Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Richard Wright--Native Son (1940)

Another slow week on the site. The days when I don't feel like writing seem to grow ever more frequent, and ever more likely to run together in sets of twos or threes and fours. Yet there is still no contending passion or interest, such as cheesemaking or boatbuilding, or even political activism, that is taking its place. It is not unfathomable to me that this should be happening, but I wish I were experiencing it as the result of increasing, or at least deepening, rather than rapidly diminishing, mental strength.

As the copy of this that I read was an old first edition, albeit not one in very good condition, that I found on some neglected shelves at the Vermont cabin, I did not write my notes in the book itself, but on separate slips of paper, which I have happily lost, meaning that this will not be the typical bloated and torturous literary appreciation characteristic of this site.

White readers have always liked this book, even though it is certainly condemnatory of them and the society that they have built. As literature, it may almost in a sense be too good; I often found my admiration for the literary composition distracting me from the social questions which the book one assumes is primarily intended to raise. The scenes and atmosphere in this are among the most vividly depicted, or at least impressed, that I have ever come across. Part of that, doubtless, is that much of the physical atmosphere and mental consciousness of an American city in 1940--Chicago in this case--is not entirely remote from certain aspects of my own experience, especially in my childhood in the 1970s and 80s. However I find the vividness here to be much greater than that of other books with an urban American setting from the same time period or later. I can instantly call up myriad concrete impressions and images from its pages two years after reading it with no reference to the *text*: The jail-like apartment with its little iron beds and irons all together in one room, the adults fornicating in full view of the children; the constant grayness and whiteness of the winter sky, both as felt outside and seen from various windows throughout the book; the particular wind-whipped deep cold of the northern American winter; the classic prewar four leveled gabled and porched and bow-windowed house where the wealthy white people lived; the effect of the mass newspapers and advertisements of urban American life on the thought process even of the seemingly disaffected and isolated impoverished black population; the trial and jail scenes. These effects are created in a most matter of fact style, which in no way calls attention to itself except in the extraordinary vividness with which one recalls them later. While the book was a calling out of white America for the destruction it perpetrates on the souls of Bigger Thomas and millions of other human beings just like him, there is a sense of hopelessness about it that probably has a soothing effect on any kind of threatening edge that even the most sensitive white readers might have perceived. In 1940 America white domination--and extreme racism--are depicted in numerous instances as being so omnipotent as to be probably beyond hope of contending against in any significant way. White society may be hated to an extent, but it is also feared, and the stinging contempt and ridicule and genuinely heartfelt expressions of black vitality and strength against white sterility and weakness that were to come later and which undoubtedly grabbed the attention and shook the self-confidence of wide swathes of the white literary/humanistic intelligentsia at least are not yet able to convincingly assert themselves here.

Back to considerations of literary technique...Almost all of the characterizations in this are also outstanding, again using a remarkably understated and unassuming manner of writing, but the people and their come 'alive' on the page, as odd a choice of word as alive may seem to be for this book. Bigger and the other people in his life, his mother and the gang he runs with, but especially Bigger himself, are not easy characters to write the way that they are. By the usual conventions of literary writing, Bigger is not bright, he is almost wholly inarticulate, he participates in crimes, about which he has a confused sort of conscience, though not so much to effect the general course of life. In short there is not a lot of pretense that he has a prodigious amount of unrealized potential. Richard Wright himself was about 85% not this character, and the character does not superficially offer a lot to the reader other than a pain and sensitivity that he cannot express in any language to any person but which is conveyed very forcefully to the reader. It is an example of writing of which I think a lot.

That is enough for now.

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