Printer Friendly

Invented by Horror: The Gothic and African American Literary Ideology in Native Son.

Richard Wright's Native Son is still usually taken as one of the foremost examples of late American naturalism, and much is made of the impact of modem sociology, particularly what became known as the Chicago School of Sociology, on the conception and shape of the novel. [1] Yet numerous scholars, at least in passing, have remarked on the influence of the gothic tradition on Wright's novel, arguing to one degree or another whether his usage of the gothic undermines or supports the sociological "realism" of the work. [2] However, the crucial importance of gothic literature and what might be thought of as the gothic sensibility to the representation of political consciousness and political development (and the relation of the gothic to contemporary mass culture) in Native Son has not received much sustained scholarly attention. The primary question here is not whether Native Son is a gothic novel, but how the gothic functions within the novel and how it relates to the African American folk culture of the South as well as the mass culture associated with the urban North. In fact, Native Son is not a gothic novel, but an anti-gothic in which the gothic figures an American consciousness, particularly the consciousness of black Americans, which is the product of the particular social relations of American capitalism and hence something to be transcended. Wright's use of the gothic is also implicitly a critique of the African American writers who preceded him, and their handling of the actual and symbolic journeys from and to the African American folk and constructions of the folk inheritance. Wright's use of the gothic is not in conflict with his ideological stance as a black male Communist writer of the mid-twentieth century, but in fact follows from this stance.

As Teresa Goddu points out (133-40), it is not hard to see why black writers (and such white writers as Herman Melville and Theodore Weld) in the nineteenth century, particularly during the antebellum era, would find such works attractive literary models for the representation of slavery and American race relations. Generally speaking, classic European gothics, such as Walpole's Castle of Otranto or Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho--not to mention such later American gothic-influenced texts as Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and the short fiction of Poe--contain a past event involving an unrightful and violent usurpation which constrains the actions of succeeding generations. This familial original sin is often passed down through the bloodlines of both the sinners and the sinned against. There is a strange doubling in which the two families strangely come to resemble each other. One also sees in the classic gothic novel patriarchal tyranny, transgressive sexuality which generally accompanies relat ions of power, and an instability of markers of social identity, such as family, class, race, gender, and nationality.

Slavery also involved a moment of usurpation in which the birthright of the enslaved individual was stolen. As in the gothic, the results of this usurpation are transmitted through the bloodlines of the enslaved. One finds in the novels and fugitive slave narratives by such nineteenth-century black writers as William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, and Harriet Jacobs a patriarchal tyranny and a concomitant transgressive sexuality in which the slave master coerces or attempts to coerce female slaves into unwanted sexual relations. One also often sees a flight from tyranny on the part of the female slaves which resembles that of the typical gothic heroine from the typical gothic villain. There is a foregrounding of the instability of the normative markers of social identity such as those of nationality, family, class, citizenship, and so on, insofar as such markers exist, at the sufferance of the slave master. Finally, there is within many of these texts a strange doubling of the slave and the enslaver. Perhaps the most ubiquitous figure of nineteenth-century black literature is that of the "mulatto," a person of equal African and European ancestry. This "mulatto" is almost always the offspring of the female slave and the slave master and, though legally a slave, stands as a sort of the double of the slave owner's white offspring. In fact, this figure, often female, is typically paired explicitly with the slave owner's wife and/or the slave owner's white daughter.

The point here is not to claim that the gothic is the most important single influence on African American literature or to attempt to show every shared concern and trope, but simply to suggest that the gothic, along with other genres such as the spiritual autobiography, the captivity narrative, and the sentimental novel, was extremely important in the development of a rhetoric that allowed black authors who preceded Wright to reach an essentially white audience while figuring their particular social and aesthetic concerns. This use of a gothic rhetoric and a gothic sensibility obviously did not end with slavery. For example, much of the terminology of W. E. B. Du Bois could be said to be gothic, particularly his use of the term veil as that which hides the black world from the white world and vice versa--or perhaps more accurately that by which the white ruling class of America conceals the black subject as human, much like a concealed skeleton in a classic gothic novel. Similarly, Du Bois's notion of "doubl e-consciousness," which was largely drawn from the work of William James, proposes a version of Spencer Brydon's split consciousness in Henry James's gothic-influenced short story "The Jolly Corner" as a more or less permanent condition for African Americans. Some prominent uses of the gothic in African American fiction of the early twentieth century would include Jean Toomer's Cane (particularly in the concluding "Kabnis" section which opens with the' wind whispering ominously to Ralph Kabnis) and, to a lesser extent, Nella Larsen's Quicksand (especially in the section set in Chicago when Helga Crane confronts her "white" family).

As strange as it seems, the Marxism with which Wright became engaged in the 1930s also drew on the gothic tradition--though, as with Wright, this tradition was invoked in order to critique and transcend it. This Marxism was the "Marxist-Leninist" version propounded by the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and the Communist International, or as some might say, a Stalinist model. This is not to demonize Wright's ideology, but only to remind us that Wright's Marxism is quite different from that of his contemporary and friend C. L. R. James, a black Trotskyist, or from that of the various neo-Marxists of contemporary literary studies, and is based on the particular practices of certain political organizations of that time. The Communist International and the CPUSA made an argument, more or less unique among radicals of the 1930s and 1940s (and their immediate socialist and anarchist predecessors), that the struggle for Negro Liberation was at the heart of the possibility for the revolutionary transformation of the United States. [3]

A crucial text for the Communists of the 1930s was Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Eighteenth Brumaire was considered a key text because it was taken to most clearly and concretely apply to actual historical events the methods of "dialectical materialism," the Marxist "science" which was supposed to allow the scientist to analyze historical events and determine the general historical laws underlying those events. [4] In that book Marx wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service. (15)

Marx here of course is referring to the tendency of all politicians, and not just revolutionaries, to invoke the past to justify their present political positions. As Marx says, such claims to the past are usually more than a little ludicrous and never adequate to the needs of the present moment. Marx goes on to write later in the Eighteenth Brumaire that "the social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past" (18).

While one can debate the truth of Marx's words, particularly the second quote, which sounds like a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and a French surrealist manifesto, the problem of the revolutionary in the first quote is remarkably similar to that of a character in a gothic novel in which "the dead generations" also "weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living." And the solution proposed in the second quote, the stripping off of all superstition in regard to the past, can also be seen as a solution to the problems of the gothic character. Without such a solution, both gothic characters and social revolutionaries are doomed to replay the dramas of the past over and over without any fully satisfactory resolution. This solution is fundamentally one of consciousness in which the subject refuses to obsessively, and one might say gothicly, interpret the present through a narrative of the past--a narrative which distorts both past and present, and instead constructs a new and forward-looking narrative.

For the Marxist Wright, the gothic represents the old consciousness of capitalism, particularly of capitalism in the crisis of the Great Depression, which is retailed to the masses through mass culture. Like most gothic texts, Native Son is obsessively intertextual. One sees allusions to and revisions of the works of Dostoevsky, Stowe, Flaubert, Zola, Poe, James, Hawthorne, Dreiser, and, despite Wright's disclaimers about the value of earlier black writers, such writers of fugitive slave narratives as Douglass, to name a few. Though many of these works are not thought of as gothic per se, virtually all of them draw on the gothic, especially those of Poe, James, and Hawthorne. For instance, a number of critics have noted the obvious invocation and revision of Poe's "The Black Cat" in Bigger's supervision by the Daltons' white cat as he tries to dispose of the body of Mary Dalton. [5] Many of the invoked texts, particularly those of James, Hawthorne, Flaubert, and Poe, connect the gothic to the popular and, as in Native Son, regard the beginnings of mass culture with considerable ambivalence, if not hostility.

While Poe, with some justification, is most frequently cited as the primary model for the gothic moments of Native Son, Hawthorne is even more important in terms of the larger design of Native Son, since the gothic in The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter represents a certain social consciousness or mode of social relations which is ultimately transcended, allowing a reintegration of what had previously been intractably conflicting elements. Despite Wright's obvious differences with the essentially conservative politics of Hawthorne, that underlying Hawthorne's gothic conflicts was a sectional antagonism left over from chattel slavery based on race that threatened to tear the nation apart no doubt contributed to his attractiveness as a literary model for Wright.

Beyond such "high" literary ancestors for Native Son as the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and James, mass culture is also a crucial conduit for the gothic in Wright's novel. After all, most Americans were familiar with gothic conventions and sensibilities through mass culture at the time Wright wrote Native Son. Though British, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) established the model for the modern American popular gothic romance sold in drug stores and the emerging institution of the supermarket. Perhaps more importantly for Wright, the 1930s saw the blossoming of the American horror film, often based on such classic gothic works as Brain Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Poe's "The Black Cat" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue"--though the movies allegedly based on the Poe stories retained little of the originals beyond the titles.

In fact, while Native Son is most often connected to melodrama, the first two sections of the book resemble a typical horror movie of the 1930s. The 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which underwent a major revival in a double-bill with Dracula (also first released in 1931) as Wright was working on his novel in 1938, is a particularly important subtext. [6] The thousands of police officers with flashlights and searchlights who pursue Bigger through an urban gothic landscape of abandoned tenements on the South Side at the end of the second section of Native Son closely resemble the villagers with torches who chase Frankenstein's monster through an expressionist landscape. The final fight scene at an old windmill between Frankenstein and the cornered monster also resembles the battle between Bigger and the policeman he knocks unconscious. During the last struggle in the film one of the villagers looks up and, seeing the monster with Frankenstein on the windmill, shouts, "There he is, the murderer." Particular ly significant for Wright's novel is this moment where the line between the monster and the man who created him is blurred. Bigger, then, is a monster created by a murderous society, initially marked not by an "unnatural" origin so much as by his physical appearance.

Wright's novel is also filled with allusions to what might be called the topoi or landmarks of the gothic: premonitions, curses, prophecies, spells, the subterranean, paintings, veils, trapdoors, demonic possession, graves, returns from the dead, skeletons, hauntings, ghosts, confinement, doubles, gothic mansions, visions, conspiracies, premature burial, and so on. Yet despite this use of the terminology of the supernatural and the uncanny, there is nothing supernatural in Native Son. [7] What these terms represent is both an instinctual understanding of the results of the capitalist system in the United States and a mystification of the laws of that system. For example, Mrs. Thomas foretells her son's future:

"Well, I'm telling you agin! And mark my word, some of these days you going to set down and cry. Some of these days you going to wish you had made something out of yourself, instead of just a tramp. But it will be too late then."

"Stop prophesying about me," he said. (13)

Mrs. Thomas's prophecy turns out to be correct in the extreme--just as Bigger's own premonitions about his tragic ending come true. However, there is nothing magical in these predictions; rather, they are realistic, if instinctual, assessments of what the results of straining against the limits of life set for someone like Bigger will be. However, because these predictions are expressed in supernatural terms, they offer no understanding of why these limits are set or, once understood, how these limits might be changed. It is worth noting that this incomprehension is not limited to the black characters of the novel. Mrs. Dalton is described as a "blind" and ineffectual, though well-meaning, "ghost" because she is a sort of ghost of good intentions, unable to understand the real causes of poverty and degradation in the ghetto and unwilling to undertake the sort of actions to change society fundamentally so that such conditions are no longer possible.

The gothic also mystifies the social system in other ways, most notably through a type of transference. Thus we see a sort of doubling in which an African American character, generally Bigger, becomes a double or stand-in for a white character, allowing the black character unconsciously to reenact and control a formerly uncontrollable situation. For example, Bigger, psychologically unable to rob the white storekeeper Blum, recasts his fellow gang member Gus as Blum and beats up, and symbolically rapes, Gus. Likewise, Bessie becomes a double of Mary Dalton in that her rape by Bigger is actual and her murder intentional, whereas the rape of Mary was a half-formed desire and her murder accidental. Other moments of black-white doubling include the pairing of Bigger's brother Buddy with the young white Communist Jan Erlone, Mrs. Thomas with the Dalton's Irish servant Peggy, and in a very telling scene the doubling lifestyles of the rich and famous in the film The Gay Woman with a stereotypically savage Africa in Trader Horn, which Jack and Bigger watch in a double feature. And, of course, there is the opening moment of terrifying and uncanny doubling in which Bigger kills a version of himself: a monstrous black rat filled with rage and fear.

A similar sort of doubling also takes place in which Bigger posits two Biggers--one who is in control of himself and one who is controlled by gothic terror: "There were two Biggers: one was determined to get rest and sleep at any cost; and the other shrank from images charged with terror" (237). In much the same way Bigger also sees two bizarrely dissociated Bessies--a corporeal Bessie entirely under his control and a consciousness who contests that control and demands things of him: "As he walked beside her he felt that there were two Bessies: one a body that he had just had and wanted badly again; and the other was in Bessie's face; it asked questions; it bargained and sold the other to best advantage" (233).

Both of these doublings--the pairing of black and white and the bifurcation of the individual--are aspects of a sort of gothic vision by which Bigger attempts to interpret and control his environment. Or at least these doublings allow Bigger to control himself enough to be able to act in some manner which validates him as a person-- at least in his own view--within that environment. Needless to say, this vision is severely distorted, not to say psychotic.

Though this doubling or identification between apparently disparate people and things allows Bigger at least an imagined control of his situation, there is another side to this projection. This side is the further mystification of the social system when uncontrollable or inescapable elements of that system are projected onto various objects. There is a constant reference to the whiteness of things that Bigger sees: walls, smoke, clouds, snow, cigarettes, hair, and so on. This white hems Bigger in just as violence, real estate covenants, gentlemen's agreements, and so on hem in Chicago's African Americans behind the veil of the South Side "Black Belt."

Perhaps the most notable example of this projection is onto the Dalton's white cat, an obvious intertextual allusion to Poe's "The Black Cat," in which the Dalton's cat embodies the white supervision of the black subject. This sense of being watched might be displaced onto a weird object by Bigger, but it could hardly be called paranoid since the reader gets to see the whole machinery of supervision--the police, the press, the State's Attorney, the detective, and various other witnesses and experts as well as the self-supervision which has been ideologically induced largely by mass culture in Bigger--in some detail. (In this regard, the projection of white supervision onto the cat is the flip side, so to speak, of the projection of a certain black self-policing onto the black rat from the novel's opening.) But to say that Bigger's vision, or narrative if you will, is not paranoid does not mean that this projection, though emotionally or psychologically powerful, helps him understand how the system works. Qui te the contrary, it makes such an understanding impossible. In short, while the virtual blizzard of whiteness is a powerful metaphor for a system of supervision and control and its effect on the black subject, what is required is the examination and understanding of that system through some scientific method, say dialectical materialism, not simply a representation of that system.

Again, it should be noted that such mystification and misunderstanding are not restricted to Bigger. They are characteristic of virtually everyone the reader encounters in Native Son. Once again Wright utilizes a central gothic convention, a terror of incomprehension. This is the terror that the world one inhabits is guided by rules other than those one is able to see, or that within one's world or very close to it are contained secrets--deeds, other selves, sisters, explanations--of crucial importance to us if only one could find them.

In Native Son, particularly in the first two sections, nearly all the major characters look for a certain meaning in the other characters which they are sure is there, but which they are unable to understand or which they misconstrue. Bigger is constantly saying that he is unable to make out what various white characters, particularly the Daltons and Jan Erlone, are talking about. Mary Dalton says that she wants to know black people and that she knows so little despite the fact that her family's house in Hyde Park is an easy walk from the South Side black community. In this regard, perhaps the most painful moment of an extremely gruesome book for the reader is not either the grisly murder of Bessie or that of Mary, but when Mary sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to what Bigger recognizes as the wrong tune. Jan Erlone's demand that Bigger take Jan and Mary to an "authentic" black restaurant on the South Side rates a close second. For that matter, the mystery of the Daltons is not solved when the skeleton in th eir basement is revealed, leading eventually to Bigger Thomas, because it is clear that they will never understand the secret behind the veil of the black belt where people live in houses the Daltons own. Thus, like the gothic dance of the Maules and the Pyncheons in The House of the Seven Gables before they give up their twin obsessions of property and revenge, Native Son intimates that the Daltons of the world will continue to encounter the Biggers. And neither will be able to understand the other because the rules which guide their world are hidden in a web of gothic figuration. In fact, that both the Biggers and the Daltons perceive each of their worlds as largely disjunct from that of the other is actually another form of mystification which will hinder them from objectively apprehending the nature of their social order.

The fundamental reason that none of the characters that we see in the first two sections of the novel understands the underlying rules of society is that they are caught up in various narratives the function of which is to perpetuate the power relations of American society and, again, to mystify the true nature of those relations. Some of these narratives are basically ghosts of a past era of American society. These narratives are not simply accounts of the past which make sense of the present and offer a guide to conduct-this is implicitly or explicitly true of all the narratives in the text-but are holdovers from the past. This category of ghosts would include both Mrs. Thomas's stoic and accommodationist Christianity, which has its ultimate origin in the slave, South, as well as the older Daltons' paternalistic narrative of philanthropy. Both of these older narratives no longer have the desired impact on a new generation of uprooted and marginalized young people represented by Bigger and his gang: They ha ve no desire to defer desire until the next world or go to night school in order to become better educated servants. Of course, the Daltons have an interest in not demystifying these narratives despite the death of their daughter.

Wright sees virtually all black literature before Native Son as essentially part of these mirroring narratives of stoic deference and paternalism. [8] It is also interesting, though disturbing, to see how Wright, like Claude McKay in the novels Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), assigns gender to these narratives so that the conservatism of the black folk culture and its accommodation to white paternalism are seen as feminine, as opposed to an implicit masculine narrative of rebellion and liberation. [9] Even in the case of the equally uprooted and marginalized Bessie, her response to her confinement in the face of extravagant mass culture narratives of desire is basically passive, whereas Bigger's is active. It is also notable that Bigger's greatest sense of validation comes from acts of extreme misogyny which are not fully repudiated by the novel.

Bigger and his gang are alienated from the folk culture that his mother represents, from the black politicians of the South Side who hold their positions through accommodation with the white power structure, and from the white power structure itself, whether in its more blatantly corrupt and hostile form, as represented by State's Attorney Buckley, or in the more apparently benign and unconscious form represented by the Daltons. Bigger and his peers are caught in narratives of mass culture and the hungers and fears inculcated by those narratives which glamorize the lifestyles of the rich and famous while demonizing the poor, particularly African Americans, and the politically radical, especially the Communists. For example, the first of the two movies that Bigger and Jack see, The Gay Woman, titillates them with the possibility of a chaotic modern world of unlimited gratification, represented as threatening in the figure of a Communist assassin, which ultimately is repelled with a return to a mythic past of "family values." The second movie, Trader Horn, is an equally eroticized narrative of a mythic Africa in which Africans, and by extension African Americans, are shown to be "savage" and therefore terrifying as well as "natural" and therefore desirable. In both cases, what is seen is ultimately a justification of the present social order through narratives of the past which are literally projections of the present. The problem for society is that the desire that these mass culture products incite to attract consumers is not so easily sated or repressed.

Practically all Bigger's knowledge of the world, particularly outside the ghetto, and of how to conduct oneself in that world whether as a lover or as the writer of a ransom note, comes from mass culture--tabloids, news-reels, movies, detective stories, and so on. Like Emma Bovary, and in a less tragic manner Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Bigger is the victim of these mass culture narratives. As models of how to act, they cannot help but lead him to disaster.

And as models of normative desire, desire that he can never satisfy, they are equally disastrous. Of course, African Americans are not the only ones caught in such narratives. The posse of the 8,000 racist white police and the racist mob screaming for Bigger's blood outside the courthouse in the third section are clearly inflamed by a narrative of black bestiality retailed by the popular press. Ironically, this mob is comprised largely of people who might be categorized as white Biggers, other uprooted and marginalized people whom--along with marginalized blacks such as Bigger--Wright sees as the potential basis for a mass fascist movement in America.

One could argue that what makes Bigger's existence truly gothic is the wild terror and the extravagant desire that are produced when these narratives of mass culture act on an individual for whom the normative markers of identity--markers of class, race, gender, sexuality--have broken down and who is confined within the rigid and narrow limits of the ghetto. It is this intersection of fear, desire, and confinement that produces the doubling, the projection, the transference, the transgressive sexuality--which includes rape--both real and imagined, followed by murder, real and imagined miscegenation, symbolic homosexual coupling and the possibility of incest, the anxiety about who one is and how one should act, the apprehension and misapprehension of possible meanings, and the sense of an inescapable past which is also the future so common to the gothic genre.

Perhaps the most telling moment of Native Son is the book's opening. First, an alarm clock goes off. The alarm clock ostensibly is a reminder of linear time. But in fact the alarm clock is a symbol of cyclical time marking the beginning of a day, a journey that will be almost exactly like yesterday and tomorrow. Immediately after the bell goes off, we are introduced to themes of confinement and transgressive sexuality. This transgressive sexuality is present explicitly in the shame that Bigger and his family feel about having to dress and undress in such close quarters. It is also present implicitly in the difference in skin color between the "black" Buddy and Bigger and the "brown-skinned" Vera, reminding the reader that repressed behind the hysterical fear of "miscegenation" between black men and white women is a massive number of often coercive sexual couplings between white slave masters and black slave women. Then a black rat appears, both terrified and terrifying. In the first moment of doubling in the text, Bigger kills his rat double, who attacks Bigger in a fit of terror, hunger, and defiance. Bigger goes on to terrify his sister with the dead rat, enjoying her fear. Bigger's mother prophesies a tragic end for him. End of story. But not really. There will be more rats. The slum buildings of the ghetto produce an endless stream of hungry and fearful rats. Bigger and his mother foresee Bigger's ending even if they don't grasp why such an ending is inevitable. But there will be more Biggers. (This is made even clearer in Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," appended to the novel by Harper and Brothers in 1942, in which Wright describes five different Biggers who represent many other Biggers he knew.) There will also be more Bessies, more Mary Daltons, more Mr. and Mrs. Daltons, more State's Attorney Buckleys, and so on. In essence the past is destiny. Again, what we see is some notion of a cyclical journey in which no destination is really reached, a migration which brings no real material or spiritual improvement.

Native Son, then, would seem to be a gothic text in which history is destined to repeat itself as both tragedy and farce. In fact, if the book ended with Bigger's capture and the signing of the confession the State's Attorney gives him, then it would be a sort of gothic. Why is it an anti-gothic? Bigger, primarily through his interaction with the Communist lawyer Boris Max and the particular Marxist-Leninist ideology that Max embodies, attains a genuine self-consciousness or at least recognizes his ability to attain some sort of true self-consciousness, even if his execution will cut the process short. Of course, it is important to note that it is not merely Max's ideas that begin to move Bigger in a new direction away from the gothic, but also Max's willingness to act on those ideas:

Bigger was not at that moment really bothered about whether Max's speech had saved his life or not. He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech for him, to save his life. It was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it. That in itself was something. (827)

This willingness to act on his stated ideals, as well as to expound them directly and clearly, are at least as important in distinguishing Max from the other white speakers who either disassociate their acts from their ideals (as in the case of the slumlord Mr. Dalton) or conceal the real significance of their acts with appeals to allegedly commonly held ideals (as does the corrupt State's Attorney Buckley, who invokes God and civilization in his opening statement at Bigger's trial).

Bigger begins to understand the motivations for his actions and the social laws which have shaped his actions, or at least he sees that such an understanding may be possible. The way Wright represents the process is not as a simple linear progression--and how far the process has moved by the end is ambiguous. [10] Rather it is a process that moves in fits and starts. Neither is it a process by which the Communist Party simply gives Bigger the truth: The white Communists Boris Max and Jan Erlone learn at least as much from Bigger as Bigger learns from them. [11] In fact, Bigger's vision of himself at the end may well be clearer than Max's own self-knowledge. Ultimately, Bigger rejects the various narratives which have shaped his life and his self-perception and takes responsibility for his actions. He no longer feels terror, even about his impending execution. In essence, he takes control of his own narrative, basing it on himself rather than trying to conform himself to the various narratives of mass culture .

This of course is still a moment of tragedy. Bigger is still going to die. And what he has accepted about himself is his identity as a murderer:

"What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something .... I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em.... It's the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, 'cause I'm going to die. I know what I'm saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I'm all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way...." (849)

Bigger has a clearer sense of why he killed, but this does not comfort us (or Boris Max) very much. Nonetheless, we can see in the last section of the book the possibility of an escape from the gothic consciousness or gothic vision that characterizes the first two sections of the book. Wright posits the possibility of a more fully developed consciousness as to self and society on the part of the marginalized black subject. He raises the possibility of an alliance of the oppressed across racial lines. Moreover, the author proposes the possibility of the black subject's control of his or her own voice, of producing his or her own narrative which draws not, as Marx puts it, "on the poetry of the past," but the poetry of the future. In this respect, it is important to remember the congruence of the trajectory of much of Wright's early life with that of Bigger Thomas's. Wright was also a product of the migration of African Americans to the urban North--though we are also reminded of the disjunctures between the fi ctional character and the figure of the author in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," since the author lived to tell the tale and since the author claims that he was even more a prisoner of fear than Bigger Thomas. We are shown that such a narrative control is possible because we are holding the product in our hands. It is worth noting here that, despite the dismissal of earlier black literature in both Wright's introduction and in the court speech he has Boris Max give, this emphasis on the importance of control of voice by the black speaking and writing subject has been, as many scholars have shown, a hallmark of African American literature since the eighteenth century. [12]

The gothic then is crucial to Wright's project because it is the perfect literary analogue to what Wright sees as the ideology and psychology guiding the relations between black and white Americans under what he viewed as late capitalism. The highly developed gothic rhetoric of extreme social anxiety or terror on the part of the individual subject with respect to social identity as well as the repression of that anxiety by the subject with the concomitant return of the repressed as the uncanny allowed Wright graphically to represent the pathology of American racism. Yet as in the Communist critique of Freudianism which gothic literature prefigured and influenced, it is in part rejected because of its focus on individual terror rather broader social forces--a limitation that remains even when the gothic is used to figure social conflict and anxieties. Also, because of the relation of black literature to the gothic genre, the representation of the gothic and its limitations can also be seen as a critique of bl ack expressive culture, particularly literature, and a statement of the need for a new type of African American literature of which Native Son was to be the forerunner. As Wright concluded the essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born" (sounding much like Jean Toomer and Claude McKay): "We have only a money-grubbing industrial civilization. But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him" (881). The problem for Wright, however, was not simply to represent the world, but to change it.

James Smethurst is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Florida and the author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry. 1930-1946 (Oxford UP, 1999).


(1.) For a discussion of Wright with respect to his connection to the field of sociology in the 1930s and 1940s, see Cappetti (182-210). See also Bone.

(2.) Scholars have connected gothic literature in the United States to slavery and the subsequent ideologies and practices that descended from slavery since, at least, Leslie Fielder's 1960 book Love and Death in the American Novel (though Fielder's work is almost entirely concerned with white writers, other than a brief mention of Ralph Ellison at the expense of Wright). For Fielder's most focused treatment of the relation between race and the American gothic, see 370-414.

For a recent investigation of the relation of the African American narrative to the gothic in which Native Son is connected to nineteenth-century slave narratives at some length, see Goddu (131-52) -- though Goddu ultimately sees Wright's take on the ability of the gothic to represent historical experience as being more positive than I do here. For a more extended study of gothic novels by women and the fugitive slave narrative, albeit one which strangely treats the female gothic and the slave narrative as parallel universes rather than genres that significantly intersect, see Winter. For another examination of the subject of the gothic as a form of consciousness in Native Son--albeit an account that assigns the gothic to "primitive racial enmity" as opposed to being generated organically from modern industrial urban American society--see Bodziock. See also McCall 75-76.

(3.) For an analysis of the Communist ideological approach to the "Negro Question" and its impact on African American writing in the 1930s and 1940s, see Smethurst 16-42. See also Foley, Radical 170-212.

(4.) The first easily available translation of The Eighteenth Brumaire into English appeared in 1914. The translator was Daniel De Leon, the founder and long-time leader of the Socialist Labor Party. However, the edition first issued in the 1930s by CPUSA publishing house International Publishers as part of its Marxist Library series was the one most current in Communist circles.

(5.) For the most extended treatment of Poe's considerable influence on Wright, see Fabre 27-33.

(6.) For a discussion of the making of Frankenstein, and Dracula, the significance of the two movies for the emergence of the horror film as a major genre, and their revival as a double-bill in the late 1930s (including a photograph of the theater marquee in Brooklyn Heights presumably taken at the time Wright was living in Brooklyn and working on Native Son), see Skal 113-59. For a study of the importance of film, primarily melodrama, to Native Son, see Pudaloff. For a recollection of Wright's love of film, including horror movies, see Walker 220-21.

(7.) This ultimate appearance of a rational" explanation for an apparently supernatural phenomenon is often true of the classic gothic romance, also. However, in the classic gothic, both European and American, the supernatural or "unnatural" often remains a possibility even when a "rational" explanation is offered--as in James's "Turn of the Screw," for example. However, in Wright's novel the supernatural is rigorously exposed and rejected even as the language of the supernatural is employed. For a consideration of space and confinement in which Wright's novel is seen as a mediation between the Left and the African American urban folk, see Irr 121-41.

(8.) Wright was notoriously critical of his African American predecessors. For Wright's most complete and pointed critique of earlier black writers (and most of his black contemporaries), see his "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937).

(9.) However, McKay, an early African American Communist who was moving away from the CPUSA as he wrote these novels, gives his black male protagonists much greater individual agency than does Wright in Native Son. McKay also associates women far more with modern urban industrial society and far less with the folk. Perhaps one reason that Wright does not make an exception in "Blueprint for Negro Writing" for McKay, who after all first made his reputation as a literary militant, is due to McKay's representation of the possibility of the African American intellectual's return to the folk and of an escape from European and North American "civilization"--at least ideologically.

(10.) For an argument that Max's didactic courtroom speech (and Bigger's response to it) is an essential part of the novel's design rather than a relatively extraneous artistic mistake (as many critics have claimed), see Foley, "Politics" 194-96.

(11.) Though it is outside the purview of this essay, it is worth noting that Bigger is not the only person transformed by Bigger's encounter with the CPUSA. The impact of Bigger on Max and Erlone and Wright's representation of the meaning of this impact for the revolutionary movement are subjects worth further consideration.

(12.) For seminal studies in which the intersection of orality, literacy, and the control of the black subject's voice is seen as being at the heart of African American literature, see Baker; Gates; and Stepto.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston, Jr. "Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of Southern Slave." The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 242-61.

Bodziock, Joseph. "Richard Wright and Afro-American Gothic." Richard Wright Myths and Realities. Ed. C. James Trotman. New York: Garland, 1988. 27-42.

Bone, Robert. "Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance." Callaloo 9.3 (1986): 446-68.

Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1993

Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1985.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.

Foley, Barbara. "The Politics of Poetics: Ideology and Narrative Form in An American Tragedy and Native Son." Gates and Appiah 188-99.

-----. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. Irr, Caren. The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada during the 1930s. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International, 1963.

McCall, Dan. The Example of Richard Wright. New York: Harcourt, 1969.

McKay, Claude. Banjo. New York: Harper, 1929.

-----. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper, 1928.

Pudaloff, Ross. "Celebrity as Identity: Native Son and Mass Culture." Gates and Appiah 156-70.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993.

Smethurst, James E. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner Books, 1988.

Winter, Karl J. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865. Athens: U of Georgia P. 1992.

Wright, Richard. Early Works. New York: Library of America, 1991.
COPYRIGHT 2001 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Smethurst, James
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:"Make My Getaway": The Blues Lives of Black Minstrels in W. C. Handy's Father of the Blues.
Next Article:In the Family.

Related Articles
The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance.
Redefining American Literary History.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism.
Racial Violence and Representation: Performance Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s.
The Trick of Transcending Race.
Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt.
Clarence Major and His Art.
"The soul has bandaged moments": reading the African American gothic in Wright's "big boy leaves home," Morrison's beloved, and Gomez's Gilda.
The urban gothic vision of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (1999).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters