The Loeb and Leopold Case: a neglected source for Richard Wright's native son.
Richard Wright, who had strong appetites for detective fiction and film noir movies, had a life-long fascination with criminal behavior and its causes. (1) When explaining some of the "sources" (43) of Native Son in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," he began by describing how Bigger was modeled in certain ways on five young black men from his childhood and adolescence in Mississippi who were rebellious lawbreakers whom he both admired and feared. Each was the product of an unjust social system, and Wright envied their ability to lash out against a segregated world that frustrated many of their most human impulses. But Wright also drew away from these figures since their violent behavior brought them to terrifying ends; each wound up as dead, incarcerated, or insane. These five prototypes for Bigger paid a substantial price for violating the taboos of a repressive society, but each also left a lasting imprint on Wright's consciousness, becoming a kind of photographic "negative" ("How 'Bigger'" 440) that would be developed in Native Son.
Throughout his life Wright's fascination with rebellious lawbreakers would catalyze some of his most important work. Novels such as Native Son, The Outsider, and Savage Holiday as well as stories such as "The Man Who Killed A Shadow," Down by the Riverside," and "The Man Who Lived Underground" focus on central characters forced into criminal behavior either by a repressive society or the macabre compulsions of their innermost nature. At several points in his career Wright carefully studied actual criminal behavior and incorporated his findings in his creative writings. His work with teenage gangs in New York and Chicago helped to shape certain aspects of Native Son and Black Boy and resulted in his writing Rite of Passage, a nouvelle about juvenile delinquency. The Robert Nixon case, in which a young black man from Chicago murdered a white woman by crushing her skull with a brick took place in 1938 when Wright was halfway through the composition of Native Son and stirred his imagination deeply. His careful study of the news accounts, which Margaret Walker mailed to him over a year's time, played an important role in Wright's construction of Bigger's character, and Wright inserted several of these news accounts from the Chicago papers into the novel. In the same way, Wright became strongly involved both as a person and a writer in the case of Clinton Brewer, a black man serving a life sentence for stabbing to death a woman who had refused his offer of marriage, and this crime became a source for Savage Holiday, written late in Wright's career and dedicated to Brewer. (2)
The Loeb and Leopold case, which Wright followed in the Jackson, Mississippi, newspapers when it erupted as "the crime of the century" in 1924 (Rowley 153), was another source that Wright used consciously in his fiction. He made elaborate use of it in Native Son, which he was just beginning to imagine when public interest in the case was rejuvenated in 1936: the year that Loeb was brutally murdered in prison. (3) When Wright was half-finished with the first draft of Native Son in November 1938, he visited Margaret Walker in Chicago, and the two researched what he thought necessary to complete the novel. They not only visited Ulysses S. Keys, Nixon's lawyer, and went to the Cook County Jail where Nixon was incarcerated, but they also made a trip to a Chicago library where Wright searched for books on the Loeb/Leopold case. As Walker observed in Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius,</p> <pre> The next day we went to the library and, on my library card, checked out two books we found on the Loeb/Leopold case and on Clarence Darrow, their lawyer. The lawyer's defense of Bigger in Native Son was
modeled after Darrow's defense. Wright took so long to send those
books back that I wrote him a hot letter reminding him that I had not borrowed those books permanently! He finished Native Son early in the spring of 1939 and wrote to me that he never worked so hard before in all his life, often staying up till 3 A. M. (125). </pre> <p>Although much has been written on Wright's use of the Nixon case in Native Son, very little attention has been paid to his use of the Loeb/Leopold murder and trial even though they played a more prominent role in the shaping of Wright's masterpiece. (4) A careful examination of Native Son and the Loeb/Leopold case reveals previously unexamined parallels between the two, from which we can perceive sharp ironies that arise from Wright's powerfully inversive imagination. The Loeb/Leopold case, therefore, is a critically important source for Wright that holds a key to his thinking not only about the particular plight of black people in America but also about the problems of modern existence in general.
A survey of outstanding physical similarities between the fictional account of Bigger Thomas and the actual story of Loeb and Leopold clearly establishes Wright's intentional use of this infamous case in the writing of Native Son. Wright portrays the Daltons as living in Kenwood, in the 4600 block of Drexel Boulevard, which Bessie reveals to Bigger as "that section not far from where the Loeb folks lived" (136). Wright's Bessie has worked in that area often as a domestic, she is quite familiar with the Loeb/ Leopold case and, as she describes it to Bigger, she unintentionally inspires him to seek ransom from the Daltons in exactly the same amount as the ransom demanded from the Franks family. Moreover, the actual killings of Bobby Franks and Mary Dalton are strikingly similar in a number of significant ways. Both young people were innocent victims of chance, both were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and both were suffocated to death. Although Franks was initially dazed by blows to the head with a chisel, the coroner established that his death was caused by "suffocation" (Higdon 54) when a rag soaked in chloroform was stuffed in his mouth to keep him quiet. Bigger likewise suffocates Mary with a pillow to silence her. The bodies of both victims were mutilated, as Loeb and Leopold poured hydrochloric acid over Franks's face, torso and genitals, and Bigger decapitated Mary and incinerated her corpse in a furnace. (The comparisons between such mutilations and the destruction of the body in a lynching would surely not have passed Wright's notice.) Bobby Franks's corpse was stuffed in a rain culvert and his clothes burned in the furnace of the Leopold mansion, a clear parallel to Bigger's stuffing Mary's body in the Dalton's basement furnace and then burning her body and clothing. And Bigger, Loeb, and Leopold were all caught shortly after their crimes were committed because they so poorly disposed of the remains of their victims. Bobby Franks's body was discovered the day after his abduction when a laborer saw his foot protruding from the culvert, and Mary's charred skeleton is discovered when Bigger neglects to clean ashes from the furnace, thereby causing smoke to fill the Dalton basement and to draw attention to her bones there.
The ransom notes used in both killings are also remarkably similar in content, although quite different in style. Loeb's carefully worded, logically structured note reveals both his privileged education and his cold amorality while Bigger's barely literate note reflects the fact that his world has provided him with little or no formal schooling. But the substance of the two notes is surprisingly similar since a $10,000 ransom is demanded in both, and the parents of each victim are instructed to place the money in a box (a cigar box for Loeb and Leopold and a shoe box for Bigger) and then to drop the money at an assigned place from a moving vehicle (a train in the historical case and an automobile in Wright's fictional narrative). Both notes make it abundantly clear that the kidnapped person will be kept alive only if these written instructions are followed scrupulously.
The trials in each narrative also share a number of significant outward similarities as they receive sensationalistic newspaper coverage that stirs Chicago's violent racism. Loeb and Leopold were Jews and their trial known to many as "the Jewish trial," whereas Wright's Bigger is, of course, black. Howling mobs calling for the deaths of the defendants form a sick chorus for each trial, and the Ku Klux Klan bums a cross outside of Bigger's cell in Wright's fiction and, in actuality, places a crude skull and crossbones on a porch across the street from the Franks's home, announcing, "If the court don't hang them, we will" (Higdon 233). Max's fictional defense is almost a carbon copy of Darrow's historical defense, as both attorneys opt for a guilty plea to avoid a jury trial and to place maximum moral pressure on a single man, the judge.
Furthermore, Max and Darrow premise their legal strategies on strongly deterministic grounds, arguing that the crimes committed were produced by unhealthy social environments that emotionally distorted their clients and stunted their human development. For Darrow, the key determinants that shaped his clients' criminal actions were chance, genetics, and a privileged background that at once eroded moral character and promoted intellectual growth. For Max, the environmental factors controlling Bigger's behavior are racism, chance, and poverty. Max and Darrow argue forcibly that environmental forces overwhelmed the consciousness, free will and moral sense of the defendants, forcing them into violent acts that they did not fully understand or control. Just as Max pleads that the "fundamental problem" Bigger faced was his emergence "from an oppressed people" (294), Darrow stressed that the natural and social factors conditioning Loeb and Leopold were "infinite forces" (Darrow 21) beyond their understanding and control. While Max argues that Bigger was victimized by a "mode of life" that was "stunted and distorted" (389), Darrow would make the same claims for his clients. And when Darrow cries out to Judge Caverly that Loeb and Leopold "did not beget themselves" (Darrow 23), Max would apply the same idea to Bigger.
Hazel Rowley has recently observed that Wright had Darrow's Defense of Loeb and Leopold on his writing desk as he composed Native Son (153). The truth of this statement can be understood when one compares the actual and fictional discourses used respectively by Darrow and Max in court. When Darrow began the preliminary hearing by substituting a guilty plea for his early plea of not guilty, he told Judge Caverly: "Your honor, after long and honest deliberation I have determined to make a motion in this court to withdraw our plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty" (Higdon 163). Max uses comparable diction and syntax during Bigger's hearing: "After long reflection and thorough discussion, we have made a motion in court ... to withdraw our plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty" (370). Darrow advised the judge that the defense would offer "evidence of the mental condition of the defendants" in order "to show the degree of responsibility that they had" as a way of mitigating their offense, emphasizing the "youth" (Higdon 165) of his clients. Max uses very similar words to express the same idea to the fictional judge: "I shall endeavor to show the mental and emotional attitude of the boy and the degree of responsibility he had in the crime," and he, too, stresses his intention to "offer evidence to the youth of this boy" (371). In their summations both lawyers express nearly identical ideas and similar words and phrases. Darrow reminds Judge Caverly that he has put "a serious burden on your shoulders" (Darrow 9) by obviating a jury trial and thus putting the entire moral weight of the decision on a single man rather than on 12 jurors. Max likewise tells the judge in Native Son, "I am not insensitive to the deep burden of responsibility on your shoulders" (383), clearly hoping to deepen the judge's awareness of the moral complexities of capital punishment. Darrow's assistant, Benjamin Bachrach, used language in his plea before the judge that the death penalty not be imposed; Wright uses a close parallel for Max's plea that Bigger's life be spared. While Bachrach says, "Your honor ... let these boys live" (Higdon 242), Max cries out, "Your honor, give this boy life" (405).
When arguing their respective clients" motives, Darrow and Max employ similar concepts, words, and phrases. Darrow tells Judge Caverly, "This is a senseless, useless, purposeless, motiveless act of two boys.... There was absolutely no purpose in it at all, no reason in it at all, no motive in it at all" (Darrow 14), thereby arguing that his clients acted as mentally diseased young men mechanically driven by misshapen social impulses. Max makes a comparable point to Judge Hanley: "What was the motive.... The truth is, your honor, there is no motive as you and I understand motives within the scope of our laws" (399). Like Darrow, the fictional attorney views the violent actions of his client as arising from environmentally induced reflexes that have nothing to do with conscious motivation.
The rhetoric employed by the State's Attorneys in both instances also reveals important similarities. Robert Crowe at one point characterizes Loeb and Leopold as "fiendish" (Crowe 136) while Wright's Buckley refers to Bigger as a "miserable fiend" (407). Both men also attack the respective defendants by alluding to unproven sexual perversions. On many occasions during the historical trial Crowe labeled Loeb and Leopold as "perverts" (Crowe 92) just as Buckley describes Bigger as a "maddened ape," a "treacherous beast" who not only has raped Mary but then burned her body to cover up "offenses worse than rape" (412). Although, like Crowe, the fictional prosecutor has no solid evidence of sexual violation of the respective victims, he accuses Bigger of "obnoxious sexual perversions" (410). And just as Crowe inflamed the actual court by describing the murder of Bobby Franks as "the greatest, the most important, and atrocious killing that ever happened in the State of Illinois or the United States" (Crowe 174), Buckley characterizes Bigger's killing of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears as "two of the most horrible murders in the history of American civilization" (374).
Other material similarities between the two trials abound. Buckley and Crowe each call on an inordinate number of witnesses, clear overkill considering that they were not presenting to a jury and that the defendants had already confessed and pled guilty to murder. And they sensationalized the hearing and trial by organizing grand tours of the crime scenes that had been lavishly reported in newspapers and magazines. Wright depicts Bigger as like Loeb in fainting when confronted with damaging evidence. But the most important similarity between the actual and the fictional trials is the vision shared by defense attorneys who saw the personal disasters of their respective clients as a reflection of the larger cultural calamities experienced by modern society. Each viewed his trial as a pivot on a line in history dividing barbarism from civilization. Darrow reminded Judge Caverly that he must choose between a brutal societal past that executes people instead of rehabilitating them and a more humane future in which the "disease" (Darrow 74) of crime would be rationally diagnosed and cured. For Wright, Max likewise argues that we are poised between "the night of fear" and the "light of reason" (383). If the pathological environment that spawns Bigger's violence is not understood and transformed, it will deteriorate further, resulting in the collapse of civilization, turning US history into a "wheel of blood" (392). Toward the end of his summation Darrow uses a very similar metaphor to describe the violent, anarchic world spawned by World War I as a collapsed civilization "drenched in blood" (Darrow 77).
These outward, rhetorical likenesses between the narrative of Bigger's crime and the Loeb/Leopold story establish a clear pattern that indicates Wright's conscious use of these legal materials to develop themes important in Native Son. Much more significant, however, are the comparisons between Bigger, Loeb, and Leopold as individuals and distinctively modern figures. For just as Loeb and Leopold had committed what most people at the time believed was a horrible new kind of crime that reflected the anarchy and amorality of modern life, Bigger is presented by Wright as a new kind of literary figure whose story illustrates in a bold and lucid way the central problems of American history and modern culture.
Although their social and economic backgrounds appear to be so radically different as to preclude meaningful comparisons, there are many striking similarities between Wright's character and Darrow's clients. To begin with, they are approximately the same age: when convicted, Loeb and Leopold were 19 years old, and Bigger is judged in court to be 20. All three had lonely childhoods, suffering from what Paula Fass describes in her characterization of Leopold as "fragile loneliness" (933). Bigger's loss of his father in a southern race riot traumatizes him at an early age, and Leopold's loss of his mother at age 17 had what Hal Higdon described as a "profound effect" (66) on him since she was the only person in his family to whom he was emotionally close. Loeb was outwardly very sociable but inwardly a loner who established very few genuinely close ties with people. Likewise, at one point in Book 3, Bigger reveals to Max, "I don't reckon I was ever in love with nobody" (352). Except for their own twisted relationship with one another and Leopold's relationship with his mother, Darrow's clients could say roughly the same thing. This lack of intimacy with family and friends made all three figures coldly detached from other people.
This detachment, of course, is dramatically revealed in their motives for and reactions to their killings. Loeb and Leopold, who greatly admired (and conveniently misunderstood) the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and saw themselves as ubermenschen above the law, explained their murder of Bobby Franks as a carefully planned exercise, a "thrill killing" that gave them a sense of excitement and power. At the trial Loeb revealed that during the murder he had experienced a "great excitement" that was "pleasant" (Higdon 154). In precisely the same way, Bigger enjoys a perverse "elation" (107) from his killing of Mary Dalton and a "queer sense of power" (239) when he murders Bessie. Bigger deludedly thinks that his violence will provide him with a "new life" (105), as Loeb also thought his crimes had given him a triumphant "new life" (Higdon 127), and liberated him from conventional morality.
Wright apparently borrowed from the psychological profiles of Loeb and Leopold drawn in court by Darrow's expert witnesses to construct Bigger's mental condition. All three are split personalities who compensate for an unsatisfying outward life by indulging in wild fantasies associated with excitement, power, and rebellion. Wright stresses in Native Son that "There were two Biggers" (252)--a passive outer self and a turbulent inner self. For this reason, there are two basic "rhythms" of his life, "indifference and violence" (Native Son 29). Dr. William Healy, one of Darrow's expert witnesses or "alienists," suggested this same division in Loeb's character, classifying him as a "pathological split personality" (Higdon 217), a strange combination of brutal killer and mama's boy who at one point explained that he blamed his partner for the murder because "mompsie" (Leopold 57) would be disappointed if he were revealed as the killer. Leopold made a similar assessment of his friend's personality many years later in the autobiography he wrote in prison, stating that Loeb was "an infinitely complex mixture" who had "fundamental contradictions in his character" (Leopold 26). He observed that Loeb at times demonstrated a sunny, affable persona but had "that other side to him" (Leopold 26) that enabled him coldly to plan and execute the murder of an innocent 14-year-old boy without evincing any remorse. Leopold himself was also a curious "mixture," a noted young authority on birds that he treated with considerable tenderness and understanding, but also a remorseless killer who could snicker in court about his crimes. Like Bigger, he repressed his "tender emotions" because they made him aware of his own human inadequacies, his inability to translate these feelings into successful human relationships.
All three figures luxuriated in elaborate fantasy lives that gave them delusions of power and directed their macabre split personalities. Bigger richly enjoys this part of himself whom nobody else, particularly whites, perceive, the icy killer who can deprive the rich white world of its most cherished symbol, the beautiful white girl on the pedestal the boss's daughter of the Alger myth. As Ross Pudaloff has observed, Bigger enacts the role of the tough gangster who kills without mercy after he has absorbed this figure from popular films and detective fiction (4). Loeb's fantasy life was likewise fed by his nearly compulsive reading of crime magazine city gangsters and dime novel western desperadoes. Like him, Bigger compensates for an outwardly disappointing life by Imagining himself as a tough guy performing the perfect crime. Loeb felt much more comfortable in prison than Leopold did because such a life enabled him to prolong his fantasies of himself as a Chicago gangster, a romantic alter-ego to his previous life as a pampered rich boy, whom Darrow described once in court as a "hothouse plant" (Darrow 38).
Leopold's fantasy life was more elaborate than Loeb's or Bigger's, but it performed an identical psychological function. Avowedly ashamed of his poor health and slight physical build and stunted by the conventional life laid out for him by his parents and his social standing, he cultivated for many years a "king-slave fantasy" (Higdon 210), in which he envisioned himself sometimes as a powerful, Spartacus-like slave who would save his master by performing extraordinary feats of physical prowess. At other times, he assumed the role of king, a titanic figure situated majestically above the law.
To nourish such active fantasy lives all three figures deeply enjoyed reading newspaper accounts of their crimes. Bigger becomes greatly excited by the news reports of Mary Dalton's death because, for the first time in his life, it puts an end to his anonymity and gives him a sense of himself as an important person who can compel the attention of thousands of people. He purchases a copy of the Chicago Tribune so that he can read about "his story" (222), exulting in the fact that his life has acquired public importance. He takes particular pleasure in seeing "his picture" (223) in the paper, realizing that large numbers of people will finally notice him. Later in Book 3, while escaping the police, he risks capture by actually stealing a newspaper from a drugstore. Although the news account reveals he is hopelessly trapped and will soon be arrested, he takes a curious pleasure in reading about himself as he is caught in the public eye. Loeb and Leopold also enjoyed the limelight given to them in the newspapers, and escalated their crimes in part so that they could attain more press attention. In fact, Loeb actually followed reporters for days after the crime, giving them tips and false leads, getting intense psychological pleasure not only from seeing his exploits reported in the paper but from actually participating n the construction of news reports. Even after he was caught and sentenced, Loeb derived enormous satisfaction from being interviewed by reporters and providing them with reliable copy. He once jokingly claimed that he had considered committing suicide in prison but decided not to because he would be unable to read news accounts of it the next day (Higdon 290).
By thus connecting Bigger with two other men from vastly different social and economic circumstances, Wright makes an important point about capitalism in America, namely that it corrupted and alienated all levels of society, regardless of race and class. As a Marxist and a Communist, Wright asserted that materialism and selfishness had infected modern society from top to bottom, producing a deep alienation and moral vacuum that threatened modern civilization with anarchy and violence. Just as Mary Dalton and Bigger Thomas are finally shown as more alike than different as two "crazy" young people who cannot relate to the empty world that they have inherited and try to find meaning in rebellious acts of breaking taboos of many kinds, so too are Loeb, Leopold, and Bigger tragically alike as victims of similarly dehumanizing environments. (5) Darrow stresses that fabulous affluence has deadened Loeb and Leopold just as Wright reveals that terrible poverty has victimized Bigger. Midway through his summation Darrow claimed that "it is just as often a great misfortune to be the child of the rich as it is to be the child of the poor" (Darrow 47), arguing that his clients' "hothouse" (Darrow 48) lives prevented them from developing as normal human beings.
Leopold's description in Life Plus 99 Years of Loeb's motives for carrying out a murderous "perfect crime" bears a remarkable resemblance to Wright's explanation of Bigger's criminal behavior in Native Son. Although he hesitates to give a definitive explanation of Loeb's complex motivations, he does point out that "Dick's basic motive, I think, must be sought in his basic personality--in what he was, in how he was conditioned. Primarily, I think it was a kind of revolt--an over-reaction against the strictness of the governess who had charge of him until he was fifteen. A basic feeling of inferiority, maybe; a desire to show that he could do things and bring them to a successful end on his own" (50). Wright, likewise, stresses that Bigger explodes into violence because he sees it as a mode of action enabling him to overcome the impotence imposed upon him by conventional society. Killing Mary Dalton and successfully extorting money from her wealthy parents provides him with deep psychological satisfactions because, like Loeb, he experiences criminal action as a mode of "revolt" against a "basic feeling of inferiority."
Loeb, Leopold, and Bigger, therefore, become for Wright troubling reflections of a modern world that has dissolved but not replaced traditional ethics. As Wright stresses in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," "Bigger Thomas was not black all the time; he was white too" (441). In a "world whose metaphysical meanings had vanished" (446) because of war, depression, revolutions, and other traumatic events of modern history, political figures such as Hitler and Mussolini could enact on a large public scale the crimes that Bigger, Loeb, and Leopold commit on a personal level. Terrifying violence and anarchy, for Wright, knew no racial or national limits but infected modern society on all levels.
Significantly, when Wright describes peculiarly modern problems in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," he employs language that vividly recalls the rhetoric used to describe the killings of Bobby Franks, Mary Dalton, and Bessie Mears:</p> <pre> It was a highly geared world whose
nature was conflict and action, a world whose limited area and vision imperiously urged men to satisfy their organisms, a world that existed on a plane of animal sensation alone. It was a world where millions of men behaved like drunkards, taking a
stiff drink of hard life to lift them for a thrilling moment, to give them a quivering sense of wild exultation and fulfillment
that soon faded and let them down. Eagerly they took another drink, wanting to avoid the dull, flat look of things, then still another, this time stronger, and then they felt their lives had meaning. Speaking figuratively, they were soon chronic alcoholics, men who lived by violence, through extreme action and sensation,
through drowning in sensation (446, emphasis mine). </pre> <p>Such a world of "conflict and action" reduces men to "drunkards" who live on "animal sensation alone," avoiding "the dull flat look of things"; it produces not only individuals such as Bigger Thomas, Richard Loeb, and Nathan Leopold but also the cataclysmic disruptions of "Nazi Germany and old Russia" (446). When people and whole nations try to find "meaning" through "violence" and other forms of "extreme action and sensation," they might temporarily experience "a quivering sense of wild exultation" in "a thrilling moment," but ultimately this excitement fades, and nations and individuals collapse into anarchy and death. Like his favorite writer Fyodor Dostoevski, Wright understood that while a permissive society might be attractive in the short run, in the long run it experienced madness, despair, and cultural collapse. (6)
In the second paragraph of "How Bigger' Was Born" Wright describes the sources of his imaginative writing as being rooted in a mixture of deeply personal and verifiable public reality: "In a fundamental sense, an Imaginative novel represents the merging of two extremes; it is an intensely intimate expression on the part of consciousness couched in terms of the most objective and commonly known events. It is at once something private and public by its very nature and texture" (433). The Loeb/Leopold case, along with the Robert Nixon murder and the Scottsboro trial, were extremely significant to Wright because they weighted Native Son in "public," historically verifiable events that provided the novel with an authority and resonance it otherwise would not have possessed. But Wright did not use these factual materials in a mainly literal way as Meyer Levin did in Compulsion, a roman a clef mirroring historical reality and using lightly disguised actual people in its cast of characters. While Levin's documentary novel is now quite dated because it is too firmly tied to the elements of a legal case that took place 80 years ago, Wright's Native Son continues to live vibrantly as a work of art because it transforms "objective and commonly known events" into a durable work of art by filtering them through Wright's unique "consciousness." In the process, it expresses a special vision of African American life that continues to speak powerfully today. To use Henry Louis Gates's term, Wright "signifies" on historical materials from mainstream culture, altering them until they express a "black difference" (xxvii). Or to cite Wright's own language in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," he took materials from white culture and then "twisted them, bent them, adapted them until they became my ways of apprehending the locked-in life of the Black Belt areas" (443). (In a very comparable manner, an African American jazz or blues musician might use a popular white song and then bend, twist, and adapt its lyrics and notes to shape a uniquely black sound and meaning.)
Placing Bigger's narrative alongside the Loeb/Leopold story, one immediately recognizes bitter ironies that Wright generates by juxtaposition, ironies that go to the very core of Wright's vision of African American life. For while Darrow's "boys" were young white men from wealthy, powerful families, Bigger is poor and black, and this difference ultimately accounts for his death by electrocution while his white counterparts go on living. They live even though they have in actuality committed far worse crimes and demonstrate absolutely no remorse in either their hearing or trial. Bigger's "fate" is sealed in the very moment he is arrested, but Loeb and Leopold go to prison expecting at some point in the future to be paroled, an assumption that Darrow shared. (Indeed, Leopold was paroled in 1958, due to the intervention of such influential people as Adlai Stevenson and Carl Sandburg; he spent the rest of his life living comfortably in Puerto Rico.)
Wright constructs Native Son such that at a critical point in Bigger's trial when Max is challenged by Buckley to provide a precedent for his defense of Bigger, the defense attorney points significantly to the Loeb/Leopold case and then asks: "Shall we deny this boy, because he is poor and black the same protections, the same chance to be heard and understood, that we have so readily granted to others?" (376) In Native Son the answer to this question is a depressing "yes." Bigger clearly is not given the "same chance to be understood and heard" because he is black; what Buckley describes as his "black crimes" (375) will be punished in only one way, with death. Even though Bigger is not guilty of the murder for which he is charged whereas Loeb and Leopold confessed to what Judge Caverly described as "a crime of singular atrocity" (Caverly 150), the two white defendants evade the death penalty and Bigger is sent inevitably to the electric chair.
The millionaire parents of Loeb and Leopold could afford what was called at the time the "million dollar defense" presided over by the most distinguished defense attorney in America, himself assisted by other well-established attorneys as well as a team of research assistants and a series of extremely expensive expert witnesses who included Dr. William A. White, then head of the American Psychiatric Association. (The families of Loeb and Leopold were also willing to pay Sigmund Freud to serve as an expert witness, but he declined because of failing health [Higdon 139].)
Conversely, Bigger must settle for a bare bones defense. His attorney, Boris Max, is a despised Communist whose main goal, at least initially, is to protect the reputation of the Communist Party. He does not possess the financial resources to hire research assistants, other lawyers, or specialists who can testify to Bigger's mental condition or capacity to act responsibly. Indeed, Max is Bigger's only witness, and some of his testimony worsens Bigger's case. When Max explains to the judge that Bigger exulted over killing his victims and that his crimes were "an act of creation" (400), for example, he unwittingly weakens Bigger's case. When Wright depicts Max as employing some of the legal strategies that Darrow used successfully, particularly his stressing the youth of his client and the environmental pressures on him, he further posits that these strategies fail to evoke the judge's understanding or his sympathy for the black defendant. While Judge Caverly is reduced to tears by Darrow's eloquent summation, Judge Hanley in Native Son is absolutely unmoved by Max's pleas for mercy. Although Loeb and Leopold misbehaved grotesquely through the trial, showing no remorse but instead snickering, rolling their eyes and even chuckling when their victim's abused body was described, they became what Higdon has labeled "celebrities" (241) to many people and were actually viewed by young flappers as romantic figures. Bigger, who remains "numb" (331) and remorseful for the majority of his trial, draws sympathy only from Max, Jan, and his family members, all the while berated by mobs howling for his death.
The final statements made by the respective judges in each trial also demonstrate Bigger's discrimination by the law. Judge Caverly, who suffered what could be termed a nervous breakdown a few weeks after the trial, offered a tortured and detailed explanation of his decision not to impose the death penalty, citing the age of "boys of eighteen and nineteen years" (Caverly 151) as the mitigating circumstance, while agonizing over "the broad question of human responsibility" (Caverly 150). Again, approximately the same age as Loeb and Leopold, Bigger receives no such understanding, mercy, or moral agonizing. The judge in Native Son hands out his verdict in the coldest possible way as his final remarks formulaically elicit Bigger's final statements before he declares that "Number 666-983" will receive the death penalty "in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state" (417). The laws eased for the privileged white criminals who long continued to see themselves as above the law, are harshly applied to Bigger with full lethal force. In the final analysis, Max is exactly (W)right when he claims that Bigger's very "existence" is considered a "crime against the state" (400).
Caverly's argument for the mitigating fact of Loeb and Leopold's youth brings up another brutal irony. A central part of Darrow's defense was the age of his clients, to whom he referred in court as "boys" while frequently using their juvenile nicknames, Dickie and Babe, respectively. (In contrast, the prosecution referred as often to "Mr. Loeb" and "Mr. Leopold," and treated them as adults.) Defense attorney Walter Bachrach at one point in the trial implored the judge to "Let these boys live!" (Higdon 242). Years later, when Nathan Leopold sought parole, he relied on the same logic that Darrow and Bachrach used at his trial, claiming that the murder of Bobby Franks was the "act of a child" (Higdon 312), and therefore should not be punished with the full weight of the law. He assured his parole board that he had fully repented of his crime and that, as a mature man, he was incapable of further acts of violence. Although he agreed with Darrow that he and Loeb were "diseased children" (Darrow 16) when they committed their crimes, he emphasized that he had grown morally in jail and was no danger to society.
Bigger is also referred to throughout his trial as a "boy" by Max, Mr. Dalton, and Buckley but with devastatingly different results: his youthful status earns him no special legal status. Quite to the contrary, the word boy worsens matters for him, evoking the age-old stereotype of the irresponsible, unpredictably violent black male who can never grow up and therefore can never be rehabilitated in prison so that he can become, as Leopold later claimed about himself, a reformed man and an exemplary citizen.
In his autobiography Life Plus 99 Years, Leopold argued, convincingly to some, that prison transformed him Into a morally responsible, civic-minded adult who could and would make valuable contributions to society if paroled. In statements made later, when he lived comfortably in Puerto Rico, he often used himself as a living example of the evils of capital punishment because he was able to undergo a transformation of character as an adult and could therefore lead a useful life of service to others. In prison he had organized a school for inmates and risked his life serving as a volunteer in a medical experiment designed to develop a cure for malaria. In Puerto Rico he continued such a life of service, working in hospitals, doing research on birds, and teaching math. He claimed that "Helping others has become my chief hobby. It's how I get my kicks" (Higdon 334). In addition, he married and assumed a "normal" life, which had arguably been impossible for him as a young person. Leopold ultimately saw the reforming of criminal behavior as a function of "emotional maturing, of growing up" (198), reinforcing Darrow's belief that he and Loeb would merit parole when they reached their forties and had therefore outgrown their criminal compulsions.
But Bigger, who shows genuine remorse for his crimes throughout his trial and demonstrates convincing signs of true growth and moral rehabilitation in Book 3, does not receive the second chance offered to Leopold. (7) Just at the point where he has turned to a "new mode of life" (275) as a more mature human being who contrasts sharply with the delusional "new life" (105) earlier offered him through violence, the state decides to execute him. Bigger's remarkable conversion in jail is legally aborted by the state in a cold-blooded execution that bears a stunning resemblance to the equally cold-blooded, calculated murder of Bobby Franks. This concurrence is the supreme irony of Wright's novel.
At the end of Native Son, therefore, Wright certainly shares Bigger's "wry, bitter smile" (430). As the ironic juxtaposition of Bigger's narrative with the story of Loeb and Leopold narrative has surely demonstrated, Bigger is a "native son" in the sense that he, like the killers of Bobby Franks, is a product of a diseased American social environment, but unlike them, he is not fully a "native son" because he enjoys no second chances and no protections of law and privilege that Wright perceived to be the birthright of wealthy white people. To use John Dos Passos's words, the America presented in Native Son is really "two nations" (Dos Passos 469), a white world and a black world. As Bigger says to Gus early in Book 1, "They don't let us do nothing" (19) because "We black and they white" (20).
Butler, Robert. "The Function of Violence in Richard Wright's Native Son." Black American Literature Forum 20 (Spring-Summer 1986): 9-25.
--. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Here. Boston: Twayne P, 1991.
Caverly, John R. "The Decision and Pronouncement of Sentence by Judge Caverly in the Franks Case, September 10, 1924." Loeb-Leopold Case 150-55.
Crowe, Robert E. "Robert E. Crowe's Demand for the Death Penalty." Loeb-Leopold Case 88-148.
Darrow, Clarence. "Clarence Darrow's Plea for Mercy." Loeb-Leopold Case 1-87.
Dos Passos, John. The Big Money. New York: New American Library, 1969.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973.
--. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1985.
Fass, Paula S. "Making and Remaking an Event: The Leopold and Loeb Case in American Culture." Journal of American History 80.3 (1993): 919-51.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Higdon, Hal. The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case. New York: Putnam, 1999.
Hricko, Mary. "The Genesis of the Chicago Renaissance: The Writings of Theodore Dreiser, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James T. Farrell." (Diss., Kent State U, 2004).
Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972.
--. "Wright, Ellison, Baldwin: Exorcising the Demon." Phylon 37.2 (1976): 3-10.
--. New Essays on Native Son. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Leopold, Nathan. Life Plus 99 Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.
Levin, Meyer. Compulsion. New York: Random House, 1956.
The Loeb-Leopold Case: The Crime of the Century. Chicago: Wilson, 1925.
Pudaloff, Ross. "Celebrity as Identity: Richard Wright, Native Son and Mass Culture." Studies in American Fiction II (Spring 1983): 3-18.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Holt, 2001.
Sisney, Mary. "The Power and Horror of Whiteness: Wright and Ellison Respond to Poe." CLA Journal 29 (1985): 82-90.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad P, 1988.
Wright, Richard. Native Son: The Restored Text. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998.
--. "How Bigger Was Born." Native Son: The Restored Text by Richard Wright. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998. 433-62.
(1.) Many critics and biographers have pointed out Wright's keen interest in detective fiction and crime stories. Pudaloff, for example, stressed that Wright's reading of men's magazines such as Argosy All-Story Magazine and Flynn's Detective Weekly provided him with plots, themes, and characters that he would use for ironic purposes in novels such as Lawd Today! and Native Son. Kinnamon noted that one of the first genres Wright was drawn to as a boy growing up in Jackson was detective fiction that appeared in magazines such as Flynn's Detective Weekly and Argosy All Story Magazine. Fabre pointed out that Wright's reading in Memphis included not only "high literature" written by Mencken, Dreiser, and Zola but also "detective stories, dime novels, and popular fiction" (66). Rowley's recent biography quotes Wright's boyhood friend, Joe Brown, as remembering that Wright "loved western stories.., and detective stories" (30). Wright's interest in Poe, the father of detective fiction, is also well documented. See, for example, Sisney's "The Power and Horror of Whiteness: Wright and Ellison Respond to Poe," CLA Journal 29 (September 1985): 82-90 and Fabre's "Black and White Cat: Wright's Gothic and the Influence of Poe" in The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1985, 27-33.
(2.) Wright's interest in Brewer was so keen that he visited him several times in prison and worked hard to get him paroled in 1942. Three months after his parole, Brewer stabbed another woman to death when she refused his offer of marriage, thereby duplicating his crime of many years earlier. Wright was intrigued by Brewer's compulsion to kill women and used him as a real life model of Erskine Fowler, the protagonist of Savage Holiday who also stabs a woman fatally when she refuses his offer of marriage. See Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, and also Rowley.
(3.) Kinnamon's introduction to New Essays on Native Son traces the roots of Native Son's composition back to 1935 when Wright worked with troubled black youth at the South Side Boys Club in Chicago. At this time, he "sketched preliminary notes" (4) for the novel, which he then had to put on the back burner as he tried to find a publisher for Cesspool (later titled Lawd Today!) and worked on the stories included in Uncle Tom's Children. Lawd Today! makes an interesting reference to the Loeb/Leopold case when Jake Jackson and his friends include "them thrill guys, Loeb and Leopold" (136) among the Chicago criminals who have impressed them.
(4.) Hricko's excellent unpublished doctoral dissertation briefly mentions the Loeb/Leopold case as having influenced Wright while writing Native Son. She points out that Wright borrowed books on the Loeb/Leopold case using Margaret Walker's library card, and also argues that Max was modeled on Clarence Darrow. She also reveals similarities between Bigger's ransom note and the one constructed by Loeb and Leopold. Rowley mentions that Wright closely followed the case in the Jackson, Mississippi, newspapers in 1924, and had a copy of Darrow's Pleas in Defense of Loeb and Leopold on his desk as he wrote Native Son (153). Kinnamon's introduction to New Essays on Native Son mentions Wright's careful research on both the Loeb/Leopold and Robert Nixon cases as he "was nearing the midpoint of the first draft" (5) of Native Son. Moreover, Kinnamon notes a letter to Walker in which Wright describes a list of research tasks that he wanted to complete at Chicago. These tasks include getting books on the trial from the Chicago Public Library as well as determining the locations of the homes of Loeb, Leopold and Bobby Franks. But aside from these four brief discussions, I can find nothing written on this important subject. Certainly no adequate analysis exists of Wright's complex uses in Native Son of the Loeb/Leopold murder of Bobby Franks.
(5.) See my Native Son (63-66), where I argue that Bigger and Mary, despite their obvious differences, share a common humanity that is stunted by the social roles they are forced to play and the conventional values imposed on them by a capitalist society. Wright stresses this parallel by drawing a number of important parallels between the two characters. Both, for example, are described as "crazy" and "wild," problem children who upset their parents. Their acts of rebellion are attempts to work out their own definitions of themselves; they call into question the conformity, sexism, racism, and materialism of their respective environments. Wright suggests that their sexual attraction to each other is not only an attempt to attack established taboos but also a sign of their shared humanity, in a healthy society, Wright stresses, these two young people could become friends or lovers. But in a capitalist, racist society, they are locked in mortal combat that results in the death of each.
(6.) Meyer Levin, whom Wright knew in Chicago (Rowley 115), makes a similar connection in Compulsion between the personal narrative of Loeb and Leopold and widespread post-world-war cultural and political decline in Western civilization. Sid Silver, the narrator of that novel who is a lightly disguised version of Levin himself, equates the sick behavior of the boy criminals with the "tocsins" (444) of Hitler's regime and "the gathering sickness of Europe" (480) in the twentieth century. For Levin, the so-called "crime of the century" demonstrated in microcosm a century of crime characterized by anarchy and violence.
(7.) For a detailed discussion of Bigger's human development in Book 3, see my "The Function of Violence in Richard Wright's Native Son." While Bigger shows very few signs of remorse after killing Mary Dalton in Book 1, his conscience is activated in Book 2 as he is tormented by dream images of Mary's bloody head. Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and unlike Loeb and Leopold, he possesses a repressed moral nature that is at the core of the "soft" side of his divided personality. In Book 3 Bigger matures and develops meaningful relationships with Max and Jan as well as his mother, sister, and brother. This meaningful "new mode of life" (275) in Book 3 sharply contrasts with the false "new life" (105) he thinks he experiences as a result of killing Mary. Ironically, the state kills Bigger precisely at the point where he has begun to reform.
Robert Butler is Professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He has published widely on American and African American fiction. His books include Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero, The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison, and Contemporary African American Fiction: The Open Journey. He is currently coauthoring The Richard Wright Encyclopedia with Professor Jerry W. Ward, Jr., of Dillard University.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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