Book Review: Native Son
On the heels of Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, I quickly dove into Native Son by Richard Wright. Wright's modern work is now bordering on "classic" status for its engagement of race relations in early 20th century America.
Published in 1940, Native Son garnered much attention including scathing negativity from Wright's then friend James Baldwin. None of this is particularly surprising since the book takes places in 1930s Chicago, contains passages of rape and murder, and ignites conversations about racial strife and social mistreatment.
Wright's book centers around a young black man in his 20s named Bigger Thomas. The book consists mostly of internal monologue and narrator insights over a brief portion of Bigger's life and its important transitions.
I would prefer for the details of Wright's story to go unspoiled, but it bears stating that the actions surrounding Bigger Thomas in the book take a substantial emotional toll and inflict themselves on the character in a tumultuous way. Not only is the reader taken on their own roller coaster of events and emotions, but Bigger's own experience demands specific attention. Throughout the narrative, the philosophies behind characters are presented in conflict to one another with no clear superior. These philosophies present themselves in Bigger’s relationship to white people, his relationship to fellow blacks, and amid all that the social economics of communism and capitalism that enwrap the story.
Bigger’s engagement with the Dalton family and the communist Jan leads to a memorable final monologue that expands the story beyond even what Bigger Thomas understands. It is here that Wright’s actual voice is most likely to be heard and naturally it continues the most poignant discourse on racial strife, social discord, guilty consciences, and a general ignorance of the people who populate this world.
From a literary perspective, Wright’s writing is simple without being blunted. Bigger Thomas isn’t a protagonist in the proper and this permits Wright to present a conflicting and challenging character. Despite James Baldwin’s many disagreements with Native Son he could say, “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” For this reason alone, the free and roaming internal monologue of Wright’s novel is worthwhile.
Peter Francis James' reading of Native Son is spectacular. Without a doubt, it was the quality of reading that encourages one to read additional books from the reader. His voice is perfectly deep for the persistent monologue from Bigger Thomas. The pauses, inclination, and emotive quality bring to life the struggle and anxiety throughout the material.
In conclusion, Native Son was an incredibly challenging book. It was raw and cutting. I could sense myself in characters I didn’t like. I was challenged to ask who around me could relate to the experience of Bigger Thomas. Good literature asks hard questions and while I don’t anticipate being in complete agreement with Richard Wright, I can’t plug my ears to this challenging book. Native Son is a tour de force that leaves you raw whether or not you agree with the presiding thesis.