Second Wright Lecture

We started with the passage on pp. 262-63, where the novel redefines "rape" to describe not what Bigger will be tried for, or even what he will do just a few pages later to Bessie, but what white society does to him. I started there in part to sum up what I'd been trying to say Monday, and also to lead into the issue I wanted to focus on today: the way Native Son is self-consciously trying to re-define or re-write various preconceptions or pre-texts.

RW's first book was a collection of stories called Uncle Tom's Children (1937). Although the epigraph to that asserts that "Uncle Tom is dead," in Native Son RW can be seen still engaged in an intertextual debate with Stowe's protest novel. Her Tom and his Bigger Thomas, both hired as chauffeurs by rich white families (slave owning St. Clare's/proprety owning Dalton's), Tom and Eva, Bigger and Mary -- there's a lot to say about the way RW is trying to re-write Stowe's narrative. The writer he mentions in the last sentence of "How Bigger Was Born," on the other hand, is Stowe's contemporary -- Edgar Allan Poe. We looked at all the echoes of Poe's in Native Son, from the white cat that recalls "The Black Cat" to Wright's version of the Gothic moment in Mary's bedroom, when "the door creaked" (p. 97) and there stands Mrs. Dalton as the source of Bigger's terror, to (at more length) the resemblances between the novel's two murdered bodies and the corpses in "Murders in the Rue Morgue."

That got me to the most important "plot" RW trying to plot against, because the murderer in the Poe tale is an orang-outang carried from the jungle into the city -- which is the way both Buckley in the trial and the white newspapers in Chicago depict Bigger as the criminal, a jungle beast from whom white civilization has to protect itself, especially its (white) women (cf. 475-76, 432, 322-23, etc.). (To remind us that RW wasn't exaggerating the racism prevalent in society at the time, we looked at the way the Chicago Tribune portrayed the real-life defendant Robert Nixon in OUR WEBSITE.)

The means by which the novel tries most overtly to replace that cultural "text" is Max's long speech in Bigger's defense (pp. 444-73). Here the assumptions of the detective story are being revised -- Max makes society the "culprit," establishing its systematic patterns of discrimination and exploitation as the cause of the crime (cf. 459), and interprets Bigger himself as a symbol of the sick (but remediable) social organism (cf. 444 and 451). It's clear that RW intends Max's interpretation of the story he's telling to be the definitive one, but I ended by suggesting the way the novel offers yet another narrative, another type of re-writing, in its text. That's Bigger's own efforts, especially in Part 2, to take control of his "story," to create its shape, or to use it to create his self. We looked especially at how dramatically the novel stages the scene where Bigger is literally "wright-ing," putting words on paper (pp. 202-03), but also discussed briefly (too briefly!) his attempts to define his story himself in conversations with Bessie (160-63) and Britten (179-82). Clearly RW feels at attraction to Bigger's experience that isn't entirely contained by Max's economic interpretation. I said we'd come back to that on Friday...

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