A guest post by Frank Mundo. You can follow Frank on Twitter.
Bigger Thomas is guilty.
I’m not spoiling the story of Richard Wright’s Native Son by saying so. It’s a fact.
Even Bigger Thomas, a number of times throughout the text, will tell you that himself. He is guilty. Of course he is. He was born guilty. He’s black in America in the late 1930‘s. Besides, I can’t spoil a story you already know, a story you’ve already heard and/or read a million times before.
You know how it goes: Bigger Thomas, poor black kid with an eighth-grade education and a long juvenile criminal record, gets a job as a chauffeur for a white, liberal big-shot millionaire named Mr. Dalton. Mr. Dalton owns just about every piece of real estate in “The Black Belt” of Chicago’s Southside and beyond, including Bigger’s rat hole of a place, a one-room shack with no heat and real rats the size of small poodles, where Bigger and his family somehow just manage to scrape by on meager government assistance and Bigger’s illegal enterprises.
Mrs. Dalton, the wife, (you know her too), is a saint. Of course she is. Not only is she blind (and apparently wears all white all of the time) she’s even more liberal than her husband. Heavily associated with the NAACP and other similar organizations, Mrs. Dalton spends her time and her husband’s millions getting poor, inner city types like Bigger Thomas educated and working. She’s a great woman, ironically blind, in an enlightened family.
The Daltons also have a daughter named Mary — young, attractive and oh-so rebellious. You know her already. Of course, you do. Mary’s a spoiled brat with a penchant for finding trouble. Bigger’s job is to drive this beautiful wild child to school every day and then pick her up afterwards.
But, of course, Mary Dalton is not interested in school. Of course she’d much rather spend her time finding trouble with her boyfriend Jan who, of course, is not just any communist, but the Executive Secretary of the Labor Defenders, a communist frat organization in revolution against the clearly defined color lines and social class system of a 1930’s American capitalist democracy.
Mary will end up dead not long after being introduced to Bigger.
Of course she will. Mary Daltons always do, don‘t they? And, of course, Bigger is responsible for her death. He killed her–and he probably raped her, too. Of course he did. He’s black and she’s white. Of course he’s guilty. End of story.
So why should you even bother to read Native Son, another version of the same old ridiculous, and perhaps, racist story? How is it that Native Son made number 20 of the Best Novels of the 20th Century as compiled by the Modern Library of America?
Well, that’s easy. It’s a fantastic book. Of course it is. It’s a brilliant book with more incredible layers than I could ever possibly discuss here; an absolute must-read (and re-read again and again) for those interested in the novel as a form.
And since you already know the disturbing story of Bigger Thomas, I’ll discuss instead the writing itself, its background, and its genre (which is so crisscrossed and complicated it’s difficult to imagine that Native Son was an enormous bestseller in 1940 — until you begin to read it and quickly discover that you can’t put it down.)
Richard Wright was a card-carrying member of the communist party, a very controversial yet powerful party in the U.S. at this time, a time of incredible insecurity for western democracies – way worse and way scarier than today’s challenging economic and political climate.
Japan had become an imperial power in Korea and China. Communism had expanded throughout Russia, a communism thoroughly destabilized and mutated in a Jim-Crowed U.S. with race and class issues. The 1920’s and 30’s also saw a rise fascism in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. And back at home, lots of “Great” things were happening, too: the Great Depression in 1929 created a 25% unemployment rate by 1933.
The Great Migration from 1900 to 1930 saw the largest internal land migration in U.S. history, with mostly African-Americans moving from southern to northern states, radically changing the northern cities. In 1925 the KKK elected its first mayor and the American Nazi party quickly arose in power. Labor unions were striking all over the country, which led to even more disenchantment and worry as violent riots served as the only bargaining chips.
It was nothing like the current economic crisis and political climate. Things were bad on a Great scale. So bad that the government, instead of just bailing out banks, actually sponsored the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and programs like John Reed Clubs to bail out out-of-work writers and artists who, in return, (in theory at least) would combat with their art the growing depression and the consequences of what seemed an unstable and perhaps failing political system — a growing fear and paranoia which would set the political stage for the McCarthy era of reprehensible recklessness.
Richard Wright was not only a communist and, therefore, dangerous. He was also an artist and member of one of these government-sponsored clubs, and thoroughly unhappy with both his party and his country. Oh yeah, and he was also black. It was the perfect time and the perfect opportunity, a Great opportunity, one might say, for Wright to offer his critique of both the American and communist political systems in the form of Native Son, a sort of Marxist case study of Bigger Thomas, the unique nightmare product of America, made by Americans.
Oh, but don’t think that Wright wants your sympathy. He does not!
Bigger Thomas is not an anti-hero we’re supposed to empathize with or secretly cheer for. In fact, Wright wants you to hate Bigger–and hate him you will. Just when you start to feel a little mushy, Wright is going to disgust you with Bigger’s depravity. Try as you might, you will not empathize with this monster. Wright’s goal seems not to shine a pink light of hope on the horizon of this horrifying tragedy of evil and inhumanity.
Rather, he seems to offer up Bigger Thomas as an example of the potential Frankenstein’s monster of American making, a “native” American Prometheus, bound to thrive on evil, which is the only real agency or outlet available to him.
His thesis is as difficult to reconcile as his portrait of Bigger Thomas is to ignore. Wright seems well-aware of this difficulty. Wright wants you to hate Bigger Thomas, sure, but he also needs to keep you willing to read his book all the way to the end (where his message is revealed). The only true reconciliation to be found in the reader’s horror of this fictitious world is the potential action toward change the reader’s might take in the real world once they put the book down.
No, Richard Wright does not
want your sympathy. He wants you to read this book to the end, and he’s got a whole bag of literary tricks just for that purpose. After all, it’s 1940 and who has got money to burn on books?
Hell, the government is paying writers just to keep them busy and working.
Wright, of course, was seeking the widest possible audience for his work. Just to tap into the audience of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, published a year earlier with great success (number 10 on the said list of Modern Library’s 100), would have been enough.
Wright would embrace the popular elements of many different genres (Thriller/Suspense, Court-Room Drama, Urban Protest, Political), mixing a proletarian fiction style with naturalistic and religious symbolism (at times making Bigger Thomas a sort of Christ figure!) and existentialism, to layer and texture this fantastically complex and disturbing text with a simple and straightforward prose designed both as a diversion to challenge and entertain while delivering his explosive message (often repetitively in the third section).
Native Son would become a huge bestseller, announcing Wright as the premier writer of America and the American Communist Party, both of which he would soon abandon in disappointment, becoming another expatriate writer who, because of his communist ties, probably would have been arrested had he chosen to return to America in the McCarthy era.
Also, pay close attention to colors in Native Son. Wright does a remarkable job of utilizing colors, not just as descriptions or even as metaphors, but as actual characters or forces of nature that both enlighten and oppress.
But enough of my babbling…
Do yourself a favor. Just read the first few pages of Native Son by Richard Wright. Not only will you not be able to put it down, the question of why you should read the same old story you know so well will quickly be answered: You need to.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Perennial (HarperCollins Publishers)
(Original 1940 Text) 2001
398 pages —Frank Mundo is a writer and book reviewer from Los Angeles. You can read his reviews and author interviews at Examiner.com or follow him on Twitter @LABooksExaminer.