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Book Club Wed Aug 13 2008

September 2008 Selection: Native Son by Richard Wright

Bigger Thomas - a criminal at heart or a victim of environment? This is one of the questions we're forced to ponder while reading Richard Wright's groundbreaking Native Son, but even more, Bigger Thomas's story shines a harsh light on the social, economic and racial disparities present in the 1930s in Chicago, making modern readers question how far we've truly come. Excited to be able to help his impoverished family earn some money, 20-year-old Bigger begins a job as a chauffeur for the upper-class, white, Dalton family, a family that has made its riches dealing real estate in poor black neighborhoods. Despite boastful plans with his friends to rob a white-owned store, Bigger finds himself shy, afraid and, ultimately, angry in the presence the kind and gracious Dalton family. When their daughter Mary grills Bigger on his allegiance to unions and calls her father a capitalist, his nervousness increases and he realizes how much his own silence will help him.

It is Mary's outspokenness that will be Bigger's undoing. After driving Mary and her boyfriend Jan through the city, joining them and their friends at dinner despite his unease and partaking in a bottle of rum, Bigger finds himself in Mary's bedroom, both scared and lustful. Though Mrs. Dalton is blind, Bigger panics when she enters her daughter's room to check on her and struggles to keep Mary quiet by holding a pillow over her face. Confronted with Mary's lifeless body, Bigger must devise a plan to preserve the appearance of his innocence - a plan that will, unfortunately, go horribly awry when the public and the press decide his guilt even before he is caught and tried. Furthermore, the search for Bigger as he tries to escape his crime gives the white authorities an excuse to plunder and terrorize the South Side black neighborhoods. It is calamity that is clearly reflective of the social unrest of 1930s Chicago.

Native Son was an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1940 and made Richard Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time. Wright was also the first black American writer to have a publication chosen for the Book-of-the-Month club. It was during Wright's stay in Chicago that he joined the Communist Party and after he moved to New York he published reviews and political essays Communist publications. He remained a member through the 40s before leaving over ideological issues. Wright's Communist affiliations are apparent throughout the third book of Native Son, where much of the dialogue is spent on the Communist oratories of Bigger's lawyer who also argues that while Bigger is responsible for his crime, he is also a product of his fearful, desperate environment. In an essay on the creation of his most well-known protagonist, Wright explained that Bigger was a combination of men he had known during his childhood in Mississippi, men confronted by racism and oppression, resulting in antisocial and violent behavior. While in Chicago, Wright saw that this was not strictly a black phenomenon and came to believe that the structure of American society was at the root of this suffering. Bigger Thomas's story in Native Son serves as Wright's warning that without social and economic change, the oppressed masses will soon rise up violently against those in power.

 
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Jack C / August 18, 2008 7:05 PM

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87984371&ps=bb3

This is a link to an NPR story that ran this morning on Richard Wright. The story is by Juan Williams.

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