Native Son (Wright)

Native Son
Richard Wright, 1940
504 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060837563

In Brief 
A New York Times "Book of the Century"

Impoverished, angry, and poorly educated, Bigger Thomas drifts around the seedy South Side of Chicago until he finds work chauffeuring a wealthy, liberal white family named the Daltons. On his first evening of work, Bigger drives the Daltons' college-age daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone around town while the two of them get drunk. Bigger carries the intoxicated Mary to her bedroom and becomes sexually aroused while putting her to bed; when Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, comes to the door, Bigger silences Mary by covering her face with a pillow and inadvertently smothers her to death. He burns her corpse in the furnace and desperately tries to destroy evidence of the crime and frame Erlone for it, but when a reporter discovers Mary's bones in the furnace, the police quickly close in on Bigger and take him to jail.

The final section of the book recounts Bigger's trial. His lawyer, a Jewish-American Communist named Boris Max, pleads that Bigger is not responsible for his violent actions because social forces drove him to crime, and he urges the judge to spare Bigger the death penalty. The state's prosecutor responds that Bigger is a cold-hearted, depraved criminal and must die as the law requires. The judge rules for the prosecution and sentences Bigger to death. In the final scene, Max attempts to console Bigger, but Bigger rebuffs him. "What I killed for, I am!" Bigger insists, and Max leaves him to his fate. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—September 4, 1908
Where—Near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
Death—November 28, 1960
Where—Paris, France
Education—Smith-Robertson Junior High, Jackson, Mississippi

The first 20th century African-American writer to command both critical acclaim and broad popular success, Richard Wright was born on a plantation outside of Roxie, Mississippi in 1908. In 1937 he moved to New York to make his way as a professional writer and in 1938 he published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four short novels about the violent persecution of black men in the South. Harper and Brothers published Native Son two years later to immediate acclaim and phenomenal sales. Black Boy was even more successful when it appeared in 1945, selling more than 500,000 copies in its first year.

Despite his success, Wright continued to feel stifled by racial prejudice. Convinced that he could find greater freedom abroad, Wright moved to Paris in 1947 with his wife, an American woman of Polish-Jewish descent, and their young daughter. He quickly made contact with leading French existentialists and began reading deeply in the works of Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger. In the fiction he composed in France, Wright tried to view racial issues from an existentialist perspective.

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in Paris in 1960, Wright was considered a marginal figure—an expatriate novelist whose works had lost favor with a younger generation of African-American intellectuals. But the emergence of the black power movement in the 1960s sparked a major reassessment of Wright as both an innovative prose stylist and militant social critic. Today Richard Wright is widely recognized as one of the great American writers of the 20th century. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
The story is a strong and powerful one and it alone will force the Negro issue to our attention. Certainly, Native Son declares Richard Wright's importance, not merely as the best Negro writer, but as an American author as distinctive as any of those now writing.
Peter Monro Jack - The New York Times Book Review (1940)

This new edition gives us a Native Son in which the key line in the key scene is restored to the great good fortune of American letters. The scene as we now have it is central both to an ongoing conversation among African-American writers and critics and to the consciousness among all American readers of what it means to live in a multi-racial society in which power splits along racial lines.
Jack Miles - Los Angeles Times

Richard Wright was born in 1908, thc first of two sons of a sharecropper. After publishing his first novel, Uncle Tom's Children, in 1938, Wright discovered to his alarm that "he had written a book which even bankers" daughters could read and feel good about. He swore that his next novel would be different. That book was Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas's short and tragic life, which plumbs the blackest depths of human experience.

Native Son is told in three parts—Fear, Flight, and Fate—which sum up, perfectly, Bigger Thomas's life. Badly in need of a job to help support his family, the ne'er-do-well Bigger goes to work as a driver for the Daltons, a rich white family. As he is pulled every which way by his mother, who wanted him to do the things she wanted him to do; by Mrs. Dalton, who wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do; by Mary Dalton, the young mistress of the house, who challenged him to stand up for things he didn't understand; and by his need for independence and autonomy in the midst of a dependent situation—he missteps, accidentally killing Mary.

Native Son is not an uplifting book with a happy Hollywood resolution. It has been criticized for its cardboard portrayal of black pathology and heavy-handed Marxist message. But the book is an absolutely gripping potboiler that is also intellectually provocative. It is on one level a seedy, simple story of an unsympathetic character meeting his fate at his own hands, and on another an illuminating drama of an individual consciousness that challenges traditional definitions of heroism, character, and integrity. Bigger was less a character caught in a specific criminal activity than he was a crime waiting to happen.
Sacred Fire 

Discussion Questions 
1. Wright writes of Bigger Thomas: "These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and momentsof anger—like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force." Does Wright intend us to relate to Bigger as a human being—or has he deliberately made him an unconscious embodiment of oppressive social and political forces? Is there anything admirable about Bigger? Does he change by the end of the book?

2. James Baldwin, an early protege of Wright's, later attacked the older writer for his self-righteousness and reliance on stereotypes, especially in the character of Bigger. In his famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," Baldwin compared Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and dismissed Native Son as "protest" fiction with a naked and simplistic political agenda. Do you agree?

3. When Bigger stands confronted with his family in jail, he thinks to himself that they ought to be glad that he was a murderer: "Had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?" Talk about Bigger as a victim and sacrificial figure. If Wright wanted us to pity Bigger, why did he portray him as so brutal?

4. Bigger repeatedly says to himself that the accidental killing holds "the hidden meaning of his life": "He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had anything that others could not take from him." Discuss the disturbing concept of killing as a "supreme and meaningful act." Is this Wright's own view of the killing--or are we meant to see it only as Bigger's internal conclusion?

5. When first confronted with the accusation that he raped Mary, Bigger thinks: "rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out." Discuss the group's reactions to this controversial passage. Does this redefinition of rape reveal an insensitivity on Wright's part to women and the oppressions that they experience in American society? 6. How dated does this book seem in its depiction of racial hatred and guilt? Have we as a society moved beyond the rage and hostility that Wright depicts between blacks and whites? Or are we still living in a culture that could produce a figure like Bigger Thomas?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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