Wright's protest novel was an immediate best-seller, selling 250,000 hardcover copies within three weeks of its publication by the Book-of-the-Month Club on March 1, 1940. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African-American issues, and the "father of Black American literature". As Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay "Black Boys and Native Sons": "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies ... [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture." The novel's treatment of Bigger and his motivations is an example of literary naturalism.
However, the book was criticized by some of Wright's fellow African-American writers. James Baldwin's 1948 essay Everybody's Protest Novel dismissed Native Son as protest fiction, and therefore limited in its understanding of human character and its artistic value. The essay was collected with nine others in Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955).
In 1991 the novel was for the first time published in its entirety by the Library of America, together with an introduction, a chronology and notes by Arnold Rampersad, a well-regarded scholar of African-American literary works. This edition also contains Richard Wright's 1940 essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born".
Native Son by Richard Wright has endured a series of challenges in public high schools and libraries all over the United States. Many of these challenges focus on the book being "sexually graphic", "unnecessarily violent", and "profane.” Despite complaints from parents, many schools have successfully fought to keep Wright's work in the classroom. Some teachers believe the themes in Native Son and other challenged books "foster dialogue and discussion in the classroom" and "guide students into the reality of the complex adult and social world". Native Son is number 27 on Radcliffe's Rival 100 Best Novels List.
The book is number 71 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Native Son and the Bible
The presence of the Bible is apparent in Native Son. Biblical allusions appear frequently throughout the novel, but they do not serve as an uplifting component of Bigger Thomas's life. Instead, Richard Wright seems to allude to the Bible with irony. Bigger is exposed to Christianity through his religious mother, Reverend Hammond, a Catholic priest, and his encounter with the church. However, Bigger's constant rejection of Christianity and the church reveals Wright's negative tone toward the religion. He views Christianity as an opiate of the black masses. Bigger has several negative encounters with religion. In one instance, Bigger sees his mother singing a hymn when he sneaks into his flat to get his pistol to prepare for robbing Blum's delicatessen. His mother is singing the words: "Lord, I want to be a Christian, /In my heart, in my heart." Her hymns and prayers are wholly ineffective and do nothing to forestall his violence. Even toward the end of the novel, facing a possible death sentence, Bigger's mother pleads with her son to pray to God for repentance. Reverend Hammond also preaches to Bigger, yet he does not understand the words of Reverend Hammond and does not pray for repentance. Instead, Bigger does the opposite and rejects Christianity. When he later sees the fiery cross that the Ku Klux Klan displays, he tears off the cross from his neck which Reverend Hammond had given him and throws it to the ground. In yet another instance, Bigger overhears the church choir singing and ponders whether he should become Christian. However, his realization of changing his heart into a humble heart causes him to reject the idea because it meant, "losing his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that."
Wright directly alludes to the Bible in the epigraph of Native Son. The epigraph states, "Even today is my complaint rebellious; my stroke is heavier than my groaning" (Job 23:2). This quotation is from the book of Job. According to the Bible, Job was a faithful man of God. However, Job experienced immense suffering in his lifetime, losing his children and his great wealth. He was stricken with poverty and boils. In these afflictions, God was silent, leaving Job in a state of deep spiritual anguish. This tone of anguish and despair is established in the epigraph at the outset of Native Son, and emphasizes Bigger's suffering.
Job and Bigger are parallel characters in their dealings with suffering. This further suggests the aptness of Wright's epigraph. Job suffered trials from an outside force that he could not control. Similar to Job, Bigger struggled with an outside force of the racial norms of society. The parallel is further strengthened by the freedom both characters display in their defiance. Savory has mentioned two quotes in the book of Job and Native Son that suggest Bigger and Job's parallel stories. According to the book of Job, he lifts himself proudly through his suffering. "If the charges my opponent brings against me were written down so that I could have them, I would wear them proudly around my neck, and hold them up for everyone to see. I would tell God everything I have done, and hold my head high in his presence". During this point of the passage, Job has yet to confess his sins to God. Convinced of his innocence, Job asserts that he will stand proud and tall in God's presence. Bigger also has a similar experience. Bigger muses, "He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions: never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight". This is the first time in the novel where Bigger does not throw the blame on others but instead asserts that he was responsible for his actions. Through this, he finally experiences free will and finds freedom.
Influence on Wright by Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
Native Son contains several allusions to other works that were significant during Wright's time. One of the major works that influenced Native Son was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was not only the best-selling novel of the century but also played a major role in the abolitionist movement.
Wright's Native Son was published in 1940 and contains similarities to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Native Son can be interpreted as an illustration of the harsh reality of racial injustice in the United States. James Baldwin, writing in the Partisan Review, boldly linked the two novels. In Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as in Native Son, racial injustice is a "pre-ordained pattern set upon the living reality". There is little that the characters can do to escape racial discrimination. Both of these novels are a form of social protest and seek to disprove the idea that society neatly analyzes and treats race. In both of these works, African Americans emerge confused, dishonest, and panicked as they are trapped and immobilized as prisoners within the American dream.
Another book that Wright published was the collection of short stories Uncle Tom's Children (1938), whose title and content suggest the inspiration Stowe's work provided Wright in his own books. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Uncle Tom's Children exploit the term "Uncle Tom", attacking an African American who seems to act in a subservient manner toward white people. However, while these two titles are extremely similar and contain similar themes, Wright's Native Son can also be considered reactionary against Uncle Tom's Cabin. Bigger Thomas is the antithesis of Uncle Tom. Bigger is fearful of and angry toward white society. He also lacks the religious background and Christian faith that Uncle Tom possessed. This contrast between the characters of Bigger Thomas and Uncle Tom may be Wright's attempt to show the contemporary racial conflicts that persisted long after the publishing of Stowe's novel in 1852.
Influence of Communism on Native Son
Wright was affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States both prior to and following his publishing of Native Son. The presence of communist ideas in Native Son is evident as Wright draws a parallel between the Scottsboro boys case and Bigger Thomas's case. There is a parallel between the court scene in Native Son in which Max calls the "hate and impatience" of "the mob congregated upon the streets beyond the window" (Wright 386) and the "mob who surrounded the Scottsboro jail with rope and kerosene" after the Scottsboro boys' initial conviction. (Maxwell 132) Critics attacked Max's final speech in the courtroom, claiming that it was an irrelevant elaboration on Wright's own communist beliefs and unrelated to Bigger's case.
There are many different interpretations concerning the group that was the intended target of Max's speech. James Baldwin, a renowned critic of Wright, presented his own interpretation of Max's final speech in his Notes by a Native Son. Baldwin says that Max's speech is "…addressed to those among us of good will and it seems to say that, though there are whites and blacks among us who hate each other, we will not; there are those who are betrayed by greed, by guilt, by blood, by blood lust, but not we; we will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into that dazzling future when there will be no white or black" (Baldwin, p. 47). However, other critics such as Siegel have argued that the original text in Native Son does not imply "the dazzling future when there will be no white or black".
Thus, the argument that Max's final speech is a Communist promotion is not supported by the texts in the novel (Kinnamon, p. 96). Max referred to Bigger as a part of the working class in his closing statement. Furthermore, in 1938, Wright also advocated the image of African Americans as members of the working class in his article in the New York Amsterdam News, stating: "I have found in the Negro worker the real symbol of the working class in America." (Foley, p. 190) Thus, Wright's depiction of and belief in the figure of African-American workers and his depiction of Bigger Thomas as a worker showed evidence of communistic influence on Native Son.