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Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 20, 2011: The Wright Readings

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This is the fourth in that series.]

Neither the specifics of the American literary canon nor the broader trends of literary history are really this cut-and-dry, but nonetheless it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that one of the reasons behind Ernest Hemingway’s late 20th-century removal from many syllabi and narratives of modernist American literature has been the rediscovery of and new emphasis on Zora Neale Hurston, and in particular her Depression-era novel of the rural Southern African American experience, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Moreover, along with that new emphasis on Hurston’s novel—of which I’m definitely a fan, and on which more in a future post—has come a concurrent new focus on a controversial review of Their Eyes (alongside another, largely forgotten novel, Waters Turpin’s These Low Grounds) by Hurston’s fellow African American writer and novelist Richard Wright. In the review, sections of which are linked below, Wright directly accuses Hurston of employing a “minstrel technique” in order to “make the ‘white folks’ laugh,” and of creating a text which in its “sensory sweep … carries no theme, no message, no thought.”
Wright’s interpretation of Hurston’s novel is not without its merits, and his points about the differences between intended or imagined white and African American audiences, while overly simplistic, certainly represent the kind of complex and challenging issue with which Harlem Renaissance writers like Hurston (and contemporaries like Wright himself) continually had to engage. But his word choices and tone in the review are, to be blunt, unnecessarily derogatory and hostile; while I don’t see much evidence for the arguments that gender played into his dismissals in any central way (he wasn’t much kinder to Turpin’s book, although he did indeed go further in his language toward Hurston), there’s no doubt in my mind that he went too far, and that the late 20th century scholarly narratives which have critiqued Wright for this review are likewise not without merit. Yet any narrative about Wright that focuses on this review most definitely misses a pretty impressive forest for this single tree—that’d be the case even if Wright’s reviews or his journalistic writings in general were central to his career and work, but instead it’s in two other genres that Wright did his best and most powerful and lasting work: his first and best novel, Native Son (1940); and his first (of what would eventually become a two-part) autobiography, Black Boy (1945). No AmericanStudier can or should fail to include those two books in his or her readings into American culture, identity, history, and community.

There are many ways I could try to make the case for reading these two works—individually, but even more, to my mind, as a complementary pair—but I think the best argument actually, and somewhat ironically, blurs the line between African American and white audiences or responses on which Wright’s review of Hurston depended. On one crucial level, a linked reading of Native Son and Black Boy would represent one of American literature’s most sustained and powerful depictions of a very specific racial, regional, and historical identity: young black men born into the Jim Crow South, shifting with the Great Migration to the North’s booming urban centers, and trying to figure out who and what they are in both places and in American history and identity more generally. Yet on another, just as significant level, both books engage with a host of themes and identities that transcend any particular racial or regional community, and lie instead at the very heart of the American experience; to highlight only one, both Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Wright himself in Black Boy struggle continually with the question of whether their heritage, their family background and legacy, the way they are perceived by others, and other external elements of their identity will fully influence, even drown out, their internal voices and perspectives, their powerful sense that they are different from those around them and can and should find a life and fate all their own. It’s impossible to entirely separate that theme from race and region, of course—but so too is it impossible to define these characters and texts are limited or circumscribed by the specifics of such cultural and historical details. Pardon the pun, but these books, like Wright’s works overall, are bigger than that.
More tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:

1)      Excerpts from Wright’s review of Hurston’s novel:

2)      Some interesting resources on Wright, including his less-read poetic works:

3)      OPEN: Last chance to nominate an author who should be re-read—tomorrow’s focus is still up for grabs!

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