Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail 3

It is not a position that Wright would have accepted. His heroes were the major modern writers (nearly all of them white), and he wanted to serve art in the same spirit they had. He was frank about the models he relied on in making Native Son: “Association with white writers was the life preserver of my hope to depict Negro life in fiction,” he wrote in the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” “for my race possessed no fictional works dealing with such problems, had no background in such sharp and critical testing of experience, no novels that went with a deep and fearless will down to the dark roots of life.” He made it clear that his greatest satisfaction in writing Native Son came not from entering a protest against racism and in¬justice but from proving to himself (he didn’t care, he said, what others thought) that he was indeed a maker of literature in the tradition of Poe, Hawthorne, and Henry James. In “the oppression of the Negro,” he said, he had found a subject worthy of those writers’ genius: “If Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”
What Wright took to be his good fortune was also his dilemma. Poe was, in a sense, the luckier writer. The moral outlines of Wright’s principal subject matter were so vivid when he wrote his books that efforts to complicate them would have seemed irresponsible and efforts to heighten them melodramatic. Some of the stories about black victims of Southern racism in Uncle Toni’s Children have memorable touches of atmosphere and drama, and some are morality plays, but in all of them the action is determined entirely by the unmitigated viciousness of the white characters. When the subject is violent confrontation in a racially divided community—as it is in those stories and in Native Son—a “literary” imagination can seem superfluous. In the last section of Native Son, for example, Wright has Bigger read a long article about his case in a Chicago newspaper, in which he finds himself described in these terms:
Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black.
His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.
His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees.
. . . His shoulders are huge and muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.
All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people.
The passage may strike readers today as a case of moral overloading—a caricature of attitudes whose virulence we already acknowl¬edge. In fact, as one student of Wright’s work, Keneth Kinnamon, has pointed out, Wright was using the exact language of articles in the Chicago Tribune about Robert Nixon, a black man who was exe¬cuted in 1939 for the murder of a white woman.
For the Wright who wanted to expose an evil that other writers had ignored, the starkness of his material made his job simpler; for the Wright who wanted to write novels, the same starkness made it harder. In A Passage to India, E. M. Forster took a situation very like the one Wright used in Native Sow—impermissible sexual contact between a white woman and a man of color—and built around it a textured, essentially tragic novel about the limits of human good¬ness. Forster’s sensibility was very different from Wright’s, but he could work his material in the way he did in part because his “racists” were people who imagined themselves to be enlightened, and this allowed him to tell his story in a highly developed ironic voice. The kind of racism that figures in most of Native Son, though, is not tragic, and it is not an occasion for irony. It is simply criminal.
Wright seems to have recognized this difficulty partway through Native Son and to have responded by giving his work a sociological turn. In Lawd Today! (about a black man who is not only a victim of bigotry but a bigot himself), in Uncle Tom’s Children, and in the first two parts of Native Son, he had tried to describe the conditions of life in a racist society; in the last part of Native Son he undertook to explain them. He therefore introduced into his novel a character who has never, I think, won a single admirer; Mr. Max, the Communist lawyer who volunteers to represent Bigger at his trial. Max’s bombastic and seemingly interminable speech before the court (twenty-three pages in the Library of America edition), in which he proposes a theory of modern life meant to explain Bigger’s conduct, is almost universally regarded as a mistake. The speech is surely a mistake, but the error is not merely a formal one—putting a long sociological or philosophical disquisition into the mouth of a character. Ivan Karamazov goes on at considerable length about the Grand Inquisitor, and few people object. The problem with Max’s oration isn’t that it’s sociology; it’s that it’s boring. And it’s boring because Wright didn’t really believe it himself.

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