Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

It is useful to read Train Whistle Guitar beside Black Boy (1945), in which novelist Richard Wright autobiographically presents his boyhood in small-town Mississippi. His story takes place at the same time as Murray’s quasi-autobiographical story of Scooter in neighboring Alabama. Wright wrote vividly of the saving power of the imagination in a highly intelligent and questioning boy. His tale is bleak, with its emphasis on the presence of racist whites and on the cultural as well as physical poverty of a black peasant class. Wright’s seminal and still powerful novel Native Son (1940) also provides a meaningful critical context for Murray’s novel. In that story, set in Chicago in the 1930’s, Wright emphasizes the same conditions of black life as in Black Boy and shows resulting acts by the young black protagonist that are monstrous and lead to his death, although, at the end, he mentally and spiritually transcends both racism and the impoverished culture of his black community. In its psychological and sociological analysis, Native Son lodges a strong protest against racism and prejudiced capitalism in the United States. It is clear that Wright conceived his readers to be, like the jurors who convicted his protagonist, white and prejudiced. His novel solidly established the concept of “protest literature” as a valuable kind of writing by African American authors.

Ralph Ellison, in essays and in his...

(The entire section is 530 words.)