Sixty years after its publication, Richard Wright’s important book still stands…
James Baldwin derisively called it “everybody’s protest novel.”
Ralph Ellison, a close friend of Richard Wright’s (Ellison was the best man at his wedding), was more compassionate. Focusing on the literary movement to which Native Son is linked rather than the novel itself, Ellison criticized its “narrow naturalism,” arguing that it led only to “final and unrelieved despair.” Yet Native Son persists, a classic, and its hero, the murderous Bigger Thomas, has joined the pantheon of 20th-century literary icons.
Here’s the thing—Baldwin and Ellison weren’t wrong. Native Son survives today more as a historical document than a literary text.
In pre-civil-rights-era America, Bigger Thomas’ story was often read as exemplary of the plight of poor, inner-city black manhood, as emblematic of the latent violence behind the mask of the country’s repressed black population.
With the passing of time, however, contemporary black readers don’t recognize ourselves in the cardboard cutout that is Bigger. While the conditions of Bigger’s poverty might ring true—the rat-infested tenements; the everyday contempt; the commonplace currency of violence—the one-dimensional portrayal of his self-hatred ignores signi?cant modern aspects of the black experience.
Unlike his predecessor, the bad man, Stagolee—an icon of the African-American oral tradition—there was no swagger in Bigger’s badness. There was no dissimulation in his “yessums,” his bowing and scraping. He was an animal, a lab rat cowering from painful stimuli, or else an alpha-dog ferociously bullying when given an opportunity to dominate. His late conversion—in Book III, when a white, communist lawyer takes up his cause and convinces Bigger he is, yes indeed, human—reads like ideological “pamphleteering” (Baldwin’s word) more than character-driven narrative.
Still, what Bigger lacks in dimensionality he makes up for in cultural signi?cance. Bigger Thomas makes the Invisible Man possible. Song of Solomon’s Guitar Bains and The Color Purple’s Mr. Albert are descendants of Bigger Thomas and without them there would be no Milkman Dead or Celie and Shug. Bigger Thomas leads directly to Boyz n the Hood. More than the relatively obscure Stagolee, Bigger Thomas was the original Public Enemy, the original Nigga With Attitude.
So now, the question—do you rush to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy of the novel?
It depends. If you’re interested in how American literature moved from Nigger Jim to the ubiquitous black badmen of books and ?lm today, absolutely, yes. If, on the other hand, you want a complex portrait about being poor and black in America, you might skip ahead to the books that Native Son begot. There are many, and there are many better.