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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any, other people-in this respect, perhaps, he is most American-and his force comes not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth. It is remarkable that, though we follow him step by step from the tenement room to the death cell, we know as little about him when this journey is ended as we did when it began; and, what is even more remarkable, we know almost as little about the social dynamic which we are to believe created him.

James Baldwin, "Many, Thousands Gone," reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son, 1972


Native Son, though preserving some of the devices of the naturalistic novel, deviates sharply from its characteristic tone: a tone Wright could not possibly have maintained and which, it may be, no Negro novelist can really hold for long. Native Son is a work of assault rather than withdrawal; the author yields himself in part to a vision of nightmare. Bigger's cowering perception of the world becomes the most vivid and authentic component of the book. Naturalism pushed to an extreme turns here into something other than itself, a kind of expressionist outburst, no longer a replica of the familiar social world but a self-contained realm of grotesque emblems.

Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons," reprinted in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Native Son, 1972

Throughout, the physical description that Wright rushes by us makes us feel the emotional force of the objects but not see them with any real accuracy: we are aware of the furnace and storm as poles of the imagination-fire and ice-in a world of symbolic presences. Continually the world is transformed into a kind of massive skull, and the people are figments of that skull's imagination.

Dan McCall, The Example of Richard Wright, 1969


But Max represents the type of so-called legal defense which the Communist Party and the I.L.D. have been fighting, dating from Scottsboro. Some of his speech is mystical, unconvincing, and expresses the point of view held not by the Communists but by those reformist betrayers who are being displaced by the Communists. He accepts the idea that Negroes have a criminal psychology as the book erroneously tends to symbolize in Bigger. He does not challenge the false charge of rape against Bigger, though Bigger did not rape Mary, and though this is the eternal bourbon slander flung against Negroes. He does not deal with the heinous murder of Bessie, tending to accept the bourbon policy that crimes of Negroes against each other don't matter and are not cut from the same capitalist cloth.

Ben Davis, Jr., Sunday Worker, April 14, 1940, reprinted in Richard Wright: The Critical Reception, 1978

Max, in his image of the American people proceeding to their doom like sleepwalkers, catches up these images of darkness present on all sides. It is this blindness that he emphasizes throughout his speech. If the judge reacts only to what he has to say about the sufferings of Negroes, he states, he will be "blinded" by a feeling that will prevent him from perceiving reality and acting accordingly. "Rather, I plead with you to see... an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people" (p. 328). "Your Honor," he exclaims, "in our blindness we have so contrived and ordered the lives of men" (p. 336) that their every human aspiration constitutes a threat to the state.

Paul N. Siegel, "The Conclusion of Richard Wright's Native Son," reprinted in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1984

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