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On the Web Thu Jul 23 2009

Thoughts on Native Son

Lydia Kiesling of The Millions writes about her first failed and second successful attempts at reading Richard Wright's Native Son, the Book Club's September 2008 selection. She writes that she quit the novel early on the first time around because she felt "dispirited" and didn't want to read about the horrible acts Bigger Thomas commits with Mary Dalton's body after having accidentally murdered her. She later felt like a fraud at her ability to read other violent novels while letting this classic work offend her. Having successfully made it through the book the second time around, she realized that part of her discomfort stemmed from the fact that:

...Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody's hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say "My goodness, we've come a long way!" But that's stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted?

That's as true of an assessment of the book as I can imagine. The book does not want to hold your hand. It is not about reassuring you that racism and oppression is past us, but forcing you to understand how horribly present it is, both in Wright's time and today. What's shocking about this novel, which the Book Club members at that meeting commented on and which I realize each time I read the book, is that it is just as relevant today as it was the more-than-half a century ago that it was written.

Kiesling points out another irony -- that of reading the book during the hubbub surrounding the racially toned arrest of African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. My, what a long way we've come, indeed.

 
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Dennis Fritz / July 27, 2009 11:22 AM

Native Son is a powerful novel, but one of its flaws is that Wright creates a protagonist whose level of perception is far lower than Wright's own. Bigger cannot articulate his fear, rage, and frustration. Compare Bigger Thomas to the unnamed speaker in Invisibile Man. That novel is stronger for the fact the speaker can address his situation directly.

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