Native Son

Native Son Study Guide

Native Son's publication history is one of its most revelatory aspects. After several novel-projects had failed, Wright sold Native Son to Harper Publishers, netting a $400 advance. Published in 1940, Native Son became a selection of the Book-of-the-Month club. Ironically, some of the most candid commentary on racism and communism was censored from the novel in its publication for the Book-of-the-Month club. Perhaps more ironic is the fact that the novel was featured as a detective story; Wright's discussions about race and poverty were largely considered to be incidental at best, if not distracting, or worse. It was not until 1991 that Native Son was printed in its original form and literary critics and professors alike agreed that the substantial additions to the novel significantly enhanced its political and literary weight.

Some of the most notable additions can be found in the courtroom scenes of Book Three. While the outcome of the trial is no different, much of Boris A. Max's Communist philosophy was restored. Similarly, there is more graphic detail of the violence of the racist white mob, now including an enhanced portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, the restored details of Bigger's psychology support the idea that the inmate's final contemplation is spiritually transforming.

The censorship of Native Son speaks to the political context displayed in the novel. The array of racist, anti-Communists like Britten, the private investigator, and Buckley, the state prosecutor, reminds one of the political problems that Wright suffered in the "red scares" of McCarthy-era America. Similarly, the story of Bigger's family?their migration and poverty?provides the context of the Great Depression; but more specifically, Native Son focuses on the experiences of African-Americans and how economic disadvantages are so closely related to and entwined with political subjugation. In the novel, Wright essentially reports his findings, that racist Chicago is little better than the South and northern blacks are just as impoverished as their southern counterparts.