First Wright Lecture

When I first taught ENAM312, in the Spring of 1975, Richard Wright was the major African American writer, & Native Son one of the most frequently taught African Am works. Almost no one then had even read Their Eyes Were Watching God. Since 1975, RW's reputation has been steadily falling, while Hurston's has grown huge, so that many more teachers, from high schools through graduate schools, assign her novel than his.

There are some surprising similarities between the two books -- each moves, for example, toward the central character's murder trial. But the differences between them suggest the most about why RW's reputation has fallen while Hurston's has been steadily rising. Their Eyes depicts a woman's triumph, while it's impossible to ignore the misogyny that mars Native Son. Their Eyes expresses the African Am experience in its own language, while in Native Son the voices of Mr. Max (in Part 3) and the third person narrator (throughout) sound completely unlike Bigger's voice. Most important, each writer understands and represents black culture very differently. To Wright, as Max argues in court, African Am culture is essentially deprived, and blacks as victims of racism, oppression, exploitation are essentially to be understood as crippled (cf. Max's speech, pp. 464-65 and 468 -- in the second one, for example, he argues that people like Bigger & Bessie, deprived as they have been, "cannot love"). Not only can Janie & Tea Cake love -- ZNH's whole approach toward African Am culture is to emphasize its "richness" -- not economically, but emotionally, imaginatively, spiritually, etc. We compared the bitter, angry way Bigger & Gus "play white" (pp. 22ff) with the joyous way Jim & Dave in Eatonville enact essentially the same ritual (cf. p. 68-69): their language and wit allow them to "possess" the world they've been excluded from in different ways.

Hurston's vibrant rural folk culture, RW's impoverished inner city proletariat -- we don't have to choose which one is "truer" to African Am experience. To me, it's important to read both accounts, just, in part, to remember how no one text can ever definitively "re-present" a culture. That's one reason I put Native Son on our reading list.

Another is that it is a more representative novel of the generation of writers who followed the "Lost Generation" of the Modernists -- the generation who were responding to the Great Depression of the 1930s, not the Great War on 1914-1918. Like Steinbeck's, for example, or Farrell's, or Odetts', RW's literary project is overtly political, using the novel as a means to protest a social injustice. I spent the rest of the period trying to use Native Son to characterize that project, mainly by comparing it as a "naturalist" novel to the literary Naturalism of the 1890s we studied in Crane and Dreiser. RW's point about the name "Bigger," for example, in part, is ironically to keep reminding us of how Bigger is "smaller" than what Max refers to as "the circumstances of his life." We talked about how the city as an envirnent in this novel is like the city in Sister Carrie, and about the various socio-economic and (especially) racial "forces" that condition him and essentially determine his "Fate" (cf. p. 129).

This led us to the horrifying scene with which Part One ends, where Bigger kills Mary and then is forced to cut off her head. As RW presents the scene, it's clear that Bigger himself is just as horrified by what happens as the reader, just as helpless, just as "spellbound" (97-99, 106) -- a victim of forces he cannot understand or control. But I went on to distinguish the "naturalism" of a Thirties novel like this one (or, to cite the other great example of this category, The Grapes of Wrath) from the Naturalists of the Nineties by noting that, for a writer like Wright, the forces that victimize Bigger aren't "the laws of life," but the specific wrongs of a failed social order -- i.e. they can be changed, if the novel can move readers to a new understanding of "what makes Bigger act the way he does" (cf. p. 6), see him not as an "Other" who must be cast out but as a "native son." Thus a way to characterize this generation is "naturalists with a purpose," for whom the end is social change.

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