Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail 6

This feels much closer to the reality of human interaction than the simplified Nietzscheanism of The Outsider. But, having rejected first the religious culture in which he was brought up, then the American political culture that permitted his oppression, then communism, and, finally (as Cross’s death symbolizes), the existential Marxism he encountered in postwar France, Wright seems, by 1953, to have found himself in a place beyond solutions. He was not driven there by an idiosyncratic logic, though; he was just following the path he had first chosen. Wright’s experience, that of a Southern black man who became one of the best-known writers of his time, was unusual; his intellectual journey was not. The attraction of communism in the 1930s, the bitter split with the Party in the 1940s, the malaise resulting from “the failure of ideology” and from the emergence, after the war, of an American triumphalism—it’s a familiar narrative. Wright’s role as a writer was to take one of the literary forms most closely associated with that narrative, the naturalist novel, and to add race to its list of subject matter. What Upton Sinclair did for industrialism in The Jungle, what John Dos Passos did for materialism in U.S.A., what Sinclair Lewis did for conformism in Main Street and Babbitt, Wright did for racism in Native Son: he made it part of the naturalist novel’s critique of life in the capitalist era. And his strengths and weaknesses as a writer are, by and large, the strengths and weaknesses of the tradition in which he worked. He changed the way Americans thought about race, but he did not invent, because he did not need to invent, a new form to do it.
This helps to explain the Nietzschean element in Native Son and the nihilism of The Outsider: they are the characteristic symptoms of the exhaustion of the naturalist style. The young Norman Mailer, for example, used Dos Passos and James T. Farrell as his literary models in writing The Naked and the Dead, but added a dash of Nietzsche to the mixture, and then produced, in the early 1950s— like Wright, and with comparable results—a cloudy parable of ideo¬logical dead-endism, Barbary Shore.
Wright’s most famous proteges, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, both eventually dissociated their work (Ellison more delicately than Baldwin) from his. They felt that Wright’s books lacked a feeling for the richness of the culture of African-Americans—that those books were written as though black Americans were a people with¬out resources. Someone reading Native Son, Baldwin complained, would think that “in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse” by which black Americans could sustain themselves in a hostile world. But that is what Wright did think. He believed that racism had succeeded in stripping black Americans of a genuine culture. There were, in his view, only two ways in which black Americans could respond actively to their condition: one was to adopt a theology of acceptance sustained by religious faith—a solution Wright had resisted violently as a boy—and the other was to become Biggers (or Crosses), and live outside the law until they were trapped and crushed. Otherwise, there was only the “cesspool” of daily life described in Lawd Today!—a perpetual cycle of demeaning drudgery and cheap thrills. It’s not hard to understand why writers like Ellison and Baldwin resisted this vision of black experience, but it is a vision true to Wright’s own particular history of deprivation. Ellison, by contrast, grew up in Oklahoma, a state that has no history of black slavery (though it certainly has a history of segregation), and he attended Tuskegee Institute, where he was introduced to, among other works, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem whose influence on his novel Invisible Man is palpable—as is the influence of jazz and of the Southern black vernacular. Ellison had a different culture, in other words, because he had a different experience.
For culture is not something that just comes with one’s race or gender. Culture comes only through experience; there isn’t any other way to acquire it. And in the end everyone’s culture is different, because everyone’s experience is different. Some people are at home with the culture they encounter, as Ellison seems to have been. Some people borrow or adopt their culture, as Eliot did when he transformed himself into a British Anglo-Catholic. A few, extraordinary people have to steal it. Wright was living in Memphis when his serious immersion in literature began, but he could not get books from the public library. So he persuaded a sympathetic white man to lend him his library card, and he forged a note for him¬self to present to the librarian: “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?” He had discovered, on his own, a literary tradition in which no one had invited him to participate—from which, in fact, the world had conspired to exclude him. He saw in that tradition a way to express his own experience, his own sense of things, and through heroic persistence he made that experience part of the culture of other people.

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