Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail 2

The Book-of-the-Month Club, Wright’s editor informed him, objected to the scene, which, the editor thought Wright would agree, was “a bit on the raw side.” Wright obliged the club’s sense of propriety by removing the “dirty trick.” But he hadn’t intended Bigger’s public masturbation to be simply a redundant example of his general sociopathy. In Wright’s original version, after Bigger and Jack masturbate they watch a newsreel featuring the woman Bigger will accidentally kill that night, Mary Dalton. She is shown on vacation on a beach in Florida, and Bigger and Jack decide (as the newsreel encourages them to) that she looks as if she might be “a hot kind of girl.” Wright cut this episode as well (he had Bigger watch a movie critical of political radicalism instead); and he also eliminated a few lines (apparently too steamy for the Book-of-the-Month Club) from Bigger’s later encounter with the flesh-and-blood Mary which made it clear that Bigger is sexually aroused by her.
Restoring this material restores more than a couple of scenes. Bigger’s sexuality has always been a puzzle. He hates Mary and is afraid of her, but she is attractive and is negligent about sexual deco¬rum, and the combination ought to provoke some sort of sexual re¬action; yet in the familiar edition it does not. Now we can see that, originally, it was meant to. The restoration of Bigger’s sexuality also helps to make sense of his later treatment of his girlfriend, Bessie. He repeats intentionally with Bessie what he has done, for the most part unpremeditatedly, to Mary: he takes her upstairs in an abandoned building, kills her by crushing her skull with a brick, and disposes of her body by throwing it down an airshaft. But before Bigger kills Bessie he rapes her, and if the scene is to carry its full power we have to have felt that when Bigger was with Mary in her bedroom, he had rape in his heart.

Wright was a writer of warring impulses. His rage at the injustice of the world he knew made him impatient with the usual logic of literary expression. He was a gifted inventor of morally explosive situa¬tions, but once the situations in his stories actually explode he can never seem to let the pieces fall where they will. His novels suffer from an essentially antinovelistic condition: they are hostage to a politics of outcomes. Wright tries to order events to fit his sense of justice—or, more accurately, his sense of the impossibility of justice—and when the moral is not unambiguous enough, he inserts a speech. At the same time, Wright loved literature intimately, as you might love a person who has rescued you from misery or danger. Literature, he said, was the first place in which he found his inner sense of the world reflected and ratified. Everything else, from the laws and mores of Southern apartheid to the religious fanaticism of his own family (he grew up mostly in the house of his maternal grandmother, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, who believed that storytelling was a sin), he experienced as pure hostility.
After he moved to Chicago, he discovered in Marxism a second corroboration of his convictions, and he joined the Communist Party. But he believed that Marxist politics were compatible with a commitment to literature—and the belief led, in 1942, to his break, and subsequent feud, with the party. He had an appreciation not only of those writers whose influence on his own work is most obvious—Dostoevsky and Dreiser and, later on, Camus and Sartre— but also of Gertrude Stein, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Turgenev, and Proust. From the beginning of his literary career, in the John Reed Club, until the end, in self-exile in France, he participated in writers’ organizations and congresses, where he spoke as a champion of artistic freedom; and he was a mentor for, among other young writers, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
It’s true that Wright’s convictions flatten out the “literary” qualities of his fiction, and lead him to sacrifice complexity for force. His novels tend to be prolix and didactic, and his style is often dogged. But force is a literary quality, too—and one that can make other limitations seem irrelevant. Wright’s descriptions, for example, are al-most all painted in primary colors straight out of the naturalist paintbox; but the flight of Bigger Thomas through the snow in Native Son—a black man seeking invisibility in a world of whiteness— is one of the most effective sequences in American fiction. The apparent indifference to artistry in Wright’s work has seemed to some people a thing to be admired, a guarantee of literary honesty. It’s the way a black man living in America should write, they feel. This interpretation is one of the ways Wright’s race has been made the key to understanding him; and it’s a position that, in various guises and more subtly argued, has turned up often in the long critical debate over Wright’s work—a debate that has engaged, over the years, Baldwin, Ellison, Howe, and Eldridge Cleaver.

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