Third Wright Lecture

In the 1930s a lot of American writers agreed with Wright's project in Native Son: to commit their art to political engagement. I spent a little time talking about the conflict many readers since the Thirties feel between "art" & "propaganda," then went on to spend most of the period talking about an aspect of the political project of Native Son that bothers me: the way the novel seems divided between a Marxist and an existentialist identity.

We began by talking about RW's involvement in the American Communist Party as a faith. The novel defines the Party against the meaning of Christianity as a faith, as Jan comes in to Bigger's cell just after Rev. Hammond has given Bigger that cross and told him that the meaning of his life is to be found in the Biblical story of man's Fall and Jesus' Atonement. When Jan forgives Bigger, "the word became flesh" (333), but the vision is different from Hammond's submissive Jesus. Bigger does not renounce his right to live in the world (cf. 293-94), which as Jan says he must "fight for" (334). If to the Modernists of the Twenties, Christianity was the lost faith (or, to Stevens, the wrong fiction), to many Thirties writers, including RW, it was the wrong faith -- Marxism as an explanation of suffering in the world and as the promise of "a new heaven and a new earth" took the place of empty heaven and its hymns (extra credit if you can recognize who I'm quoting here).

Especially, for RW, the Party meant the possibility of belonging, of an escape from alienation. We looked at WHAT HE SAYS ABOUT THAT in his autobiography, and at the vision that Bigger has after talking, sharing his life, with Max (419-20). I went on to try to indicate how much RW got ideologically from Marxism. I began by summing up the novel's large structure. Part I: the way Bigger's life, feelings, re-actions conditioned by larger (essentially white) social forces. Part II: Bigger's own, ultimately futile attempts to assert control over his life. Part III: way novel turns to Max to both explain what Bigger means as a social "symbol" and suggest, through collective action, a way to change the forces that imprison Bigger. I think that's the novel Wright consciously believed he was writing.

The novel's use of Max, though, is problematic. His long speech to the court, for example, begins with his looking over Bigger's head (p. 444) & ends by going over Bigger's head (p. 473). Just as a "white" voice defines the meaning of black experience, so Bigger's individual life disappears inside Max's Marxist interpretation. Merging the individual inside the common good might be a goal of socialism, but at very end of novel Wright stages a scene that confounds that goal. When Max last visits Bigger on the day he's scheduled to be executed, Bigger "drowns out Max's voice," leaves Max "groping like a blind man," and insists on asserting his own "I am" (Wright's italics; cf. 500-01). That suggested Wright's anxiety about what might be lost through too complete a commitment to the idea of the collective.

Similarly, Max's rejection of the "mire of emotion," his attempt to be entirely logical about the issues (p. 451) is challenged by Bigger's recognition that his feelings, not logic, contain the truth of his life (cf. 406, 408, etc.). This led me (with too little time to develop the idea) to yet another narrative competing for power inside this novel -- what I called its "existentialist theme." Most of the passages that develop this are in Part 2, and represent Bigger's repeated attempts to see his crime as an act he committed, a way to create a new life for himself, etc. (cf. 118-19, etc.). These moments are repeatedly undercut by reminders of how powerless Bigger is as an individual, but in some ways the novel refuses to let go of its commitment to Bigger's I am. In the scene of Bigger writing, the very first choice he has to make as the "wright-er" -- whether he should say "I" or "we" -- indicates the question I was trying to answer: is Wright's commitment finally to Marxist idea of collective identity (we) or the existentialist belief in private experience (I). Within a couple years after finishing Native Son we know he quit the Am Communist Party and began writing explicitly existential works -- but what about the novel we've read? Does it resolve the various contradictions, between Max's (white) voice and Bigger's (black) experience? between importance of the individual only as social symbol & the value and meaning of individual "I am"? between Max's faith that only social change can make life meaningful and Bigger's private quest for "freedom," control, life itself?

I don't have an answer that I like to that question. I think the conflict makes the novel more powerful as a novel -- but it also makes it harder for me to lecture on, or write lecture notes on.

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