Long Valley, too, contain analagous accounts of young persons' seeking to free themselves from a repressive environment. If Steinbeck is only rarely as sensational as Wright (and "Flight" and "Vigilante" do have the same kind of impact as Wright's stories), he did have the opportunity to develop into a far more accomplished artist, as he is in The Grapes of Wrath, which, like Native Son, deals passionately with an oppressed minority, but which achieves largely through the impact of its carefully calculated form results that Wright could achieve only through the grim details of his narrative.
Both men turned to allegory at almost the same time with The Moon is Down and the second version of "The Man Who Lived Underground," but Wright was to give us his last major artistic statement in the form of an ostensibly literal autobiography, Black Boy, rather than in the masked form of a cryptic but bitter fictional transformation of observed situations like Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
The ill-managed The Wayward Bus has parallels to the clumsily allegorical The Outsider, as the basically historical East of Eden has to the autobiographically inspired The Long Dream; but none of these works contributed to their authors' artistic reputations. Both writers also turned principally to journalism in the declining years of their careers. Both wandered about the world. Wright went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Spain, Indonesia. Steinbeck visited Russia and Italy and toured the United States with a poodle. Both showed genuine interest in penetrating the masks of the societies they visited and discovering something about the behavior of the common people; but by the time that Wright wrote his last non-fiction book, The Color Curtain (1956), and Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, both were failing to penetrate very deeply beneath the surfaces of things and were living in terms of their private visions rather than serving as hypersensitive media for the transmission of intense personal observations. (pp. 139-40)
Although his being a Negro made him deeply concerned with the plight of other Negroes, Wright never really understood the problems of a racial group as well as he understood his private reactions as an artist to immediate stimuli. Other Negroes like James Baldwin who have had reservations about Wright's techniques have not been entirely fair, because Wright told us more about what it meant to be an artist in an insensitive world than what it meant to be a Negro. The "rage" that Baldwin objected to in Wright is the outcry not of a racial apologist but of a distressed individual.
Since Wright was a Negro in a culture that denied the Negro individual dignity, he told us harrowing things about what it meant to be both Negro and artist—and thus doubly afflicted in a society that was predominantly white and Philistine; but when he tried to intellectualize his racial position and find personal comfort in moving away from the society with which he could establish a painful sensory rapport, he cut himself off from such a large part of the wide spectrum of stimuli to which he was sensitive that he could function only as a competent, outspoken journalist…. He rarely realized his potential; but, as I have emphasized in the parallel that I have kept pushing with another more honored artist, neither did John Steinbeck.
We can scarcely be surprised, therefore, that Wright accomplished no more of artistic merit than he did. We can only be surprised and happy that he achieved what he did and helped to advance as much as he did the dignity of the Negro at the expense ultimately of his own artistic self-realization. (p. 141)
Warren French, "The Lost Potential of Richard Wright," in The Black American Writer: Fiction, Vol. 1, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby (copyright © C.W.E. Bigsby, 1969), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969 (and reprinted by Penguin Books, Inc., 1971, pp. 125-42.)
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Richard Wright's The Outsider … disappointed many critics who, for more than a decade, had waited for a second novel from the author of Native Son…. (p. 40)
The critics were partially correct. The Outsider fails to evoke the emotional intensity which stunned readers of Native Son in 1940 and which continues to affect many readers who discover the book for the first time in 1969. The Outsider's frequent echoes of [Dostoyevsky's] Crime and Punishment and of the now familiar tenets of existentialism—these disclose the conscious craftsmanship of a well-read author. Thus, the book lacks the aura of uniqueness, originality, and artless spontaneity which characterizes Wright's first novel. Native Son seems to be a hoarse cry from the heart of the ghetto; The Outsider is an idea shaped by philosophical men who have conquered their emotions.
Nevertheless, The Outsider should not be judged merely as a failure by a competent naturalistic novelist who, succumbing to foreign influences, made the mistake of dabbling in existentialism. Actually, Wright leaned toward existentialism long before the philosophy earned its literary reputation in America and perhaps even before he fully realized the philosophical position which he was articulating. Whereas many readers of Native Son saw only the implacable forces of environment crushing a helpless black pawn, Bigger Thomas evolves from that pawn into a protagonist who instinctively, not consciously, rejects the standards of a world which is meaningless to him. As Edward Margolies has explained [see exerpt above], once Bigger has murdered, he becomes a metaphysical revolutionary challenging an absurd, hostile world and determined to bring that universe into accord with his sense of justice…. (pp. 40-1)
Considered in this respect, The Outsider is not Wright's first venture into existentialism. Instead, it can be viewed as an effort, after he had broken fully with Communism, to redefine the idea which he had failed to clarify in Native Son. Simultaneously, he attempted, consciously or unconsciously, to improve his work artistically by answering critics' objections to the characterization of his protagonist and to the development of his thesis. (p. 41)
Critics of [Native Son] raised an objection which may have troubled Wright. Some argued that Bigger seemed too sensitive to be considered typical. That is, insisting that Bigger be evaluated as a naturalistic representative of uneducated, working Negroes, they presumed that such Negroes not only would be incapable of articulating their feelings but would even be unaware of their hatreds and their fears. Furthermore, most critics evaluated the work merely as Wright's protest against the treatment of Negroes in America.
Wright attempted to redirect the thoughts of his critics. In "How Bigger was Born," he explained that he had not intended to portray Bigger merely as a naturalistic pawn; he wanted to show an individual capable of making conscious choices about his life. Moreover, Wright continued, Bigger's story is not merely the story of an American Negro; it is the story of the oppressed peoples of the world. Whether or not Wright believed that he had persuaded his critics through his essay in [The Outsider] he retraced the pattern of Native Son. (pp. 43-4)
In general plot idea, The Outsider corresponds to Native Son. Like Native Son, it is located first in Chicago in winter. Structurally also it resembles Native Son. It is divided into five sections: Dread, Dream, Descent, Despair, and Decision. Section I—Dread—corresponds to Section I of Native Son—Fear. Section I in The Outsider begins with a scene of banter among Cross and three friends. Except for the differences in the ages of the characters, the scene closely resembles Chapter Two of Native Son, a chapter in which Bigger Thomas talks and jokes with three friends. Interestingly, Wright first proposed to begin Native Son with that chapter. In Section I of The Outsider as of Native Son, accidental death leads to a new life for the protagonist.
The most significant parallels are seen, however, in the background of Cross Damon and his relationship to other people.
For many readers, the resemblances between Cross Damon and Bigger Thomas are obscured by the differences resulting from Cross's superior educational background and his conscious interest in ideas. A former college student, Cross can find employment as a postal clerk rather than as a chauffeur. Although he is not wealthy, he lives on a standard which Bigger and his family identify with the successful white man. He owns a house and car—or, in the tradition of America, the finance company owns a house and car for which he is paying. Undoubtedly, Bigger would envy Cross's possessions and his opportunities. Considered in this way, Cross represents the middle-class Negro who aspires to the American dream. In contrast, Bigger is the lower-class individual who, glimpsing the dream only in romantic motion pictures, rejects it as an impossibility.
By creating a character on a different economic and social level, Wright emphasized the theme which some critics failed to discern in Native Son. He was concerned with the problem of existence itself, a frustrating enigma not merely for the poor and the black but for all who refuse to accept the roles in which they are cast.
Apparent differences between Cross and Bigger, however, are more superficial than actual. Education seems to have relieved Damon of some of the problems which vex Bigger; but, in reality, by creating new awareness and new aspirations, it has reproduced the same problems on a different level. For example, Bigger suffers from economic deprivation. He lives in one room with his family; he subsists on welfare. Cross Damon has a job, a house, a car, and an apartment. But these are minimal standards for his class. To pay for them, he must borrow money. Who then is freer economically—Bigger, who must borrow pennies from mother, or Cross, who borrows hundreds from the union?
In character, the two seem identical. Bigger bullies others to conceal his own fears; Cross plays practical jokes. Both rebel against their mothers, who typify an older generation which urged Negro children to live according to the ethics taught in Christian churches and prescribed for Negroes by a society dominated by white men. (pp. 44-5)
Neither Bigger nor Cross can realize satisfactory companionship with women because both subconsciously regard women essentially as instruments for the temporary relief of physical and emotional needs. However, because he has been taught that a man should protect a woman's honor, Cross feels guilt when he betrays that principle. Therefore, the relationships with women do not merely fail to bring him close to another human being, they also intensify his hatred of himself.
Alienated from others, both Cross Damon and Bigger Thomas hate themselves. (p. 46)
Both Bigger and Damon are reborn through accidental deaths of white people. Bigger finds meaning for his life in his efforts to benefit from his accidental murder as well as to escape its consequences. Damon experiences rebirth in a more obviously symbolic scene. Having plunged underground in a subway train, he finds himself trapped inside the overturned car. His legs are wedged to the wall by a train seat held in place by a white man's head. The only way he can free himself is to smash the dead man's head. Wright describes the action in words which echo the horror and tension of the moment at which Bigger discovered that he needed to hack off Mary Dalton's head in order to conceal her body in a furnace. Having freed himself from the pinned position behind the seat, Cross can escape from the train only by stepping on the body of a dead white woman.
As I have stated, the symbolism is obvious. In revising his idea, Wright took no chances that a reader's imagination might be limited to consideration of a Negro youth's lust for a drunkenly helpless white girl. By specifying the race of the individuals blocking Damon's path, Wright emphasized his belief that Negroes can find freedom and new life only after they have first crushed the male and female white forces that trap them in a separate and submerged world.
Once free, Cross, like Bigger, wants to share his new understanding with a woman. Cross confides in Jenny, a white prostitute, as Bigger confides in Bessie. Both protagonists subsequently berate themselves when they realize that the women are incapable of perceiving the emotional and spiritual significance of what has happened. In both works, Wright suggests that the male protagonist cannot discover the needed intellectual and spiritual companionship with women of a particular type. Bessie and Jennie can ease physical and mental tensions; they are opiates which one may use to escape from reality; but they lack the resources to share reality.
In Native Son, Wright's meaning is blurred somewhat because he used one figure—Bessie—to represent both the Sambo mentality which Bigger must destroy and the personality of the inadequate female. Consequently, readers may misinterpret Bigger's murder of Bessie as his need to destroy the inadequate female. Wright clarified his meaning in The Outsider by representing the concepts through two different individuals. Since Jenny merely represents the sensual companionship in human relationships, Damon does not need to destroy her; instead, he deserts her as previously he has alienated himself from his mother and from Negro women, both as wives and as lovers. He symbolically destroys his Negro personality by murdering Joe, a fellow postal clerk. In an obvious parallel to the murder of Bessie, he hits Joe on the head and drops him from a window to a roof, where his body lies for some time before it is discovered. (pp. 47-8)
Bigger fears Communists but learns from the Communist lawyer Max a way of articulating his new ideas. In 1940 Wright had not clarified his own dilemmas. Although he continued to work with the Communist Party and to respect its philosophy, he was disillusioned by the methods used by the Party. By 1953, however, his break was complete, and his ideas were clear. He had been forced to reject the Communist philosophy as one which could not be attained because of the limitations of the human beings who controlled the Communist Party. Cross Damon reflects Wright's new certainty. Able to judge Communists objectively, Damon rejects or destroys them as mercilessly as he rejects Fascists.
At this stage of The Outsider, therefore, Wright reached a philosophical position which he could not have attained through uneducated, inarticulate Bigger Thomas. Cross Damon is an intellectual, a student of philosophy who read voraciously until he learned that books did not include the ideas he sought. Through Damon, Wright could ask, "What happens to an individual who finds no comfort in the traditional human relationships and institutions?" (pp. 48-9)
Perhaps the problem is more critical for a black man, but it seems to pose an irresolvable dilemma for any man. Family, marriage, church—all have failed him. His passion is ideas, but he finds no solution in the dominant ideas—democracy, capitalism, fascism, communism. What is the future for such a man?
Wright had no satisfactory answer. Bigger Thomas is executed by a capitalistic democracy. In The Outsider, the district attorney, a legal representative of the capitalistic democracy, admits that he cannot destroy Cross Damon, but Damon is murdered by Communists. In the revision, as in the original, Wright suggested that the sensitive, questioning individual, the existentialist, will be destroyed by the organized institutions which fear him because they do not understand him and fear his questions because they cannot answer them.
These parallels, I believe, suggest that Wright either consciously or unconsciously was trying to develop more effectively the theme which he explored in Native Son. Intellectually, he succeeded: the thought of The Outsider is more persuasive. But artistically he failed.
The fault lies partly in his conception of the protagonist. When he created Bigger Thomas, he planned an individual who would provoke shock rather than pity. Bigger does. Nevertheless, readers experience an indefinable feeling of compassion, emerging perhaps from the pathos of the realization that Bigger is not an absolutely self-determining individual but has been grotesquely distorted by a society in which he is inarticulate.
Compassion cannot be felt as easily for Cross Damon. Because he possesses the conventional attributes of the middle-class, his problem does not evoke the sentimentality which can be showered on those judged to be socially and economically inferior. His more intellectual, more abstract problem lacks an emotional analogue. That is, even if on cannot identify emotionally with Bigger's frustration as a Negro, he can relate emotionally to Bigger's efforts to elude the investigators and the police. There is no such emotional analogue in The Outsider. Strangely, however, Damon's problem might elicit more sympathetic response in 1969 than it did in 1953, for it suggests the current rebellion of affluent youth against a society which offers material comfort but no spiritual satisfaction. (pp. 49-50)
Darwin T. Turner, "'The Outsider': Revision of an Idea," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1970 by Auburn University), Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 40-50.
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For a useful gloss on Wright's apprentice novel [Lawd Today] with its theme of the brutalization of Black life in the urban North, one may turn to his important theoretical essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing," published soon after he moved to New York. The essay seems a clear statement of the novel's intention if not its achievement. Rejecting the exotic bohemianism of the Harlem Renaissance, Wright urges the assimilation of Black folklore into a sophisticated sensibility steeped in modern literature and guided by a Marxist analysis of society. So equipped the Black writer can bring a sharpened class and social consciousness to the problems of his people, utilizing the rich folk tradition but at the same time attempting to transcend the Black nationalism, imposed by a segregated society, out of which this tradition grew. For a novel with such a purpose, Lawd Today contains remarkably little overt propagandizing; certainly this is the case when one compares it to other radical novels of the time, including Wright's own Native Son. For the most part, Wright was content in his first novel to let the implications of his protagonist's blighted and futile existence speak for themselves….
The simple but neat structure of Lawd Today was implicit in Wright's choice of a subject—one sordid but typical day in the life of Jake Jackson, a Chicago postal clerk who hates his job, his wife, his race, and himself, from the time he awakes until he sinks into a drunken sleep some twenty hours later, bleeding from cuts suffered in a vicious brawl with his wife. (p. 16)
This day, the reader infers, is a typical one of Jake's life, but it is also a particular day—12 February 1937. Lawd Today not only presents the frustrations and misery of an individual Black man, but turns also to the larger forces which have shaped—or warped—his life and which he so thoroughly misunderstands…. [The] most successful device for achieving this dual focus is the recurrent use of snatches from a radio broadcast celebrating Lincoln's birthday and the Northern victory in the Civil War. Here the irony is more complex, for the point is not merely Jake's bored reaction to the broadcast and the contrast between the importance of the events it relates and the triviality of Jake's life, but also the tragic failure of America to fulfill the promise of the idealism of Lincoln and Garrison, a failure that made possible such a life as Jake's, so that the tones of the radio speaker are inevitably pompous and hollow.
Irony is indeed the pervasive mood of Lawd Today, but the method is an unsparing naturalism. The dreary monotony of work in the post office, for example, is recorded in minute detail. In classic naturalistic tradition moreover, individual lives are determined by biological as well as by socio-economic forces. The exigencies of food, drink, and sex, particularly the latter, influence Jake and his friends as much as racial and economic discrimination.
Jake's frustration is thus both social and personal. In the dream from which he is awakened by the Lincoln Day radio broadcast at the beginning of the novel, he is climbing an endless stairway, called on by the voice of his boss. This dream clearly represents the futile treadmill of his life, for as a Chicago Black in the Depression he can hardly hope to rise higher than his position as a postal clerk, but it also has a Freudian significance immediately reinforced by the erotic dream which follows it as he drowses before being fully awakened by the arrival of the milkman, whose innocent chat with Lil, Jake's wife, arouses his jealousy. Sexual frustration indeed, is a central theme of Lawd Today. (p. 17)
It must be conceded, however, that Wright is not successful in relating Jake's sexual frustration to the economic and social implications of his existence. The difficult rapprochement of [Sigmund] Freud and [Karl] Marx is not achieved in Lawd Today.
Nor does Wright manage to weave his interest in urban Black folklore closely enough into the fabric of his tale of Jake's day. Often the reader is uncomfortably aware of the abrupt shifts of emphasis from Jake to Black life in general, as in the descriptions of the policy parlor, the street vendor of a bottled panacea, and the Black Nationalist parade…. It is not that the often tediously detailed descriptions of such matters are unrelated to the thematic concerns of Lawd Today; on the contrary, the circulars which Jake finds in his mailbox advertise policy diviners and patent medicines for sexual impotence and alcoholism, thus indicating that sex, drink, and gambling are the opiates of Black people, and the description of the obese street vendor is a satirical vignette of the American petit-bourgeois capitalist similar in spirit and detail to one of William Gropper's New Masses caricatures…. The point is rather that the sociological themes of the novel are not fully integrated into the story of Jake's ordeal, but often seem to be included for their intrinsic interest, which is great (who would wish to dispense with the magnificently obscene comedy of the bout at the dozens between Jake and Al?), or for their doctrinal import.
This failure in the fusion of the novel's materials accounts in part for the relaxed effect of the narrative, though of course this quality of aimlessness results also from the meaningless routine of Jake's life. What is most strikingly absent from Lawd Today when compared to the rest of Wright's early fiction is the extraordinary tension of the first two parts of Native Son and the concentrated intensity of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children.
Lawd Today is not a story of crises in the lives of the Black proletariat, however, but the story of an ordinary day in the life of Jake Jackson, a Lumpen-Proletariat with unfulfillable bourgeois illusions. Despite its moments of tedium, its failure to integrate its dual focus on Jake and on his environment and its weaknesses of proportion, Lawd Today offers much vivid writing, as in the physical description of Jake awakening or in the wildly sensual atmosphere of the brothel. Above all, the novel conveys an undeniably real impression of Black life in the Chicago of the thirties…. The cyclic nature of Jake's day—and his life—is clear enough. Characteristically, Wright presents in Lawd Today an emotionally crippled protagonist living a blighted life. Characteristically also, Wright does not permit the reader to evade his wrathful indictment of the society responsible for creating a Jake Jackson. In both its subject and its intended effect, Lawd Today is an apprentice novel which stakes out some of the major concerns and attitudes that its author was to develop further in his later fiction. (pp. 17-18)
Keneth Kinnamon, "'Lawd Today': Richard Wright's Apprentice Novel," in Studies in Black Literature (copyright 1971 by Raman K. Singh), Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 16-18.
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[Only] two years after its publication, Wright dismissed Uncle Tom's Children as an overly sentimental, naive book. The evaluation seems to have remained unchallenged ever since. Yet it seems, pace the author, as shortsighted as the criticism that the book lacks unity.
[The thematic progression in both] Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son is the same—from a spontaneous, fear-motivated reaction by a black character against "the white mountain" of racial hatred to a realization of the necessity for concentrated Marxist organization of the poor. Also developed in both works are the ideas that sexual taboos between the races confuse and confound the black man's struggle for justice and that nature herself often seems to join with the white man to oppress the Negro (Bigger, fleeing from the police through the hostile, unrelenting Chicago snowstorm) permeate both books. Similarly, such images as "the white mountain" or "the white fog" to refer to the crushing weight of white society on the individual black man appear in both Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son. It is contended here that Uncle Tom's Children not only possesses unity and makes an unsentimental artistic statement about the position of the black man in the South, but that it employs several of the central images and themes of Native Son in an aesthetically more sophisticated manner than does the later and more famous work.
The first edition of Uncle Tom's Children contained only the four stories, "Big Boy Leaves Home," "Down by the Riverside," "Long Black Song," and "Fire and Cloud." Subsequent editions added the introductory essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," and the concluding story, "Bright and Morning Star." Both these additions significantly contributed to the aesthetic integrity of the work. In fact, their absence in the first edition probably explains to a large degree that initial critical reaction to the book which so dismayed Wright; in fact, neither Wright nor his critics seem ever to have realized how much these two additions contributed, both to the aesthetic unity and to the thematic militancy of the volume. At any rate, they are invaluable additions in both regards. The essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," is a much abbreviated version of the racial outrages described in Wright's autobiography, Black Boy…. The essay ends with Wright quoting a Memphis elevator operator he had known: "'Lawd, man! If it wuzn't fer them polices 'n' them o'lynch-mobs, there wouldn't be nothin' but uproar down here!'" "Ethics" is an aesthetically valid introduction to the stories which follow, both because of its concentrated description of the brutality endured by Wright himself in the South and because of the warning contained in this closing quotation. The five stories are all concerned with similar instances of degradation and the final message of the book is an answer to "them polices 'n' them ol' lynch mobs." As will be seen later, the addition of "Bright and Morning Star" brings this answer much more sharply into focus than it was initially.
One must note here that four of the five stories depict a brutal death suffered by a black man at the hands of white sadists and the other ("Fire and Cloud") describes a flogging. However, beginning with the third and climactic story "Long Black Song," there is a marked shift in the manner in which the black victims meet the white brutality. It is as if the viewpoint most dramatically stated in Claude McKay's famous 1919 poem, "If We Must Die" becomes the central theme of the last half of the book. In "Long Black Song," the character, Silas, dramatically enacts McKay's message of courage and defiance. In contrast, the main characters in the first two stories, "Big Boy Leaves Home" and "Down by the Riverside," react to white intimidation in a definitely non-militant way.
"Big Boy Leaves Home" describes the tragic events which occur after four young black boys decide to go swimming in a pond on the property of a notorious local white racist. While splashing about joyously in the nude, they are horrified when they look up and see a white woman standing by their clothes, transfixed in apparent horror (and fascination?) as she watches them. Big Boy, the "leader" of the gang, forces the inevitable tragedy to a swift culmination by climbing out of the pond, approaching the woman, and begging her to leave their clothes so that they can dress and go. The woman simply remains by the clothes and begins to scream…. Now terrified, the other three boys climb out of the pond and rush for their clothes. Instantly, a young white soldier (who is later revealed as the woman's fiance and the son of the notorious racist) rushes up with a rifle. The predictable results are that two of the black boys are shot, and Big Boy has to shoot the white soldier in order to save himself and his remaining friend Bobo. The woman stands terrified but unharmed throughout the scene—that she is a more fortunate forerunner of Mary Dalton, the white woman of Native Son who also causes tragedy by more or less unconsciously stumbling against the American racial-sexual taboo, is obvious.
After a brief respite at home, during which his mother gives him some corn bread, Big Boy goes to hide out in some deep kilns he and his friends had dug. The kilns are close to a highway, and a plan is laid for Big Boy and Bobo to wait in them overnight before catching a ride in a truck which a friend will drive to Chicago the next morning. As he is about to crawl into the first hole, Big Boy is met by a huge rattlesnake which he must kill. With the snake, Wright calls attention both to the sexual overtones of the beginning of the tragedy and to the theme, mentioned earlier, of a hostile nature.
Big Boy does spend the night hiding in a kiln—a night during which he sees his remaining friend, Bobo, caught and burned alive by a white mob just a few feet away from him. Also, just as it begins to rain, filling the kiln with freezing water, a bloodhound discovers Big Boy and the terrified youth has to grab the animal and choke it to death; again, the rain and the hound are elements of a nature which seems in league with white society to persecute the individual black man.
In the morning, the truck arrives on time and Big Boy does make his escape to Chicago:
The truck swerved. He blinked his eyes. The blades of daylight had turned brightly golden. The sun had risen.
The truck sped over the asphalt miles, sped northward, jolting him, shaking out of his bosom the crumbs of corn bread symbolic of the rejected South, making them dance with the splinters and sawdust in the golden blades of sunshine.
He turned on his side and slept.
Despite the symbolic overtones of rebirth in this passage, the rest of the book and certainly all of Native Son assert that fleeing to Chicago is not the answer to the Southern black man's oppression. It is merely a form of sleeping. Big Boy is, in fact, a younger Bigger Thomas in several ways—like Bigger, he is the leader of a gang, which he dominates physically, and he stumbles inadvertently into violence because of a white woman and then seeks refuge in "Flight" (the title of part two of Native Son). Also, Big Boy's reflexes are every bit as controlled by "Fear" (part one of Native Son) as are Bigger's. The conclusion, then, that Chicago will prove to be no more of an answer for Big Boy than it is for Bigger Thomas seems inevitable. (pp. 256-59)
The next story in the book, "Down by the Riverside," repeats the basic ingredients of "Big Boy"—a helpless black individual, Mann, is forced by white bigotry into an act of violence and is forced by white oppression to flee from the inevitable consequences. But unlike Big Boy, Mann is killed trying to escape. The symbolism of the main character's name is quite important here; Big Boy and Bobo are youths, but the adult "Mann" dies pathetically while trying to flee. Thus, Wright reemphasizes the main point of the volume's first story: flight is no answer. "Down by the Riverside" also occurs during a flood, which represents a structural transition from Big Boy's water-filled ditch and reinforces the hostile nature theme. (p. 259)
The next story, "Long Black Song," contains a significant change in mood. It is the character Silas who personifies this change. He dies, as [Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die"] advocates, dealing the "one death-blow." But the reasons for his action lie as much within the character of his wife Sarah as within himself; and the story focuses on her at length. She is associated with all the forces—white oppression, the animosity of nature, and the violation of sexual taboos—which have destroyed Bobo and Mann and forced Big Boy to flee. Sarah, a primitive earth-mother figure, allows herself to be seduced by a young white traveling salesman of graphophones (a combination clock-gramophone) while Silas is away buying farm supplies. "I offer you time and music rolled into one," brags the salesman, unaware that Sarah has no use for time and is the soul of music. Sarah's contempt for such an abstract concept as time is emphasized at the beginning of the story when she gives her baby a clock to beat on…. (p. 260)
When he hears the full truth, Silas drives Sarah out of the house with their baby in her arms and awaits the return of the white salesman. The description of Sarah running away through the fields grasping the child and not really comprehending what she has done, emphasizes beautifully the earth mother motif. Like [William] Faulkner's Lena Grove, she is as incapable of controlling the animalistic side of her self as she is of comprehending an abstract concept like time.
In the morning, the salesman does return, and Silas shoots him. Knowing that a lynch mob is inevitably coming for him, Silas still refuses to flee, even after Sarah returns with the baby to beg him to do so. His speech to her is the turning point of Uncle Tom's Children:
"The white folks ain never gimme a chance. They ain never give no black man a chance! There ain nothin in yo whole life yuh kin keep from 'em! They take yo lan! They take yo freedom! They take yo women! N then they take yo life!… N then Ah gets stabbed in the back by mah own blood! When mah eyes is on the white folks to keep em from killin' me, mah own blood trips me up!… Ahm gonna be hard like they is! So hep me, Gawd. Ah'm gonna be hard! When they git me outta here theys gonna know Ahm gone! Ef Gawd lets me live Ahm gonna make em feel it!"…
Silas is true to his word. When the mob comes, he opens fire and kills several of them. The whites set fire to his house, hoping to drive Silas out; but they fail. Silas chooses to die in the fire fighting back as long as he can. (pp. 261-62)
It is interesting to note the parallels between Silas' death and that of Jean Toomer's Tom Burwell in Cane. Both men die in flames, without giving their white oppressors the pleasure of a single scream of pain, and both die defending the honor of a black woman, even though it has already been defiled by a white man. But as heroic as it is, Silas' death is not yet the complete answer. Since it is an individual act with no specific political overtones—the theme of Marxist unity has yet to be introduced. The remaining stories, "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star," introduce that theme, while "Long Black Song" serves as a transition story between the negative flight of the first two stories and the positive Marxist defiance of the last two. It is significant that the titles of the last two stories come from spirituals, but are not used ironically as in the case of "Down by the Riverside."
"Fire and Cloud" depicts Minister Taylor's initiation into real leadership of his people. Taylor has been a "black leader" in the past mainly because of the largesse of the town's white power structure. However, when a depression strikes his people and threatens them with starvation, Taylor rebels. At the instigation of two Communists (one white and one black—Wright's symbolic propaganda here is evident), Taylor encourages a protest march, but will not let his name be used in the leaflets promoting the demonstration. On the other hand, he also refuses to stop the planned march: to the mayor, the chief of police, and another white leader, he simply says over and over that his people are "jus plain hongry!"… Taylor is truly between two worlds: his religious orthodoxy and fear of the white establishment will not allow him to align himself openly with the Marxists, but his conscience will not allow him to stop the march. In contrast, there is his son Jimmy, a big boy with the courage of Silas, who wants to organize his band of black youths for open, pitched racial warfare.
Taylor's initiation into true leadership comes when his compromising only serves to bring out the bestiality of the white society. He is kidnapped and flogged, and a large number of his congregation are also brutally beaten. After the beating, Taylor has to struggle home through a white neighborhood, feeling that he is enclosed in a "white fog." Upon learning of his father's ordeal, Jimmy wants to rush out immediately and organize his band of black youths for revenge; but Taylor stops him…. (pp. 262-63)
Taylor has transcended even Silas and has learned, as it were, the lesson of McKay's "If We Must Die." He may not be ready to endorse Marxism in name—he still is a Christian minister—but he is ready to practice its doctrine (God is the people). Taylor does organize the march personally, and it is such a success that the starving poor whites join in, the combined forces bringing the white power structure to its knees. Taylor has become a real leader of his people, much in the way that Toomer suggests that Kabnis will do at the end of Cane.
The transition into "Bright and Morning Star" is one of the most aesthetically satisfying achievements of Uncle Tom's Children. This last story opens with the main character, an elderly black mother named Sue, remembering her conversion from Christianity to Communism because of the inspiration of her two Marxist sons. (Taylor, of course, has undergone a nearly identical transformation with similar inspiration.) The story also does a beautiful job of tying together all the ingredients of the preceding stories: it takes place during a driving rainstorm (again, hostile nature); at one point, Sue taunts a white sheriff into brutally beating her so that she can prove to herself that her faith in her new "religion" is as strong as was her belief in the old (this incident shows white oppression, of course, plus another example of the admirable, but finally futile, kind of courage earlier exemplified by Silas and Jimmy); Sue's hatred of white society is so intense that she is plagued by visions of "white mountains" and "white fog" (the latter, the most frequently used image in this book, as well as in Native Son); and, finally, there is a white girl, Reva, who is in love with Sue's son, Johnny-Boy (the racial-sexual motif again). In Reva, though, one sees the distance covered in this book between "Big Boy," "Long Black Song," and "Bright and Morning Star." Reva's love for Johnny-Boy is love, not just sexual fascination. Moreover, Reva exemplifies a sensitivity and sincerity which are infinitely superior to that possessed by Jan and Mary Dalton, the sympathetic white Communists of Native Son.
Sue herself personifies the final thematic element in the book. Just as Taylor's understanding of the need for group unity represents a thematic progression from Silas' individualistic heroism (which is itself an improvement over Big Boy's and Mann's attempts at flight), so Sue's belief in Marxism extends the characterization and depth of the kind of person Taylor is and Sue has been. Not only is she willing—unlike Taylor—to endorse Marxism openly and by name, but she accepts it with a religious fervor, much like Taylor's old feelings for the church, but with significant and promising social differences. Sue's faith in her new religion is in fact so strong that it nearly causes her to betray her party. (pp. 263-64)
[When her son is being tortured by a white mob, Sue tries to shoot him to relieve his suffering. Before she can], the gun is taken away from her. However, the sheriff simply takes the gun and shoots first Johnny-Boy and then Sue. Her death is still a triumph, however…. For the first time in the book, nature, as represented by a rain, is not a hostile force—Sue has, by fording the stream, conquered its treachery. Her death, by negating her unintended betrayal of the party and thus preserving Marxist unity, has prevented white oppression from destroying the potential power of the people (that God which Taylor in the preceding story had come to worship). In addition, Reva, a white woman who honestly loved a heroic black man, is safe in Sue's bed. Finally, the "white mountain" which has so intimidated all the black characters in the book has been obliterated in the killing of "the Judas" Booker.
"Bright and Morning Star" (the title comes from a spiritual describing Jesus, making the point that Sue and Johnny-Boy are the martyred saviors of the new "religion" of Marxism) effectively unites all the major elements of the book on a positive note. Certainly, then, the importance of the inclusion of this story after the first edition cannot be overstated. In fact, it adds so much to the overall work that its initial exclusion does undoubtedly explain the feeling of incompleteness on the part of the initial reviewers. That Wright himself sensed this incompleteness is proved by the beautiful transition between this and the preceding story; incomprehensibly, however, he apparently never grasped the degree to which "Bright and Morning Star" had improved his book. At any rate, the thematic progression of the book is now obvious—there is Big Boy the youth who runs, then Mann the adult who runs, then Silas who meets a heroic but lonely death, then Taylor the minister who will not openly endorse Marxism but who acts out its implications, and finally there is Sue who dies a martyred convert to Communism and thus triumphs over all the forces which have limited the characters in the first four stories.
Obviously, then, Uncle Tom's Children in its final form cannot be dismissed as a collection of unrelated stories, and Wright's own low opinion of his work represents an excess of self-criticism. The book makes the same progression in theme as Native Son (Bigger Thomas initially out of fear, runs, and finally comprehends the necessity of the unity of the masses) and achieves this progression symbolically, without a long editorial appendage to the reader by a Marxist lawyer. Moreover, such characters as Silas, Sarah, and Sue come much more vibrantly alive than does anyone in Native Son. Certainly Reva is nowhere near so offensive, intentionally or otherwise, as Jan and Mary Dalton, the "good" white characters of Bigger's story. In fact, it seems much more likely that "bankers" daughters" would have "wept" over Native Son than over Uncle Tom's Children, an idea which the relative sales at least of the two books, at the time of their publication, would seem to confirm. (pp. 265-66)
James R. Giles, "Richard Wright's Successful Failure: A New Look at 'Uncle Tom's Children'," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, 4 (copyright, 1973, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Third Quarter (September, 1973), pp. 256-66.
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One of the curious things about Richard Wright is that while there is no question that his best works occupy a prominent place in the Afro-American canon, or that a survey of Afro-American literature would be incomplete without him, many, including myself, find it difficult to describe his place in the Afro-American literary tradition…. An author's place in a tradition depends on how he reveals that tradition. It is not simply a matter of when his works were published but also of how they illuminate—and in some cases honor—what has come before and anticipate what will follow. In Afro-American literature particularly, the idea of a tradition involves certain questions about the author's posture not only among his fellow writers but also within a larger artistic continuum which, in its exquisite commingling of materials spoken, played, and written, is not the exclusive property or domain of the writer alone. Richard Wright is a fine writer, perhaps a great one; he has influenced, in one way or another, almost every important black writer who has followed him. But Wright forces us to face a considerable problem: to what extent may we qualify his place in the artistic tradition and still submit that he is unquestionably a participant in it? I don't pretend to be able to solve this problem, but I can explore three of the questions involved: What was Wright's posture as an author, and how did it correspond with models provided by the tradition? How do his works illuminate or complement those Afro-American texts preceding them? And, what has been his effect on our contemporary literature and culture? In answering these we will be a little closer to understanding Wright's place—or lack of one—in the tradition.
Many passages in Wright's works illustrate the issues concerning his authorial posture, but the following one from "I Tried to Be a Communist" seems particularly appropriate, partly because it is autobiographical and partly because it raises all the familiar arguments regarding Wright's posture toward his audience. In the passage, Wright describes what happened when he spoke before a unit meeting of black Communists in Chicago….
The meeting started. About twenty Negroes were gathered. The time came for me to make my report and I took out my notes and told them how I had come to join the Party, what few stray items I had published, and what my duties were in the John Reed Club. I finished and waited for comment. There was silence. I looked about. Most of the comrades sat with bowed heads. Then I was surprised to catch a twitching smile on the lips of a Negro woman. Minutes passed. The Negro woman lifted her head and looked at the organizer. The organizer smothered a smile….
When the organizer finally breaks the silence, Wright recoils from his comments, significantly remarking, "His tone was more patronizing than that of a Southern white man…. I thought I knew these people, but evidently I did not."… Then Wright informs us:
During the following days I learned … that I … had been classified as an intellectual … that the black Communists in my unit had commented upon my shined shoes, my clean shirt, and the tie I had worn. Above all, my manner of speech had seemed an alien thing to them…. 'He talks like a book,' one of the Negro comrades had said. And that was enough to condemn me forever as bourgeois….
Wright's ambivalent attitude toward his race and its rituals is amply revealed here, and, while it is not a matter which should enter into our evaluations of his art, it does haunt and becloud our feelings concerning his place in the tradition. Aware of the vivid scenes in Black Boy, wherein racial bonds are shown to be either hypocritical or forms of submission, and recalling as well how he argues in "Blueprint for Negro Literature" … for Negro writers to transcend "the nationalist implications of their lives,"… we are able to comprehend his behavior at the unit meeting but not necessarily approve of it. What brands him an intellectual in this instance is not, strictly speaking, his clean clothes or his articulateness. If this were the case, then most of the black preachers in America—whom Wright termed "sainted devils" …—would bear the same mark and be cast from church and pulpit. That Wright "talks like a book" is closer to the heart of the matter, for it is Wright's mode of articulation, and the related matter of how he did not (or could not) acknowledge kinship with his black brethren while articulating the Party line, which most troubled his black audience and, in turn, bothers us.
Wright's refusal to partake of the essential intra-racial rituals which the situation demanded suggest that he was either unaware of, or simply refused to participate in, those viable modes of speech represented in history by the preacher and orator and in letters by the articulate hero. The question of articulation does not rest exclusively with matters of verbal facility, but, on a higher plane, with the expression of a moral consciousness which is racially-based. And of course this involves a celebration of those honorable codes of conduct among one's kin.
Wright's dilemma reminds one of [W.E.B.] Du Bois' short story in The Souls of Black Folk entitled "Of the Coming of John," in which the "black" John, John Jones, comes home from college to teach school and "rescue" his black towns-people from their "backwardness." His chance to address neighbors and kin occurs at the black Baptist church, and despite his college-honed elocution he fails miserably in his purpose, partly, one imagines, because he attempts to assault those rituals of behavior which the humble building in which he speaks both represents and reinforces. (pp. 525-27)
In both the story of John Jones and Wright's "I Tried to Be a Communist," the failure to articulate is at once a matter of the voice assumed and of how that voice relates to the audience at hand. While Jones did not speak to or of his audience, Wright compounded Jones's error by speaking beyond his immediate audience to another, which in this case was Big Brother. (pp. 527-28)
The "unit meeting" passage hints at many complaints laid at Wright's door, but none loom larger than Ellison's lament … that Wright "could not for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative or as dedicated as himself."… The charge pertains particularly to Bigger Thomas, but as we see in Black Boy and in "I Tried to Be a Communist," Wright's limited depiction of the Negro extends occasionally to self-portraits as well. It is hard to believe that the bumbling black writer alienating black folk and performing a poor job of propagandizing for the Party is supposed to be Wright himself, but for reasons neither wholly self-effacing nor wholly aesthetic it is, alas, poor Richard.
The issue is really Wright's idea of the hero, although I believe none of his critics put the matter quite this way. If we assume, as I do, that the primary voice in the tradition, whether in prose or verse or music, is a personal, heroic voice delineating the dimensions of heroism by either aspiring to a heroic posture, as does the voice of [Frederick] Douglass and Du Bois, or expressing an awareness of that which they ought to be, as we see [James Weldon] Johnson's Ex-Coloured Man and [Ralph] Ellison's Invisible Man doing, then the mystery of what is unsettling about Wright's voice (and protagonists) begins to unfold. Bigger Thomas is hardly the only maimed or stunted or confused figure in Afro-American literature; this is not what makes him different. What does is his unawareness of what he ought to be, especially as it is defined not by the vague dictates of the American Dream but by the rather specific mandates of a racial heritage. (p. 528)
All in all, Wright's authorial posture is much like that of Booker T. Washington. Both men are, to use George Kent's phrase, "exaggerated Westerners,"… especially with regard to the voice and posture each perfected in order to reach those whom they perceived to be their audience…. In the case of both men, the speech and thought they espoused led to a necessary denial, at least in print, of certain Afro-American traditions. Hence, they were, in their authorial posture, exaggerated individuals alienated from their race and, to some degree, them-selves. Even when they are about the task of creating them-selves in autobiographies, their vision is shaped and possibly warped by this state of "exaggeratedness." Thus, in Up from Slavery, Washington models himself as the ideal fund-raiser and public speaker and defers to the facile portraits of himself by journalists, while Wright, in Black Boy, suppresses his own extraordinary human spirit by rendering himself a black "biological fact."…
But as with most comparisons there are distinctions to be made. Beyond all questions of era and place rests the simple fact that Washington was in control of the implications of his authorial posture while Wright was not…. When Wright,… even in the writing of Black Boy, embraces the example of [Theodore] Dreiser, [Sinclair] Lewis, and [H. L.] Mencken far more than that of [Jean] Toomer, Johnson, [Langston] Hughes, or [Zora Neale] Hurston, we want to know [why]? In sum, Wright was more the victim of his posture than the master of it, and in this he is not alone in Afro-American letters. If he indeed occupies a prominent place in the tradition because of his views on author and audience, it is because the founders set aside a large space for confused men. (p. 529)
Despite Wright's apparent ignorance of Afro-American literature during his youth and rise to literary prominence, there are distinct links between certain preceding narrative types, the slave narrative and plantation tale in particular, and his own writings. But the question remains as to whether these links are mere repeated patterns or of the resilient stuff that establish author and text in an artistic continuum.
Native Son, for example, may be viewed as a plantation tale, not only because there are ties between it and the "revisionist" plantation tales of Charles W. Chesnutt, but also because certain features of setting, action, and character are recognizably those of a nineteenth-century American plantation society. The setting is roughly that of a plantation, with the slave quarters west of Cottage Grove Avenue, a respectful long block from the Big House of the Dalton's on Drexel Boulevard. Dalton may not be a slaveholding captain of early agri-business, but his immense profits do come from the land and from the hard toil of blacks in that, as president of the South Side Real Estate Company, he landlords over hundreds of over-priced rat-in-fested tenements, including that in which Bigger and his family lead their sorry lives. (p. 530)
Despite her flirtation with Communism, Mary Dalton is still the young, white, and (as her Christian name implies) virginal belle on the pedestal. She might at first sit alongside Bigger in the front seat of her father's car, but in the end, she removes to the rear with her boyfriend, Jan, only to reinforce the distance by reminding Bigger to cart her trunk to the station in the morning. And so the shuttle is set in motion, orders one moment, her drunken head on Bigger's shoulder the next. If Bigger is confused, the police and newspapers are not: Mary is the white beauty, Bigger the black brute.
These postures are, unfortunately in our world, timeless, and we would be wrong to suggest that they are in some way the exclusive property of the antebellum South. And because Mary and Bigger are in this sense conventional types, we must wonder whether the third major character, Attorney Max, is as well. Like Mary's boyfriend, Jan, Max resembles the sympathetic white found in the slave narratives who is somewhat removed from the system. But while Jan remains within the type—and is therefore as one-dimensional as are most of the novel's characters—Max's status is more problematic. While he never gains the intimacy with Bigger he so desperately seeks, Max does nevertheless, more than any other, spark Bigger's fleeting glimpse of the possibilities of life and of human communion. Moreover, as his courtroom speech implies, he sees, more than the rest, how America has made Bigger far more than Bigger has fashioned himself. Max's use of language is what allows him to break out of the plantation tale type. It contrasts not only with Bigger's verbal deficiencies and with the corruption of language by the State's Attorney and the press, but also, on a subtler scale, with Mary and Jan's insensitive verbal gropings across the racial chasm ("'Isn't there a song like that, a song your people sing?'") which only fill Bigger with "a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate."…
Indeed, what most distinguishes Native Son from its antecedent plantation tale texts is not its bleak urban landscape but the fact that the traditional heroic modes of transcending travail in this world such as the gift of uncommon insight and speech have not been given to Bigger but apparently to Max instead. Thus, the issue of Bigger's sub-heroic posture is further confused by the question of whether Wright intends Max to be the novel's heroic voice and, by extension, Wright's voice as well. (p. 531)
If Max speaks for Wright, we must assume that he specifically does so in the courtroom episode where he is not only eloquent but forthright and compassionate. Yet this poses a considerable problem, for in implicitly espousing the classic liberal notion that truth will invariably foster justice, Max blunts the raw revolutionary fervor which Bigger generated and which first seduced the Communists to come to his aid. In doing so, Max exchanges his credentials as a radical for a heroic posture which is very much in the American grain. Thus, while transcending the character type in the slave narratives which he first resembles, Max soon takes on the features of a familiar turn-of-the-century type, the "white moral voice."… Max is, then, a revolutionary manqué; a reformer possessing a grand but in-effectual idealism which leaves him horror-struck before the fact of Bigger's pending execution.
If Max is not Wright's voice, or at least not the heroic voice in the novel, then we would expect him to be sketched ironically, with the stress falling on what may be less than heroic in his words and character. But this is not the case. What we have instead is a confusion of political language and purpose, compounded by the troublesome fact that Wright seems to have bestowed the gift of eloquence on Max with no clearly discernible end in mind.
The problem with Max seems to be a fictive equivalent of Wright's own dilemma in "I Tried to Be a Communist." In each case, the speaker's articulateness does not meet the needs of the occasion and in that sense is a kind of illiteracy, especially of the sort that is enforced by America's rituals along the color line. If, in Native Son, Max is indeed Wright's voice, it is not because of the content of his speeches but rather because he shares with his author a misperception of audience, grounded in what we may term an extraordinary and almost myopic innocence. Thus, despite the novel's many and varied images of American slave society, the absence of an articulate hero whose posture and language tends to modulate the forces of a hostile environment renders Native Son a most problematic novel in Afro-American letters.
Black Boy, on the other hand, is more clearly conceived and is hence the better of Wright's two greatest published works. The dominant voice of the book seems to be finally that of its author precisely because it has a fair measure of human proportion. To be sure, we are almost overwhelmed by those relentless passages in Black Boy in which Wright fashions himself a black "biological fact." But countering these are the moments of marvelous self-assertion, the Whitmanesque catalogs of sensual remembrances, and overall, the presence of a questing human being seeking freedom and a voice. Here, a hostile environment is modulated by an emerging, extraordinary figure, and the resulting narrative establishes a place for itself in the continuum founded by the slave narrative.
One may list a number of motifs Black Boy shares with the slave narratives—the violence and gnawing hunger, the skeptical view of Christianity, the portrait of a black family valiantly attempting to maintain a degree of unity, the impregnable isolation, the longing and scheming to follow the North Star resolved by boarding the "freedom train"—but the most enduring link is the motif (and, one might argue, the narrative form) of the narrator's quest for literacy…. [It was] reading, as well as the writing of stories and even commencement addresses, which prompted young Richard to follow the North Star and, in a supreme act of self-assertion, free himself.
All in all, our comparison of Black Boy and Native Son provides us with a number of strong, revealing contrasts, but none presses with greater urgency and portent than that of the self-assertive, self-aware narrator of Black Boy seeking literacy and a voice appositioned against the image of Bigger and his inert cohorts assaulted by the mindlessness of B-grade Hollywood films and the rhetoric of propaganda emanating not only from the Communists but also from the Daltons, the government, and the press. Clearly, Wright could match his model of the writer described in "Blueprint" who is "something of a guide in [our] daily living," but it is remarkable that he did so only in the writing of his autobiography. (pp. 531-34)
As the Black Aesthetic critics and writers surfaced in the late sixties…, they embraced Richard Wright as a novelist and also as an aesthetician. In some instances, however, it was not so much Wright but Bigger Thomas who, strangely enough, was promoted as the black artist's model…. If indeed, as some are saying, the black art-as-sociology and Black Aesthetic theories of the 1960's are outmoded, it may be because the latter is but an extension and political radicalization of the former, and neither approach is fully in tune with the heartbeat of the artist and his art.
By and large, the chief limitation to most of the criticism of Native Son is that the critics have dwelled on what we may loosely call the novel's content. Whether Native Son actually shocked the proverbial banker's daughter (who might identify, one supposes, with Mary Dalton) as Wright hoped it would remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that Wright's critics have been preoccupied by those very features to the novel which are presumably distressing to proper young ladies. Generally, most of the criticism of Native Son falls into one of two categories: predictable, journeyman-like studies of imagery (light and dark; animal references) and symbolism (the soaring airplane, various timepieces, the Christian crosses); or, responses to those features which, as Baldwin has written, "whet the notorious national taste for the sensational." The problem, we discover, is that these approaches unduly isolate the text from the corpus of American and Afro-American literature and direct discussion of Native Son toward yet another ritualized, pseudoscientific rehash of the Black Man's Plight.
As I have tried to indicate earlier in these pages, Wright's influence on the contemporary critic may lead to the pursuit of other types of questions. Our sense of an Afro-American literary tradition can be sharpened and enhanced, for example, by assaying Wright's departures from it. We need to develop what has already been ventured about Bigger and Wright's entanglement in the web of double-consciousness so that we may come to know them and the place of Native Son in the artistic continuum. We need to assess why, from the standpoint of artistic and even aesthetic considerations, Wright earnestly desired to become a jazz critic in the twilight of his career. Above all, we must not hesitate to discover the Americanness of Richard Wright. Such an activity is actually part of the legacy handed down by such pioneering Afro-American critics as William Stanley Braithwaite and Sterling A. Brown. Wright's departures from Afro-American traditions generally serve to confirm his place in the mainstream of American letters, and, for the moment, it seems like the knowledgeable Afro-Americanist critic is best suited to articulate Wright's stature in both literary worlds.
Turning to Wright's influence on the contemporary black writer, especially those writers first published during the last decade, we find a predictable array of responses ranging from celebrations of Bigger to what we can only deem more thoughtful considerations of Wright's work which frequently re-examine those rituals of black and white cultures of which we've already spoken. The celebrations of Bigger more often than not represent the exploitation of these cultural rituals, and seem to be generated by psychological needs surfacing as strategies for political power, or by unadulterated greed. Writers are often found in the former camp (Eldridge Cleaver, for example), while the would-be artists behind the spate of "blaxploitation" films may be designated to the latter. If indeed, as Kichung Kim writes, "For many Black Americans … Bigger is probably the one character they find most authentic in all of American literature …;" we need not wonder why these writers and filmmakers have a considerable audience. None of this is Wright's doing or intention. The man who split the atom did not drop the bomb. However, like the scientist who foresaw the holocaust of Hiroshima, Wright, in his portraits of Bigger fantasizing at the movies and dreamily reading detective stories, seems to have prophesied what is a lamentable feature to our present cultural state. What he understandably could not foresee is that today not only is Bigger still in the audience, but his fantasized self is on the screen.
A far more honorable and direct response to Wright may be discovered in the recent fiction of black women authors. We have alluded to the effort to "humanize" Bigger but the attempts to revise and redeem Mrs. Thomas and both Bessies (the one in Native Son and the one in Black Boy), launched mostly by black women writers, must be mentioned as well. There is little written discussion of this; but looking at the literature itself, we can find types of Mrs. Thomas and both Bessies leading richer lives and having more going for them than a false church, a whiskey bottle, and, as Wright says of the Bessie in Black Boy, a peasant mentality. (pp. 535-38)
All in all, the black women novelists of our age seem to be agreeing with Alice Walker that "black women are the most fascinating creations in the world." Thus, out of necessity, they are turning to Toomer, Hurston, [Gwendolyn] Brooks, and [Ann] Petry, and not to the majority of black male writers for their models and encouragement. In this light, the rise of a feminine and sometimes feminist voice in contemporary Afro-American fiction may be directly related to the narrow and confining portraits of black women in earlier modern fiction, including that of Wright. (p. 539)
In poems such as [Michael Harper's series "Heartblow"], Wright, I feel, is restored to his proper stature as a participant in Afro-American letters. Harper's mining of Wright's primary images and placement of them in the continuum, as well as his implied suggestion that Wright deserves a place in the pantheon where we find Du Bois, yields the kind of evidence which balances all we know of Wright's shortcomings. And it is this balanced view of Wright, as an author who could argue "Tradition is no longer a guide…. The world has grown huge and cold" while providing us with archetypes which generations of writers would in turn place in the tradition he rejected, that begins to define his stature in the Afro-American tradition. (p. 541)
Robert B. Stepto, "'I Thought I Knew These People': Richard Wright & the Afro-American Literary Tradition," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1977 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 525-41.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449
Attacked, abandoned as a literary example by [James] Baldwin and [Ralph] Ellison, whose early work he had typically encouraged, [Richard Wright] became, after a long eclipse and after his death in 1960, the favored ancestor of a great many new black writers, who rejected his successors and felt more akin to his militant spirit. Parricide, after all, is one of the quicker methods of succession, and nothing can more conveniently legitimate the bloody deed than an appeal to the authority of the grandfather, himself the previous victim. (p. 159)
[It] would be superficial to think that Baldwin alone killed Richard Wright until the angry sixties came along to resurrect him. In some sense Wright's kind of novel was already dead or dying by the time he found it. (p. 160)
Nothing so clearly dates Baldwin's early essays, especially the attacks on Wright, as the assurance that the novel has intrinsically little to do with society but rather involves "something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable…. The disquieting complexity of ourselves … this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness…. This power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims."… [Writers] spoke of the novel that way all the time, as a mysterious inward quest toward some ineffable region of personality…. What chance had Richard Wright in that climate of critical "thinking"?
Native Son is an untidy novel, many novels. It looks backward to An American Tragedy, sideways to a lurid potboiler, forward, strikingly, to [Albert Camus's] L'Etranger and the ideas of [Jean-Paul] Sartre. Two-thirds of the way through it changes horses and devolves into a curious but inert ideological essay on a novel that has essentially ended, but that had until then been remarkably free of the clichés of proletarian fiction and the party line. This immensely long and disappointing coda has served to obscure the book and date it. The hidden strength of Native Son—hidden from formalist and Communist alike—is in essence Dostoevskian rather than Mike Goldian: a harrowing mastery of extreme situations, of the mind in extremis, a medium not so much naturalistic as hallucinatory, dreamlike, and poetic. The following lines describe the hunger of Bigger Thomas, in flight, trapped, hungry, cold: "He wanted to pull off his clothes and roll in the snow until something nourishing seeped into his body through the pores of his skin. He wanted to grip something in his hands so hard it would turn to food." Psychologically this is vivid, almost surreal, but it is also socially emblematic, a fierce heightening of the whole condition of the ghetto where he is trapped, within a police cordon that only makes more literal the color line that divides it from the rest of the city. (pp. 160-61)
It was just this dimension, which Dreiser and other American realists shared, that dropped out of serious American fiction toward the end of the forties. (p. 162)
[Where] Baldwin and even [Norman] Mailer—despite his fascination with power—must reach out to their public subjects (the Black Muslims, the march on the Pentagon) in order to make that distance, that ambivalence, their true subjects, Wright's Black Boy, though more purely autobiographical, sits in effortless mastery over its social theme, the condition of the black man in the South. Yet Wright's book is also more convincingly personal, even in incidents he may have invented. Neither Baldwin nor Mailer, immense egos both, have as yet written a true autobiography; their revelations are obsessive but selective. Genuine sons of the forties and fifties, they remain essentially private persons despite their fame. Wright, however, a disaffected son of the thirties, did write an autobiography at age thirty-seven, but honed and sorted his memories into a coherent fable, aiming, like all great autobiographers, to fashion a myth—typically a myth of conversion or election—rather than to convey information about the past.
In scene after scene Wright presents his younger self as a rebellious misfit, incapable of adapting to the modes of deference that obtain in his coarse and brutal family and in Southern life as a whole…. [A] pattern of instinctive rebellion and savage counter-violence recurs repeatedly … throughout the book. When Wright goes out at last among whites, he makes an intense effort of self-restraint, but try as he will there is always a provocative hint of pride and self-respect, a touch of the uppity nigger about him. A latecomer to the white world, he is unable to quite master the shuffling, degraded, but apparently contented manner that will tell whites he not only knows his place but loves it. He is the perennial loser, always half-willingly skirting an abyss, awaiting the fatal misstep that might reveal his true feelings and get him killed.
The turning point of Black Boy comes in an incident that reverses this pattern and shows him (and us) the true nature of his situation. He goes to work for a benevolent Yankee but soon is typically hounded and threatened by two white co-workers. (pp. 163-64)
[Wright does not belabor the lesson, but to the reader it is clear enough: neither] the well-meaning Yankee, archetype of the ineffectual liberal paternalist, nor the defeated but unbroken black boy can buck the whole Southern way of life. Wright will break the mold by escaping to the North, becoming a writer and radical who will turn his rebelliousness from an ineluctable fatality to a fighting virtue. With word and deed he will try to change society rather than nest in the shelter of its exceptions. (p. 164)
[Wright's books] enunciate a fundamental pattern of black writing, that of the Bildungsroman, or "How I got my consciousness raised." The black writer is almost by definition someone who has made it, struggled out of the cave not only of oppression but illusion—a mental bondage that issues in impotence and self-hatred—and has come to deliver an account of his journey. Just as Wright in Black Boy develops from terrified deference to rebellion and flight, Native Son moves from a crime-and-punishment plot to an account of how Bigger Thomas, by accepting his crime, achieves a measure of freedom and awareness. But the theme and its material increasingly clash; the crime is finally not acceptable, nor is it reducible to symbolism. Pursuing the matter, Wright's own liberated consciousness becomes too heavy, too subtle for Bigger, yet remains too entangled in the remnants of the murder plot to evade moral confusion.
Ralph Ellison complains that "Bigger Thomas had none of the finer qualities of Richard Wright, none of the imagination, none of the sense of poetry, none of the gaiety," and in his own novel, Invisible Man, he transformed the Bildungsroman into a freewheeling, episodic, surreal mode in which the hero could contain and express the most diverse kinds of consciousness. In prose, black writers generally tend toward an urgent but impure mixture of fiction, autobiography, and discursiveness, and the most original thing about Invisible Man is its eclecticism and discontinuity, which foreshadows the style of the black humorists of the sixties, in whose work we have observed how technical, verbal, and structural inventiveness takes the place of realistic setting and psychology. Yet Ellison's book, which is finally too serious to be pinned down as black humor, essentially follows the pattern of Black Boy and Native Son, as do Malcolm X's autobiography, [Eldridge] Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and George Cain's impressive novel Blueschild Baby—whose hero is named George Cain, in which the distinction between fiction and autobiography has disappeared entirely. In this last book only the scene and subject change, not the basic pattern: for Cain the journey goes not from South to North but from heroin-addiction, prison, and self-hatred to self-respect, to writing, and above all, as with Cleaver, back to the arms of the black woman. (pp. 164-65)
For the angry young blacks of the sixties, who perhaps avoided the worst scars that Baldwin and Wright received so early, rage was their pride and their power, not a poison at the well-spring. Thus, paradoxically, while Baldwin rehashed and flattened what was once a richly complicated, ironic view of the race problem in America, partly out of a desperate attempt to keep abreast of the new mood, younger black writers regularly defined their own positions by attacking him, much as he once attacked Richard Wright. (p. 167)
Morris Dickstein, "Black Writing and Black Nationalism: Four Generations" (originally published in a different form as "Wright, Baldwin, Cleaver," in New Letters, Vol. 38, No. 2, Winter, 1971), in his Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (copyright © 1977 by Morris Dickstein; reprinted by permission of the author), Basic Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 154-82.∗
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Lawd Today, written during the 1930's but unpublished until 1963, portrays the unrelieved frustration and consequent violence of black American life—themes Wright developed more strikingly in his next and greater novel, Native Son. Lawd Today, however, is not merely a preliminary sketch for the later novel. Unlike Bigger Thomas, Jake Jackson, Lawd Today's protagonist, develops no revolutionary consciousness of himself or his social condition because he aspires to a distorted version of the American dream and refuses personal responsibility for his actions.
As a postal clerk and recent arrival in Chicago from the South, Jake still belongs properly to the black masses; however, his steady employment in hard times, his attitudes toward the white society, and his aspirations to status based on material prosperity move him to the brink of the black middle class as described twenty years after the composition of Lawd Today by E. Franklin Frazier in his controversial study, The Black Bourgeoisie. Like Frazier, Wright exposes the degenerative influence of the illusory dream of bourgeois status on the black individual. But Wright brings the reader to an indictment of the dream and those who would cherish it primarily through art, not sociological data, by using structural ironies and satire.
The criticism of black bourgeois attitudes is achieved through the manipulation of the ideas of true dreams, coming from the character's feelings, and false dreams, coming to him from society and culture. By juxtaposing these kinds of dreams, Wright forces a recognition of the sterility of the bourgeois American dream for black people. The structure of the novel, which might be described as a little life rounded with a sleep, moves Jake from a true dream in the morning to an exhausted, dreamless sleep at night.
The novel opens with a true dream coming to Jake just before he wakes. The dream, the image of his repressed feelings, brings a vision of Jake's hopeless, frustrating position in America. Despite mighty exertion and the goading of his boss's voice, Jake sees himself frustrated in his attempt to run up an interminable flight of stairs. In effect, Jake is frozen in his place, the very special place reserved by America for black men. The significance of the dream dawns on Jake before he is fully awake as he suddenly realizes that "I'm just wasting my time! Ain't moving a peg! There's a joke somewhere!" Ironically, Jake wakes to a Lincoln's Birthday radio broadcast chronicling the great 19th-century American struggle for emancipation, and quickly loses sight of his own dream's truth about his lack of freedom. Soon morning hunger and a sexual yearning overcome him…. The pattern of this opening dream episode, in which an intimate vision of truth is perceived, then lost in a welter of physical desires, structures Jake's experiences throughout the novel.
Having lost sight of the true feelings perceived in the dream, Jake persists in following the socially proposed American dream of personal fulfillment through materialistic pursuits; however, the severe social and psychological limits of racial oppression in 1930's America prohibit Jake from the same kind of fulfillment as white Americans might achieve. In rambling conversations with black friends and co-workers, Jake recognizes the social limits placed on the black man, lamenting that "When a black man gets a job in the Post Office he's done reached the top" … and then white people "don't even want us here."…
His response to the recognition is not a rejection of his condition and the racist capitalist society, but an accommodation—an acceptance of his place and an adjustment of the general American dream of material success…. Because he is powerless and willing to remain so, Jake can achieve fulfillment and status only through "fun"—sensual gratification and a pursuit of the illusion of wealth…. [In] pursuit of the false dream, Jake validates the insight of his true dream—he is frozen in place and the joke is on him.
Wright emphasizes the joke of espousing the wrong dream detailing Jake's subscription to the white world's standards of beauty in comically grotesque terms…. In an early scene, the pathetic and comic aspects of trying to look white emerge as Jake battles his kinky hair. Wright describes the scene satirically in mock epic terms with Jake as "a veteran field marshal" attacking and subduing "the fortifications and wire-entanglements of an alien army."… Wright's rejection of pursuing white standards of beauty is inherent in the comically grotesque image of Jake…. (pp. 167-69)
Wright's determinism goes beyond cultural conditioning. As in the case of his morning dream, Jake lets biological urges inhibit analysis of his feelings throughout the day. Sex and hunger conspire with a personal weakness of will to preclude action which might change Jake's condition or purge him of the source of his frustrations. Once, at work, feeling the monotony of his job and the humiliation of constant surveillance, Jake becomes aware that he is oppressed. Imagination molds his feelings into a vision of black revolution, the logical response to oppression. He fantasizes that he commands a black battleship which blows off the white head of the Statue of Liberty…. But revolutionary fervor and joy quickly abate as lunch-time is announced. (p. 170)
Wright refuses to place all the blame for Jake's foolishness and frustration on social conditioning, racial oppression, and biology. Jake's personal pride, a pride beyond reason, often keeps him in his place…. The mythos of the American dream and the status derived from associating with it feed Jake's pride. (p. 171)
The final section of Lawd Today, "Rat's Alley," exposes the foolish hope of chasing illusions by emphasizing Jake's impotence and self-destructive actions. The novel climaxes in a South Side bordello where "the lights were lowered just enough to give the room a dreamlike air."… During the visit Jake seems about to realize his dream to be a sporting man. Through freewheeling spending of his borrowed money and braggadocio, he woos Blanche, a light-skinned prostitute. In the end, however, Wright makes Jake the classic satiric gull. Jake achieves nothing and loses all: before he can make love to Blanche, he is set-up by her, pickpocketed by her friends, and, finally, beaten unconscious. Although recognizing that he has been done in by his own foolishness, Jake quickly turns defeat into a pathetic, self-aggrandizing, ironic joke. Beaten and bloody, Jake staggers to his feet, smiles and yells: "BUT WHEN I WAS FLYING I WAS A FLYING FOOL!"… Standards are clear; Wright provokes ironic laughter which rejects Jake's pride and blindness. But, despite our rejection of Jake's way of life, the laughter is also an affirmation, a grudging admiration of his human resilience.
Although Jake's proud joke, like his sense of humor throughout the novel, mitigates our judgment at this point, in the denouement, Wright turns laughter at a fool to repulsion by a grotesque beast. He completes the novel's dream structure, clearly exposing the futility and falsity of Jake's bourgeois dream. Returning home after his fiasco in the whorehouse, Jake unleashes his frustrations in a bloody battle with his wife. Ironically, the thin, sickly Lil overcomes the would-be All-American man. (pp. 171-72)
Jake has moved from the potentially useful truth of his morning dream to a hopeless, dreamless sleep. In pursuing the wrong dream, Jake's life, in Frazier's words, has lost "both content and significance."… He has become a cipher, a grotesque ghost, lost in darkness partly inflicted upon him by biology, but partly of his own creation. (p. 172)
Owen Brady, "Wright's 'Lawd Today': The American Dream Festering in the Sun," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1978 by the College Language Association), Vol. XXII, No. 2, December, 1978, pp. 167-72.
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The early fiction of Richard Wright, comprised of short stories written in the thirties and culminating in Native Son (1940), is primarily an expression of personal outrage and frustration. Although Wright's literary heritage has been traced to the American Naturalists, recent readings of his works suggest that Wright was not as confined by that tradition as has generally been believed. Working within the framework of social protest, Wright probed other more metaphysical issues, which were later to become of even greater importance to him. In dramatizing the plight of each of his heroes, from Big Boy in "Big Boy Leaves Home," to Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Wright explored the motivating forces behind their actions. As their personal dramas unfolded, he developed such themes as the possibility of freedom, man's isolation and alienation, the inherent irrationality of modern American society, and the nature and form of personal rebellion within that society.
Native Son is, as Edward Margolies in The Art of Richard Wright [see excerpt above] points out, as much a psychological novel with clear existential implications, as it is sociological. Bigger Thomas is not only a Black man struggling against an oppressive white society, but also Wright's archetypal rebel, desperately seeking recognition and meaning within a world that has offered him none. Alienated from the mainstream of society and betrayed by his own environment, Bigger, like Wright's earlier heroes, searches for an effective means of vanquishing his personal sense of worthlessness. Ironically, like the protagonists of Uncle Tom's Children, Bigger's revolt is simultaneously victorious and self-destructive.
The literature of revolt is born from the recognition on the part of many modern writers that meaning and purpose are not an integral part of the universe in which man finds himself. Native Son, written at a time when Wright was preoccupied with social issues, also represents an examination of the nature of personal rebellion, a theme which dominated much of the thinking of such modern European writers as André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and especially Albert Camus.
In its most universal form, rebellion, according to Camus, involves a protest against the condition in which man finds himself…. Finding the world to be unjust, the rebel protests against being a part of that universe and attempts to reorder his world according to his own version of justice. The act of revolting, even when it involves a level of injustice to match that which is prevalent in society, results in apocalyptical moments of freedom and power. The result, according to Camus, is not only a new respect for one's self, but also a new sense of order and unity within the universe. This acceptance of a self imposed order is what ultimately moves both Camus's Meursault (L'Etranger), and Wright's Bigger Thomas toward a peaceful reconciliation with their fates.
In Wright's first volume of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), physical rebellion becomes the dominant theme and the means by which his characters achieve freedom and identity. Wright's early heroes seek fulfillment of their personality and a purpose to their otherwise meaningless existence through violent action. In similar fashion, Bigger Thomas, confused and alone, can find no conventional way to bridge the gap between his aspirations and the reality of his condition. In "How Bigger was Born", Wright explained the need for rebellion: "In Native Son I tried to show that man, bereft of a culture and unanchored by property, can travel but one path if he reacts positively, but unthinkingly to the prizes and goals of civilization; and that path is emotionally blind rebellion."
As the novel opens, Bigger is seen as a man conditioned by hatred and a sense of racial exclusion…. Throughout Book I, "Fear," Bigger is portrayed as a man in conflict, not only with white society, but also with his surroundings, his family, his peers, and ultimately with himself. Bigger is not able to escape the sordidness of his condition through religion, as does his mother, or through alcohol, as does his mistress Bessie. For him there are no external evasions, and as his anxiety and frustration mount Bigger begins to feel a sense of impending disaster…. (pp. 12-13)
The murder [of Mary Dalton], although ostensibly a mistake, is an accident only in the narrowest sense, for Bigger has long dreamed of such an act. The full meaning of his crime does not become clear to him until after the murder, but he had long had a foreboding of such violence…. Bigger fantasizes about destruction, of dropping bombs on the white world, and in one rare moment of insight even admits to the possibility of murder as an antidote to his extreme anguish and despair…. (pp. 13-14)
Bigger's killing of Mary becomes the one meaningful act of his life, giving him a new sense of freedom and identity and a capacity for action on a grand scale. Up to this time Bigger has cowered in fear before the white world. Now, as he plots his next move, the many options that are opened give him a new sense of power and possibility….
Out of apparent fear of betrayal, Bigger brutally slays his mistress Bessie. These two acts place him irrevocably outside the social order of all men, both white and black. Unlike his killing of Mary, the murder of Bessie is neither accidental nor truly necessary for his protection. It is simply proof of his new ability to act. Although Bigger is afraid he will be overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt, this second murder, like the first, gives him a sense of liberation and an even greater control over his destiny….
In Camus's novel, L'Etranger, 1942 (The Stranger, 1946), Meursault's metaphysical rebellion originates because he finds himself adrift and isolated in a meaningless society. Bigger, like Meursault, is also alone in a world which has lost all metaphysical and moral foundation. Without God and without absolutes, he lacks an a priori basis for moral and ethical choice. (p. 14)
In 1940, the same year that Native Son was published, Camus first formulated his theory of the absurd and explained the irrationality of man's existence in terms very similar to those used by Wright….
Although the motivating forces behind their actions differ, both [Bigger and Meursault] conform to a very similar pattern: alienation, a sense of frustration with conventional order and values, an accidental murder, a realization of the meaning of that murder in terms of their role in society, a separation (physical and emotional) from their world, and a final coming to terms with their individual fates. While in his cell, Meursault is moved to an awareness of his own mortality. He comes to accept the absurdity of the universe…. He learns that man cannot significantly change the course of his destiny, nor the brevity of his life. What is most important is how he relates and reacts to what he has been given. Meursault's final pronouncement indicates his ability to accept the conditions in which he lives….
In the final pages of Native Son, Bigger Thomas, condemned to death, also attempts to understand the relationship between man and the absurdity of his environment. Rejecting the solace of religion, he is determined to die alone, as he has lived. In talking with Max, however, he realizes that other men have lived and felt as he has. He is finally able to send a belated gesture of fraternity to Jan, whose help Bigger has rejected throughout….
As his death approaches, Bigger, like Meursault, is free of fear of life and death. He has finally made peace with himself by realizing that his actions, although self-destructive, were the only possible responses to the series of injustices and irrationalities within his existence. As his execution nears, Bigger has no remorse; instead he is seen with "a faint, wry bitter smile."… (p. 15)
Although the reactions of these characters indicate a shared vision on the part of their authors, there is a basic difference in the pattern of revolt and its motivation between Wright's Bigger Thomas and Camus's Meursault. Meursault's actions are the result of his comprehending the chaotic nature of the universe. Bigger acts out of hatred, fear, and an innate longing to be free. Uneducated and inarticulate, he reacts unthinkingly to the underlying contradictions of an American society which proclaims the inherent worth of the individual and yet every-where denies that worth to the Black man. Unlike Meursault, Bigger is not aware of the metaphysical implications of his protest. It is only after his action that he begins to experience a new knowledge of himself, his existence, and the nature of his surroundings. Directed immediately against the white majority, his rebellion eventually assumes a universal dimension and ultimately is, like that of Meursault and Ellison's invisible hero, a protest against the entire scheme of things.
Native Son is as much a study of an alienated and lonely individual struggling to understand his existence, as it is an examination of racial prejudice and its effects. Bigger is forced into an alien existence because of the irrational and unjust nature of the society in which he lives. For Bigger, the opposite poles of aspiration and satisfaction can only be briefly united through violence. Murder becomes, paradoxically, the one creative act of his life…. Like Cross Damon, Wright's Dostoevskian hero in The Outsider (1953), Bigger is able to kill without remorse, for good and evil have become meaningless to him. Killing has become part of Bigger's definition of himself; and although Wright does not attempt to justify or condone murder, he does strive to explain the necessity of Bigger's actions.
Although The Outsider has many obvious parallels to the works of Sartre, Camus, and the post World War II European writers, there is little to indicate that Wright was influenced by the French existentialists during the writing of Native Son. His vision of an absurd world emanated more from firsthand experience in America than from literary sources. Wright clearly perceived the inconsistencies of the American system and tried to show, through Bigger Thomas, a man struggling within that system. Living in a society that had placed him next to obscurity, Bigger turns to violence as the only meaningful action open to him….
Written in 1940, [Native Son] gives an early indication of Wright's existential vision and the themes that were to preoccupy his thinking in the years to come. (p. 16)
Steven J. Rubin, "Richard Wright and Albert Camus: The Literature of Revolt," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 12-16.∗