For some reason, I had completely missed out on Native Son[1] in the past, in spite of courses on modern American Literature, and was astounded within 10 pages to encounter intensity which immediately ranks this novel in a class with only one other, Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. Indeed my estimation of American literature as a whole, quietly sagging for some time now, has received a rocket boost.


Within the same 10 pages one comes rapidly to realise that the author is writing extremely carefully; one sits up and pays equally close attention. By careful writing, I do not mean anything stylistic but, on the contrary, an extremely close observation of events unfolding in relation to character and decision. The little room in which Bigger kills the rat and which he shares with an affectionate family contains a gun concealed under his mattress. He is reluctant to attend a job interview later that day, in spite of the crunching poverty that surrounds him each time he awakes.


He goes out into the south side Chicago streets, but Wright, like Jane Austen, is not really interested in describing things that are not germane to his immediate purpose ― what bonnet somebody is wearing, the shimmer of neon or street lights after rain. He makes for the pool hall, first bumping into a friend whom, within hours, he is tormenting viciously to the point where the day’s planned robbery (against a white shop owner, and therefore a development fearful to them both) has to be forgotten.


Instead, the boys head for the cinema where they jack off and subsequently move seats (“I don’t know where to put my feet”). At the time this does not seem to be linked to the fortuitous fashion news reporting of an heiress and her Communist boyfriend, both of whom Bigger is shortly to meet. But this episode, suppressed at first publication, is later emphasised at the trial.


To read this book is to become a visitor from the future. The degree of functional separation (the degree of legal separation remains hazy) between black and white is astonishing to modern eyes in an era of ostentatious political equality and correctness; it helps me to appreciate how fragile things perhaps still are.


In particular the issue of rape seems to be biologically central to the Ku Klux Klan-inspired segregation of the races even in petty matters. It seems to be possible to be arrested for having a untied shoelace and be charged with rape. Bigger has no track record of any sexual offences at all, only one rap for petty crime (tyre theft) and we know from the narrative, with its careful precision, that Mary, the heiress, is carried to her bedroom by the not very bright and distinctly unfeeling Bigger because she is incapable of getting out of the car and walking. In spite of some transient background arousal ― the common texture of life ― nothing approaching rape is considered or even possible, because at this point the blind mother walks in, alarming Bigger who inadvertently smothers Mary with “a corner of the pillow”.


Likewise, when fleeing with the reluctant and disheartened Bessie, he makes love to her in a disused house before clubbing her almost to death with a brick to her head. This, too, is not rape but unfortunately the probable pattern of their relations over several years (unfeeling use, rather than the brick). In spite of feminist ranklings, I find the sketches of the only three women in the book tender and sympathetic. Bessie is possibly the most attractive character in the book and the one closest to Bigger. She certainly finds her tongue:


I ain’t had no happiness … All you ever did since we’ve been knowing each other was to get me drunk so that you could have me. That was all! I see it now. (pp. 180, 230).


Given that the ultimate challenge against Bigger is of murder and rape, it seems incomprehensible that a plea of guilty is put forward by his lawyer, Mr Boris Max, the second important figure in the book and source of the “existentialism” which in mercifully non-Sartrean fashion enables Bigger to glimpse some sort of redemption in the fork between life and death:


Max had been able to see the man in him … he felt ground beneath his feet … yet Max had given him the faith that at bottom all men lived as he live and felt as he felt. (pp. 360, 402)


Both the closing speeches by the opposing lawyers are a little too long for the balance of this book, though an editor need not have shortened them by very much. Max’s speech launches dangerously beyond the comprehension of judge and jury alike, occasionally rhapsodic (Wright’s poetry had all been political): even the more analytic and sociological sections seem admirably prophetic for the author and miserably irrelevant for the defence. Such a defence needed to be far more factual but even central facts are dismissed in cavalier fashion:


Let us not concern ourselves with that part of Bigger Thomas’ confession that says he murdered accidentally, that he did not rape the girl. It really does not matter.


But it really does matter. The prosecution speech on the other hand strays scarcely beyond abuse (“lizard … ape … moron”).


I believe that the magnitude of Native Son is diminished slightly by reading Wright’s account of how he came to write it. It is clear he is obsessed with the sole character of Bigger. No one else in the story really moves. Mr and Mrs Dalton, supposed to be there as token capitalists, actually come across as decent ordinary people, perhaps token liberals but no worse for that. Like the police, Bigger’s friends and the skies that rain racism, they do not move in their tableau. Perhaps the only alternative scramble of mobility is the press pack who, at one point, get welcomed into the Daltons’ kitchen. They subsequently file extremely accurate reports, again strange to today’s reader. WB Yeats had a head full of fairytales; Robert Graves of moonshine; we learn to disregard the dubious soil from which poetry blooms. But Wright’s obsession with Bigger does spill into the book.


Wright’s self-criticism extends to the scene where everybody of any significance in the story seems to gather in Bigger’s capacious prison cell. This seems to Wright implausible fictionally but meaningful to him as author. I find it, on the contrary, most moving, though difficult for all concerned, to have Bigger’s intimate relationships with his immediate family and their pastor, awkward and stunted though they are, exposed to this audience; for instance, Bigger’s remarks to his young sister about her “sewing school”.


The question remains to what extent was Bigger some sort of congenital psychopath. How would he fare on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist? He certainly is unfeeling, in spite of Wright’s hectic efforts to document the “fear and shame” that eloquently dominate the first third of the book. He shows very little in the way of guilt or remorse for what he has done ― just as he shows remarkably little in the way of anticipation of the consequences. Wright is unsparing in his accurate portrayal of what, to my alas professionally experienced eye, is exactly the behaviour of youngsters taking the track of crime and heading for prison.[2]


It is all too easy for us to say, as Wright comes to do, that much of this applies to the black and white races alike, but if you’re black, blackness does not go away as an issue and cannot be set aside ever. Bigger is full of racial mutterings, however, but plainly criminal intent. Only later would this come to be seen in terms of political analysis, and then only briefly in the sociological 60s. Today we think much more in terms of genome ― for criminality, personality and intelligence.


I prefer to think of Bigger as an individual or a least a person struggling towards individuality. I do not see him as repellent but as someone whom a little listening would open up, as indeed proves to be the case when the lawyer Max does just that with his haphazard questions. If Bigger’s unfeelingness and incapacity for remorse argue for psychopathy, then against this hypothesis ― in addition to the general prohibition on treating literature as raw material for psychological analysis! ― must be accounted the fact that he never seems to lie. He conceals but he does not lie. Perhaps Wright is pouring some of his own authorial truthfulness into this character. He certainly is candid in his later demand (in How “Bigger” was Born) for an “honest reader” (p. 460).


But let us end where we began. Native Son deserves to be ranked as a masterpiece of world literature and a shining jewel in the crown of American literature which it greatly enhances. It is difficult not to be impressed by Wright’s scientific literacy (this is the 1930s) and his intelligence is hard to overstate. His analyses of universal popular experiences (Germany, Russia) and his prophecy of the social tensions which would erupt politically in the USA in Black Power and large-scale race riots 30-40 years later are impressive. In spite of a chaotic childhood, he seems never to have put a foot wrong (he wooed two women and married the wrong one first). Wright was a brave, brave man who never seemed to stand still. Even at the end of his life he managed to write 8000 haikus.[3] He went everywhere, met everyone, encouraged innumerable younger writers, and like Josephine Baker settled in Paris out of reach of the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am happy to think that in his own lifetime Wright was accorded some of the acclaim that matters most ― the recognition of his fellow artists, writers and intellectuals.

[1] Richard Wright, Native Son, Harper, 1940; restored text published by Library of America. New York: HarperCollins (Perennial Classics), 1993; includes Notes, Chronology of Wright’s life and How “Bigger” was Born (Wright, 1940). All page references are to this edition.

[2] The average IQ of individuals convicted of offences against the person is 80 (bottom ninth centile).

[3] I hope they’re no good. 8,000 excellent haikus would be altogether overwhelming.