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Iron City.

When Richard Wright's Native Son was published in 1940, it was a success de scandal. Reviewers from all over the U.S. praised the novel for its aesthetic merits and its iconoclasm. However, those who could have been expected to be closest to Wright, reviewers from within the American Left, were ambivalent at best, torn between warring interests: On the one hand, they were anxious to claim the successful novelist as their product, their disciple, their buddy; on the other hand, Wright confronted them with a narrative that was utterly incompatible with their notions of proletarian literature. The reviews which The Daily Worker and The New Masses published were representative of the Communist Party's skepticism. "After ten years of fumbling and experiment, of great visions and uneven fulfillment, our American social realism, our American proletarian literature ... has finally culminated in two sure classics - Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Richard Wright's Native Son," raved Mike Gold, the Party's authority in literature, on 31 March 1940 in The Daily Worker, but on 21 May 1940, The New Masses printed a letter of protest from Joel Shaw, who argued that it "is politically slanderous to contend that Bigger Thomas is the symbol of the Negro people. Consequently it is an esthetic falsity to select a character who is atypical and to make him the protagonist of a novel that deals with the bitter persecution and exploitation of a minority people in bourgeois society." Bigger, Shaw concluded, "represents a distortion or caricature of anti-capitalist Negro feeling." Wright was devastated: "Must I discard my plot-ideas and seek new ones?" he asked. New plot-ideas he sought in the following decade - but also, as we know, a new intellectual home.

There was one fellow African American writer who had no sympathy whatsoever for the Party's ambivalent attitude toward Native Son but hated the novel openly and unequivocally for what he considered a vicious caricature of black life: Lloyd L. Brown, then a labor organizer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, as one of the editors of The New Masses and Masses and Mainstream, he campaigned against African American writers who represented African American culture exclusively in terms of pathology, deprivation, and victimization. Finally, in 1951, he published his novel Iron City - conceived as a corrective, a socialist counter-narrative to Native Son. Like its notorious predecessor, it was based on an actual court case, the trial of William Jones, whom Brown met while serving a prison term in Pittsburgh in 1941 and who was executed in November 1941. The novel's protagonist, Lonnie James, is framed, falsely convicted of and sentenced to death for the murder of a white businessman. While awaiting his execution in a prison in Iron City, he is thrown together with a group of black and white communists who had been jailed on charges of election law violations. When they hear of Lonnie's predicament, they organize a defense committee on his behalf, offering a new perspective and new hope to the desperate young man.

Lloyd L. Brown depicts in his protagonist Lonnie all those features of which life in the South Side has deprived Wright's Bigger - a sense of belonging and responsibility, moral integrity, decency, and, most importantly, innocence. He even holds a steady job, and black people among whom he lives respect him. In many ways, he is a representative man of the black urban setting as it is depicted in Iron City; the novel's few negatively drawn black characters - a pimp and a traitor - are characterized as exceptional creatures, as outsiders and outcasts. Though a discourse on victimization and life behind prison bars, the novel carefully avoids the paralyzing pathology of the Wright School, celebrating instead the beauty of the black vernacular, the dynamic quality of African American culture, the vigor and vitality of a heterogeneous community of black and white prisoners, agents of history instead of objects. Where Wright's Native Son deplored deprivation, Brown's discourse affirms those cultural resources from within the African American and proletarian cultural matrices which sustain these victims of American capitalism and afford them the strength to resist. In this way the novel powerfully renders the socialist vision of black and white solidarity which Richard Wright had conjured up in his poem "I Have Seen Black Hands" of 1935.

The novel was a commercial failure in the United States - enthusiastically reviewed by the left-wing press and republished in translations, especially in countries behind the Iron Curtain, but ignored or denounced as a communist propaganda tract by the mainstream press. In his thoughtful, carefully researched, and highly informative introductory essay to this direly needed reprint of Iron City by Northeastern University Press, Alan Wald ascribes the novel's lack of success to the hostility of an American public discourse that had succumbed to the ideological doctrines of McCarthyism and the Cold War, and ascribes its rapid disappearance from the book market to "the change of political climate and in the culture of the U.S. Left in the decade following its publication" (x) - i.e., to red-baiting and misunderstanding. There can be no doubt that all of these issues contributed to its washout, and Northeastern University Press deserves high praise for snatching the text from oblivion.

In his anxiety to rehabilitate the novel by rewriting its history exclusively as one of victimization, however, Wald not only comes dangerously close to reconstructing the complex relationship between African American writers and the American Communist Party in terms of a simplistic apology; he also closes his eyes to the aesthetic weaknesses of Iron City. American readers may have rejected the text's message of black and white proletarian solidarity not only because they were manipulated by conservative reviews but also because they were aware of the Party's wavering policy toward African Americans and its Stalinist dogmatism, which drove black intellectuals like William Attaway, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright to seek new political alliances. More important still, intent on providing a corrective to Native Son, Brown had created a protagonist who, as a personification of innocence, was totally out of touch with the urban realities of African America the novel claimed to represent. After all, the days of black Billy Budds had vanished long since. They had passed when Zora Neale Hurston's tales and novels celebrated the dynamic vitality of rural black folk cultures, on the one hand, and when Richard Wright, by inventing his Bigger Thomas, had dared to do what Toni Morrison forty-seven years later was to define as her agenda as a twentieth-century African American griot when she decided "to rip that veil over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.' "It had passed, for while the innocence of Brown's Lonnie James aroused pity and anger perhaps, but certainly the ennui of deja vu, Ralph Ellison was in the process of creating a protagonist whose" 'I yam what I am!'" affirmed African American culture in its heterogeneity - its complexity and even its contradictions, violence and solidarity, eradication of memory and a black brother's display of his slave chains, alienation and belonging alike.

The ultimate failure of Iron City documents that the future of African American literature lay not in the delineation of Billy Budd-like black innocents transformed into equally innocent proletarian heroes that denied the realities of twentieth-century black urban life but in a combination of both - in a lifting of that veil over"'proceedings too terrible to relate'" which Richard Wright had initiated with his Native Son, on the one hand, and in that affirmation of African American culture, of "my village," on the other, which empowers Morrison's Beloved and which Wright's and Brown's unacknowledged contemporary, Zora Neale Hurston, had anticipated in her writing more than half a century ago. It lay in a rediscovery of what Morrison calls those "old verities that made being Black and alive in this country the most dynamic existence imaginable."

Reviewed by Maria Diedrich University of Munster
COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review
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Author:Diedrich, Maria
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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