Last night was the world premiere of Native Son, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s book by Bronzville native Nambi E. Kelley, at Court Theatre in collaboration with American Blues Theater. As Kelley tells Sam Worley in this month’s issue of Chicago, it’s a favorite of hers, in part because it echoes her feelings about the place she grew up, close to the book’s terrain: “When I was a little girl in that neighborhood, I can’t tell you how suffocated I felt.”
It’s the right word to describe the atmosphere of the book. And it’s probably why I avoided it for so long, despite being a classic novel of Chicago. It has a reputation for being suffocating, originating with the writers who would succeed Wright—like James Baldwin, who would alienate his hero, in the way young writers do, with the career-defining essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a genre in which he categorized Native Son, comparing it to the “very bad novel" Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and cannot be transcended.”
Coming to this reaction second-hand, I unfairly lumped in Native Son with the hectoring early-20th-century American social realism I had to drag my way through in college like Norris and Dreiser, in which anthropomorphized social issues exclaim metaphors to each other. As Arnold Rampersad gently puts it in his introduction to my edition, “the appearance of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with its dazzling modernist techniques… also tended to make Native Son seem crude in comparison.”
But I found a cheap copy and decided to eat my Wheaties. Its reputation is not unwarranted, but the way in which Wright builds the suffocating atmosphere of Bigger Thomas’s life is more interesting, more delicate, and more acute than it might suggest. The protagonist’s first encounter in the book with whites is not one of outright racial hostility but the keen, pervasive tension of quiet subordination. Meeting Mr. Dalton, the Capitalist, for a job interview as a domestic servant, Bigger fitfully tries to position himself as acceptable.
He felt that the position in which he was sitting was too awkward and found that he was on the very edge of the chair. He rose slightly to sit farther back; but when he sat down he sank so suddenly and deeply that he thought the chair had collapsed under him. He bounded halfway up, in fear; then, realizing what had happened, he sank distrustfully down again…. Misjudging how far back he was sitting in the chair, his first attempt to rise failed and he slipped back, resting on his side. Grabbing the arms of the chair, he pulled himself upright and found a tall, lean, white-haired man holding a piece of paper in his hand.
The man is Mr. Dalton, his prospective employer, who requests a note from the relief agency.
He had completely forgotten about the paper. He stood to reach into his vest pocket and, in doing so, dropped his cap. For a moment his impulses were deadlocked; he did not know if he should pick up his cap and then find the paper, or find the paper and then pick up his cap. He decided to pick up his cap.
“Put your cap here,” said Mr. Dalton, indicating a place on his desk.
The book’s reputation precedes it; for a book about segregation and violence, it’s a canny introduciton into the world of the novel, locating the perceived hostilities of the environment in the alien world of gentility. Bigger Thomas is a difficult character to write—"the supreme challenge of creating a ficitonal narrative with so brutalized and limited a character at its core,” in Rampersad’s words. Through Wright’s careful observation, those limits are given depth, Bigger’s inner life crowded out by the gravity of the outside world.
Wright is also a careful observer of the world surrounding both Bigger and Mr. Dalton; it’s very effectively a novel about Chicago, or at least the small geography of Bigger’s circumscribed world. He drops in geographic coordinates—his house at 37th and Indiana, a movie theater at 47th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), the Dalton’s at 46th and Drexel, a “real” restaurant at 47th and Indiana. Native Son is also a work of suspense, and Wright consciously borrowed from the noir of the period, with its concentration on physical and economic geography, shifting the story through a limited, stifling map of the South Side.
The suspense element of the book begins when Bigger becomes a fugitive. As a movie cuts back and forth to show the proximity between the hunter and hunted, Wright uses streets, as Bigger follows the inevitable through news reports of police hunts and riots:
He closed his eyes, calculating: he was at Fifty-third Street and the hunt had started last night at Eighteenth Street. If they had gone from Eighteenth Street to Twenty-eighth Street last night, then they would have gone from Twenty-eighth Street to Thirty-eighth Street since then. And by midnight tonight they would be at Forty-eighth Street, or right here.
Fleeing the police, Bigger searches for a hideout to escape the cold of the Chicago winter—an uninhabited apartment in a habitable building. But the segregated geography of the city works against him, as Wright invokes the notorious housing strictures that still resonate today to further encircle Bigger.
He looked for a building with a “For Rent” sign. He looked two blocks and saw none. He knew that empty flats were scarce in the Black Belt; whenever his mother wanted to move she had to put in requests long months in advance…. The rental agencies told him that there were not enough houses for Negroes to live in, that the city was condemning houses in which Negroes lived in as being too old and too dangerous for habitation…. And he had heard it said that black people, even though they could not get good jobs, paid twice as much rent as whites for the same kinds of flats. He walked five more blocks and saw no “For Rent” sign. Goddamn!
It’s both a social-realist annotation and a noir plot point—Bigger is trapped by social and economic forces… and literally trapped by them.
Native Son was published in 1940, and it borrows from two great strains of urban chronicles that were defining American urban life at the time, noir and sociology. It’s written in the broad strokes of social realism, but in between are the precise gazes of the crime writer and the urban observer, drawing the world gesture by gesture and block by block.