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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

 

 

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 Native Son. 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 smash hit.

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 his race.

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 merit.

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 overlooked.

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 white people.

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 rehabilitate himself.

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 character.

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.

The author 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.

The 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 document.

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 Negro people."

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.

That 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 emancipation.

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 from Caliban.

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 people."

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.

There are 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 clemency.

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 anti-Semitism.

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.

Such 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.

Below them 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 more sincere.

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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Theophilus Lewis

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 down.

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. Biography

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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  /  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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