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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright

Book Review
Native Son (1940)
by Richard Wright

  Native Son by Richard Wright is on any syllabus concerned with African American literature. It's also a critical volume for any list of 20th century American literature.  Although Native Son is a trailblazer in terms of its treatment of race, it is also contains a heavy element of class critique and at a certain level it can read independent of the race of the protagonist murderer, Bigger Thomas.   The Author's argument that "society is responsible" will strike any contemporary reader as dated.  In this way, Native Son is more of historical interest for its depiction of the "under class" than for its actual critique of the society which as produced that underclass.

 I found Native Son especially unpleasant to read because of my occupation as a criminal defense lawyer.  The story of Native Son concerns Bigger Thomas, an underprivileged African American young man living in Chicago during the Great Depression. (or just before World War II)  He lives with his single mother and younger siblings.  He and his local buddies plot to rob a liquor store, but he backs out and takes a job as a chauffeur for a family of wealthy Chicago do gooders.  On his first night of employment, the college age daughter gets drunk and he escorts her back to her bedroom, only to be interrupted by her (blind) mother.  Terrified of being discovered in the bedroom of a young white woman, he accidentally smothers her to death in an attempt to avoid discovery.

  Things go down hill from there, but he does dismember the body, burn it in the furnace, murder his African American girlfriend with a  brick and attempt to blackmail the family.  That he is hunted and condemned to death should surprise no one.  That Richard Wright makes the case that his actions are explained because of the negative impact of society on his development should also surprise no one, but it still jarred me.


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