The Saga of Bigger Thomas
By Theophilus Lewis
Writer for the Catholic World
A critic who joins issue with a popular work
of art writes at a definite disadvantage. The subject involved,
whether it is a painting, a poem, a composition or, as in the
case we are about to consider, an exciting venture in fiction,
has already got itself accepted as a work of merit.
It has impressed both experienced
connoisseurs and lay observers with its beauty, its stark power,
or its verisimilitude of the truths of life. It is a positive
creation, and the critic who challenges its merit and calls
attention to its defects is forced into a negative position by
the psychology of the situation.
The negative side of any debate, unless armed
with overwhelming facts, is always the less convincing side. The
human mind is normally affirmative and unconsciously detests
negation as nature is said to abhor a vacuum.
It is from this point of disadvantage--in
current argot, from behind the eight ball--that one must attempt
an objective discussion of Richard Wright's
As a novel
Native Son was a sensational best-seller.
Dramatized by the author in collaboration with Paul Green, and
touched by the Midas hand of Orson Welles, the Golden Boy of the
theatre, the story immediately became what Broadway calls a
Furthermore, the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People has recently awarded the Spingarn
Medal to the author for the year's most outstanding service to
It can hardly be asserted that a story which
has registered a huge success both as a novel and a play, and
has been applauded from so many quarters, is wholly without
But one can concede that the story has a
number of good points, and in certain passages may even approach
excellence, and still contend that it is less than deserving of
the four star acclaim of book and stage reviewers. It is
possible, too, that the popularity of the work is the result of
its meretricious appeal while its sound qualities are
Although most readers are probably familiar
with the story, a brief outline if the plot may be inserted here
for the convenience of those who are not. the scene is in
Chicago, where Bigger Thomas is living with a destitute family
on relief in the black belt.
Bigger is an embittered Negro youth whose
subnormal mentality cannot adjust itself to the ubiquitous
inequalities of life. He feels that race prejudice bars him from
all the important places and activities of society, shoving him
off into a narrow and squalid corner from which he can see the
pomp and pleasures of the world but cannot take part in them. As
a consequence he harbors an ingrowing hate and suspicion of
The story begins when a social worker has
succeeded in obtaining employment for Bigger. His job is to act
as chauffeur and handy man in the home of a real estate magnate
and his blind wife. His employers are benevolently interested in
Negro welfare, so interested that they have contributed several
millions of dollars to social work among Negroes. One of their
reasons for hiring Bigger is to give him an opportunity to
There is a daughter in the family who is a
Red sympathizer and in love with an active party worker. The
young people also want to help Bigger reach a normal adjustment
to society, although their ideas run along radical lines. But
Bigger's mind has been conditioned to hate and to distrust the
white world. He is confused and alarmed by the interest of these
friendly white people and suspects their motives. He is like a
wounded animal at bay in a trap, as dangerous to a man who wants
to set it free as it is to one who intends to kill it.
On the first night of his employment, the
girl comes home drunk and Bigger has to take her to her room.
While he is there the girl's blind mother enters the room. To
hush her drunken babbling, which might reveal his presence,
Bigger clamps a pillow over her face, accidentally smothering
her. To prevent discovery of the girl's death, he carries her
body tot he cellar, hacks off her hand, and burns head and torso
in the furnace.
A few hours later, fearing that his colored
paramour may betray him, Bigger bashes her brains out with a
brick and tosses her out of a fourth floor window into a area
way, where she freezes to death in the snow. It is a gory
business and the author omits none of the grisly details.
If we pause at this point, about one-third
through the book, we will immediately recognize the primary
interest of the story. It is horror. It is hardly necessary to
remind critical readers that horror is one of the most
fascinating themes of second-rate fiction. Witness, for
instance, the wide popularity of Dracula-type mystery
novels. Indeed, horror is frequently found to be an element in
the best works of acknowledged first-rate authors; for example,
Poe and Conrad.
It is the piling up of gruesome details that
gives the novel its initial drive and momentum. Its ghastliness
grips the reader's interest so that he forgets the book is
supposed to be a sociological novel and begins to race forward
to see what ghoulish surprise will come next. The author does
not fail him.
After the discovery of the white girl's
murder the story turns into a man hunt. Her sudden disappearance
and the discovery of her bones in the ash pit of the furnace
give city editors a chance to declare a field day. The newspaper
publish horrendous descriptions of the crime, play up its
element of mystery, embellish it with fancy speculations on its
cause and solution, and describe the movements of the police as
they follow the trail of the murderer, lose it, pick it up again
and finally corner their quarry, regaling the public with the
vicarious excitement of a lynching bee.
In its middle section the novel is essentially journalistic.
It follows the pattern of the standard front-page crime story so
closely that it might be an almost literal transcription from
the files of any of the less conservative papers. Only the
point of view is reversed. Instead of following the maneuvers of
the police as they close in on the criminal, the reader is made
privy to the mental and emotional processes of the murderer as
he skulks and dodges to escape the forces of the law.
The chapters which describe Bigger's chase and capture are
the peak passages of the book. There is delectable irony in the
author's description of a town gone wild. Instead of sending out
two or three detectives to arrest Bigger, a force more than
ample for the job, the police make a show of his pursuit. They
get out their gas bombs, deputize swarms of special officers,
deploy riot squads and conscript the aid of the fire department
with its scaling ladders and floodlights.
In the meanwhile the State's attorney, in the fustian of a
ham actor, declaims that he will make Bigger's swift punishment
an everlasting warning to other potential evildoers. While the
law ids making an ass of itself, the newspapers continue to
publish incendiary headlines that excite public clamor and boost
circulation. As the crime is too atrocious to be exaggerated the
papers heighten its horror by embroidering it with superstitions
culled from the folklore of race prejudice.
Mature readers will find grim humor here. That an
underprivileged boy who is none too bright should commit a
senseless crime is not astonishing. That his crime should throw
a huge civilized city off balance into tumultuous hysteria,
causing its officials and leaders to act the part of clowns and
procurers -- almost persuades one to doubt, momentarily, the
integrity of the human mind.
In describing Bigger's pursuit
the story makes its closest approach to the realities of the
race problem. It is the most mordant arraignment of race
prejudice one is likely to find anywhere in Negro literature.
But its effect is almost completely nullified by the vividness
of the horrors which have gone before and the reader's
expectancy of thrills to come.
After Bigger's arrest his
defense is undertaken by a humanitarian lawyer, a fictitious
Clarence Darrow or Samuel Leibowitz; and here we again observe
the journalistic flavor of the novel. Here, too, we discover
that the power has gone out of the book.
It is not unusual to
encounter people who own the book but who confess that they have
not read the chapters which describe Bigger's indictment and
trial. Citing the Loeb-Leopold case as a precedent, again the
hand of the journalist, Bigger's counsel pleads for clemency on
the grounds that society has made Bigger what he is. The judge,
of course, sends Bigger to the chair.
Concluding our sketch of
the plot, we have marked the major elements of interest int he
story. the author grips the reader's attention with the thrills
of a horror story and holds it with the excitement of a man
hunt. When the shocks and thrills cease the reader's interest
flags, and the sociological implications of the story lose their
audience or lose their force.
This is a technical defect
which, in the case of most readers, defeats the author's
purpose. Clearly it was not his intention merely to present the
portrait of a criminal Negro. His obvious intention was to
demonstrate that crime among Negroes is just one of the
consequences of race prejudice. But by the time the author gets
around to the moral of the tale most readers have either lost
interest or closed the book.
A structural defect in a story,
even a serious one, does not necessarily mean that its worth is
vitally impaired. It may be faulty in execution but sound in
concept and substance. Native Son has apparently convinced the
majority of critics that it forcefully presents one oft he
tragic aspects of interracial friction.
We need not deny the
probability that their judgment is correct. But the standards of
contemporary criticism are generally lax and it is possible that
the critics were impressed by the vividness of the story rather
than its veracity. Would they have arrived at the same
conclusion if the scene of the novel were in the Ghetto or
Little Italy of one of our great cities?
It will help us
toward clarity if we attempt to determine if the fate of Bigger
Thomas was actually a tragedy. In contemporary literature,
especially in drama, we frequently encounter the error that
tragedy consists of suffering and death. That is a departure
from classic values.
Tragedy, in the aesthetic sense,
has no necessary relationship with men's afflictions. Tragedy is
the frustration of a noble aim, which may or may not be attended
by misery or end in death. Defeat need not necessarily be caused
by evil forces in society or nature. Tragedy may consist of the
gradual corrosion of a man's ideals by the baser elements of his
The story of Job, which is crowded with misfortune,
and Rostand's Cyrano, which ends with the death of the
hero, are splendid comedies, because in both instances the
integrity of the human spirit triumphs over evil. Tobacco
Road evokes s laugh with every line, nevertheless it is a
somber tragedy; because forces he cannot understand result in
the disintegration of Jeeter Lester's character.
deliberately makes Bigger Thomas a thoroughly worthless
creature. There is nothing sentimental about this story, the
author does not want his leading figure to excite sympathy.
There is no corroding of character in the story because Bigger
has none. Bigger is not defeated or frustrated, because he does
not strive for anything.
Therefore no element of tragedy
is involved in his destruction. Since the story cannot be placed
in any other category, its quality as a work of art approaches
the dubious level of the contents of the pulp magazine.
author is less vulnerable on this point than the critics. They
are supposed to render their judgments according to conventional
standards of value. The author is a Communist and frankly writes
from the Marxian point of view. He can repudiate
"bourgeois" standards and refuse to be bound by their
laws and limitations, which moves his novel beyond the bounds of
discussion as a work of art. We can, however, continue to
discuss its validity as a study in psychology or a social
In his address in which he pleads with the court for
clemency, Bigger's counsel says, "Multiply Bigger Thomas
twelve million times . . . and you have the psychology of the
There is so much evidence to refute that
assertion, and it is too conspicuous, that one is tempted to let
it pass without comment. It is true that Negroes, like all
minority races, resent whatever discriminations and injustices
they suffer. But all oppressed races seem to follow almost
identical patterns of behavior. As a group and as individuals,
they make adjustments to their condition, adopt substitutions
and compensations, and if their lot is not too harsh they may
make gradual progress and finally escape their oppression.
has been the general course followed by American Negroes since
the Civil War, and, for that matter, even before their
emancipation. their dominant psychological attitude has been one
of fortitude and hope, sustained by religious faith and the
knowledge that religion has played the most important role in
their deliverance from bondage and their progress since their
That, of course, is contrary to
the Marxian thesis, which holds that religion is an opiate which
makes oppressed peoples contented with their lot. It is a
fact, however, that can be confirmed by anyone who cares to make
an objective study of America race relations. That Negroes have
not escaped the infection of materialism prevalent in the modern
world is obvious.
There are also militant and
intransigent Negroes who believe that the race can win its
rights only by an appeal to force. But even our Hotspurs have
intelligible motives, they know what they want to fight for and
why. They are far removed from Bigger Thomas as Raskolnikov is
The threat uttered by Bigger's
lawyer, referred to above, was not quoted in full. the complete
sentences reads: "Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million
times, allowing for environmental and temperamental variations,
and for those Negroes who are completely under the influence of
the Church, and you have the psychology of the Negro
The parenthetical reservations
render the threat almost meaningless. Since it is impossible to
compute the multiplicity of variations suggested, allowing for
them may leave only a handful of borderline cases like Bigger.
But when Bigger is reduced to a clinical study in abnormal
psychology he at once loses his utility as a symbol of the
consequences of race persecution.
abnormal types in every race and there is no proof that they are
the result of racial or economic oppression; for they appear on
the higher levels of society as well as the lower, for instance,
Loeb and Leopold, to whom Bigger's lawyer refers in his plea for
Most of the unfortunates with a
screw loose somewhere are harmless, more or less, but
occasionally one of them goes berserk and the police are
confronted with one of these macabre crimes the motive for which
eludes sane comprehension. To assume that the Bigger Thomases
are the products of color prejudice is as unwarranted as it
would be to assume that the Loebs and Leopolds are caused by
Here, an embarrassing question suggests itself.
If the story is technically defective, aesthetically delinquent
and misrepresentative of normal Negro character, why has the
author been awarded a prize for outstanding service to his race?
An inclusive answer is that the organization which awarded the
prize, while no one questions its motives, does not represent
the whole body of Negro opinion, and that some of its members
have condemned Native Son as a false and shoddy piece of work.
a reply may be less than satisfactory and may even appear
evasive. To obtain a definite answer we must probe into the
phenomena of minority-group psychology, or what Schopenhauer, or
was it Nietzsche, called slave psychology. We must remember,
too, that numerous Negroes who would be artists, critics, and
executives in the business world, if they were white, turn to
social work and promoting interracial amity as the most
promising field of well-paid employment.
Their point of
view is that of the professional race propagandist.
is the general body of the race whose members seldom read books
for want of leisure and want of money with which to purchase
them. But they do read newspapers, and they make no distinction
between a review lauding the accomplishment of a Negro
novelist and the story of the sports page which describes how
Joe Louis won his most recent fight.
Both are vindications of
Negro ability. Here, the intellectuals and the mass tend to meet
on common ground. The intellectuals applaud Native Son,
frequently with tongue in cheek, because white people think it
highlights the seriousness of the race problem. The masses are
Few of them have read the book, or ever will,
but it advertised Negro achievement while its stage productions
makes work for Negro actors and gives them an opportunity to
distinguish themselves. If the story had been written by a white
author both intellectuals and masses would denounce it as an
attack on the race.
Such are the contradictions in this age of
intellectual anarchy, when all standards have been abandoned,
and every man makes his own laws of morality or art to conform
to his convenience at the moment.
Source: Catholic World, Vol. 153 (1941)
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Writer for the Catholic World
Theophilus Lewis was born March 4, 1891 in
Baltimore, Md., the son of Thomas and Anne Lewis. He received his
elementary education in the public schools of Baltimore and his high
school education at the evening classes of the Dewitt Clinton High
School, New York City.
After graduation from grammar school, he became a
jack-of-all-trades, working in various places at numerous
occupations among which might be listed steamboat waiter bell hop,
store porter, and laborer in automobile industry At the outbreak of
World War I he enlisted, in the A.E.F and served seven months
overseas as corporal in the 367th Infantry. He is at present
employed as Post Office Clerk in New York City.
He was married January 17, 1933, and has three
children: Selma Marie, born 1934, Alfred Charles, born 1935, and
Lowell Francis, born 1938.
He sometimes mentions his children in his column
"Plays and a point of View" in Interracial Review. In May
1943 issue, under the caption "A Black Number," he
describes the feelings of an ex-soldier condemned during this
conflict to wear civilian clothes and especially of a father who
"discovers his own children suspecting that his mufti is a sign
that their old man is wanting in either virility or
patriotism." And he goes on to tell how he had established the
family custom of gathering his children on Armistice Day to tell why
we fought the war, and how we won it. At this ceremony one of the
children once asked him, "Daddy couldn’t you get anybody to
help you beat the Germans?" He suspected that his failure to
join the armed forces this time made them feel that he had let them
To any reader of the interracial review, the
sometimes smiling and sometimes serious countenance of Theophilus
Lewis is a very familiar sight, appearing as it does each moth
beside his regular column "Plays and a Point of View."
This feature article sometimes describes the current plays and at
other times comments on books or on topics of current interest. He
also writes numerous book reviews for Interracial Review
Although his writing is done on the side and he has
had no formal training for literary work, Theophilus Lewis is one of
the best known and most popular of Catholic Negro writers. Besides
writing for Catholic magazines, he has written extensively for the
Negro press, notably Pittsburgh Courier, People's Voice,
Inter-State Tattler (now suspended), and the Messenger.
For five years he was columnist for the New York Amsterdam
Star-News, and is at present columnist for the Ohio Express.
Mr. Lewis is a convert to the Catholic faith. He was
baptized August 23, 1939, at the Mission of St. Benedict the Moor,
Jamaica, Long Island, after receiving instructions from Father
Benjamin Masse, S.J., and he received his First Holy Communion the
next day at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City. Theophilus Lewis
died in 1974.
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