Richard Wright's Lawd Today! And the political uses of modernism.
The stylistic "flaw" that Hakutani identifies here--the preponderance of "metaphors and images"--speaks to another difficulty critics have had in reconciling Lawd Today! to the traditional view of Wright, and indeed of literature in general, in the 1930s. The novel seems influenced less by the naturalism or social realism that we typically associate with Wright and more by modernist aesthetic and thematic concerns. Wright, however, was an active member of the Communist Party throughout the 1930s, (3) and he served as head of the Chicago branch of the literary John Reed Club, published pieces in Party-sponsored and Party-friendly magazines like New Masses and Partisan Review, and rose to prominence as a poet, short story writer, literary critic, and journalist. Since official Communist Party doctrine treated modernism as irredeemably bourgeois and counterrevolutionary, goes the conventional argument, its stable of critics would doubtlessly have roundly condemned Wright's novel. Indeed, Granville Hicks asserts that the novel "would have been disturbing to most orthodox Communists in the Thirties" (364), and Edward Margolies claims that "even a cursory glance at its contents will reveal what the party would have found objectionable" (91).
True, Lawd Today! has little to do, on the surface, with socialist realism, the literary mode ostensibly endorsed by the Communist Party. Mike Gold, one of the Party's most famous aesthetic theorists, lobbied for a "proletarian literature [that] will reflect the struggle of the workers in their fight for the world. It portrays the life of the workers . with a clear revolutionary point" (205-06). Gold draws a sharp distinction between proletarian writers and the "bourgeois writers" who "tell us about their spiritual drunkards and super-refined Parisian emigres; or about their spiritual marriages and divorces" (206). While modernist art deals with "precious silly little agonies," proletarian novels offer a vision of "not pessimism, but revolutionary elan" (206-07). Gold, certainly, would have disliked Lawd Today!'s similarities to James Joyce's Ulysses: The novel takes place in the course of one day, and, as Eugene Miller argues, Jake's "quotidian routine is parasyntactically laminated over Lincoln's birthday r adio speeches and other media pronouncements"; his "activities...are patently and ironically rendered more meaningless by playing the myth over them," much as Leopold Bloom's life is rendered more meaningless in Ulysses through ironic contrast with patterns from classical mythology (59). Craig Werner also argues that the novel "is a conscious rewriting of Ulysses. Filled with direct allusions to Joyce and Eliot, the novel emphasizes a mythic parallel and multiple styles" (190). Moreover, the incorporation of newspaper headlines, popular songs, and radio broadcasts also recalls Joyce. Gold would surely have turned up his nose at the epigraph from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land that begins the novel's third section, "Rats' Alley," and Don Graham has gone so far as to argue that Eliot's archetypal modernist poem and Lawd Today! share the theme of "spiritual death and the possibility of rebirth" (329), although he finds this theme unrelated to the novel's socio-political concerns. (4) lake and his fellow postal work ers even have a conversation about Gertrude Stein. As Margolies observes, Jake suffers from "spiritual poverty" -- a fundamentally modernist dilemma -- in addition to the usual economic poverty. Wright's text, then, has little in common with Daniel Aaron's description of the Party ideal: "Black proletarian and white proletarian, two massive figures. . . standing arm in arm" (44). The Communist Party, Margolies claims, "would have disapproved" (93).
But would it have? Drawing on recent leftist revisions of the literary history of the 1930s, I would like to argue that stereotypically modernist subject matter and aesthetic strategies were actually available and indeed very attractive to Wright at this time. Further, far from being an apolitical or anti-leftist anomaly in Wright's 1930s' output, Lawd Today! is actually very much in keeping with Wright's original conception of the relationship between his art and his political ideology. In Black Boy, Wright writes,
The Communists, I felt, had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner. I would make voyages, discoveries, explorations with words and try to put some of that meaning back. I would address my words to two groups: I would tell Communists how common people felt, and I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them. (377)
This passage is frequently cited in critical surveys of Wright's work, often as a way of introducing his overtly Communist-influenced 1930s' writings, especially the short-story collection Uncle Tom's Children. Such studies tend to focus on how Wright addresses the second of the two groups that he discusses, how he makes Communism a palatable and viable strategy of resistance to the "common people." (5) However, I would argue that a fuller consideration of the first part of Wright's plan--to "tell Communists how common people felt" -- is appropriate to help us better understand Lawd Today!
In Lawd Today!, Wright focuses on the modernist dilemmas of "fragmentation, alienation, sense-making; the shoring up of fragments against our ruins; what to make of a diminished thing" (Werner 11) to describe not just the social, political, and economic disenfranchisement of African Americans fleeing from the South to Chicago in the Great Migration, but also the personal, spiritual disenfranchisement that comes from being separated (or, sometimes, from separating themselves) from the forms of community and means of connection with each other--church and folklore, for example--that sustained them in the South. Though not a proletarian novel in Mike Gold's formulation, the novel does serve a political purpose: It shows how the popular myths of consumerist, capitalist American culture have disrupted these forms of community and stresses the need for new forms or for the revival of the old. Ultimately, to paraphrase Wright, Lawd Today! tells Communists how common people feel so that they might not oversimplify th e experience of the masses and that they might better know how to appeal to them.
In recent years, leftist historians and literary critics have begun to challenge the narrow definition of proletarian literature and the stereotypical view of the Communist Party that I have outlined above and that is implicit in many dismissals of Lawd Today!. Barbara Foley's Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941, offers perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of this issue. Foley criticizes "the model of a philistine, coercive, and anti-modernist party [that] has routinely been invoked in treatments of the relationship between writers and the organized left" (46). This inaccurate model, says Foley, promotes the view that "through writer's foundations and critical organs where their influence dominated - . . the party critics who were based in the New Masses issued directives about matters ranging from politics to subject matter to style" (45). Moreover, "it is charged [that] writers were cut off from the most exciting and productive developments in contemporary l iterature and consigned to a sterile, banal, and-ironically--conservative realism" (54). Foley, however, argues for a radically different model of the relationship between the Communist Party and leftist literary production. She contends that, although the party did offer directives, and though prominent members such as Mike Gold argued long and loud for the inherent decadence of modernism, the notion that American literary proletarians "repudiated literary innovations simply does not stand up under the evidence" (57). Foley argues that, "although the 'commissars' of leftist criticism have been criticized for dogmatism and arrogance, they were quite ready to acknowledge that not merely proletarian literature but American Marxist criticism was in its infancy" (51). Indeed, even "the organs most closely identified with the Communist party--the New Masses and, especially, the Daily Worker--were quite hospitable to literary innovations of various kinds" (58-59). As she puts it, "In short, much Depression-era lite rary radicalism was intimately involved in the project of 'mak[ing] it new'" (62). (6)
Of course, Richard Wright. as a Party writer, book reviewer, journalist, and head of the Chicago John Reed Club (until the clubs were disbanded in 1935), would have been fully steeped in this decidedly heterogeneous attitude toward proletarian fiction. Foley cites the 1935 Writers Congress, which Wright attended, as a particularly significant moment in the ongoing redefinition of proletarian literature, when the primary emphasis for acceptable proletarian fiction moved from "authentic" proletarian authorship to a more general articulation of a Marxist perspective (118). At this conference, Wright met Edwin Seaver, literary critic for the Daily Worker (Fabre 118), and Wright would surely have read Seaver's essay "What is a Proletarian Novel?: Notes Toward a Definition," which appeared in Partisan Review around the time of the conference. Here, Seaver argued that proletarian literature need not be "written by a worker, about workers or for workers .... it is possible for an author of middleclass origin to write a novel about petty-bourgeois characters which will appeal primarily to readers of the same class, and yet such a work can come within the classification, Proletarian novel" (5). He asserted that the primary concern for the proletarian writer was not "the period of history in which he sets his story, or the kind of characters he writes about, but his ideological approach to his story and characters, which approach is entirely conditioned by his acceptance of the Marxian interpretation of history" (7).
Indeed, the pages of Philip Rahv and William Phillips' prominent leftist magazine Partisan Review were almost certainly already familiar and quite influential for the young Wright, since it served as a primary organ of the John Reed Clubs. Further, Wright served as an associate editor for Partisan Review in 1936. Though the post, Michael Fabre claims, was largely honorary, Wright doubtlessly followed the magazine's ideological discussions, and he was at least engaged enough to contribute a book review (of Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder) and a letter to the editor in defense of an artist who had been accused of being too concerned with aesthetics and insufficiently radical.7 Wright's involvement with Partisan Review is important to an understanding of his use of aesthetic and thematic elements of modernism. As Harvey M. Teres has discussed in his recent study of Partisan Review's development, Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, William Phillips anci Philip Rahv, the magazine 's two chief editors from 1934 to 1936, consciously rejected "narrow-minded sectarian theories and practices" in favor of an "increasingly heterodox literary and critical project" (40). As early as 1934, Phillips and Rahv attacked "critical positions that demanded that literature make explicit appeals for socialist revolution, or present a dialectical-materialist world outlook, or render working-class life in a favorable light" (43); instead, they believed that, "through publishing the movement's 'best creative work,' the magazine would be a participant in political struggle" (40). Most significantly for our discussion of Wright, Phillips and Rahv worked for "the attainment of an unprecedented degree of autonomy, tolerance, and rigor for literature and criticism...within left discourse; and...the creation of a compelling, though highly unstable union between modernism and political radicalism" (41-42). The editors found it ludicrous that Marxist critics would reject modernism out of hand as "an aesthetic and decadent source of counterrevolutionary ideology" (48) and therefore make unavailable to Marxist-oriented writers a wide range of formal innovations that these writers could potentially incorporate into their works with powerful results. Instead, Phillips and Rahv tried to "respond productively to 'bourgeois' literature, especially as it impinged on the shaping of the new proletarian literature" (43).
One of Rahv's earliest pieces in this vein was his 1934 review of Ernest Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing. Wright particularly admired Hemingway (Fabre 141, 170, 176) and would surely have been interested in a review of his work. Rahv argued against completely discarding Hemingway's "cluster of formal creative means" because of his bourgeois subject matter. He argued that such an approach "makes the proletarian artist insensible to those few--largely external--features of contemporary art that are class determined in such a slender and remote manner as to render them available for use by the creator of the new art who is seeking an effective artistic method" (58). Three issues later, William Phillips forcefully articulated an even more liberal version of this theory. In his essay "Three Generations," he argued that current Marxist writers were the inheritors of two sets of literary ancestors: the pioneering social realists who wrote in the vein of Dreiser, and the modernist experimenters of the 1920s. He claim s that, while many critics wish to ignore the innovations of the '20s, "the spirit of the 1920s is part of our heritage, and many of the younger revolutionary generations are acutely conscious of this.... The job of our generation is to tie these threads, to use whatever heritage there is which gives color to our pattern" (52). He criticizes the tendency to "repudiate the bourgeois heritage, and fall into primitive, oversimplified and pseudo-popular rewrites of political ideas and events" (53). Harvey Teres argues that Phillips and Rahv were particularly interested in modernist representations of "felt experience," though they believed that "felt experience must carry more than personal significance--it must bring the reader face to face with broader social contradictions" (45). In "Three Generations," Phillips argued that T. S. Eliot could provide a useful model for such an articulation of felt experience: "In his poetry, however reactionary its ultimate implications may be, Eliot has perfected a new idiom and tighter rhythms for expressing many prevailing moods and perceptions" (53). As these passages indicate, while some doctrinaire Marxist critics found modernist forms of representation such as stream-of-consciousness or a reliance on metaphor and imagery inevitably and intrinsically bourgeois, the Partisan Review editors argued that these same forms could be marshaled in the service of the left.
The modernist forms of expression championed by Rahv and Phillips would serve Wright well in his attempt to tell how a common person like Jake Jackson feels alienated in his barren existence in the urban wasteland of Chicago. Mark Sanders has argued that, after the Great Migration, "African American individual and cultural identity was forced to adjust to the new demands of the city and industrialization. As a result, African American culture entertained new concepts of individuality and tried to rationalize new feelings of alienation" (11). Though lake never reaches a level of self-awareness that would allow him to begin to rationalize his feelings of alienation, the text is riddled with descriptions of his essentially isolated and empty life. For example, Wright frequently deploys images of sleep and dreaming to underscore Jake's alienation. Though the novel opens with Jake's awakening from a dream, Wright often describes Jake as though he were still partially asleep, not fully aware of or engaged with the world around him. When he rises, he is confronted by a vision of dissolution: "He saw the bed and the dresser and the carpet and the walls melting and shifting and merging into a blur" (6). When he leaves the house, he walks down the street with "his mind lost in a warm fog" (37). Repeatedly, Wright characterizes Jake as tired or sleepy (36, 66, 115, 158, 213, and passim), as longing for a deathly peaceful oblivion. Indeed, Jake seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep in the midst of whatever he is doing, whether he is playing bridge, getting a haircut, talking with friends, or working at the post office. In one case, Jake muses that his "arms and legs felt heavy and slightly numb, as though they were watersoaked. He licked his lips, mumbling Gawd, but I'm sleepy. If he could only sleep right now, if he could only close his eyes and rest his head upon something soft" (68). Later, he and his post office cronies talk about how they like "slipping off into nothing" (158).
Jake never manages to articulate his feeling of alienation, which he also feels both as an unexplainable nervousness and as a lack, a hunger. During a lull in the opiatic distraction of conversation and bridge with his friends, he feels "empty, missing something," and thinks, "I'm getting neruous as hell. And he knew that as long as he sat this way his nervousness would increase. Jake's mind fished about, trying to get hold of an idea to cover his feeling of uneasy emptiness" (89). Elsewhere, lake thinks that "he wanted something, and that something hungered in him, deeply" (68), and he feels "a haunting and hungering sense of incompleteness" (51). When he faces his shift at the post office, he feels "a dumb yearning for something else; somewhere or other was something or other for him" (116). The vagueness of Wright's language here appropriately reflects the haziness of Jake's desires. Although, when a white supervisor criticizes Jake for improperly sorting several letters, Jake thinks that "It ain't always going to be this way!" he can get no further than that rudimentary expression of frustration:
His mind went abruptly blank. He could not keep on with that thought, because he did not know where that thought led. He did not know of any other way things could be, if not this way. Yet he longed for them not to be this way. He felt that something vast and implacable was crushing him; and he felt angry with himself because he had to stand it. (142-43)
This inability to articulate or even understand his feelings, this loss of meaning, plagues Jake in other ways over the course of his day. In the dream that opens the novel, Jake endures a Sisyphean torment, running frantically up a flight of steps at his boss's urging but never making any progress. Though the dream carries (for us, anyway) an obvious symbolic meaning relating to Jake's racial and economic exploitation, he spends much of the morning just trying to remember what he dreamed in the first place: "Now what was I dreaming? He tried to think, but a wide gap yawned in his mind" (6). Worse, when the sight of some children playing on a flight of stairs reminds him, he does not ponder over any possible social significance the dream might have had, but instead uses it as a guide for picking numbers for a "policy" game, an elaborate numbers racket. Even more problematically, Jake cannot intuit the numbers from the dream himself; instead, he must go through two intermediaries. He tells one woman, Mabel, hi s dream, and she picks out the important elements; then she shouts those elements to a woman named Martha, who matches them up with the numbers found in King Solomon's Wheel of Life and Death Dream Book. Jake is not allowed to see this book, so he must get the information thirdhand before he bets his money. Finally, complete recovery of the dream's meaning is not possible even in the terms of this corrupt system, because "a dream sometimes had so many possible interpretations, it referred to so many different: combinations of numbers, that it was impossible to 'cover' the dream" (45). Jake can only access as many different interpretations of the dream as he has money to spare.
Jake's fellow postal laborers offer little more than Mabel and Martha in helping Jake understand the meaning of their alienated and exploited existence. Jake spends much of his day with overweight national guardsman Al, clap-ridden Bob, and tubercular Slim. Most of their conversation whether at Bob's house playing bridge or at the post office sorting letters, revolves around such topics as the treacherous nature of women and the admirable success of millionaires like Henry Ford and John 0. Rockefeller. But the grinding monotony of their labor exhausts them and makes genuine communication all but impossible. Wright says that "often they were on the verge of speaking, but the sheer triviality of what they wanted to say weighted their tongues into silence" (150), and that "when they talked it was more like thinking aloud than speaking for purposes of communication. Clusters of emotion, dim accretions of instinct and tradition rose to the surface of their consciousness like dead bodies floating swollen upon a nig ht sea" (158). The connotations of Wright's imagery are clear: Jake and his friends speak in a dead language devoid of meaningful ideas.
However, in one very specific instance, language does offer something more than a distraction from the nervous hunger of alienation, and this instance helps us begin to understand Wright's fundamental argument about African American life in the urban, Northern wasteland. After a game of poker with his friends, Jake feels "empty, missing something." While casting about for a way to ease this feeling, he notices Al resting calmly on the couch nearby and decides that he wants to "make some of the strength of that repose his own" (89). He chooses to do this by playing the dozens with his friend. This is significant, because in playing the dozens, an African American folkloric form, the two men who comically insult each other forge connections, albeit satirical ones, with their cultural heritage in the South and in Africa. For instance, Al tells Jake that "'when old Colonel James was sucking at my ma's tits I saw your little baby brother across the street watching with slobber in his mouth,'" and Jake, a few excha nges later, tells Al that, "'when my greatgreatgreat grandma was smelling them pork chops, your poor old greatgreatgreatgreat grandma was a Zulu queen in Africa. She was setting at the table and she said to the waiter: "Say waiter, be sure and fetch me some of them missionary chitterlings..."'" (91). Though the images invoked are humorous, they also connect Al and Jake with the heritage of ancestors who occupied, in varying degrees, positions of authority (or at least importance) in relation to white people in their respective societies. However, once their game ends, they return to business as usual.
This moment of connection with his cultural heritage brings Jake an unusual feeling of joy; it also suggests Wright's overall project in Lawd Today!. Rather than simply and pessimistically dramatizing the alienation of his protagonist, as Gold might accuse a decadent bourgeois writer of doing, Wright offers specific cultural reasons for this alienation and suggests possible solutions compatible with leftist ideology. The text strongly suggests that Wright locates the source of Jake and his fellow Chicago-dwellers' alienation and uneasiness in their separation from African American cultural traditions such as folklore and the black church, traditions that forged community and helped to explain and make bearable the oppression they suffered in the South. These traditions are, of course, the very ones that Wright would endorse in his "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1938) as part of a black culture that "has, for good or ill, helped to clarify [ the black individual's] consciousness and create emotional attitudes which are conducive to action" (39). Though Jake has renounced these traditions and indeed anything that recalls black life in the South, he has not yet found any other means of meaningfully relating to the world and has instead adopted the exploitative myths of American popular culture, with disastrous results.
Throughout the novel, Jake reiterates this disavowal of the South and any aspect of African American culture that he associates with it. When Jake asserts the superiority of America over "Commoonist" Russia, Lii reminds him that "'they burned a colored man alive the other day,'" but Jake dismisses her story by saying "'Aw, that was down South, anyhow."' When Lil goes so far as to remind him that "'the South's a part of this country,'" Jake accuses her of being a Red (33). Later, Jake says that "'they ought to lynch 'em if they ain't got no better sense than to stay down there'" (193). Similarly, when Duke, the novel's only Communist organizer (and not a very successful one) tries to encourage a group of black men to see the ills of capitalism by pointing to "'all them sharecroppers,'" Jake, in characteristically individualist fashion, tells him to "'let 'em look out after themselves'" (60). This rejection of the South even affects Jake's work habits: When he transports letters, he prefers to "carry a Northern state rather than a Southern one. He never wanted to carry Mississippi, his home state. That's one state I'm damn glad to be from." Wright explains lake's feelings when he describes his tastes in current cinema: "When he went to the movies he always wanted to see Negroes, if there were any in the play, shown against the background of urban conditions, not rural ones. Anything which smacked of farms, chaingangs, lynchings, hunger, or the South in general was repugnant to him. These things had so hurt him once that he wanted to forget them forever" (138).
Only once does Jake seem on the verge of reclaiming his Southern cultural heritage. When he and his cohorts stop to watch a parade sponsored by a black nationalist group, they find themselves profoundly affected by the music: "They were feeling the surges of memory the music had roused in their minds. They did not agree with the parade, but they did agree with the music. There came upon them the memories of those Sunday mornings in the South when they had attended church." Wright stresses here the potential that this cultural tradition can have as a way of appealing to African Americans, for Jake says, "'Maybe them folks is right, who knows?'" He does, however, say this "out of the depths of a confused mood" (110); perhaps his confusion stems from his momentary attraction to something he has so thoroughly repudiated. Though Jake and his friends at one point ambivalently describe the South as "Heaven and Hell all rolled into one" (180), Jake attempts to renounce the South altogether, and though he has escaped the Hell that caused him such pain, he also denies the redemptive potential of Heaven.
Indeed, although Jake often pays lip service to the necessity of faith, he apparently rejects the possibility that religion can have any meaningful effect on people's lives. His wife Lil, whom Jake once tricked into having an abortion and who now suffers from a tumor because of it, draws some of the strength that allows her to survive from a magazine called Unity, "DEVOTED TO CHRISTIAN HEALING" (7). Though Unity, with its picture of a "haloed, bearded man draped in white folds," with his hand "resting upon the blond curls of a blue-eyed girl," certainly seems a far cry from the traditions of the African American church, for Lii, whose husband dislikes her talking even to her neighbors or the milkman, it is perhaps the only access to religion or to any sort of broader community. Jake nearly flies into a rage every time he sees this magazine, calling it "trash" and ripping it from her hands. When Lil asks him for money to have an operation for her tumor, he thinks, cruelly, "Yeah, she ought to ask Gawd to get r id of that tumor for her.... The very next time she tells me about that damned tumor I'll tell her to let Unity take care of it. Let them bastards send up a silent prayer!" (20). He criticizes Lil for not being as up-to-date with current events as he is, and he tells her that "'you could learn something if you didn't keep that empty head of yours stuck into the Gawddamn Unity books all the time.'" When Lil protests, telling him that "'this is Gawd's word.... Don't you know Gawd can slap you dead right where you is?'" Jake responds, "'It's a gyp game, that's all! ... don't be dumb!'" (31).
However adamant and complete his renunciation of Christianity seems, Jake has difficulty sticking to it. Because of his condition of oppression and alienation, he deeply needs to believe in something that can interpret the world for him and explain why things are the way they are. He sometimes lapses into an almost rote repetition of Christian ideals; indeed, only a few pages after he condemns religion as a "gyp game," he tells Lil that "'the good Lawd's done got it all figgered out in his own good fashion. It's got to be that way so there can be some justice in this world, I reckon ....' His voice trailed off uncertainly" (34). Perhaps his uncertainty stems from the obviously (even to Jake) contradictory nature of his statement. At other times it seems as though Christianity is the only thing Jake does not believe in. When he goes to his post office box, he finds it crammed full of advertisements hawking everything from supernatural numbers-picking schemes to proto-Viagra vitality tonics. Oddly, given his ap parent disdain for belief in things divine, Jake seems to have some faith in the supernatural powers of the products advertised here. He says that "there might be something to this" ad for "THE MYSTERIOUS THREESTAR MEDIUM" (38). Of another that promises to "MAKE THE UNSEEN WORLD VISIBLE" with "Second Coming Incense," he ruminates that "maybe there's something in it if it comes straight from the spirit world" (39). He thinks that a good dose of "VIRGIN MARY'S NEVERFAIL HERB AND ROOT TONIC FOR NERVOUS AND RUNDOWN WOMEN" for Lil might save him the cost of her operation (40-41). Moreover, when it comes to picking his numbers for the policy game, he relies on dream interpretation because "he was much too shrewd to trust such a small thing as numbers to fortune tellers, spiritualists, and the like; these people were consulted only in case of a deep, life-and-death crisis (45). lake's inconsistency here--attempting (with limited success) to reject Christianity but replacing religious faith with a faith in charlatans and scam artists--further emphasizes his alienation and his need to believe in something that gives his life meaning.
However, if Jake does have a primary alternative belief system, another master narrative that explains the world to him, he finds it in the American success myth pervasive in the popular culture--newspaper, radio, films--that he consumes. Wright subtly drives this point home from the novel's opening sequence. As Jake climbs futilely up the neverending staircase, compelled ever upward by a booming voice, he thinks, "that old sonofabitch up there sounds just like my boss, too!" (5). Of course, when Jake awakens, he realizes that the voice in his dream actually belongs to Lil's radio, broadcasting the life-story of Abraham Lincoln, icon of bootstraps ideology. Wright suggests, then, that popular culture, or, more specifically, the success myth of limitless opportunity that it endorses, is Jake's "boss," the force that keeps him in this squirrel's cage. Jake constantly articulates his affirmation of this belief system. He tells Lil that "'nobody but lazy folks can starve in this country'" (33). He rejects Frankli n Roosevelt's attempts at economic reform because "'old Hoover was doing all right, only nobody couldn't see it, that's all.'" Moreover, he thinks that the New Deal is doomed to fail because nobody can tell his heroes "'old man Morgan and old Man Rockefeller and old man Ford what to do. . . . Why them men owns and runs the country!'" (29). Jake is fascinated with and envious of these men, and so his assertion that "'cold, hard cash runs this country, always did and always will'" is not intended as a social critique; instead, he simply wants to get enough money so that he can emulate these giants of capitalism that he so admires.
Jake's chief local example of the embodiment of bootstraps success is Doc, his local barber. When Doc rails against Communist organizer Duke, Jake "follow[s] the movement of Doc's lips with his own and nod[s] approval" (58). Doc, who owns his own store and has a modicum of political influence, refuses to accept that anyone might be out of work for any reason but laziness. In order to explain his success, Doc likens himself to a frog, trapped in a churn of milk, who kicked until he turned the milk to butter, then "jumped on top of that ball of butter and hopped right out of the chum" (60). Further, he tells Jake that, if Communists "'kept their damn mouths shut and tried to get hold of something, some money, or property, then they'd get somewhere'" (63).
Interestingly, religion does play a part in this success myth, but not the community-forming, potentially radical and oppositional Christianity that we see in "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star," or even the simply sustaining Christianity of Lil's Unity magazines. Instead, this religion, a fairly inactive and excessively general faith in the goodness of God's long-term plan, simply serves to endorse and authorize the status quo; it becomes an explanation for how the rich get rich and a justification for keeping them that way. For instance, when Jake and his friends discuss Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and John D. Rockefeller, they claim that these men "'got to be successful by following the Golden Rule.... they did to other men what they wanted them men to do to them...and Gawd rewarded 'em.... You'll get your reward if you do right'" (166-67). Moreover, the men particularly admire a circular that depicts two trains, one headed for Hell and the other for Heaven. The first, "TH E EVERLASTING DAMNATION RAILWAY CORPORATION," advertised as "the Quickest and Shortest Route to the Hottest Depths of HELL," makes stops not just at the predictable "Murderer's Gap" and "Atheistville," but also at "Radical Hill," "Thomas Paine Avenue," and "Communist Junction" (162), thus clearly aligning any attempt at radical change to the status quo with soulimperiling evil. The second, "THE SALVATION AND REDEMPTION RAILWAY COMPANY," as one would expect, stops at "Sacrifice Harbor," "Temperanceville," and "Honesty Line," thus diametrically opposing these positive values to the negative values of Communist radicalism, lake and his friends think that the creator of this circular has "'done figgered out every single thing'" and that "'Gawd sure must've been with the guy to make 'im write a thing like that'" (165), statements that clearly indicate their acceptance of these values (although one suspects that they have only adopted the political and economic values, since, despite the fact that the hell-bound tr ain stops at "Prostitution Boulevard," their after-hours destination is a cathouse).
Jake never manages to see the problems inherent in his uncritical belief in capitalist bootstraps ideology or to form any kind of meaningful community or interpersonal relationship that would help him to overcome his overwhelming sense of alienation. Indeed, the novel's last section, "Rats' Alley," begins with an epigraph from Eliot's The Waste Land, and it describes a scene as bleak and empty as any in that high-modernist poem. Despite his already large debts, Jake goes another hundred dollars in the hole so that he can finance a night out with his cohorts and play the big-spending high-roller he so idealizes. Jake and his friends cavort and dance with a group of prostitutes "with an obvious exaggeration of motion" (195) in an attempt to distract themselves from their alienation and their emptiness. Wright further underscores the false promises of popular culture: "The music caroled its promise of an unattainable satisfaction and lured him to a land where boundaries receded with each step he took" (203). Wri ght's description here clearly recalls the Sisyphean staircase that opens the novel and points out the impossibility of Jake's ever achieving the kind of success he desires. Even the fleshly pleasures that the house should offer often seem instead like pain. As Blanche, a prostitute that Jake picks up, dances in "orgiastic agony," "a thin black woman grabbed her boy friend and bit his ear till blood came" (205). When, in mid-dance, Blanche tells Jake, "'That's murder, Papa,'" he replies, "'I want to be electrocuted'" (203). Moreover, even this ambiguous sensation turns out to be inauthentic, an empty ruse; Blanche only dances with him so that her partner can pick his pocket. When Jake stumbles drunkenly home and finds that Lil has fallen asleep kneeling in prayer, he assaults her; Lil must stab him in the head with a piece of glass in order to stop his attack. Wright leaves Jake sinking into unconsciousness, circled with "fumes of darkness," feeling like "a black whirlpool was sucking him under," as "outside an icy wind swept around the corner of the building, whining and moaning like an idiot in a deep black pit" (219).
Clearly, Lawd Today! does not end with the revolutionary elan that Mike Gold advocated for the proletarian novel. However, Wright does not leave the door of radical enlightenment completely shut for the characters in this novel. Instead, he holds out hope, however slight, for the possibility of the development of a revolutionary or proletarian or at the very least community-oriented sensibility in Jake and his cronies. In one passage in which all four men speak without dialogue tags to identify the speaker, they achieve a rare moment of potentially meaningful conversation. They remark, "'Ain't it funny how some few folks is rich and just millions is poor? . . . And them few rich folks owns the whole world ... and runs it like they please.. . and the rest ain't got nothing?'" (173). At first, it seems that the men will dismiss this glaring injustice with the typical quasireligious bootstraps fatalism that makes social change seem so untenable; they remark that "'Gawd said the poor'll be with you always. . . an d he was right, too,'" and that "'some folks just ain't got not brains, that's all. If you divided up all the money in the world right now we'd be just where we is tomorrow'" (174). However, the men soon return to the topic of economic and racial oppression, and they even see the Communist Party in a positive light when they remember that "'the Reds sure scared them white folks down South when they put up that fight for the Scottsboro boys'" (176). Even more strikingly, the men begin to exhibit an inkling of community-minded consciousness and a desire, however haltingly expressed, to change the current system. One says that "'a lot of times I been wanting to do things I just wouldn't do. ... And I bet a lot of other folks feel the same way.'" Another responds with "'Now Wait a minute....Now, you see, if all the folks felt like that, why in hell don't they do something?'" "'Ah, hell,'" says another, some guy's got something you want, and you got something he wants, and when you do something you bump into each other ... like you see trains crashing up in the movies.'" However, another of the workers wonders, "'But shucks, if we all was in the same train going in the same direction...'" This line of thought, unfortunately, does not develop far beyond this point; one of the men finally says,"' Aw, man, ain't no sense in talking about things like this,'" and the conversation moves on to other topics (183).
In this brief but significant conversation, Jake, Slim, Al, and Bob demonstrate that their indoctrination into the hegemonic values of acquisitive, individualistic capitalist culture is less than complete, however slightly so. Here, Wright argues that, even in the most apparently irredeemably bourgeois characters, there exists the possibility for an awakening of revolutionary sensibility. In Lawd Today!, rather than offering an oversimplified vision of a romanticized proletariat worker, class-conscious and heroic, struggling against his capitalist oppressors, Wright draws on modernist techniques and themes to paint a complex, unflinching, honest, and sometimes brutal picture of four "common people." These men who feel alienated and hollow after their move to the urban wasteland of Chicago desperately desire something that will lessen their alienation, that will offer some reasonable explanation for their oppressed condition. By showing the pitfalls that lake encounters when he loses the cultural traditions th at helped to sustain him in the South--such as an equally wholehearted belief in the "spirit realm," in the evilness of radicalism, and in the American success myth--Wright both offers us and, perhaps more importantly, sought to offer his 1930s comrades, a better, more complicated and complete vision of how actual common people might feel about society and their position in it, a vision that Communist organizers could use to determine how best to nurture that seed of proletarian consciousness -- perhaps, as he would later suggest, by attempting to re-establish some of those forms of community disrupted by urban Depression life. Notes
(1.) I am citing the version of Lawd Today! collected in Arnold Rampersad's Richard Wright: Early Works (1991). Rampersad's edition is based on a completed typescript dating from 1937-1938, the latest version of the work that we know of, and the one that apparently Incorporates Wrights handwritten revisions on earlier drafts. The original edition of the book was emended by its editors at Walker and Company, who made substantial changes to Wright's "experimental punctuation, capitalzation, and usage, and ... also introduced a number of verbal changes, particularly to eliminate words considered obscene and to regularize colloquialisms" (909). Rampersad also restored the exclamation point to the title.
(2.) A few very early critics championed Lawd Today!. William Burrison, in "Another Look at Lawd Today Richard Wright's Tricky Apprenticeships" argues that Wright achieves a formal unity in the novel through his use of the "trickster motif' and the repeated use of the number three. In "Lawd Today Richard Wright's First/Last Novel," Lewis Leary argues that Lawd Today! stands "securely on its own merits" as a portrayal of "the essential bleakness of black life" (412).
(3.) Wright became a member of the John Reed Club in 1933, although he did not actually Join the Communist Party until 1934.
(4.) Like Don Graham. Linda Hamalian has also noted the modernist--specifically Eliotic--influence on Lawd Today!. In "Other Writers, Other Looms: Richard Wright's Use of Epigraphs in Two Novels," she focuses on how the modernist epigraphs that Wright uses to introduce his chapters help illuminate themes; however, she argues that, while "the texture of a rather thin novel is enriched by its accompanying thematic allusion ... the reader may feel that Wright allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the pessimism of his sources. He was either ignorant of or indifferent to the other side of Black life that Langston Hughes often celebrates in his poetry" (78).
(5.) Timothy P. Caron's essay " 'The Reds are in the Bible Room': Political Activism and the Bible in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children," in which Caron examines how Wright links Christian and Communist ideals, is an interesting and insightful recent example of this approach.
(6.) A number of other recent critics have followed Foley's lead. C. Barry Chabot argues that, while "the proletarian writers of the thirties are typically thought to be an interruption of literary modernism In the United States," in fact "self-consciously proletarian writers produced a variant within American literary modernism, not an alternative to it" (215). Valentine Cunningham similarly asserts that 'no hard and fast divide existed in the thirties along the lines conventional literary-historical storytelling is prone to suggest'; there is no "clear-cut opposition between realism and modernism, socialists and modernists, social realism and Joyceanism" (14). Alan Filreis's Modernism from Right to Left studies the relationship between Wallace Stevens and various radical poets, and Betsy Erkkila's "Elizabeth Bishop, Modernism, and the Left" examines Bishop's work in a political context in order to "challenge traditional--and gendered--readings not only of Bishop but of literary modernism itself" (284).
(7.) In the May 1936 issue of Partisan Review, Sydney Justin Harris published an article entitled "Letter from Chicago," in which he lamented that, "out of this city which promised to become the intellectual hub of the Middle West, the past many years have produced nothing but sterility and superficial sophistication" (23). Harris cites the lack of significant literary output (he takes particular and understandable glee in mocking a cookbook composed of recipes submitted by the local literati) as well as city policies that ban New Masses and controversial plays such as Tobacco Road and The Children's Crusade. Harris asserts that Chicago has only one literary clique, a "corset of culture," "sealed and cemented" by their reactionary ideals; Esquire, in particular, "ignor[es] the wealth of revolutionary literature in America today" (23). He criticizes one prominent editor who dismisses a leftist critique of Ezra Pound as a "merely economic issue," an action that he believes characterizes the Chicago literary sce ne's attitude toward class struggle. He regrets that these editors, poets, and critics "influence the literary tastes and opinions of millions of readers in Chicago, the Middle West, and, as in Esquire and Poetry, the entire country. It is they who obfuscate the real issues of the day with their chatter of 'immortality' and 'intelligent patriotism' and 'beauty' and 'latter-day sophistication'" (24).
Harris's article prompted Richard Wright to respond in a letter to the editor. Wright claims that in some ways the situation in Chicago is even worse than Harris describes it: "The truth of the matter is, some of the things are much blacker than Harris paints. Most of the young writers and artists with a tinge of talent flee this city as if it were on fire." However, he does argue that Harris neglects a few "young writers and artists who stand clear of the mire he paints." Moreover, he takes exception to the inclusion of one artist in particular, playwright and sometime Esquire reviewer Meyer Levin, in Harris's "dismal gallery." Though Levin does not receive extensive critique from Harris, Harris does number him among those who are insufficiently concerned with proletarian struggle and too concerned with decadent aesthetics. Wright challenges Harris by asserting Levin's Communist credentials: He notes that Levin "is a member of the League of American writers, an organization which commits its members to a str uggle through their craft against war, against Fascism, for the protection of national minority groups and for the preservation of culture." Moreover, he points out that Levin "has been active in the left-wing theatre movement in Chicago," and that his play Model Tenant, about a rent strike, was prohibited from being performed because it was too "Red." Wright's defense of Levin here seems to indicate that he felt that radical political beliefs and more aesthetic concerns could coexist quite peacefully.
Aaron, Daniel. "Richard Wright and the Communist Party." Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. Ed. David Ray and Robert M. Farnsworth. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1973. 35-46.
Blair, Sara. "Modernism and the Politics of Culture." The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Ed. Michael Levenson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 157-73.
Burrison, William. "Another Look at Lawd Today: Richard Wright's Tricky Apprenticeship." CLA Journal 29 (1986): 424-41.
Chabot, C. Barry. Writers for the Nation: American Literary Modernism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997.
Cunningham, Valentine. "The Age of Anxiety and Influence; or, Tradition and the Thirties Talents." Rewriting the Thirties: Modernism and After. Ed. Keith Williams and Steve Matthews. London: Longman, 1997. 5-22.
Erkkila, Betsy. "Elizabeth Bishop, Modernism, and the Left" American Literary History 8 (1996): 284-310.
Fabre, Michael. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Trans. Isabel Barzun. 2d ed. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.
Filreis, Alan. Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Ford, Nick Aaron. "The Fire Next Time?: A Critical Survey of Belles Lettres by and About Negroes Published in 1963." Reilly 367-68.
Graham, Don B. "Lawd Today and the Example of The Waste Land." CLA Journal 17 (1974): 327-32.
Gold, Mike. "Proletarian Fiction." Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology. Ed. Michael Folsom. New York: International, 1972. 205-09.
Hakutani, Yoshinobu. "Richard Wright and American Literary Naturalism." Zeitschrift 36.3 (1988): 217-26.
Hamalian, Linda. "Other Voices, Other Looms: Richard Wright's Use of Epigraphs in Two Novels." Obsidian II 3.3 (1988): 72-88.
Hicks, Granville. "Dreiser to Farrell to Wright." Reilly 363-65.
Leary, Lewis. "Lawd today: Richard Wright's First/Last Novel." CLA Journal l5 (1971): 411-19.
Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.
Miller, Eugene A. Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.
Phillips, William (Wallace Phelps). "Three Generations." Partisan Review 1.4 (1934): 52-53.
Rahv, Phillip. Rev, of Winner Take Nothing, by Ernest Hemingway. Partisan Review 1.1 (1934): 58.
Reilly, John M., ed. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. New York: Burt Franklin, 1978.
Sanders, Mark A. Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.
Seaver, Edwin. "What is a Proletarian Novel?: Notes Toward a Definition." Partisan Review 2.2 (1935): 5-7.
Teres, Harvey M. Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Werner, Craig. Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger). 1945. New York: New American Library, 1993.
-----. "Blueprint for Negro Writing." 1938. Richard Wright Reader. Ed. Ellen Wright and Michael Fabre. New York: Harper, 1978. 36-50,
-----. Early Works: Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991.
-----. "Letter to the Editor." Partisan Review and Anvil 3 (June 1936): 30.
Brannon Costello is a doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee. He specializes in American literature from the late nineteenth century to the present, with a particular interest in the intersections of race and class in twentieth-century Southern literature. He has published essays on such writers as Walker Percy. Eudora Welty, and Henry James.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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