Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail

Richard Wright was thirty-one when Native Son was pub¬lished, in 1940. He was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in Mississippi and grew up in extreme poverty: his father abandoned the family when Wright was five, and his mother was incapacitated by a stroke before he was ten. In 1927 he fled to Chicago and eventually found a job in the Post Office there, which enabled him (as he later said) to go to bed with a full stomach every night for the first time in his life. He became active in literary circles, and in 1933 he was elected executive secretary of the Chicago branch of the John Reed Club, a writers’ organization associated with the Communist Party. In 1935 he finished a short novel called Cesspool, about a day in the life of a black postal worker. No one would publish it. He had better luck with a collection of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, which appeared in 1938. The reviews were admiring, but they did not please Wright. “I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” he complained, and he vowed that his next book would be too hard for tears.
Native Son was that book, and it is not a novel for sentimentalists. It involves the asphyxiation, decapitation, and cremation of a white woman by a poor young black man from the South Side of Chicago. The man, Bigger Thomas, feels so invigorated by what he has done that he tries to extort money from the woman’s wealthy parents. When that scheme fails, he murders his black girlfriend, and even after he has finally been captured and sentenced to death he refuses to repent. Nobody in America had ever before told a story like this and had it published. In three weeks the book sold 215,000 copies.
It will give an idea of the world into which Native Son made its uncouth appearance to recall that at almost the same moment that Wright’s novel was entering the best-seller lists—the spring of 1940—Hattie McDaniel was being given an Academy Award for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel was the first black person ever voted an Oscar, and she gave Hollywood (as Oscar winners ideally do) an occasion for self-congratulation. “Only in America, the Land of the Free, could such a thing have happened,” the columnist Louella Parsons explained. “The Academy is apparently growing up and so is Hollywood. We are beginning to re¬alize that art has no boundaries and that creed, race, or color must not interfere where credit is due.” She did not go on to note that when McDaniel and her escort arrived at the Coconut Grove for the awards ceremony, they found that they had been seated at a special table at the rear of the room, near the kitchen.
“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,” Irving Howe once wrote, and this remark has been quoted many times. What Howe meant was that after Native Son it was no longer possible to pretend, as Louella Parsons had pretended, that the history of racial oppression was a legacy from which Americans could emerge without suffering an enduring penalty. White Americans had attempted to dehumanize black Americans, and everyone carried the scars; it would take more than calling America “the Land of the Free” and really meaning it to make the country whole. If this is what, almost sixty years ago, Wright intended to say in Native Son, he isn’t wrong yet. Native Son also stands at the beginning of a period in which novels (and, more recently, movies) by black Ameri¬cans have treated the subject of race with a lack of gentility almost unimaginable before 1940. In this respect, too, Wright’s novel casts a long shadow. But if we consider Native Son primarily in the company of works by other black artists, we’ll miss what Wright was up to, and why he is such a remarkable figure.
Wright’s intentions have been difficult to grasp, because many of his books were mangled or chopped up by various editors, and their publication was strewn over five decades. Lawd Today! (the retitled Cesspool) was not published until 1963, three years after Wright’s death, and then it appeared in a bowdlerized edition. One of the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children was rejected by its publisher and did not appear in the first edition of the book; it was added to a second edition after Native Son became a best-seller. Native Son itself was partly expurgated, and a significant episode was dropped, at the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Half of Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy (published in 1945), was cut, also in order to please the Book-of-the-Month Club, and remained unpublished in book form until 1977, when it appeared under Wright’s original title for the entire work, American Hunger. And the long novel The Outsider was heavily edited, and some pages were dropped without Wright’s approval, when it was first published in 1953.
These five books were only restored to their original condition in 1991, by Arnold Rampersad, in the edition of Wright’s work published by the Library of America. (Wright produced more work after The Outsider than the Library of America edition included: in the last seven years of his life he wrote two novels, a collection of stories, a play, several works of nonfiction, and some four thousand haiku.) The result gave readers the core of Wright’s work not as it was first seen, but as it was first intended, and there turned out to be a difference.
Putting the expurgated material back in gives all three of the novels a grittier surface; and in the case of Native Son it also adds a dimension to the story. In the familiar version of the novel, a puzzling line appears during a scene, late in the book, in which the state’s attorney tries to intimidate Bigger by letting him understand that he has information about other crimes and misdeeds Bigger has committed, including, he says, “that dirty trick you and your friend Jack pulled off in the Regal Theatre.” The reference is opaque. Big-ger and his friend do go to the Regal Theatre, a movie house, early in the novel, but no dirty trick is described. In the original version, though, after Bigger and his friend enter the theater they masturbate (the state’s attorney’s comment is now revealed to include a pun) and are seen by a female patron and reported to the manager.

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