Native Son, by Richard Wright, was hailed by reviewers as an instant
classic upon its release in 1940. The novel was an instant bestseller, having
been included in the book-of-the-month-club. Due to its proto revolutionary
themes it was the subject of many reviews. Two such reviewers are Clifton
Fadiman and Malcolm Cowley.
Clifton Fadiman, writer for The New Yorker declared that Native Son was
the most powerful American novel since the Grapes of Wrath. He is positive that
anyone who reads this book has to know what it means to be a Negro, especially
being a Negro in the U.S. over seventy years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Fadiman then goes on to compare the novel to Theodore Dreiser’s An American
Tragedy, declaring that his novel did for the American white as Native Son did
for the Negro.
Fadiman begins criticizing Bigger Thomas, the main character in the
novel. He feels that Bigger is just a stupid fool, having done everything
possible to actually get himself caught. Fadiman also writes that Bigger
“…knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his
consciousness, he would either kill himself or somebody else.” Fadiman then
goes on by criticizing Wright stating that he is too explicit, repetitive, and
overdoes his melodrama from time to time. Fadiman does not believe Wright to be
a finished writer just yet. However, he does think that Wright possesses the
two absolute necessities of the first-rate novelist, passion and intelligence.
He also understands that Wright must have been greatly affected by the labor
movement, which may have contributed to Native Son.
At the conclusion of his review, Fadiman once again compares Native Son
to An American Tragedy. He says that the two novels tell almost the same story.
Although He feels that Dreiser’s novel is filled with better, more controlled
knowledge; he feels that Wright’s novel will have the same affect on the reader
if they are not afraid of a challenge. By saying “afraid,” Fadiman means that
Native Son is not merely a story but a deep experience.
The next review that we will look at is one done by Malcolm Cowley,
writer for The New Republic. Cowley immediately compares Native Son to
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, stating that the books resemble each other by
both having grown out of the radical movements of the 1930s. Cowley feels that
Wright was moved by the wrongs he had suffered in his own person, which made him
hate people with whiter skin than his own. This aided in Wright’s writing
Native Son. He then goes on to say that Wright’s feelings were clearly evident
in his first novel, Uncle Tom’s Children.However, with Native Son, Wright’s
sympathies have broadened and he has become less resentful.
Cowley feels that Wright’s purpose for writing Native Son was simple.
He seems to be saying “Listen, you white folks, I want to tell you all about the
Negroes in America. I want to tell you how they live and how they feel. I want
you to change your mind about them before it is too late to prevent a worse
disaster than any we have known. I speak for my own people, but I speak for
America too.” (Gates, 9)
Cowley then goes on to talk about Bigger, and how he had been trained
from the beginning of his life to be a bad citizen. How had he been taught
America ideals of life, but was never be able to achieve them. Whatever Bigger
wanted to do, such as fly an airplane, was reserved for the whites. Basically,
Cowley is saying that the whites made Bigger the way he was. If he had the
chance to be a good person then he would taken it, but he was never given this
chance, so he was always bad.
As he concludes his review, Cowley states that Wright had written a
better novel than he had planned. He was able to make his readers feel that it
was Bagger’s only claim to human courage and dignity to die. Wright also made
Bigger be a human rather than just a racial symbol. This was an important
concept in the novel that attributed to its great success.
Each of the reviewers had many interesting opinions which were relevant
to the novel. Having been compared to Grapes of Wrath and An American Tragedy ,
it is evident that Native Son is a great work of literature. The main point
that the reviewers made was that Wright really had a great idea for a story and
presented it extremely well. He was not too personal in his writings, yet he
gave us, the readers a novel which we could apply personal experiences to and
enjoy as well.
Category: Social Issues