Harper Perennial, 1940, 544 pages
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
Cross-posted to bookish and books1001.
Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, is a shiftless, bullying, vulgar young man who begins the book tormenting his poor mother, goes to a billiards club to plan a robbery with his equally ne'er-do-well friends, then he and one of his friends goes to a movie theater to masturbate in the seats.
He ends the book accused of the capital rape and murder of a white girl, whom he did murder (but did not in fact rape), but by his own words to his lawyer, makes clear that raping her was something he might have done, if the circumstances had been only slightly different.
In other words, Bigger Thomas is the Big Scary Negro personified, a nightmare manifestation of white America's racial fears. And that was Richard Wright's point. He wasn't trying to make Bigger Thomas sympathetic as an individual. He was, as he explains in my edition's afterword ("How 'Bigger' was Born") trying to show how American society creates Biggers.
Written in 1940, Native Son describes a pre-Civil Rights Act America in which segregation was still the law of the land and political correctness had not yet banished "boy" and "nigger" from polite discourse. So on the surface one might think that Native Son is nearly as dated as, say, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
But Wright (the grandson of slaves) was not addressing anything as simple as segregation or racial epithets. In the interior monologues of his protagonist, he spells out the alienation and hostility of men like Bigger, and comparisons with today's society, with a prison-industrial complex that exists largely to incarcerate black men, are hard to avoid.
Richard Wright was apparently a novelist of the naturalist school, and his writing has been criticized for its lack of imagery or style and a tendency towards polemics. There are a lot of monologues and speeches in Native Son, particularly in the closing arguments of Bigger's trial, which take up most of the second half of the book. Bigger's defense attorney, Max, a Jewish communist (as the prosecutor points out repeatedly), eloquently and at length, essentially presents a "society made him do it" argument.
"Let me, Your Honor, explain further the meaning of Bigger Thomas' life. In him and men like him is what was in our forefathers when they first came to these strange shores hundreds of years ago. We were lucky. They are not. We found a land whose tasks called forth the deepest and best we had; and we built a nation, mighty and feared. We poured and are still pouring our soul into it. But we have told them: 'This is a white man's country!' They are yet looking for a land whose tasks can call forth their deepest and best."
To which the prosecutor responds with a brief, vitriolic "protect your daughters from scary black criminals" speech.
"Every white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!"
There can be little doubt who's going to win over the jury.
Despite its thickness and its soapboxing, I did not find Native Son at all boring, and it was powerful because when Wright describes Bigger's alternating feelings of shame, alienation, reflexive hostility, crushed capacity to dream, and inability to express any of this even to the most helpful of white men, it all rang plausibly to me. Bigger Thomas' murder of Mary Dalton is a horrible tragedy. She was innocent, he is guilty, and yet even the situation that led to her death is a multilayered disaster of racial fear and guilt and misunderstanding.
I had not previously read any of the works of Richard Wright, one of the most prominent African-American writers of the 20th century. His biography is interesting to say the least, as he mingled with a Who's Who of the early 20th century cultural scene - W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Langston Hughes, John Houseman, Orson Welles, Frederic Werthham, etc. He was a member of the Communist Party, but became disenchanted and broke with them not long after Native Son was published.
I don't know if this is the definitive book about the Black Experience. Apparently many of Wright's critics think he did a rough cut of ground covered better by Ralph Ellison and others, and the communist influences are, while not completely intrusive, noticeable. Native Son reminded me most strongly of the social novels of Upton Sinclair, who likewise could tell a good story even while being completely unsubtle about his cause. But whereas Sinclair was a muckraker and a rabble-rouser, Wright, I think, saw himself as trying to sound an alarm bell. An alarm bell that still may not have been heard.
Verdict: Native Son is, as a novel, interesting if a bit heavy-handed, but worth reading in its own right for a compelling description of an unsympathetic character and how he got to be that way. There is also a moderate amount of tension in Bigger's crime, his scheming and his flight afterwards, and then his trial. But mostly it's a race-relations novel with a powerful message still relevant in "post-racial" America. It certainly deserves to be on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.
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