Modern Library Revue: #20 Native Son

July 23, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 4 5 min read

coverI think I was the last of my age peers to read Native Son; I feel like most of us read it in school. Either I never had it in a course, or I did, but it was during one of my bouts of absenteeism from class and scholastic responsibility. So I got it from the library a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew that it was a book about race and a Huge Deal.

I started the novel, and I had a feeling of dread from the page one, and when I got to the severed head I quit, feeling dispirited. There is a moment in the (completely unrelated) Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned, wherein three elite gentleman make plans to see a show: “The thing is tersely called ‘The Woman,'” says one character. “I presume that she will pay.” Stripped entirely of its context, I have always felt that this remark is an elegant statement of life’s facts. At the time of my first reading, Richard Wright’s novel seemed to reaffirm my conviction that this is true (and this, mind you, was before I had even got to poor Bessie). This particular woman, severed-headed Mary, was pretty awful, but I didn’t want to read about her getting stuffed in the furnace. And things seemed so inevitable for Bigger Thomas; the only place for the story to go was down. Talking of tropes, we all know what happened when a black man was suspected to have looked sideways a white woman. Bigger Thomas’ goose was cooked long before he put a pillow over Mary’s face.

Much later it occurred to me what a fraud I am. How, I thought, am I going to go crazy for 2666, happily slogging through 100 pages of murdered women, while this crucial American work offends my delicate sensibilities? So I returned to the novel with my nerves steeled. I gave it another chance, and it knocked my everloving socks off.

In retrospect, I am discomfited that I took Bigger so personally the first time I picked up the novel, and that I actually to an extent, failed to separate the author from his creation. I have never assumed that John Fowles sympathized with men who hold women hostage in their basements, so why would I think Richard Wright was holding up this crapbag Bigger as a delightful specimen of humanity? Why did it suddenly matter that the woman always pays? Surely a book so lauded wouldn’t deal in pointless female victimization (okay, one might, especially if it was by Norman Mailer, but that’s a story for another day).

Wright’s novel begins with Bigger Thomas doing a series of hateful things. Mean to his sister, mean to his long-suffering, hard-working mother, mean to his friends, prone to violent rages. Starting the novel, I admit I had that ignoble instinct I so hate when I hear it from the mouths of right-wing reactionaries; the sentiment that basically goes “Do what your parents did, Sir. Get a job, Sir.” When I got near the end of the book, to read basically the same words come out of the miserable dickhead State’s Attorney’s mouth during Bigger’s (sham) trial, that hurt.

No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes!

It’s a shocking sensation, to see yourself partially mirrored in the novel’s villainous bigot. That’s good art, friends! Especially because by the time you’ve made it to the State’s Attorney you, (I, that is) do feel pretty terrible for Bigger. And also just terrible.

Wright’s pacing is brilliant. It starts hard. It’s a realistic sort of pace. It doesn’t get easier as the novel goes on, but things get explained. They start to make more sense. In life, when you hear about something terrible, you usually haven’t prepared for it by reading a treatise on human behavior and motivations beforehand. And, unfortunately, often you don’t want to take the time to reflect on said behavior and motivations. You just want to say, “Do what your parents, did, Sir. Get a job, sir.” You want to put the book down.

I think I really quit the novel that first time because I had a premonition that it was going to be hard, and possibly even hard on me. I suspected that it wouldn’t let me walk the easy, feel-good path with regard to racism – the Newbery Medal kind of way, where even though terrible things happen, humanity mostly prevails and, ideally, a triumph or two of the human spirit takes place. The kind of book, additionally, that lets me, as a white person, feel confident that I would have been friends with Cassie Logan even if the town disapproved.

But Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody’s hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say “My goodness, we’ve come a long way!” But that’s stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted?

Normally I don’t read authors’ explanations of their work, because I prefer the author to not be tiresome and talk about himself all the time, when he could be working hard to create more entertainment for me. However, I found Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ was born” (included in some editions of Native Son) fascinating. I’m not crazy about the writing style in Native Son, although it more than serves its purpose in the novel, but I love Richard Wright’s prose in the Bigger essay (and in Black Boy). I enjoy the prose, and it was illuminating to learn why Wright sat down to write this novel. But the essay mainly struck me as impressive proof positive that the author set out to do a very specific something, and, in fact, did that very thing.

I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in earnest.

Well, I’m hear to say that this is hard and deep, and that I faced it without the consolation of tears. The man did what he wanted. And, I would add, did in spite of “the fears which a Negro feels from living in America – standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write.”

Post Script: A twisted coincidence: lest you think this book and its indictment of American society is no longer relevant, consider this: as I was writing this Revue, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fucking quoted on my copy of this novel, was arrested for, it would seems, entering his home while black.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I recently read this for the first time and was completely blown away. As you say, it is not easy to read and does not make you feel good, but it is an amazing, amazing book!


  2. I read Black Boy early this year and have been meaning to pick this one up. Thanks for the review!

  3. Wonderful review, really insightfully pinpointing why the book is so difficult and ultimately so powerful, effective and unique. "Knocked my everloving socks off" is how I'd put it, too.

    One thing I found a little curious. You say you aren't crazy about the writing style–in what way? I find that when the writing style of a book bothers me, it becomes less effective overall. But clearly you didn't find the book ineffective, so maybe the style was well-suited to its purpose?

  4. The writing is unadorned, and I historically prefer more sequins and things. But I think Wright was going for unadorned, especially for the parts wherein the plot is unfolding (in fact, I think he mentions the writing in the Bigger essay, but I am lounging right now and I'm not going to go quotation-hunting). As far as style goes, I prefer the periodic moments in the novel when a voice more like Wright's takes over and explains what it is that Bigger is doing, and why.

    You're right, if a writing style actively chafes the proverbial ass, then it usually takes the book down with it (down into this horrible mixed metaphor?) But the writing in Native Son didn't chafe, it just wan't madly me. I was conscious of its plainness, but also that the plainness was an effective vehicle for the story.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.