“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” So wrote Irving Howe in his essay “Black Boys and Native Sons”. Richard Wright’s novel does not make a particularly good read today – with limited character-development and a plot that by contemporary standards reads as cliched and over-simplistic – but it profoundly shook 1940 America, starkly portraying both the violence of racialization and the patronizing liberalism of the time and served as a major influence for subsequent generations of black writers. It is widely-recognized today as a landmark of American fiction, and one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.
Bigger Thomas lives on the impoverished south side of 1930s Chicago, spending his days with drinking and mischief between periodic bouts of short-lived employment until he is hired as chauffeur to a rich white family of Chicago’s liberal elite – the Daltons – who see his employment as, in no small part, a social experiment to prove their theories of racial liberalization. Bigger goes to work, and is soon serving as driver for the Daltons’ rebellious daughter, Mary, who has taken up with a young communist activist, Jan. He drives them around town while they drink and have sex, he is lectured on race politics and capitalism by the young Marxist, he is teased and flirted with by Mary. A series of events lead to Bigger accidentally killing Mary, and he goes on the run leading to a manhunt which serves as a flashpoint for the city’s racial politics, and an arrest and trial whose fundamental question becomes the relationship between social conditioning and free will – was Bigger Thomas a cold-blooded murderer or a victim of his social environment?
It is a question that remains largely unanswered. Richard Wright is sympathetic to his character and the systemic drivers of his actions. Bigger is not, though, a likeable protagonist, and has few redeeming qualities. But that is, perhaps, the point. Bigger Thomas is not the story here. The story is the politics of race, the violence that arises from poverty and discrimination, the naive and elitist liberalism of white do-gooders, and the relationship between class and race in twentieth century America. It’s not a book to get lost in. It’s not even a book to enjoy. But it is a most certainly a book to read.
- Wiki on Native Son and Richard Wright
- More on Richard Wright
- A story from NPR on Richard Wright and Native Son