2. Richard Wright, Black Boy

2. Richard Wright, Black Boy


Professor Amy
Hungerford: I just want to recap what I talked about last
time very briefly. I made the point in the first
lecture that American literature in the middle of the twentieth
century is particularly preoccupied with the
relationship between the writer and the reader,
between imagination and lived experience, between fiction and
truth, between the reader and the text,
that these are very vexed and contested interfaces at this
period. I also made the argument that
at this moment literary art is struggling with what to do with
the legacy of modernism in the early century,
but there’s another strain from the early century that
matters–and matters particularly to Richard
Wright–and that is the American strain of naturalism:
writers like Theodore Dreiser. Wright is writing very much in
the vein of those writers. So even though he’s very
closely connected to the legacy of avant-garde modernism,
he’s also connected to a social realist strain,
the naturalist strain. Those are two slightly
different things which I won’t go in to right now.
He’s connected to both those strains as well as the modernist
strain. So what I want to do today
is look closely first at the selections from Black Boy
that I asked you to read and to look at those as a text and
to ask ourselves what we can learn about what kind of story
it is. And I said about that problem:
Is it autobiography? Is it fiction?
What’s it trying to do? What kind of reader does it
want? I suggested that there was a
critical response to those issues that was somewhat
negative, and I want to sort of remind
you of that just by reading you a little bit from W.
E. B.
Du Bois’s review of Black Boy when it came out.
I think this sums up nicely what I was trying to communicate
last time. He says, “This book tells a
harsh and forbidding story and makes one wonder just exactly
what its relation to truth is. The title, ‘A Record of
Childhood and Youth’ “–that was the subtitle–“makes one first
think that the story is autobiographical.
It probably is at least in part, but mainly it is probably
intended to be fiction or fictionalized biography.
At any rate, the reader must regard it as
creative writing rather than simply a record of life.”
So that’s W. E.
B. Du Bois, and I’m going to take
his advice and now begin to read this book with you as creative
writing. So let’s see what it says to us
when we look at it that way. I’m going to read passages
quite a bit today, since some of you may not have
been able to get the RIS packet in time, it being shopping
period. So I’m going to read passages,
and I hope you’ll jump around with me if you have the text in
your hand. In general, you should always
bring the book to class. This is on page 267.
This is from that second half of the book that was not
published originally, but I want to point to it first
of all in raising the question: What did we lose in
understanding this as a literary object when the second half of
the book. You can come in and sit down if
you want; there’s some space down here.
What did we lose in our understanding of it as a
literary object when the second half was not published?
There are some seats here too.On 267,
this is in one of these parenthetical passages where the
narrator is commenting on what he’s just given account of in
his experience. “Slowly I began to forge in the
depths of my mind”–this is the very top of the page–“a
mechanism that repressed all the dreams and desires that the
Chicago streets, the newspapers,
the movies were evoking in me. I was going through a second
childhood. A new sense of the limit of the
possible was being born in me.” What Wright gives us here is an
account of the two parts of this story that says this is an
account of not one childhood, but two.
So one thing that readers lost, when they lost the second half
of this book, is the sense that maturing,
the process of maturing, was more than just the process
of leaving the South. That has a typical
Bildungsroman structure, the structure of a story about
a boy who goes out from his home and sort of becomes a man
through his travels. If you just have the first
half, you think that that development is accomplished when
Richard decides to leave the South.
But what he tells us very early in part two is that no,
it takes two childhoods for a black man to make that journey.
So what is that journey, then, that required two
childhoods to accomplish, a childhood in the South and
then a childhood in the North? So now I want to turn to the
beginning of the book on page 7. I’m also going to do some
summarizing of these scenes for people who haven’t read.
Make yourselves as comfortable as you can. As I mentioned last time,
in the first scene of this book the child Richard burns down his
family’s house playing with matches underneath the curtains.
He goes and hides under the house, afraid of the beating his
mother will give him, and indeed when his mother
finally finds him he is beaten unconscious, and he is feverish
and sick for a long time afterward.
And what I want to read to you is this passage on page 7: I was lost in a fog of
fear. A doctor was called–I was
afterwards told–and he ordered that I be kept abed,
that I be kept quiet, that my very life depended upon
it. My body seemed on fire and I
could not sleep. Packs of ice were put on my
forehead to keep down the fever. Whenever I tried to sleep I
would see huge, wobbly, white bags,
like the full udders of cows, suspended from the ceiling
above me. Later, as I grew worse,
I could see the bags in the daytime with my eyes open and I
was gripped by the fear that they were going to fall and
drench me with some horrible liquid.
Day and night I begged my mother and father to take the
bags away, pointing to them, shaking with terror because no
one saw them but me. Exhaustion would make me drift
toward sleep and then I would scream until I was wide awake
again. I was afraid to sleep.
Time finally bore me away from the dangerous bags and I got
well. But for a long time I was
chastened whenever I remembered that my mother had come close to
killing me. Why start with this scene?
I said last time that part of the art of autobiography is
choosing. What do you choose out of your
life? Where do you begin?
Where do you end? What do you put next to what?
Why does Wright choose this scene?
It’s very dramatic, so it has that going for it.
It’s a hook. I would suggest that this
little passage I just read to you tells us,
in part, why. It’s a moment when a child
realizes that the person who gave him life can revoke it.
His mother, who gave him life, can take that life away from
him. It’s a profound sense of
jeopardy–physical, mortal jeopardy–and I want to
point to those “huge, wobbly, white bags,
like the full udders of cows.” One of the wonderful things
you can see in the Beinecke’s Richard Wright Archives is the
draft copies of Black Boy. Wright revised this image
in those drafts. It was at one time white faces,
not white bags: white faces.
This to me is a fascinating revision.
First of all, it suggests of course that he
was giving language to something,
making a specific image out of something, that didn’t quite
have that specific content in his experience as a child.
But that revision is also away from a sense that this jeopardy
is represented by a racial face, the symbolic face of black
oppression, the white face that is always cruelly set against
the black boy of this account. He revises it away from that to
the more generalized, fundamental,
but also very personal figure of the mother and the maternal.
So the white bags, this is an image of the breast.
We have this fear of the horrible white liquid,
as if milk were going to drown him.
So the threat embodied by the mother who will beat her own son
unconscious is embodied in that fevered vision of the bags like
the full udders of cows. So this novel,
this autobiography, begins with the sense that this
boy is in danger from practically the moment he comes
into the world, the moment he comes into
consciousness. Then I want to note the
transition that happens at the very bottom of this page after
he says, “I was chastened whenever I
remembered that my mother had come close to killing me.”
Then we move into something that I call a catalog.
There are three of these in the first half.
It’s a list of sensations or perceptions that don’t have a
particular narrative structure, exactly.
They are just a sort of compilation of experience:
Each event spoke with a cryptic tone,
and the moments of living slowly revealed their coded
meanings. There was the wonder I felt
when I saw a brace of mountainlike,
spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road
through clouds of powdered clay. There was the delight I caught
in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables
stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when
dew came to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green
garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down
upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the
Mississippi from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
I’m going to stop there. There’s a lot you can say about
these catalogs, and when I used to teach the
whole of this text over a course of two days,
I would spend a lot of time–and, if you want to,
it’s worth and it repays the time that you could
spend–rereading these and thinking about the exact
language: for instance, here at the very top of page 8,
when he talks about the “dreaming waters” of the
Mississippi River. What you have there is a moment
when the perception of the child becomes the perception of the
world imbued with imagination. So the river is not dreaming;
it’s Richard who is dreaming. So this is in part a catalog
that represents the awakening of sensuality, the awakening of the
body to its environment, to his environment.
But also, there is this sense of imagination,
and you get that in the dreaming waters;
you get that in the sense of travel or the image of the road
that you can see in the green and red vegetables stretching
away in their rows to the bright horizon.
There is that sense of space, of expansiveness,
the possibility of travel. Why put this next to,
right after, that very dramatic scene?
Why is this the moment to enter into that meditation?
Well, I think it’s because it’s embodying an oscillation–that
will come back in this text–between radical jeopardy
and deprivation and the compensation of sensuality,
emotion and imagination. These two oscillate back and
forth so the moment of deprivation is often then
balanced by a moment of imagination.
And so what I’m going to do is just now run through the next
two or three scenes and talk about why they’re set next to
each other. So the next one we have,
just on page 9–these come quite rapidly here–is the day
his mother tells him that they’re going to Memphis on a
boat called the Kate Adams. He says:
My eagerness thereafter made the days seem endless.
Each night I went to bed hoping that the next morning would be
the day of departure. “How big is the boat?”
I asked my mother. “As big as a mountain,” she
said. “Has it got a whistle?”
“Yes.” “Does the whistle blow?”
“Yes.” “When?”
“When the captain wants it to blow.”
“Why do they call it the Kate Adams?”
“Because that’s the boat’s name.”
“What color is the boat?” “White.”
“How long will we be on the boat?”
“All day and all night.” “Will we sleep on the boat?”
“Yes. When we get sleepy we’ll sleep.
Now hush.” For days I had dreamed about a
huge, white boat floating on a vast body of water,
but when my mother took me down to the levee on the day of
leaving, I saw a tiny, dirty boat that was not at all
like the boat I had imagined.
If in the catalog imagination is awakened, this is what it can
then do for Richard. It can endow his daily
experience with a kind of romance.
But of course this is a poor, black child growing up in the
South, and his expectations, what his mind can imagine,
is always going to be greater than what the world can deliver.
So if the landscape invites him to grow as an imaginative
person, the social world he lives in,
this episode signals to us immediately, will never live up
to that imagination. There is a sense of
powerlessness that arises from the repeated oscillation that
you start to see even set up in these first three little
vignettes, and the problem of
powerlessness is first located not centrally in that social
world. I don’t think we’re meant to
understand that the young Richard, when he discovers that
the Kate Adams is a dirty, little boat and not this
romantic vision of a ship he had hoped for, that the young
Richard thinks to himself, “This is because I am a poor,
black boy growing up in the South.”
It’s simply an experience of disappointment.
The sense of powerlessness, the most profound sense of
powerlessness, suggested already by the first
episode where his mother almost takes back the life she gave
him, is rooted in the family.
And we get such a dramatic vision of that in the next
episode that follows, the episode of the kitten.
So for those of you who haven’t read, Richard’s father works
nights and sleeps during the day,
and during the day the children therefore have to be very quiet.
There is a cat outside the apartment building that starts
to meow and the boys are interested in it.
The father yells at them, says, “Make that cat shut up,”
and they can’t. He says, “Make it shut up.
I don’t care. Kill it if you have to.
Kill that cat.” Richard at this point already
hates his father. His father will abandon the
family quite soon after this episode.
For Richard, he is mostly this kind of
presence: a cavailing, angry, abusive presence.
His resentment over his powerlessness within the family
seethes in this moment, and he thinks of a way to get
back at his father. “I’ll take his words literally;
I will kill the cat,” he thinks, and so he does.
He hangs the cat. Richard’s mother finds out when
his brother tells on him, and the father cannot punish
him. He has taken the father’s words
literally when they were not meant literally,
but in doing so–in relying on his father’s words,
in a sense, to protect him, even as he subverts them–he
escapes the punishment that would otherwise so naturally and
habitually follow. So Richard’s first exertion
of agency in this book is through the agency of words,
in this case in asserting an interpretation of the words at
odds with their intended meaning.
It’s as if Richard takes those words, and he makes them his
own, takes them from his father and gains a different kind of
strength from them, a strength he can then use to
get back at his father. This is the first instance in
which Richard will do what he later describes Mencken doing,
using words as weapons. His discovery of Mencken using
words as weapons in a political sense is a very powerful moment
for him in his intellectual development.
In this case it’s a much more visceral kind of development.
It’s the understanding that he can make things happen in the
world; he can defend himself against
his father’s punishment through the use of words.
But I want to note that his mother takes a different
approach. If his father resigns himself
to Richard’s subterfuge, his mother does not,
and this is on page 12. He says:
I had had my first triumph over my father.
I had made him believe that I had taken his words literally.
He could not punish me now without risking his authority.
I was happy because I had at last found a way to throw my
criticism of him into his face. I had made him feel that if he
whipped me for killing the kitten I would never give
serious weight to his words again.
I had made him know that I felt he was cruel and I had done it
without his punishing me. But my mother,
being more imaginative, retaliated with an assault upon
my sensibilities that crushed me with the moral horror involved
in taking a life. And I want to just flip over to
13, about the same place on the page.
She’s confronted him with having knowingly taken the
father’s words the wrong way: “You stop that lying.
You knew what he meant.” “I didn’t,” I bawled.
She shoved a tiny spade into my hands.
“Go out there, dig a hole, and bury that
kitten.” I stumbled out in to the black
night sobbing, my legs wobbly from fear.
Though I knew that I had killed the kitten, my mother’s words
had made it live again in my mind.
What would that kitten do to me when I touched it?
Would it claw at my eyes? As I groped toward the dead
kitten, my mother lingered behind me unseen in the dark,
her disembodied voice egging me on.
The mother has her own way of using words for power,
and she does it by making the kitten live again in his
imagination. It’s as if she is writing
fiction there in that scene. She is representing this kitten
that he’s killed so that it comes back to haunt him.
So, once again, there is that immediate
oscillation. The moment Richard gains some
power from the use of words, his mother takes it back by
exerting that power herself, taking that power away from
him. There is a kind of drum
beat of thematic material as these scenes pile up.
The drum beat is all about language.
Yes, this is a book about the privations of growing up in the
South poor and black, but it is very much,
very consciously, a book about the development of
someone who attends to language. So in these early scenes it’s
all about power. But it’s actually not even
quite so easy or so simple as these early scenes that I’ve
just discussed might make out. Language has powers that are
entirely unpredictable, that can’t be harnessed in
precisely that deliberate way: by making a decision to take
someone’s words in the wrong way,
or by telling a story to make a moral point, as the mother does.
So think about the scene where Richard gets drinks in the
saloon as a child. Patrons pay him and give him
drinks to go up and repeat their words to other people in the
bar. Usually this happens between
men and women, so a man will give Richard a
drink and pay him a few pennies to go to a woman in the bar and
repeat certain things that he has trained Richard to say.
In doing this, the patrons titter;
everybody sort of has fun with this.
Richard has no idea what he is saying.
He’s simply repeating the sounds of the words that are
given to him. Through this process he becomes
addicted to alcohol at a very young age, but at the same time
he learns something about language.
It has mysterious powers. It has capacities to make
things happen in the world that he doesn’t know how to control.
When he finally emerges from this time of being a young
drunkard–his mother sort of locks him up in the house and
makes sure he can’t get out and then takes him to work with her
and so on, so that he loses that taste for
alcohol–in the text what you have right next to that is the
beginning of his insatiable questions.
He starts to just torture his mother with a thousand questions
about everything in the world. The addiction to alcohol is in
a sense replaced by an addiction to knowledge.
The experience of having language speak through him and
do things that he doesn’t understand makes him want to
acquire again that agency that he experienced when he took his
father’s words literally. This theme comes back in
the scene where his grandmother is washing him.
Do you remember this scene? His grandmother is washing him
and his brother in the tub, and she’s washing his butt,
and he says to her, “When you’re finished,
kiss back there.” And whew!
She’s flying off the roof with anger, chasing him around the
house trying to whip him with a wet towel,
so on and so forth: a very dramatic scene again of
powerlessness within the family, of being the victim of violence
within the family. But in this case it’s a
response produced in the negative register similar to the
responses produced in the saloon.
He says something, and he doesn’t really know
where those words come from. He doesn’t really know what
made his granny so angry about those words.
He doesn’t understand the words that he’s used,
but boy! Did they produce a response!
So there is this sense in which the story of a developing
writer is the story of someone learning–even before they learn
how to control language fully–that language has these
capacities. Well, there is another element,
though, to the kind of language that Richard is describing
learning, and that is the racial element.
He is learning a racialized language.
And here I want to look at page–let’s see–page 79,
actually first on 47, just in passing quickly.
You know what? I’m looking at my watch.
We don’t have time. We’ll go straight to 79.
On page 79 we get an account of a conversation between Richard
and his friends and it’s annotated with interpretative
asides. So I’m going to start in the
middle of this: The crowd laughs long and
loud. [This is in the middle of the
page.] “Man, them white folks oughta
catch you and send you to a zoo and keep you for the next war!”
Throwing the subject in to a wider field.
“Then when that fighting starts, they oughta feed you on
buttermilk and black-eyed peas and let you break wind!”
The subject is accepted and extended.
“You’d win the war with a new kind of poison gas!”
A shouted climax. There is high laughter that
simmers down slowly. “Maybe poison gas is something
good to have.” The subject of white folks is
associationally swept into the orbit of talk.
“Yeah, if they have a race riot round here, I’m gonna kill all
the white folks with my poison.” Bitter pride.
Gleeful laughter. Then silence,
each waiting for the other to contribute something.
“Them white folks sure scared of us, though.”
Sober statement of an old problem.
What we see here is a doubled voice.
This is a moment when the narrative voice begins to split
in a very conscious way. So what you have is the account
of Richard and his friends talking in the past,
and you have the present narrator’s parsing of how this
language relates to topics that impinge upon their very context,
the racial realities of the South.
So what you see here is a narrator who has learned to do
that parsing. Some of these terms that he
uses are literary–climax, the creation of suspense–so
he’s tracking this as if it were the development of a narrative.
But he’s also suggesting how humor is used to broach topics
that are impossible to talk about in more direct ways,
or that feel dangerous to these boys to approach in more direct
ways.So there is a kind of grammar of race that this boy is
learning while he experiences language in all these other more
visceral, family-oriented ways.
There is this social context of race relations whose grammar he
is also learning, and I would just remind you of
the passage where he starts to ask his mother about whether his
granny is white or not. There’s a long conversation,
and she gets very frustrated with him.
She doesn’t really want to answer that question.
She is a woman who looks very white but is categorized as
black in that system of the South.
And so Richard is learning a grammar of race even while he
tries to work out how to use language as a source of power in
his family. The split voice,
the development of what you could say is that racial double
consciousness that W. E.
B. Du Bois talks about,
that double consciousness of the racial reality,
is manifested in that split in the narrative.
In “The Horror and the Glory,” the second half of the book as
originally written, that voice becomes the
parenthetical. It takes another development
altogether. So if you look in certain
passages–Let’s see. On 272 and 273–actually,
I’m going to start on 271. This is where Richard is
talking about the waitresses, the white waitresses he works
with in the restaurant in Chicago.
This is what he says about them about three quarters of the way
down the page: During my lunch hour,
which I spent on a bench in a nearby park, the waitresses
would come and sit beside me talking at random,
laughing, joking, smoking cigarettes.
I learned about their tawdry dreams, their simple hopes,
their home lives, their fear of feeling anything
deeply, their sex problems, their husbands.
They were an eager, restless, talkative,
ignorant bunch, but casually kind and
impersonal for all that. They knew nothing of hate and
fear, and strove instinctively to avoid all passion.
That commentary that you get right in the scene–not in the
parenthetical–it’s as if the voice of Richard remembering the
early parts of his childhood, the voice that can parse a
conversation, is then part of what gets
remembered as part of the scene. When Richard is with those
waitresses, he’s reflecting on these things as he experiences
them. But there is a second kind
of development, and this gets to that second
childhood he invokes that happens to him when he goes to
Chicago. There is a social analysis that
he begins to be able to advance partly due to his reading in
Marxism, in sociology. Wright was very interested in
the sociology of the 1930s and ’40s.
He read a lot in that vein. He was very interested in
economics, and he wanted to understand how the social
structures of capitalism and the economic structures of
capitalism impinged upon the way personalities were formed.
And that’s why he’s interested in the emotions of these
waitresses. And in fact the question of
emotion bears directly on his sense of what books are for.
There is a remarkable moment on page 280 where he talks about
his aspiration as a writer. And this is remarkable for how
different it is from someone like Nabokov or John Barth or
many of our other writers on the syllabus:
If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so
firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of
his response, I felt that I would be in sight
of knowing how to write narrative.
I strove to master words, to make them disappear,
to make them important by making them new,
to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional stimuli,
each greater than the other, each feeding and reinforcing
the other, and all ending in an emotional climax that would
drench the reader with the sense of a new world.
That was the single aim of my living.
That’s remarkable for a writer to say, “I want to write so that
my words disappear.” He doesn’t want us to see the
art of his sentences. He wants us to feel,
and it is in fact feeling, that he credits to novels,
that allows him to imagine that he himself could have a
different life. And he talks about this if you
look at the published ending on 413 that we find in the notes,
when this second half wasn’t there, when he asks,
“How dare I consider my feelings superior to the gross
environment that sought to claim me?”
He states the problem of living in the South as a problem of
feeling, that he needed to claim and consider his own feelings.
He says: It had only been through
books, at best no more than vicarious cultural transfusions,
that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively
vital way. My belief in books had risen
more out of a sense of desperation than from my abiding
conviction of their ultimate value.
[And I’m just going to skip down.]
. It had been my accidental
reading of fiction and literary criticism that had invoked in me
vague glimpses of life’s possibilities.
Reading for him is a way of accessing feeling,
and that’s the kind of reading that he wants from us,
from the people who read his book. The kind of feeling that he
wants us to have is sort of stated in that alternate ending,
but “The Horror and the Glory” shows how that kind of feeling
enters in to a much larger cultural analysis.
That piece of it, which is gone when the second
half disappears, that piece of it is what he
tries to communicate in a very condensed way.
And I want now to show you some of those letters that I
mentioned. (Andrew, can you get the screen
and the lights? I am switching gears pretty
quickly here ’cause we don’t have a lot of time.) As I
explained last time, it was the Book of the Month
Club that caused him to make this change in his account.
And what I have in front of you right now is the second page of
the first letter that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote to Wright,
where she first raises the problem that she sees in the
ending as he has revised it. Now the shame here is that
she’s talking about a version of the ending you see in that note
on 413 in our edition. She is talking about an early
draft of that ending, and it’s not in the Beinecke.
I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where the drafts
that accompanied these correspondences are.
Now it’s just possible that they’re in that big archive
somewhere, and I just haven’t found them yet.
So if any of you want to be an archive sleuth and find them,
great. I looked and I can’t find them.
Sometimes when correspondence is saved you run into these
kinds of problems, so we have to guess a little
bit at what she was looking at. What I want to point out to
you is this part of her letter, the third paragraph here,
where she says, “My idea is this.”
In the first part of the letter, she has made some
sentence-level suggestions for the end of the book,
and now she embarks very tentatively on her major
suggestion: “My idea is this. You ask a question all of your
many readers have asked themselves about you with an
eagerness full of anxious hope. What was it that always made me
feel that way? What was it that made me
conscious of possibilities? From where had I caught a sense
of freedom?” And if you’ve read the ending
in the notes, you’ll remember those passages
where he asks that question. And his answer in that
published version is, “From books.”
But this is what she is thinking:
We too ask ourselves that question, “we” meaning those
Americans who, following the example of their
parents and grandparents, have done what they could to
lighten this dark stain of racial discrimination in our
nation. What we have hoped,
faintly hoped, was that those efforts of men
of good will have somewhat availed,
a little, enough so that those suffering from racial injustice
might catch a passing glimpse of the fact that they are rooted in
those American principles so mocked and degraded by the
practices of racial discrimination.
In what else could they be rooted?
That they exist is a proof that American ideals are not the
tawdry pretenses they are so often accused of being.
[And then I’m going to skip down to the bottom of the next
paragraph.]. To keep that conception in
regard to decent race relations alive and growing has been the
aspiration of generation after generation in many an American
family, judging by my own and by those
I know. To receive in the closing pages
of your book one word of recognition for this aspiration,
if it were possible for you to give such recognition honestly,
would hearten all who believe in American ideals.
This is quite striking. Imagine that you are Richard
Wright, and you’ve grown up with the life that he describes in
this book. Now you’ve read some of it.
And you’re being asked to suggest in the closing pages of
the autobiography–which is closing where you did not want
it to close, in the middle of your book,
not at the end of your book–you’re being asked to
essentially thank the good, liberal white people who have
been working on behalf of the end of racial discrimination.
Well, Wright finds this an extremely difficult request to
respond to. And you can track it here in
his response. I’m going to read from here so
I can actually see it. “Your more general”– He says,
“Okay. I’ll respond to those
sentence-level things.” Your more general
suggestion was much harder to deal with.
I fully understand the value of what you are driving at,
but frankly, the narrative as it now stands
simply will not support a more general or hopeful conclusion.
The Negro who flees the South is really a refugee.
He is so pinched and straightened in his environment
that his leaving is more an avoidance than an embrace.
For me, it has been my reading of fiction–far removed from
political considerations–that evoked in me a sense of personal
freedom or the possibilities of escaping the South.
I added a paragraph to the body of the epilogue expanding this
notion. And I take that to be the
paragraph where he talks about what fiction has done for him
specifically. Canfield Fisher is not
satisfied with this. She comes back at the problem. This is at the bottom of the
letter: I gather that you cannot
bring yourself to use even once the word “American” in speaking
of “the tinge of warmth which came from an unseen light,”
such a beautiful, sensitive phrase.
Some of the novels and stories you read were,
it is probable, laid in your own country of
America. Hence, some of the characters
in books through whom you had glimpsed life’s possibilities
were fellow Americans of yours. These unseen lights which shone
through them upon your faith were reflections of American
efforts to live up to an idea. Those characters could have
been no other than products of American tradition.
However dimly that light came through to you,
suffering so acutely from the rough denial of the very
existence of American ideals, part of it must have come
through American delineation of American characters.
Now keep in mind this is 1944. This is the summer of 1944.
America is just joining the war effort in Europe.
This is a fight against fascism. That’s the way that it was
presented to the American public: a fight against Nazi
Germany. And in later letters in this
series between her and Richard, and also in the review (the
little sort of summary that she wrote up for the Book of the
Month Club newsletter), she invokes the Nazis
specifically as a comparison to the kind of oppression that
Richard was trying to escape in the South.
So this is caught up in a moment of patriotism where
American freedom is being held up very much as the ideal,
that thing that we fight for when we go to Europe to fight.
And so to have Richard present this picture of America that
doesn’t ring the changes of that patriotism comes to be a problem
in her mind. Now when Black Boy was
published there was a war bond advertisement on the back cover
of the book. It really was just,
even as a physical object, all bound up with the politics
of its moment. Richard’s response to
this–we just have two seconds, and I want to show it to you.
I love these pieces because you can just see him struggling on
the page. (Sorry.) This is his first
attempt at writing back to her. See all the scribbles?
This was hard for him. There are two other drafts.
If you go and look at them, it’s quite interesting.
He’s trying extremely hard to make an answer,
and what he ends up doing is bringing that knowledge that he
built up in Chicago, the knowledge that he gets from
reading economics and sociology and Marxism.
He gives an analysis of industrial capitalism.
That’s the kind of framework he uses to try to get her to
understand what it would mean to be a Negro in the South,
how isolated he was culturally, how impossible it is to see
something like an ideal America of freedom and justice from that
subject position. In the end,
the compromise is that he notes several writers including
Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. And I just want to have you
compare the catalog of writers on 413 that he mentions.
They are Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters,
H.L. Mencken, Anderson,
and Lewis: all American writers.
Compare that with the catalog that he gives of his reading on
249, and you’ll see what’s being elided. This is the top of 249.
So certainly we have Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson,
but then we have Dostoevsky, George Moore,
Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy,
Frank Harris, Mark Twain,
Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett,
Stephen Crane, Zola, Norris,
Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen,
Balzac. You get the point.
This is a very cosmopolitan reading list.
What Canfield Fisher asks him to present is a totally
nationalistic one. My point in sum,
what I want you to take away from this, is to see how an
account of a life is struggling against forces outside of
itself–publishing forces, the forces of politics,
of war, of an editor–how a writer is struggling to make his
account faithful to his own artistic vision,
his own social vision, against those forces,
and how those forces have an impact–try as he might,
have an impact–on what the text looks like when we hold it
in our hands. Black Boy or American
Hunger is a dramatic example, and–thanks to the
Beinecke and to the scholarship that’s been done on it by the
editor who brought this whole text out in the 1990s,
Arnold Rampersad–thanks to that work we get to see it up
close; we get to see what that
back-and-forth looks like. We’ll have another version of
this when we think about Lolita, which in your
edition has an essay at the end called “On a Novel Entitled
Lolita.” That’s only there because
someone tried to censor that book.
It’s another example of how the world comes to impinge on and
change our reading experience. It’s something that we will
come back to and explore more in the next class.

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