NATIVE SON BY RICHARD WRIGHT… BIOGRAPHY/CONTEXT 1
Wright, Richard (4 Sept. 1908-28 Nov. 1960), author, was born Richard Nathaniel Wright on Rucker’s Plantation, between Roxie and Natchez, Mississippi, the son of Nathaniel Wright, an illiterate sharecropper, and Ella Wilson, a schoolteacher. When Wright was five, his father left the family and his mother was forced to take domestic jobs away from the house. Wright and his brother spent a period at an orphanage. Around 1920 Ella Wright became a paralytic, and the family moved from Natchez to Jackson, then to Elaine, Arkansas, and back to Jackson to live with Wright’s maternal grandparents, who were restrictive Seventh-day Adventists. Wright moved from school to school, graduating from the ninth grade at the Smith Robertson Junior High School in Jackson as the class valedictorian in June 1925. Wright had published his first short story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” in three parts in the Southern Register in 1924, but no copies survive. His staunchly religious and illiterate grandmother, Margaret Bolden Wilson, kept books out of the house and thought fiction was the work of the devil. Wright kept any aspirations he had to be a writer to himself after his first experience with publication.
After grade school Wright attended Lanier High School but dropped out after a few weeks to work; he took a series of odd jobs to save enough money to leave for Memphis, which he did at age seventeen. While in Memphis he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy and for an optical company. He began to read contemporary American literature as well as commentary by H. L. Mencken, which struck him with particular force. As Wright reveals in his autobiography Black Boy, he borrowed the library card of an Irish co-worker and forged notes to the librarian so he could read: “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?” Determined to leave the South before he would irretrievably overstep the bounds of Jim Crow restrictions on blacks, Wright took the train to Chicago in December 1927.
In Chicago Wright worked at the post office, at Michael Reese Hospital taking care of lab animals, and as an insurance agent, among other jobs. There, in 1932, he became involved in the John Reed Club, an intellectual arm of the Communist party, which he joined the next March. By 1935 he found work with the Federal Negro Theater in Chicago under the Federal Writers’ Project. He wrote some short stories and a novel during this time, but they were not published until after his death. In 1937 Wright moved to New York City, where he helped start New Challenge magazine and was the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker as well as coeditor of Left Front. Wright’s literary career was launched when his short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), won first prize for the Story magazine contest open to Federal Writer’s Project authors for best book-length manuscript. Harper’s published this collection with “Fire and Cloud,” “Long Black Song,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “Big Boy Leaves Home”; in 1940 the story “Bright and Morning Star” was added, and the book was reissued. Native Son followed in 1940, the first bestselling novel by a black American writer and the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American writer. It sold 215,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication. Native Son made Wright the most respected and wealthiest black writer in America; he was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People‘s prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1941. After Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright declared in “How Bigger Was Born” that he needed to write a book that bankers’ daughters would not be able to “read and feel good about,” that would “be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears”; Native Son is uncompromising.
In Native Son, Wright presents his guilt-of-the-nation thesis. His main character, Bigger Thomas, is a nineteen-year-old edgy small-time criminal from Chicago’s South Side ghetto. The novel races with no stops in between the three parts: Book I, Fear; Book II, Flight; and Book III, Fate. When Bigger is offered a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, he imagines himself in various fanciful scenarios, including sexual ones with the daughter. Lines that referred to Bigger’s sexual interest in Mary Dalton were taken out in 1940 and only restored fifty-three years later in the 1993 Library of America edition, edited by Arnold Rampersad and copyrighted by Wright’s second wife, Ellen Wright. Bigger’s first driving job requires him to take Mary to pick up her communist lover, Jan Erlone, then eat with the couple in a black diner on the South Side. They drink themselves into oblivion on the ride home and invite Bigger to join them. Jan leaves, and Bigger must take Mary home and put her in bed. Terrified to be in Mary’s bedroom and afraid to be caught as he is kissing her, he puts a pillow over her face when her blind mother walks in. Realizing he has accidentally murdered her, he drags her in a trunk to the basement and burns her in the furnace. Bigger rationalizes, correctly for a while, that the whites will never suspect him because they will think he is not smart enough to plan such a crime.
As it begins to snow, Bigger leaves the Dalton house and returns to his mother’s tenement feeling like a new man. Bigger now sees that everyone he knows is blind; he himself is filled with elation for having killed a white girl, the ultimate taboo, and gotten away with it. To seal his guilt, Wright has Bigger murder his girlfriend Bessie in a brutal and premeditated way, in Book II. As the snowfall becomes a blizzard, Bigger is surrounded by the white world, whose search closes in and captures him. At the trial in Book III Bigger is never convicted for Bessie’s murder, but only for the assumed rape of Mary, deemed to be a more serious crime than even Mary’s murder. Boris A. Max, a Communist party lawyer, undertakes Bigger’s defense because Bigger has implicated Jan and the party in a kidnap note to the Daltons.
While Wright made blacks proud of his success, he also made them uncomfortable with the protagonist, Bigger, who is a stereotype of the “brute Negro” they had been trying to overcome with novels of uplift by the “talented tenth” since the Gilded Age. Wright’s argument is that racist America created Bigger; therefore, America had better change or more Biggers would be out there. At the end, when Max fails to understand Bigger, who cannot be saved from the electric chair, Wright is faulting the Communist party for not comprehending the black people it relied on for support. (Personally disillusioned with the party, Wright left it in 1942 and wrote an essay published in Atlantic Monthly in 1944 called “I Tried to Be a Communist,” which was later reprinted in The God That Failed (1949), a collection of essays by disillusioned ex-Communists.) Native Son continues to be regarded as Wright’s greatest novel and most influential book. As a result, he has been called the father of black American literature, a figure with whom writers such as James Baldwin had to contend.
To divest himself of Wright’s influence, Baldwin wrote a series of three essays criticizing Wright’s use of naturalism and protest fiction. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” published in Partisan Review in 1949, Baldwin concludes, “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” On the other hand, Wright has been credited with presaging the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, particularly in his protest poetry, much of which was published in Chicago in the 1930s. As Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies . . . [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.”…PLEASE CONTINUE READING OR DOWNLOAD THE DOCUMENT BELOW…
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