Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present.
Since 1970, Wright criticism has prompted over half a dozen collections, three of them on Native Son alone. At least four more are well under way. Amidst this flourishing writing and rewriting on Wright, Gates's and Appiah's volume may be the longest. Unlike others, this one has reprinted a number of reviews, at least one for each of the fourteen books except Savage Holiday (including four for Native Son). These reviews, representing mainstream as well as progressive opinions, include those by Wright's distinguished contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston, James Farrell, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, and Joyce Cary, and those by well-known critics such as Malcolm Cowley, Lionel Trilling, Nick Aaron Ford, Saunders Redding, Irving Howe, and Granville Hicks.
The collection is headed by a succinct, thought-provoking preface by Gates, who says that Wright's major phase as a naturalist is reminiscent of the work of Crane, Dreiser, and Lewis. Few critics question such an association, for Wright acknowledges in Black Boy that he was deeply influenced by "the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel," by such novels as Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie. It may, however, be time to re-examine the tradition of American naturalism in relation to Wright. For one thing, he was not himself overly concerned with the usefulness of such a term as naturalism, as his phrase quoted above implies. Moreover, the advent of deconstructionist, new historicist, feminist, and cultural criticisms will surely rewrite American literary history with respect to naturalism and Wright. In any event, Gates is eminently right in maintaining that African-American modernism, represented by Ellison and Baldwin, emerged in reaction to Wright's version of naturalism. The tension between Wright's naturalism and Ellison's and Baldwin's modernism, Gates suggests, has been resolved by the rise of contemporary African-American women writers, and by Toni Morrison in particular.
The preface provides a brief but helpful comment oil each of the essays selected. The contributions range from thematic studies on a book or two, such as Edward Margolies's seminal essay on the short stories, to recent work on Wright's narrative technique, such as Valerie Smith's "Alienation and Creativity in the Fiction of Richard Wright," an enlightening essay about self-creation through language. The volume also includes studies of the seldom-analyzed 12 Million Black Voices and The Color Curtain by two veteran African-Americanists. Houston Baker's "On Knowing Our Place," based on an historical study of 12 Million Black Voices, shows a distinction between African-American male and female places. Baker sees Wright's African-American men as collaborators of Northern machine culture and his African-American women as domestics. Wright's historiography of black people, Baker explains, derives from "scientific socialism"; consequently, the woman, as domestic, is not "a productive force of Western modernism" (213). Wright, like Ellison, Baker persuasively argues, misreads machines as a sign of modernism. John Reilly's "Richard Wright and the Art of Non-Fiction: Stepping Out on the Stage of the World" incisively shows that in The Color Curtain Wright uses his own experience as an oppressed minority in advising the Third World elite on political modernism. The dynamics of will, represented in his autobiography, becomes a model for the political will of the Third World. Wright's philosophy in The Color Curtain, then, can be called political existentialism. All of the twenty-two essays are reprinted from journals and books except Mae Henderson's "Drama and Denial in The Outsider," which unfortunately seems a rough draft of the essay marred by some incoherent or superfluous statements, as well as by some inaccurate documentation, and grammatical and typographical errors.
Unlike other essay collections, this one has a useful bibliography, a fairly comprehensive listing of books and articles published in America as well as a few journal articles in English published abroad. The bibliography, however, has several noteworthy omissions: Hugh Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); Ellison, "Richard Wright's Blues" (1953); Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone" (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961); Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1968); Katherine Fishburn, Richard Wright's Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim (1977); Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness (1984); Michel Fabre, The World of Richard Wright (1985) and From Harlem to Paris (1991); Bernard Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987). And some minor blemishes have crept into the bibliography undetected: "Native Son and American Tragedy" (456), "Joyce, Joyce Anne" (457), "Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1990" (458).
Expectedly, as many as five essays focus on the composition and reading of Native Son from various perspectives. In "How Native Son Was Born" Keneth Kinnamon reads the characterization of Bigger at the end of the novel as a man "left in existential solitude as the simple, monosyllabic concluding sentences sound the knell of that fate which inexorably follows his fear and flight" (118). Kinnamon shows with precision how Wright revised that ending. It is also to Kinnamon's credit that Edward Aswell's hand in Wright's revision on sexual and political material is judiciously analyzed and evaluated. Not only did the editor's taste in literary style affect the Harper edition, but the negative impact Native Son would possibly have had on the American literary public in 1940 was on the minds of author and editor. It was in 1963 that the late Irving Howe made the prophetic statement: "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever." "The change," as Kinnamon says, "was not basic or profound, but it was real" (127). Today, not only are we grateful to Aswell for being instrumental in bringing out such a book, as Kinnamon suggests, but America, history will record, is forever indebted to Wright for writing it.
Partly in reaction to the critical tendency to extol Native Son, Laura E. Tanner's "Uncovering the Magical Disguise of Language: The Narrative Presence in Richard Wright's Native Son" is an inquiry into what she calls the narrator's "miserable" failure in representing Bigger's voice (137). She attempts to account for "this textural rupture" between the narrative voice and Bigger's voice, between Wright's "sophisticated," "symbolic" language and Bigger's "unsophisticated, "awkward" "broken English" (134-37). Attributing Wright's inability to fill in the gap to the stylistic weakness of the novel, she concludes that "Bigger at last becomes author and narrator of his own text, driving from the novel the voices that would overwhelm his own," and that "Native Son is a novel about the insufficiency of novels, a story about the insufficiency of words" (145). While Tanner's reading is a conscientious effort to apply Derridian theory of discourse to Wright's discourse in Native Son, it explains neither the source nor the effect of the power of the narrative. Despite an effort to discard the old cloak of the new criticism, her reading smacks of the hegemonic literary judgment that has often characterized that mode of criticism. The problem with her analysis stems from her rigid judgment of Bigger's language. "Bigger's voice," she persists, "is marked by a form of halting expression that frequently deteriorates into stuttering repetition." His language, she repeatedly argues, is characteristic of "his awkward relationship with the master language" (134). Granted, Bigger is not a literate person, but neither is Huck Finn. However awkward and clumsy Bigger's voice may sound to an educated person in the story, it does not to Bigger nor does it to the reader. Billy Budd stutters, Bartleby prefers not to talk, and Clyde Griffiths and Joe Christmas are at times utterly incoherent speakers.
In "The Figurative Web of Native Son," on the other hand, Joyce Ann Joyce tries to show the cohesiveness between Bigger's voice and the narrative voice, "the connection between Wright's characterization of Bigger and his unique use of sentence structure and figurative language." Whereas Tanner tries to divide the narrative structure into a binary opposition, a juxtaposition of two mutually exclusive strands of language, Joyce finds "a linguistically complex network of sentences and images that reflect the opposing or contradictory aspects of Bigger's psyche and thus synthesize the interrelationship between Wright's subject matter and his expression of it" (171). While Joyce recognizes that the power of the narrative is generated by the fierce battle Bigger wages against racist society, she cogently shows that the impact of the tragedy on the reader comes directly from Wright's complex narrative strategy. Instead of monolithically resonating the voice of Bigger as a victim of his racist environment, Wright, as Joyce argues, amply succeeds in portraying him in terms of dialectical images and ideas: sun and snow, black and white, hero and murderer, fear and blindness, humiliation and insensitivity.
Chiding Joyce for making "no distinction between "Bigger's thoughts' and the thoughts attributed to him by the narrator," Tanner say's that "Joyce fails to detect any tension generated by the placement of 'contrasting ideas inside similar grammatical structures'" (138). The issue, however, is not whether there is any tension between the protagonist's voice and the narrator's voice, since there is always some sort of narrative tension in great novels like Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, and An American Tragedy. The central question is how well the novelist uses that tension to his or her advantage to maximize the effect of the narrative. The tension between Bigger's spontaneous response and the narrator's thoughtful language do not necessarily collide because Wright creates other strands of narrative voice that mediate the two voices. But Tanner ignores the effects of such voices as the Daltons' language and Max's speech, let alone the effect of what is common between the two voices. For example, the Daltons' voice, larded with sociological jargon and racial condescension, sounds so far apart from both Bigger's and the narrator's as to create the effect of coalescing them. Tanner points out that the Daltons "utilize the master language" with ease (136); to Bigger, however, their words fall on deaf ears, and, to the reader, they sound far more awkward than Bigger's words and indeed ridiculous, thereby creating a superb parody. In Tanner's reading, just as the Daltons' language is equated with "the master language," so is Max's voice intermixed with the narrator's. Although there is some affinity between Max's language and the narrator's, and some readers might regard Max as Wright's mouthpiece, their voices at crucial points in the story are poles apart: Max's is strengthened by mind and fact, as Wright's resonates with heart and metaphor. Tanner, nevertheless, poses an inadvertent question: "If, like the speech of the Daltons and Max, the narrative constitutes 'another language' to Bigger, is it possible for that language to articulate Bigger's own thoughts successfully?" (136). In a zealous attempt to deconstruct the narrative structure of Native Son, her reading turns out to deconstruct her own criticism to her disadvantage.
The other two essays on Native Son approach its narrative style and structure from the vantage points of feminism and mass culture, respectively. In "The Re(a)d and the Black" Barbara Johnson advances her argument that Native Son is marred by Wright's inability to describe either the black woman's voice or her story. While previous criticism on the novel has been cursorily concerned with the overwhelming irony that Bigger is executed not because of his rape and brutal murder of a black woman, but because of his accidental killing of a white woman, Johnson's interpretation is based on a solid analysis of history and culture. Wright was surely handicapped, as Johnson notes, because of "overdetermination" and "underdetermination" in American writing: "It is because the 'rape' plot about white women or the 'idealization' plot about Indian women are so overdetermined that the plot about black women remains muffled beyond recognition" (154). In "On Knowing Our Place," mentioned earlier, Houston Baker observes that Bigger, who devalues black women, inevitably rapes and murders Bessie as if it were a sign of white-male domination in the slave trade and in the development of Western technology and industry. Ross Pudaloff's "Celebrity as Identity: Native Son and Mass Culture" also offers a significant examination of Bigger's characterization. Pudaloff shows in some detail that in various degrees Bigger, like such male characters as Jake, Saul, and Cross, is a product of mass culture, a person of "ordinary life," rather than a representation of a person with "the dictums of higher consciousness" (166). Bigger's life is thus portrayed "in a world of images and external gestures" (156) and the reader, as well as the other characters, see him to be just as stereotyped as others in real life.
Some of the eight essays which concentrate on Black Boy offer new and original interpretations. Robert Stepto's "Literacy and Ascent: Black Boy" compares Wright's autobiography to Frederick Douglass's slave narratives and shows that Wright's is not "an immersion narrative" (241) but a narrative dramatizing black people's quest for literacy and freedom. While Native Son is bereft of educational episodes, Black Boy reaches its apogee with the schoolroom and graduation episodes. As echoed in Douglass's narratives, Stepto explains, black people's ascent in literacy in Black Boy is achieved on their own terms, not under the guidance of white literacy. Another affinity of Black Boy with Douglass's work is that criticism of black life is aimed at family life. In "Sociology of an Existence: Wright and the Chicago School," Carla Cappetti, comparing Wright's autobiography to the findings by the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, concludes that social reality in the city is constructed by an opposition of "individual" and "primary groups, community, culture" (268-69). Cappetti thus reads Wright's autobiographical persona as "condemned to travel from bondage to bondage forever, never to reach freedom" (269). The point is understandable if it only reflects the ending of American Hunger, but it is mistaken if based on the last words of Black Boy. There Wright intimates that he has discovered an indelible connection to the legacy of American realism spearheaded by Dreiser and Mencken. Abdul R. JanMohamed's "Negating the Negation: The Construction of Richard Wright" defines Black Boy as Wright's dialectics, in which "not only does racist society negate Wright, but he too must negate himself, at least in public" (297). Hence, black people in racist society, like slaves, can become the object of white culture but not its subject. JanMohamed demonstrates Wright's transcendence of racism through forms of "dissembling" (297), for example, through reading literature and producing his own.
Both Janice Thaddeus and Herbert Leibowitz closely examine Black Boy in comparison with American Hunger. In "The Metamorphosis of Black Boy" Thaddeus, tracing the publication history of Black Boy, points out that the autobiography, as published, contains "hesitancy in the final pages, the conditional verbs, the haltered rhetoric, the mention of luck" rather than "a note of triumph" and "moment of truth" (281-82). Despite the fact that the final six pages of Black Boy were transferred from American Hunger to generate Wright's feelings of hope and optimism, Thaddeus argues that, when read together, both books underscore isolation and bewilderment, "a sadness and disarray" (282) in his world. Thaddeus, however, overemphasizes his lack of conviction and sense of isolation, for Black Boy does end on a hopeful note, and even the ending of American Hunger retains a ray of hope, however faint it may be.
Although this collection is primarily devoted to the readings of Native Son and Black Boy, it includes interesting discussions of Lawd Today, The Outsider, and The Long Dream. William Burrison's "Lawd Today: Wright's Tricky Apprenticeship" explains Wright's skillful use of the African-American trickster figure. Burrison takes issue with Nick Aaron Ford, who criticized Wright's creation of shallow, stereotyped African-Americans such as Jake, Bob, Al, Slim, Lil, Duke Doc, and the like. Defending Wright, Burrison regards Big Boy, Fred Daniels, and Bigger Thomas as similarly "unflattering stereotypes" (108) despite the fact that both Fred and Bigger will go down in literary history as modernist heroes of American tragedy. In "Christian Existentialism in The Outsider" Claudia C. Tate shows an affinity between Kierkegaard's philosophy expressed in The Concept of Dread, and Cross Damon's. Tate maintains that Wright's heroes - Silas, Bigger, Fred, and Cross - all follow the pattern of spiritual redemption achieved by Kierkegaard's dialectical psychology. Cross's "inverted wisdom" (383) recalls Kierkegaard's Sickness unto Death, in which spiritual wretchedness is converted to spiritual redemption. To Tate, Cross is not only a paradoxical character, but also an embodiment of this opposite image: His family name reflects his damnation, while his given name signifies that "he is the redeemer for a race of unbelievers, alienated from traditional beliefs and practices" (383).
Finally, Earle V. Bryant, in "Sexual Initiation and Survival in The Long Dream," argues that Fishbelly Tucker's sexual initiation through the white woman is "an absolute prerequisite for his survival in the white world" (424) and that his quest is unfulfilled. Bryant's first observation proves true, but his second depends on a point of view. The problem with the second judgment lies in his reading of Fishbelly's flight to Paris as a sign of his ultimate failure in sexual initiation. Fishbelly at the end of the novel, Bryant says, "is a man riddled with self-loathing, consumed by disgust for his own race, and paralyzed with dread of a racist white society" (430-31). Surely this is not Wright's portrayal of Fishbelly on the plane, nor is it Zeke's and Fishbelly's imagined portrayal of Fishbelly in France. "As Fish sees it," Bryant further remarks, "white women are decidedly different from - indeed, even better than - black ones" (428). The difference between white and black women is obvious, but it remains only a sign or, to borrow a linguistic term, surface structure. What is signified, or the deep structure, in Fishbelly's mind is the notion that white women and black women should be equal, provided that their counterparts, white and black men, are treated equally. Fishbelly leaves America behind him, brooding that a man's worth as a sexual being should be determined by any quality of his own other than the color of his skin. This rationale is buttressed by Zeke's experience with French girls, to whom Zeke is more attractive than a French rival, just as, to Eva Blount, Cross Damon is more attractive than her white husband. Bryant's interpretation that white women to Fishbelly are "indeed, even better than" black women may be true on the surface of the narrative, but it does not tell what Fishbelly is dreaming or Wright was thinking.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
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