AMONG ALL THE THOUSANDS of authors turning out short stories and novels today, Richard Wright is one of the few who stir the depths of one’s pity and anger.
Wright’s stories shoulder their way through the aimless mass of current fiction fundamentally because he works with a great theme. His tragedies are not the personal tragedies of a white novelist like, say, Thomas Wolfe. Nor are they the basically personal, if more complex, tragedies of Langston Hughes’ Negro bohemians, in which the race questions adds a certain piquancy but does not become the fiery question of all questions that it does in Wright’s novels and stories.
Wright’s characters come from the ranks of that poverty-cursed nine-tenths of the Negro population that lives below the “talented tenth” which has managed to elevate itself a rung on the lowest levels of the social ladder. His stories portray the oppression, and the struggle against oppression, of an entire race. His stories therefore achieve a scope and an intensity and hence a universality impossible in stories whose tragedy is only a personal one.
Wright’s tragedies, however, are not those of meek submission before overwhelming injustice. His characters are of heroic, Promethean stature. His men and women go down, but they go down fighting back. This revolutionary morale, consciously or unconsciously expressed by the characters, infuses all of Wright’s stories. It prefigures the heroic rôle that the Negro masses will play in the social struggles of the future.
Given the knowledge of the Negro possessed by the average white party member and sympathizer of our movement, Wright’s stories take on an added interest. Here is a Negro telling of the thousand and one ways the Negro is discriminated against in daily life; showing how the Negro’s psychological pattern is socially determined; exposing the defense mechanisms the Negro adopts; revealing the lynch mentality of the rabid Southern Negro-haters; showing the hatred and courage that simmers in the Negro, waiting only to be tapped.
Part of the impact created by Wright’s stories comes from his almost complete lack of compromise in attacking the race problem. He takes the worst possible situations for the presentation of the case of the Negro: the murder of a white man, a rape, a love affair with a white woman. Using these events – which bring into play all that codified prejudice which is so omnipresent in bourgeois society that most whites think of it as a moral absolute – Wright, in the course of the development of his stories, captures the sympathy and understanding of his readers despite these very same prejudices.
The force of this impact is heightened by Wright’s unwavering path to the logical but unpleasant end of most of his stories. He makes few concessions to that inner censor of ours which would like the story to end ... well, not quite that way. He recognizes in that censor an unconscious instrument (compounded of bourgeois prejudice and the common human frailty of substituting hope for practically any type of thought process) for the maintenance of racial oppression. To give in to it would destroy the whole point of his writing. He writes of things as they are, not as we might like them to be.
Qualified Bourgeois Appreciation
That is why the success of Native Son, for instance, was in part a succes de scandale. Bourgeois readers enjoyed the book in the same way that they enjoyed the assault on their nerves committed in the shocker, The Postman Always Rings Twice. At the same time, because Wright hews to the class line, the average bourgeois reader was, in addition, left with a somewhat queasy feeling after having finished the book. He has seen the smouldering volcano.
Wright’s style is lean – excellent in conveying the unadorned reality of his stories. There is little lyricism. There are few descriptive passages. His Negro and Southern white dialect are accurate transcriptions. He understands white psychology very well. Nowhere does Wright moralize; the point is conveyed in the action of the characters.
Some critics have found Wright’s stories melodramatic. It is true; they are melodramatic. And it is also true that his stories are melodramatic because the reality he portrays is surcharged with melodrama, as is all reality when social tensions are high. What, for instance, is more melodramatic than the social revolution itself?
Art versus Propaganda
Wright’s stories are an excellent refutation of the scholasticism of bourgeois critics who pose the conception of art and propaganda as mutually exclusive opposites. All literature is propaganda for some idea, political or otherwise. That a great idea such as the struggle for power by the working class (in all its political and personal aspects) should not form the structural basis for a great novel is comprehensible only as an expression of the literary struggle against the working class on the part of the bourgeois literary critics. Wright’s stories dramatizing the struggles of the Negro masses are just as much art, if on a smaller scale, as Aristophanes’ plays championing the cause of the Greek landowning aristocracy.
A good example of Wright’s artistry is the short story, Bright and Morning Star. It is an excellent pamphlet to put in the hands of people moving toward the Workers Party. The central characters in the story are communist party members, but the form the story takes casts them in the rôle not of Stalinist followers but of genuine revolutionists locked in a struggle with the worst elements of the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist political line is a completely unimportant factor.
“Bright and Morning Star”
The story of Bright and Morning Star is a simple one. The following synopsis, however, can give but little indication of its power.
Aunt Sue, an old, Southern, Negro woman, has recently joined the Communist Party. One of her sons, Sug, has already been jailed for revolutionary activity. As the story opens, her other son, Johnny-Boy, is out organizing a meeting to be held the next day. Late in the evening, as Aunt Sue is waiting for him to come home, Johnny-Boy’s white girl friend, Reva, comes to Aunt Sue’s house and tells her that the meeting has to be called off because a stoolpigeon has informed the sheriff of its being called.
Johnny-Boy returns but goes out again to warn the comrades to stay away from the meeting.
While he is gone the sheriff and a lynch gang come looking for him. They beat up Aunt Sue and leave. When she comes to, Booker, a new white recruit to the party, is bending over her. He tells her that the sheriff’s men have caught Johnny-Boy in the woods. Then Booker forces her to tell him the names of the other party members in order, he says, that he can warn the comrades. He leaves. Reva returns with the news that Booker is the stoolpigeon.
Fortified by her belief in the revolutionary movement, which has replaced her old, compensatory, religious exaltation. Aunt Sue hides Johnny-Boy’s revolver beneath a sheet which the sheriff had previously tauntingly advised her to bring for the body of her son. Taking a short cut through the field, she finds the lynch gang before Booker can arrive. The sheriff demands that she ask her son to give the names. She refuses. They break both of Johnny-Boy’s legs with a crowbar in an effort to make Aunt Sue beg the information from her son. She says nothing. Then they break his kneecaps. They break both his eardrums ... Booker arrives. Before he can reveal anything, she shoots him and tries to shoot her son, who is in agony. The lynch gang shoot her son, then her. She dies, defiant: they didn’t get what they wanted!
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Writing from London in a recent issue of The New Republic, George Orwell notes in the younger English writers “the absence of any feeling of purpose,” and states that there “seems no chance of any major literary work appearing until the future is more predictable and thinking people have less feeling of helplessness.” George Marion O’Donnell in an anthology of poetry published by New Directions expresses this same feeling of helplessness in American writers with the question: “What action now means act as a man should?”
In these comments Orwell and O’Donnell reflect very well the bankruptcy of bourgeois literature, which, confronted with the greatest crisis in world history, has nothing to say.
Let those who can, learn the meaning of Richard Wright’s stories: only the revolutionary word has significance today.
New International, New York, November 1941