A Complex Snarl of Realities: Re-Reading Richard Wright's Native Son
Saborido, Lacey Kathryn
Richard Wright's powerful 1940 novel Native Son holds a notoriously vexed place in literary history. Wright has been variously disparaged for his depiction of women, pilloried for his "gratuitous" violence, denigrated for his embrace of programmatic naturalism and dismissed as the author of overdetermined naturalist fiction and tediously didactic protest literature. Nonetheless, his work remains widely read, and Native Son is still considered an indispensable classic in the tradition of American letters. In his recent book-length investigation of Wright, Mikko Tuhkanen suggests that it is precisely his enduring legacy that limits contemporary critical considerations of Wright. Tuhkanen argues that such overexposure "has made it difficult to approach his texts--especially the most influential ones--without already knowing what one will read, without already being sutured into a fixed perspective as a reader" (xxv). This thesis turns to the critical reception of Wright's novel, in particular the infamous series of essays written by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe, to unearth some of the inherited assumptions that underlie many common approaches to Wright's novel. After placing the novel within its critical context, this thesis attempts to read Wright's novel against the critical grain. Taking Wright's own stated literary and aesthetic objectives in such essays as "Blueprint for Negro Literature" and "How Bigger Was Born" as its starting point, this thesis draws on a range of theoretical frames, including Gates' signifyin(g), Iser's reader reception theory, and genre studies to propose that Wright's novel, and his infamous protagonist, represent a more complex snarl of realities than many canonical readings suggest.