Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

Meeting The Children (And Grandchildren) Of ‘Celebrities’

Have I told you about the time I met Richard Wright‘s grandson at an academic conference? A few seconds after we had begun conversing, I blurted out, “Your grandfather changed my life, my perception of this world; I saw and understood myself differently once I had read Native Son.” My interlocutor thanked me politely; he smiled; we talked a bit more about his project to make a documentary on whale hunting, and the pressing need to conserve those majestic leviathans of the deep. As our little meeting concluded, I half-jokingly offered my services as a volunteer assistant for his project. He promised to stay in touch.

Then there was the time when, strolling down a brownstone-lined street in Brooklyn on my way to my gym, I passed, for the umpteenth time, a man strumming on his stoop–on one occasion, a mandolin, on another, a ukulele, and of course, a guitar. Finally, one day, I stopped and struck up a conversation. A few minutes later, I had been informed the gentleman I was speaking bore the last name Westmoreland. When I asked, ‘That Westmoreland?,” back came the answer: ‘Yup.’ I was talking to the son of William Westmoreland, the man who conducted the Vietnam War for many gory and increasingly pointless years. But, as his son assured me, the last word on that sorry business has not been written yet; perhaps some vindication might yet make its way to his father.

And then, of course, my daughter goes to daycare with Amartya Sen‘s grandson; his mother, Sen’s daughter, is a friend of ours. We do the things that parents of children who are friends with each other do: playdates, birthday parties, impromptu dinners. Sometimes I hear that the great economist himself stopped over at her place for a quick visit, on his way, perhaps, to another keynote address or to receive another award. (Someday, I hope to run into him and press copies of my cricket books into his hands; I’ve heard he is a fan of the game and might be tempted to check these. I hold little hope that he would be interested in my academic writings.)

Encounters with the children of celebrities are a curious business. You make indirect contact with ‘fame,’ with ‘achievement,’ with ‘success’; you sense, dimly, a glimpse of the distinctive life that they live (or lived.) You feel, as an undercurrent running through your encounters, a brush with ‘history.’ If you are so inclined, you might grasp at these insubstantial offerings, and revel in them. Celebrity spotting of any kind, even with a twist like the one noted here, is always great party-conversation fodder. But you also come to realize a simple fact about the human condition, about the gulf that separates us from other individuals. These folks, your ‘friends’ of a kind, are gloriously distinct and separable from their celebrity ancestors; they live their own lives; they are their own persons. Talk with them all you want: you won’t get an autograph; the fame they might have  known intimately won’t rub off on you.

Can An Adult Read a Book Like a Child?

In ‘The Lost Childhood’ (from The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Viking Press, New York, 1951), Graham Greene writes:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long  journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excite us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years….it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.

As my posts here on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s writing in Sula would indicate, I’m inclined to disagree with Greene: I do think its possible for even adults to read books that they consider to have had a ‘deep influence on their lives.’

However, I think too, that I have a sense of what Greene is getting at. The ‘distance’–between one point of emotional and imaginative maturity and another–a childhood book helps you traverse is perhaps far greater than that any book read in adulthood could take you. The books we encounter in childhood find us having barely commenced many mental journeys; the first steps they help us take are often gigantic and accompanied by a kind of thrill we only rarely encounter in adult life. We are not yet jaded, not yet cynical. All of this is implied in the claims Greene makes above.

The reason a book read in adult life can have the ‘deep influence’ Greene speaks of is related to the childhood reading experience. We might grow up with our selves developed unevenly; we might find ourselves possessed  of great accomplishment and maturity in one domain and yet utterly lacking in sophistication and edification in another. Our formative years might have been biased by particular sorts of influences that drove out yet others; we are, so to speak, only well done on one side. Pockets of callow superficiality lurk within us.

At these moments then, thanks to fortuitous discovery, we are set up for an encounter that is like our childhood reading: we find ourselves experiencing an epiphany of sorts, the same giddiness that so thrilled us as children comes upon us again. And we speak of our newly found intellectual companion in the same breathless fashion as we did of our teenage crushes.

So, I think focusing on chronological age is a mistake. As long as–thanks to previous immaturity–we bear the potential for radical growth within us, we will continue to experience these ‘books of divination.’ Adults can read books like children.

Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.