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Native Son, Richard Wright by Richard Wright

Native Son, Richard Wright (original 1940; edition 1966)

by Richard Wright, Richard Wright (Preface), ILLUSTRATED BY MARGARET ELY WEBB (Illustrator), REILLY (Introduction)

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4,90553937 (3.91)236
Title:Native Son, Richard Wright
Authors:Richard Wright
Other authors:Richard Wright (Preface), ILLUSTRATED BY MARGARET ELY WEBB (Illustrator), REILLY (Introduction)
Info:A PERENNIAL CLASSIC, HARPER & ROW (1966), Paperback
Collections:Your library, Read in 2009
Tags:READ >2011

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Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)


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Flawed, sometimes excruciatingly so, and polemical, and still magnificent, for the way it captures an era when every thinking artist was a Communist. I am following up by reading The God That Failed, an anthology of essays from writers who became disillusioned with Communism, and which includes an essay by Wright.

This is also a magnificent book because--along with some others such as Of Mice and Men and Ethan Frome--it deals so viscerally with the effects of poverty and the limits that poverty places on human action. The main characters in all three of these books are led to violence so horrific, and so inevitable from their circumstances, that as I read I needed to look away from the page, to take a break. I was shaken by these books. I was changed by them. I don't know of any contemporary authors who are writing social novels with this impact today. ( )
1 vote poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
It is amazing that "Native Son" was written 75 years ago… and the same issues still plague our society today: racial relations, the divide between rich and poor, mistrust of law enforcement and the justice system, and the mass hysteria that occurs in the face of a racial conflict bringing on riots and ignorant mob mentality. Despite de-segregation, the generous welfare system, enormous amounts of money spent on the education system, affirmative action, and massive efforts to elevate the blacks, it seems little - if anything - has changed since 1940.

Native Son takes place in the south side ghetto of Chicago. Segregation is still in existence and protagonist Bigger Thomas is on his way to a job interview to work for a white man. Bigger is a poor, uneducated, black juvenile delinquent. He’s mad at the world and full of hate.

The job which he’s been granted includes a room and meals on the wealthy man’s estate. It’s a chance to return to school (Bigger only went to 8th grade) with enough financial compensation to cover his own expenses plus his mother and sister’s rent back in the ghetto. And it’s not a hard job… chauffeuring the family in their own Buick with lots of idle hours during the day and free Sundays. But Bigger is not happy. He would rather rob people and go to jail than take a job.

On his first day of work bizarre circumstances lead to a death... debatable if it is accidental or murder. You could plead the case either way, but nevertheless, the estate owners daughter is killed. And Bigger is proud that he was responsible. He admits he had killed many times in his mind and it was a worthy purpose to life. The chaos that ensues is no less dramatic than the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Richard Wright flawlessly explains the issues from Bigger’s point of view and Mr. Wright knows of what he speaks. He was born in Mississippi and lived in Chicago in the 1920s. He was one of the more fortunate blacks who escaped the ghetto life. But at the time of writing the book, Richard Wright was an active communist. Native Son occasionally spews communist dogma... not from Bigger, but from people trying to befriend him like the dead girl’s boyfriend, who make inane statements like “in order to keep what they’ve got, the rich people make themselves believe that men who work are not quite human.”

The book does a great job depicting all sides of the situation at that time… the disparity between the blacks and whites... discrimination and racism on both sides… the hatred blacks felt towards whites… the ignorant arrogance of many white people… and the delusions of the communists. The driving emotions are clearly fear, hate, and guilt.

"Native Son" is number 20 on the Modern Library list of 100 greatest novels and required reading in some school curriculums. It is a disturbing story, realistic, compelling, and told with extraordinary clarity and conviction. ( )
  LadyLo | Sep 13, 2014 |
Read the book for an English class in college. It must have been good enough for me to still own the copy in my personal library all these years later! ( )
  elleayess | Mar 30, 2014 |
""There he is!" the mother screamed again.

A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger's trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.

"Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instandly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs. "

Chicago’s South Side, sometime in the 1930s. This is our introduction to Bigger Thomas and his family. They live in a rat-infested room in a tenement building, Mrs. Thomas, Bigger, and his younger brother Buddy and little sister Vera. They've just been woken up by a loud alarm-clock in the dark hours before dawn, and the long-tailed terror has made its appearance, scaring the women who screech and stand up on the bed, while the brothers, equally terrified, must deal with the foot-long vermin. Eventually Bigger gets the better of the beast and squashes it dead with the heavy skillet. Then he grabs it by the tail and dangles it in front of his terrified sister's face, just for the fun of it, and she faints. We are made to understand that this is normal behaviour for Bigger, who is normally sullen and temperamental and given to ignoring his family and seeking ways to amuse himself with regular trips to the cinema and occasional gigs robbing black neighbours with his little gang of friends. But on this morning, Mrs. Thomas is pressuring Bigger to go to a job interview. They need the money badly, and if he doesn't take the job, the family will be cut off from government relief payments which they rely on to put food on the table. But Bigger wants to do things his own way, and he's got a big plan to rob a local Jewish grocery shop owner for a really big payoff. He's scared though, as are his three partners in crime; this would be their first time targeting a white man, and they know the consequences if they get caught will be dire. But Bigger, conscious of his own fear, decides he won't be seen as a coward, and his solution for avoiding the whole plan that day is to violently assault one of his friends on the merest provocation.

We've just begun the story, and already Wright has made us hate this 20-year-old boy. The reader is made uncomfortable. Here is a book denouncing racism, but our protagonist is violent, cruel to his own family and friends, and prideful to the point of murderous impulses to protect his sense of self. He seemingly has no redeeming features; is he a psychopath? Perhaps. At this point, I go back and read the introduction by Arnold Rampersad I had avoided initially, fearing the all too frequent spoilers usually found there. I find my feelings towards Bigger are vindicated. There are Biggers of every colour, everywhere in the world, he says. That's the part that sticks to my mind anyway, and now I feel freed from any obligation to sympathise with him.

Bigger goes to the job interview. He meets Mr. Dalton in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city. An impressive house. They are very wealthy. Mr. Dalton is one of the most respected citizens of Chicago, a multi-millionaire who owns real-estate and thus incidentally and indirectly, the tenement building Bigger and his family live in. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife have a social conscience though, and they've given millions of dollars in aid to the city's black citizens. Bigger is to be their chauffeur, to replace the last black chauffeur, who was encouraged by Mrs. Dalton to attend night school in order to get a better job. Bigger is suspicious. He is suspicious of all white people, who have always held him back, crushed him down, prevented him from attaining his dreams. But the Daltons are different, and this troubles him deeply. Their daughter Mary barges into his interview with his future employer and starts demanding whether he is with a union; calls her father a capitalist. Bigger decides he hates the young woman. She is pretty, very pretty, but she is already making trouble for him. He's not quite sure what capitalism or communism is, but he's pretty sure she is one of them and he fears Mr. Dalton won't give him the job if he thinks Bigger is one of them too. But he does get the job, and his first task is to drive Mary to university that evening. But Mary doesn't want to go to university. Instead, she wants Bigger to drive her to her boyfriend's, who as it turns out, is a notorious Communist agitator. The couple wants to befriend Bigger, encourage him to call them by their first names, they are curious about his life, they want to better the condition of blacks in America. That evening, they force him to sit down and eat a meal at a local black hangout and get drunk with them. Things turn out badly. By two in the morning, Mary is dead, and Bigger is responsible. To cover up his tracks, he makes the situation much worse. Now he's on the run for murder. Being responsible for the death of a white woman means capital punishment for him, so he must stay in hiding, and by the evening after Mary's death, he's murdered another woman to prevent her from denouncing him. This is all terribly dark and his acts are abominably violent. But Wright has formed a taut, stark tableau that reads like the best kind of suspense thriller. You can't keep racing along to find out what will happen next.

Bigger is caught, of course. You figure this out before you've even begun to read the book. Book 1 is called Fear. Book 2: Flight. Book 3: Fate. Nothing so far has given any indication that Bigger is on the right track or likely to see the light. This part of the book was the most problematic for me. The physical violence in Book 2 was revolting, sickening. But now in Book 3, Wright shows us racism in full force, and Bigger finally starts to become human. His defences are broken down, and he isn't a mere brute anymore, he questions himself, he seeks to be understood by someone. But the problematic part here is that this is also were Wright gets preachy in his attempt to drive home his point about the kind of world the blacks have been living in till now and what few choices and hope they've been given since their arrival in America, and now, in a Jim Crow nation. We are given to understand that Bigger is the symptom of a sick society. Of course, an enlighten reader can only agree with this. But there is too much rhetoric here. There is a long speech, many pages long, and if we already know that Wright was an active member of the Communist party, we can't help but feel that he is advancing Communist theories. I have nothing against Socialism, or even Communism where these ideologies meet with humanitarian concerns, in that sense I feel they are a powerful and necessary forces in the world, but for the problem that these ideologies go so deeply into the fabric of life and reframe everything in the light of us vs. them. Bigger doesn't understand a word of this speech, but he understand it's intent. I understood a little bit more than he did, but mostly I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a lot of theoretical jargon that only distanced me from what until then had been a visceral experience. No matter. This is an essential novel. It was relevant and necessary and groundbreaking when it was first published, and though many black writers have expressed their individual voices since then, it remains an essential novel today. This is the kind of book that marks you for life. I can't say I'll necessarily want to read it again, and for that reason it probably won't make the list of my favourite books this year, but it was an important read and a challenging one, and frankly, pretty gripping too, and one I feel has made me grow as a person and as a reader. ( )
3 vote Smiler69 | Mar 27, 2014 |
Powerful! ( )
  wallerdc | Mar 26, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wright, Richardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fisher, Dorothy CanfieldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Olzon, GöstaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rampersad, ArnoldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reilly, JohnAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Solotaroff, TheodoreAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 006083756X, Paperback)

Bigger Thomas is doomed, trapped in a downward spiral that will lead to arrest, prison, or death, driven by despair, frustration, poverty, and incomprehension. As a young black man in the Chicago of the '30s, he has no way out of the walls of poverty and racism that surround him, and after he murders a young white woman in a moment of panic, these walls begin to close in. There is no help for him--not from his hapless family; not from liberal do-gooders or from his well-meaning yet naive friend Jan; certainly not from the police, prosecutors, or judges. Bigger is debased, aggressive, dangerous, and a violent criminal. As such, he has no claim upon our compassion or sympathy. And yet...

A more compelling story than Native Son has not been written in the 20th century by an American writer. That is not to say that Richard Wright created a novel free of flaws, but that he wrote the first novel that successfully told the most painful and unvarnished truth about American social and class relations. As Irving Howe asserted in 1963, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."

Other books had focused on the experience of growing up black in America--including Wright's own highly successful Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of five stories that focused on the victimization of blacks who transgressed the code of racial segregation. But they suffered from what he saw as a kind of lyrical idealism, setting up sympathetic black characters in oppressive situations and evoking the reader's pity. In Native Son, Wright was aiming at something more. In Bigger, he created a character so damaged by racism and poverty, with dreams so perverted, and with human sensibilities so eroded, that he has no claim on the reader's compassion:

"I didn't want to kill," Bigger shouted. "But what I killed for, I am! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder.... What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something... I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. It's the truth..."
Wright's genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to him. --Andrew Himes

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:00 -0400)

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Trapped in the poverty-stricken ghetto of Chicago's South Side, a young African-American man finds release only in acts of violence.

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