When first published in 1940, Native Son was an immediate success. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and in three weeks 215,000 copies were sold.
Richard Wright was a prolific writer, and his other works include Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), Lawd Today (written 1935, but not published until 1963), Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), and The Outsider (1953).
As literature, Native Son employs the tenets of naturalism and existentialism to portray Bigger Thomas, the stereotypical “nigger.” If, as the naturalist contends, human beings are the products of their environment, then the very title of the novel—Native Son—seems to indicate that Bigger responds to environmental forces. In true naturalistic fashion, Bigger does not understand these forces, and hence he cannot control them.
Wright is as true to existential tenets as he is to naturalism. The meaninglessness of Bigger’s existence is at one with the existential philosophy. When, at the end of the novel, Bigger says, “But what I killed for, I am!” he is accepting responsibility for his actions—yet another attribute of existentialism.
Native Son is naturalistic and existential not because Wright is intent on adhering to particular philosophical systems but because, as some commentators have observed, he found black life in America both naturalistic and existential.
Since Native Son was published in 1940, it has disturbed the complacency of Americans, both African Americans and whites. Bigger Thomas’s raw rage cannot be ignored; readers respond either negatively or positively to the novel. Wright kept the promise he made when he discovered that “even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about Uncle Tom’s Children. ” He vowed that his next book would be one that “no one would weep over.” In fact, “it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” In this, Wright succeeded.
In Native Son, Richard Wright aimed to present the complex and disturbing status of racial politics in America. The great quantity of criticism that the work has generated and its popularity over more than fifty years indicate that Wright succeeded. The work has undergone several periods of critical assessment. Early reviewers, especially African American critics, recognized the book’s significance. In the decade that followed its publication, the novel’s stature was diminished by harsh criticism from James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Later critics, examining the ability of art to wage battle in the social war for greater equality, once again praised the novel. This phase coincided with the “black power” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the novel was faulted by feminist critics for its misogynist tone.
Early reviewers of the novel acknowledged its significance. Charles Poore, in the New York Times, declared that “few other recent novels have been preceded by more advance critical acclamation.” Native Son was seen as a novel of social protest, typical of works from the 1930s, when writers who lived through the Great Depression created works critical of the American dream. Thus, Wright was easily subsumed in the category of “protest novelist” along with John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, and others.
After World War II, writers like James Baldwin, in the Partisan Review, and Ralph Ellison, in the New Leader, soundly criticized Wright for being too harsh and impatient. They felt that his picture of the black man in America was too violent.
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