Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Every protest’s novel

All literature is protest,” Richard Wright shouted at James Baldwin. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” Maybe so, Baldwin countered weakly, but not all protest is literature. “Oh,” Wright said, “here you come again with all that art for art’s sake crap.”[1]

The joke here is that Wright was protesting the label protest novel, which Baldwin had affixed to the front cover of Native Son in his famous 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin lumps Wright’s novel about a black man who “had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself” together with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wright’s violence, he suggests, is merely the reverse image of Stowe’s sentimentality, which betrays an “aversion to experience” and is therefore “the mask of cruelty.”[2] So sticky was the label that it would not come off Native Son for years and years. “Wright has come to seem to us a belated writer of the Thirties,” Leslie Fiedler wrote a decade and a half later; “his novels mere ‘protest literature,’ incapable of outliving the causes that occasioned his wrath.”[3]

Few literary critics have thrown up such a brick. Native Son is one of the greatest novels ever written by an American, and is all the greater for the confusion surrounding the “protest novel.” If a protest novel does what Baldwin says it does (safely assigning its “unsettling questions” to the “social arena” and leaving its readers with a “thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all”) then Wright is wrong in insisting that “all literature is protest.” But if a protest novel is aimed not at society but at “art for art’s sake crap” then a goodly portion of American prose fiction, if not quite all of it, is protest literature. And Native Son is the model of its inward greatness.

A better term might be discursive novel, the kind of long fiction (it usually requires some length to say everything it aims to say) that is more concerned with message than technique, more concerned with saying something than with shaping something—the kind of writing in which art is identified with exactitude of the sentences rather than the perfection of the whole. The greatest novelists, with the obvious exception of Nabokov, have all been discursive.

Even James, with his contempt for “such large loose baggy monsters” as The Three Musketeers and War and Peace, “with their queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary”—even James, who demanded to know what these monsters could “artistically mean”—liked to indulge the discursive compulsion.[4] Consider, for example, the “generalization” that Basil Ransom formulates upon meeting Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians: “[T]he simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who take them easy. He perceived very quickly that Miss Chancellor belonged to the former class.” In his later fiction, James is careful to leave the discourse up to his characters, as when he instructs Fanny in The Golden Bowl to observe that a “person can mostly feel but one passion—one tender passion, that is—at a time. Only, that doesn’t hold good for our primary and instinctive attachments, the ‘voice of blood,’ such as one’s feeling for a parent or a brother.” But the source of the generalization does not change the fact that it is a generalization, which asks to be judged as true or false.

The discursive novel is not distinguished by its “queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary,” but by its digressive willingness to follow the scent of a proposition. It hearkens after the adventure of conversation, which neither follows a script nor advances an argument. Consequently, it displays a certain insouciance toward consistency, a quality of the discursive novel that throws critics who have been trained to peer closely at the working of well wrought urns. Sometimes, in fact, it is the contradictions that make a discursive novel such a fascinating thing to read.

That is certainly the case with Native Son. Wright has two messages to deliver in the novel. On the one hand, Bigger Thomas murders the white heiress Mary Dalton to feel a “certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. . . . The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as a symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of [whites], like a man who had been created, but had now evened the score.”[5] Until Mary’s murder, Bigger had lived with choiceless choices.[6] He is given only what I have called elsewhere the monstrous illusion of choice. Living as a second-class citizen in a racially intolerant society, he is not a moral agent, choosing for himself among a range of options; he is the creature of the racist system that reduces his “choices” to two—whether to take a demeaning job or to starve, for instance (p. 12). The act of murder creates his moral autonomy: “It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him” (p. 105). For the first time in his life he is a man and not a slave, for only he is a man who has choices he can freely make.

On the other hand, Wright offers a Marxist determinist account of Bigger’s experience. Like Dreiser in Sister Carrie, Wright goes to great lengths to establish that the crime was involuntary, unwilled, accidental. Bigger finds himself alone with Mary in her bedroom—the treatment of black men accused of improper advances toward white women from the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 to Emmett Till in 1955 suggests why the very situation was fraught with terror for him—and to escape detection, he quiets Mary with a pillow over her face, which ends up smothering her. Boris Max, the Communist Party lawyer who defends him, convinces Bigger that, even after killing to be quit of them, whites still rule him: “He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death” (pp. 331–32).

In his courtroom speech for the defense, Max argues that it is Bigger who is the real victim—of slavery, which “lasted for more than two hundred years,” and the racial oppression that succeeded it:

Injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong. . . . Even their speech is colored and shaped by what they must undergo. Your Honor, injustice blots out one form of life, but another grows up in its place with its own rights, needs, and aspirations. (p. 391).And it is this new form of life—the lives of twelve million people, “stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights” (p. 397)—which is to blame for the death of Mary Dalton and even for the death of Bessie Mears, Bigger’s own black girlfriend:Oh, yes; Mary Dalton is dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Bigger Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill? Listen: what Bigger did early that Sunday morning in the Dalton home and what he did that Sunday night in that empty building was but a tiny aspect of what he had been doing all his life long! He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. (p. 400)In short, Bigger was—in Dreiser’s phrase—merely a waif amid forces, powerless to control them. And in fact, the last section of the novel is entitled “Fate,” because the view it advances is a denial of Bigger’s free will.

The arguments are contradictory. Bigger Thomas cannot be both an autonomous moral agent and the plaything of social fate. In the end, he rejects Max’s determinism, saying, “[W]hat I killed for, I am!” (p. 429). He takes God’s name, in the form made familiar by the King James Version (Exod 3.14), because he will permit no other gods before him—no racist system of injustice will be permitted to have caused his actions. Bigger identifies himself with them; he is created by the murders he commits. He may have performed evil, but the evil was a voluntary performance, an act of will. And perhaps the worst thing to be said about the American political system in 1940, corrupted from top to bottom by racial intolerance and oppression, is that violence was the only freedom it granted its black citizens.

Until the end of the novel—until Bigger rejects Max’s defense of him—Native Son is strained by the tension between the two philosophies. As he struggles against Max’s explanations, he feels a “war raging in him,” Wright writes (p. 361). But the truth is that the war is raging within the novel. Native Son is written to settle the conflict between freedom and determinism, to work through the contradictions in Wright’s own thinking. The novel is the record of his inner philosophical torment. When he wrote it, Wright was still nominally a member of the Communist Party, but as he admitted later in the chapter that he contributed to The God That Failed (1950), he had already begun to harbor doubts. Native Son is not merely the transcript of his back-and-forth within himself over his future in the Party; it is an acting out, in public, of his ambivalence and inner division.

In writing his masterpiece, Richard Wright was not dedicated to the perfection of a self-consistent and perfectly balanced work of art. He was dedicated to discussion, to ironing out the vexing tangles of experience in words. And for that reason, Native Son may be the best example of a discursive novel—the best example of the human uses to which fictional discourse may be put—ever written.

[1] James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard” [1961], in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 257.

[2] James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in Collected Essays, p. 12.

[3] Leslie Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Stein & Day, 1964), p. 107.

[4] Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse [1908], in The Art of the Novel, ed. R. P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner, 1934), p. 84.

[5] Richard Wright, Native Son: The Restored Text, ed. Arnold Rampersad [1940] (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 164. Subsequent references in parenthesis.

[6] The term choiceless choice was introduced by the literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer to characterize the moral circumstances of the Nazi death camps: see Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. 72.


R. T. said...

Oddly enough, I have not read Native Son, which is an embarrassing admission for a teacher of literature. Perhaps your comments will be the appropriate catalyst.

sriddle415 said...

Dear Sir,

This is certainly a strong statement:

"And for that reason, Native Son may be the best example of a discursive novel—the best example of the human uses to which fictional discourse may be put—ever written."

And I am always skeptical of claims of "best" and particularly of "best-ever." But I haven't read enough discursive novels qua novels to say anything other than that this is s striking claim. Thank you for making it.



dglen said...

This is an excellent piece. Concision within such strong, contradictory currents is admirable.

Collin said...

Does anyone know if this book is out of print? The prices on Amazon are outrageous.

D. G. Myers said...


My own view of statements about the “best” or “worst ever” is that they are interrogative challenges. The claims come with understood questions attached at the end:

Lolita is the greatest English-language novel written since 1880, [isn’t it? What else is, then?]”

D. G. Myers said...


There is a glitch in the Amazon system that prevents it from displaying some Harcourt and Harper titles, for some reason. Welty’s Delta Wedding is another, for example, that won’t show up if you search for it by title. (You have to search by ISBN.)

At all events, here is the Amazon link to Native Son. This is the current edition—a very attractive copy in high-quality paper and ragged edges.