IN THE SPRING of 1940, Richard Wright’s Native Son was published to such acclaim that Black Marxist C.L.R. James decreed the novel “#8220;not only a literary but also a political event.”(1) By means of a riveting naturalist fictional technique, depicting the world through the eyes and ears of a 20-year-old unemployed African American named Bigger Thomas, Wright evokes the volatile brutality of poverty and segregation on Chicago’s South Side during the latter part of the Great Depression.
In Native Son, the economic constraints and cultural claustrophobia are so crushing that it is only when Bigger is abruptly severed from his former life — by committing an accidental murder — that he acquires his first authentic glimmer of self-consciousness and insight into the conditions of his existence. The killing transpires when Bigger finds himself alone with an inebriated white Mary Dalton in her bedroom. Mary is the daughter of the wealthy liberal family that offered Bigger employment as a chauffeur. When Mary’s blind mother enters, Bigger becomes so terrified of discovery that he suffocates Mary to silence her.
The last third of the novel (359 pages long in the first edition) features a sensational trial where Boris Max, a Jewish pro-Communist lawyer, in vain battles a racist prosecutor to rescue Bigger from the electric chair.
Wright’s high-octane amalgamation of art and revolutionary politics vexed his reputation ever after. A driven, occasionally ham-fisted author and controversial Left-wing activist, Wright was principally fascinated by the psychology of oppressed people. This he explored in manifold dimensions through his fiction, autobiography, historical documentary, poetry, essays, travelogues, and radio drama.
Wright most famously focused on the condition of African Americans in the rural South and urban North. Nevertheless, his vision was grounded in the belief that displaced African Americans were a perilous prototype of the emergent condition of urbanized mass society, escalating on a world scale. Thus the scope of his writing progressively enlarged to international dimensions.
In 2008, the centennial of Wright’s birth, assorted appraisals of the bond between Wright’s literature and politics arose in scores of conference papers and lectures around the United States and in Western Europe.(2) Such a linkage between art and social change is a chief topic among critics and scholars elicited by every addition to the steady republication of Wright’s out-of-print works and new availability of uncensored versions of previously published writings, as well as the initial appearance of hitherto unknown and in some cases unfinished texts.
As a personage in world literature, Wright belongs to that “#8220;greatest generation” of U.S. novelists who acquired their literary awareness in the fragmented cultural atmosphere of the 1920s, then emerged on the scene primarily as social realists — but acutely responsive to the technical achievements of modernism — in the 1930s. John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck and Josephine Herbst were among the most prolific. Dos Passos and Herbst originally took inspiration from the Bohemias of the “#8220;lost generation” expatriates and Greenwich Village. The young Farrell aspired to transport the experimental techniques of Marcel Proust’s modernism to the plebeian life he knew on the streets of Chicago’s Irish-American community. The apprentice Steinbeck passed the 1920s engrossed in California regionalism and romantic writing.
Wright was an autodidact from Mississippi who read whatever he could find, from pulp fiction to the conservative iconoclast H. L. Mencken. Upon arriving in Chicago in 1927, he worked at odd jobs and in the post office, further immersing himself in fiction by Theodore Dreiser, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Gertrude Stein, and the Prefaces of Henry James.
What makes Wright vitally joined to this cohort? When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression reached bottom by 1933, the effect on literary intellectuals was analogous that of a giant “#8220;Hurricane Katrina” laying bare the underlying economic structures and racial regimes of inequality of which they were only partly aware. Concurrently, with the coming to power of Adolph Hitler in 1933, reports traveled across the Atlantic of a frightening new movement called “#8220;fascism.”
Wright and other novelists under 40 spearheaded a generational effort to harness their individualized artistic sensibilities to a social vision in order to render art more attentive to the issues of their time. With counterparts in poetry and drama, they transformed the face of U.S. literature by drawing upon a range of preceding cultural traditions, opening themselves to international influences, incorporating techniques borrowed from the emergent mass culture (print, film, documentary, photography), dramatizing contemporary events in vernacular language, and expanding their subject matter to include working people, immigrants, people of color, and life among the have-nots.
By sundry techniques, their writing, more powerful than elegant, typically presented an implicit challenge to the reader in terms of how to take action in response to the collective tribulations facing humanity. In the political choices of their own lives, these writers embraced the organizing efforts of workers and international anti-fascism. Such a record constitutes an honorable contribution to the worldwide radical tradition that subsequently became best-known through the debates about the “#8220;engaged” writer and “#8220;commitment” in literature that gripped intellectual circles in France after World War II.
Wright was a representative figure of this cultural vanguard despite his idiosyncratic features. An African American who felt he must escape Southern racism to maintain his emotional and intellectual integrity, Wright did not particularly identify with the Black writers of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, a cultural flowering which he tended to view as exotic and primitive. When he became a galvanizing figure in the movement now referred to as the third wave (1930s-40s) of the “#8220;Chicago Renaissance” — Nelson Algren, William Attaway, Gwendolyn Brooks — his principal affinity was with realists, naturalists and select high modernists. His first novel, “#8220;Cesspool” (completed in 1935 and published posthumously as Lawd Today in 1963), blended proletarian material with a structure inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
By the mid-Depression, Wright acknowledged that he had passed through, and beyond, an attraction to Black nationalism, and he held a profound respect for African-American folk culture in the South.(4) Yet he looked upon traditional Black culture as peasant-based and beneficial principally to survival in rural and agricultural settings; the mounting 20th-century conditions of capitalist modernity and urban industrial life demanded that Black writers avail themselves of the most sophisticated attainments of the West.
His supreme curiosity about Black culture centered on religious strivings, which he had studied close up when he lived in Mississippi with his maternal grandmother, Margaret Wilson.(5) Wright’s observations about her ability to cope with the cruelty of Jim Crow by living in a supernatural world profoundly affected his view of Black American life. Later, Wright came to see a resemblance in the operations of the ideology of the American Communist Party. Communists harnessed comparable emotional needs but then claimed to gird their mental picture of a just society with logical analysis aimed at secular ends.
Nevertheless, in the 1930s, as a politically committed writer, Wright ardently belonged to the considerable segment of Great Depression activists that gravitated precipitously toward a romanticized image of the Soviet Union and an estimation of the U.S. Communist movement as the advance guard of humanity. Such an outlook then seemed warranted by the remarkable events of the 1917 upheaval in Russia, along with the ideals and brilliant writings of its Bolshevik leaders. Wright and others witnessed at first hand the unmatched heroism and self-sacrifice of U.S. Communists who positioned anti-racism at the top of the political agenda and organized the industrial working class.
Outside of a few maverick authors such as William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, it is tough to find major U.S. writers unaffected by the mass tropism to the Left prompted by international events and encouraged by Communism. Even Ernest Hemingway, an individualist rebel par excellence, published a proletarian novel (To Have and Have Not, 1937) and provisionally became a spokesman for the Communist-led wing of the anti-fascist movement. Wright joined the Communist movement in 1932 and publicly departed in 1944, albeit he was disaffected for the last two years.(6)
Wright’s rupture with Communism is best remembered in connection with “#8220;I Tried to Be a Communist,” a memoir recounting his experiences in Chicago. This essay, initially intended to be part of his autobiographical Black Boy (1945), appeared in the Atlantic in 1944, but achieved wider currency in 1949 when republished in Richard Crossman’s landmark Cold War anthology of ex-Communist intellectuals, The God That Failed.
Wright gives a picture of U.S. Communists as narrow, arrogant and intolerant fanatics, setting the stage for his 1953 novel, The Outsider, which further portrays them as power-hungry and murderous. Yet in his political practice of the 1950s, Wright would defy the paradigm of the Cold War “#8220;anti-communist.” Instead of prioritizing Soviet aggression and subversion, he gave supreme consideration to his unyielding opposition to Western colonialism, which he identified with capitalism itself.
Wright’s political difficulties with the Communist Party in point of fact originated with African-American members in Chicago, including leaders such as Harry Haywood and Oliver Law, who tried to brow-beat him into conformist behavior. His suspicions grew into a critique of policy at the time of World War II when he lived in New York City. During the 18 months of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, 1939-1941, Wright was politically comfortable. The Communist movement focused on the colonialist crimes of the West, made U.S. racism its prime target, and appeared to break with the liberalism of the Popular Front support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who, with Eleanor Roosevelt, might even be identified with the wealthy Daltons in Native Son).
When the Soviet Union was unexpectedly attacked by Hitler, the Party reversed course and Wright, along with writers Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes, concluded that the Party was curtailing the battle for African-American rights. When the Party refused to support even the NAACP’s “#8220;Double V” campaign, which was simultaneously for victory against fascism abroad and over racism at home, Wright became inactive.
Wright had exited Chicago for New York in 1937; next, in 1947, he departed the United States altogether for Paris. There he identified himself with the efforts of French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to join forces with former Trotskyist David Rousset(7) in creating the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly, RDR) as a political alternative to movements allied with either the Soviet Union or the West.
In 1948, Wright threw himself into the new organization and delivered a major speech against Western imperialism and Soviet totalitarianism that was extensively cited. However, a year later, in April 1949, Wright began to conjecture that Rousset was leading the organization into a de facto alliance with the United States. That summer, he and Sartre publicly resigned on the grounds that the RDR had become too exclusively anti-Soviet.(8)
In retrospect, it is now clear that Wright’s relationship with the Communist movement was always fraught with potentially explosive tensions that stemmed from his view of himself as an artist. From the outset of his affiliation, Wright happily accepted the Marxist analysis of the nature of capitalism and the perspective of historical materialism. Yet he resisted, initially through a kind of guerrilla warfare, efforts to transform him into a party worker which would force him to abandon or modify what he felt was his true calling as an artist.
Among his worries was a conviction that, blinded by their ideals and over-simplified policies, Communists romanticized the condition of African Americans, minimizing the consequences of oppression and the desperation of a population that longed for a full life as much as anyone else. Wright designed his character Bigger Thomas as symptomatic of a racist and class-divided society, but he also saw Bigger as a way to confront the Communist movement with a slice of the unvarnished reality to which he believed it was blind.
In the novel, Mary and Jan, a couple who are a Communist Party sympathizer and member, try to befriend and recruit Bigger. Yet they end up his victims, Mary dead and Jan falsely implicated as her kidnapper. This turn-of-affairs is partially a result of Mary and Jan’s inability to grasp that Bigger regards them primarily as whites and therefore threatening. The more Mary and Jan cavalierly seek to establish a personal relationship and involve Bigger in their political projects, the more frightened and hostile he inwardly becomes.
Mary’s obliviousness to the danger she represents to Bigger as a white woman is a crucial ingredient in creating the fear that leads Bigger to strangle her. Even the admirable attorney Boris Max cannot fathom how and why Bigger’s shocking decision to accept responsibility for the crimes he has committed allows him a sense of power and freedom more attractive than the role of “#8220;victim of society” that Max has so eloquently elucidated to the judge.
In his subsequent novel The Outsider, Wright depicts Communists (white and Black) as titillated and filled with admiration because they believe that the protagonist, Cross Damon, has killed a white man in response to a racist incident and is hiding from the police. In truth, Damon had impulsively murdered a fellow Black postal worker whom Damon believed was blocking his efforts to evade economic responsibility for his abandoned wife and children, as well as escape rape charges from a 15-year-old girl Damon had impregnated and ditched.
In sum, a vital function of Wright’s literary and political mission, made clear by Native Son, was to de-sentimentalize the prevailing liberal and Left-wing views of oppression as purely victimhood. More specifically, his argument was that African-American disenfranchisement from the fruits of industrial society was the intensified form of a process affecting a growing portion of humanity, and that a revolutionary change — never elaborated — was essential to avert the dire consequences.
By the late 1940s, Wright came to see the USSR as a brutal dictatorship and the Communist parties of the world as its deluded servants. But unlike Trotskyists, with whom he might seem to have a kinship, Wright did not theorize the USSR as a revolution in defeat. The Trotskyist view was that a once inspiring upheaval of workers and peasants against czarist autocracy had, through historical conditions of the 1920s, transformed into a new kind of dictatorial system. This meant that Communists in the West, as well as in the decolonizing world, were trapped in a complicated location; they were sandwiched between their legitimate bottom-up impulses for social justice and loyalty to a treacherous regime.
Trotskyists thus aspired to propose an affirmative revolutionary socialist alternative to capitalism and Stalinism. Wright’s outlook ran along parallel lines, although he chose not to embrace this particular double-vision and placed greater hope in Third World elites. But neither did he argue the prevailing outlook of Cold War liberalism — that such a horrific outcome was inscribed from the outset, the necessary logic of the Bolsheviks’ bid for power. He simply denounced what he thought the international Communist movement had become in the 1930s and after.
In this critique, vividly embodied in his much underrated The Outsider, Wright emphasized mainly the ease with which a hierarchical organization demanding military-like discipline becomes a device of personal power. Aspiring leaders mask their will to dominate behind the altruistic long-term aims of the organization’s official ideology, gaining pleasure from the psychological perks of even a limited authority.
Wright saw a telling feature of this dynamic in the drive to stamp out any potentially threatening subjectivity that might resist conformity to an organization’s ideology, an ideology touted as the objective interests of a class but for all intents and purposes the codification of a particular party’s program. Those who hesitated to conform and who raised questions were stigmatized as counter-revolutionaries, “#8220;Trotskyites,” petit-bourgeois, or some other kind of heretic.
The party cadre, leaders and devoted members, regarded ordinary people, including African Americans, as instruments to be deployed on behalf of policies that altered according to commands issued from the top. In Wright’s opinion, African Americans were just as susceptible as others to investing their emotions in this orchestrated zealotry, and perhaps even more so because Communism sincerely repudiated distinctions based on “#8220;race.”
Wright’s view of Communism was shaped by his growing convergence with the post-war Existentialism that appealed to his fascination with ontology, the nature of being and existence. Such an affinity is apparent when comparing Native Son to The Stranger, a 1941 novel by Wright’ future friend, the French-Algerian author and former Communist Albert Camus.
While it is documented that Wright read The Stranger in 1948, en route to completing The Outsider, there is no evidence that Camus had read Native Son. Yet both novels abound with powerful thematic similarities. Each is focused on a semi-conscious murder. In each case the protagonists, Bigger and Meursault, wander in a dream world of immediate experiences and sensations until a combination of accident, natural environment, and social structure propel them into carrying out a killing.
After that, the significance of earlier incidents comes into play and the two novels climax in the imprisonment of the protagonists, a titanic struggle between lawyers for the defense and the prosecution (the former arguing that the killing was due to extenuating circumstances, the latter attributing a criminal mind and pre-meditation to the defendant), and both end with the impending execution of the protagonists during which time each utters enigmatic remarks about their fates.
Both Bigger and Meursault are fatherless from a young age, enmeshed in romantic relationships to which they (unlike the females) attach no significance, and deeply alienated from their mothers. Both violently reject Christian religious representatives who try to impart meaning to their plights. The settings of both novels are in colonized situations (the internal colony of Chicago’s Black ghetto and French-run Algeria), and racial fear and misunderstanding are factors in both murder situations. Neither Wright’s Bigger nor Camus’ Meursault are proposed as positive role models; rather, they are individuals whose condition and fate illustrate a pitiless natural world and societies that respond with myth, delusion, and persecution.
Stylistically, on the other hand, The Outsider’s wacky blend of pulp fiction and comic strip episodes with eccentric philosophical conversations in the manner of Fydor Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence, is at the utmost remove from Camus’ economical prose and deadpan descriptions. Wright required a somewhat fantastic form to communicate his passionate rage at the betrayal he felt that he, as an African Amerrican, suffered at the hands of the Communist movement; a similar need was expressed in near-surreal techniques by Chester Himes in The Lonely Crusade (1947) and Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952).
Yet the compulsively talky emotionalism of The Outsider seems over-the-top if attributed to that necessity alone. What is now apparent is that practically all of Wright’s biographers prior to Hazel Rowley’s Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001), misled the public and scholars about the condition of Wright’s marriage to Ellen Poplar at the time of the novel’s completion in 1951-52.
Poplar, born Freida Poplowicz, was a Jewish former Communist Party organizer who would become a literary agent for such writers as Nelson Algren, Simone de Beauvoir, Eldridge Cleaver and others. Perhaps to protect the image of an interracial marriage, controversial and in some places illegal in the United States, or in deference to the Wright family, biographers made no mention of marital problems, even though Ellen Wright moved with their daughters to England in 1959. In point of fact, the marriage was close to termination in 1950, and probably in trouble due to Wright’s incurable womanizing since the early 1940s.
Thus the fury and frenzy of the novel, with its theme of broken promises and emotional hard-heartedness, is as much an indictment of personal self-delusion and egotism as the political betrayal by others. This wrenching confessional quality renders the calamitous events more poignant and human even if sometimes hard to appreciate through the melodramatic action of five deaths for which the protagonist is directly and indirectly responsible.
When The Outsider first appeared, the chief opinion was that, during his Paris sojourn, Wright had simply transformed into an Existentialist, even penning the first U.S. Existentialist novel. Today the estimation is more that he was drawn to Existentialism through his own experiences and that he ultimately rejected versions of the philosophy that broached nihilism or discarded collective solutions to social existence. Like Sartre he retained Marxism as his larger framework, seeking to find a means by which to participate in the centuries-old effort to abolish exploitation. In the passion of his politics, as well as his literary style, he departed from Camus, who declared his artistic commitments more central than political activism.
Perhaps Wright in the Cold War years most closely followed Simone de Beauvoir’s argument in Art and Action (1948), that the demand for freedom must necessarily be fleshed out in the arena of social action. This is not to suggest that Wright was able to come up with a viable roadmap for social change. Wright was battered considerably by his attempt to forge an independent position. Another of Rowley’s disclosures is that he was plagued by paranoid episodes and on occasion collaborated with U.S. authorities to combat pro-Communist African Americans.(9)
Starting in the late 1970s, Wright’s fiction became the target of Black feminists. A prominent assessment, well worth reading in its entirety, is that of poet and novelist Sherley Anne Williams. Williams states that Wright “#8220;fathered a bastard line, racist misogyny — the denigration of black women as justification for glorifying the symbolic white woman — and male narcissism — the assumption that racism is a crime against the black man’s sexual expression rather than an economic, political, and psychological crime against black people….”(10) Wright’s misogyny, in life as well as fiction, is a legitimate subject for analysis, although it would be a mistake to reduce Wright’s achievement to that aspect, as it would be to shrink T.S. Eliot’s poetic achievement to his anti-Semitism or G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy to his racism.
A further dilemma is whether Williams’ view adequately accounts for either Wright’s analysis of Western racism or his fictionalized Black women, some of whom appear heroically (in “#8220;Bright and Morning Star, ” published in 1938) and as part of an equal and positive relationship (“#8220;Man of All Work,” published posthumously in 1961). Nor is it obvious that white women, such as Mary Dalton in Native Son or Eva Blount in The Outsider, are truly glorified by Wright. On the other hand, Wright’s depiction of the brutal murder of Bigger’s African-American girlfriend, Bessie, in Native Son, provides an unforgettable indictment of the Black misogyny that Bigger Thomas shared with the legal system that executes him primarily for the accidental death of Mary.
In recent decades, Wright has gained enhanced consideration for his cosmopolitanism, one uniquely marked by a blending of Enlightenment rationality and a broad identification with people of color throughout the world. In 1983, Cedric Robinson raised several aspects of this topic when he featured Wright in the climactic chapter of Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Ten years later, Paul Gilroy penned one of the most powerful reconsiderations of Wright in a chapter of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993).(11)
In 2008, HarperCollins Publishers issued a single volume edition of Wright’s Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956) and White Man, Listen! (1957), with an introduction by Princeton Professor Cornel West. West compellingly restates the argument of these three works, emphasizing Wright’s claim that “#8220;Europe missed the boat.” West then says of Wright: “#8220;So now the spirit of the Enlightenment that made Europe great must be carried forward by courageous and compassionate rootless intellectuals of color like himself who must expose the lies of the West and East, speak the unpopular truths of our suffering world, and bear witness to justice for all.”(12)
This is equally the unspoken argument of The Outsider, which makes its case through the dramatization of a character who disastrously employs his new-found freedom only to imitate his adversaries. Wright’s underlying analysis is that the industrializing world lacks a unifying set of values, thereby forcing all rebels against the old order — Communists, Fascists, and everyone in between — to cynically exploit ideology in the interests of personal supremacy.
Such a stance may seem far from a sufficient dissection of 20th-century politics in light of what we know about the theory and practice of social movements under wide-ranging circumstances. But the test of compelling political novels has never been an author’s capacity to convince readers of his or her viewpoint in the fashion of a newspaper op ed; that is why socialists have so long admired political novels by authors whose formal ideology is anathema, such as Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1872), Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (1886), and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907).(13) The issue is whether one’s comprehension of politics in the world is truly enhanced by the reading of such novels.
All of Wright’s works are double-edged, aimed to expose what he reviled in society while also critically educating his allies. But The Outsider remains Wright’s most disturbing and demanding book for the Left. Its investigation of the role of ideology, when conceived as a means of recruitment for a militarized struggle, transcends the era of the Cold War from which it emerged, and of it which it still bears some of the scars.
Despite more than a few hokey scenes, the novel strikes at unsolved problems of psychology and politics for which art may provide a crucial and critical assist. Any notion of socialist culture, redeeming the past century’s unfinished battle for a world in which humanity controls its own economy and destiny, requires that the legacy of Richard Wright, “#8220;The Great Outsider,” be placed in a pivotal position.
ATC 138, January-February 2009
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