Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African American to become a bestseller and the first selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. And until the rise of Toni Morrison and other black women writers, Wright was widely considered the leading African-American author, while Native Son vied with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) as the preeminent novel of the African-American experience.
Despite its success, the novel was controversial from the first, as Wright had known it would be. His own “mental censor” told him that his portrait of Bigger Thomas as a representative of all African Americans would be misunderstood and exploited by “reactionary whites,” condemned by his own “white and black comrades in the Communist party,” and rejected by “the Negro middle and professional classes.”
Native Son remains a controversial novel. In Poetic Justice (1997), Martha Nussbaum argues that the novel is still valuable because it “promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.” She claims that while the novel “avoids evoking an easy sympathy that would say, despite differences in circumstance, we are all brothers under the skin,” it successfully encourages a more meaningful “deep sympathy.” Readers are forced to try “to see the world through Bigger’s eyes” and, therefore, are led, even while “recogniz[ing] the inappropriateness of some of [Bigger’s] emotions to their object,” to feel “a deep sympathy . . . for Bigger’s predicament, a principled anger at the structures of racism that have made him as he is.”
Nussbaum’s interpretation confirms the overall thesis of Poetic Justice that reading novels, at least the right kind of novels, “can be a bridge . . . to a vision of justice” remarkably like Nussbaum’s own.
Richard Posner responded to her argument in his Law and Literature (2009) by claiming that Native Son is a “period piece” lacking permanent value, in large part because, as one reads, “the [minor] black characters lose their three-dimensionality” while the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is presented on some occasions as a morally responsible character and, on others, as a mere victim of circumstances whose actions, even murder, have no moral resonance at all. What Nussbaum calls “the moral teaching of Native Son” about the human cost of racism “is not exactly news, and anyway it is not well presented in Wright’s novel,” says Posner.
In considering the impact of Native Son, it is well to remember what effect the author himself was attempting to achieve. In his 1940 essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Richard Wright declared that he was determined in Native Son to avoid the mistake he believed he had made in writing the stories collected in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938):
When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.
The text of Native Son reveals that Wright, indeed, went out of his way to make it difficult for readers of any race to feel much sympathy, deep or otherwise, for the novel’s protagonist. Wright ensured that even bankers’ daughters would find it difficult to “read and weep over and feel good about” his main character. It is true that when Bigger Thomas smothers Mary Dalton, the Communist-sympathizing daughter of a wealthy liberal slumlord, the reader, taken inside Bigger’s mind, knows that the killing was entirely accidental.
After he is hired as a chauffeur by the Dalton family, Bigger’s first task is to drive Mary to a meeting with her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone. Later in the evening, Mary and Jan insist that Bigger eat and drink with them, much to his own embarrassment and humiliation. After dropping off Jan, Bigger drives Mary home, but she is so drunk that she passes out and he is forced to carry her to her bedroom. He puts her to bed but is surprised by the appearance of Mrs. Dalton, who is blind but can smell whiskey on Mary’s breath.