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Native Sons; Or, How “Bigger” Was Born Again


This article reconsiders Richard Wright's Native Son by comparing divergences between the published novel and an earlier typeset manuscript. It argues that such revisions render protagonist Bigger Thomas an icon of global class conflict rather than a national figure of racial tension. By revealing the continuities among critical essays that bookend the writing of Native Son, this essay also reveals how the novel's restructuring further elaborates Wright's globalism – highlighting his desire to produce work that transcended both national and racial categories. Finally, it considers Native Son as a work of “world literature” and a model for global minoritarian discourse. By examining “translations” of the novel into postcolonial contexts, it argues that the global afterlife of Native Son is no departure from the localized vision of the novel, but rather the recapitulation of its explicit globalism. This article thereby challenges critical convention dividing Wright's career cleanly into two phases: his American period and later self-exile. It emphasizes rather that Wright's worldliness should be traced back through his revision of Native Son and earlier critical essays – ultimately finding his globalism not a late-stage development, but actually the single theme that unifies his oeuvre.

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1 Richard Wright, “Speech Sent to Constance Webb,” Richard Wright Collection, 1935–1967, New York Public Library, Box 3, Folder c13, Reel 2, acquired by the Schomburg Collection in April 1969.

2 Quoted in Constance Webb, Richard Wright: A Biography (New York: Putnam, 1968), 251.

3 Howe, Irving, “Black Boys and Native Sons,Dissent, 10, 4 (1963), 353–68, 354–55.

4 Michel Fabre sees Wright's participation in these intellectual circles as uniting two seemingly disparate modes of thought, arguing that “From the very beginning, the existentialists took a stand against colonialism, supporting colonized peoples against their oppressors, demanding immediate and unrestricted independence for them, denouncing American racism and the Marshall Plan as an imperialistic political maneuver.” See Fabre, Michel, “Richard Wright and French Existentialists,MELUS, 5, 2 (1978), 3951 , 45.

5 A selection Wright's 817 preferred poems was published posthumously as Wright, Richard, Haiku: This Other World, ed. Hakutani, Yoshinobu and Tener, Robert L. (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998). Little scholarly attention has been paid to these last works of Wright's life, with the exception of Hakutani, Yoshinobu, Richard Wright and Haiku (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2014); Zheng, Jianqing, ed., The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011); Miller, Eugene E., Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990), and Fabre, Michel, The World of Richard Wright (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1985).

6 Richard Wright, “Notes on ‘Personalism,’ 1935,” Richard Wright Collection, 1935–1967, New York Public Library, Box 3, Folder c13, Reel 2, acquired by the Schomburg Collection in April 1969.

7 Ibid., 2.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 4.

10 Ibid.

11 Fabre, Michel, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 143.

12 Wright's “Notes on ‘Personalism’” has received almost no critical attention whatsoever. For a brief summary of the essay see Ward, Jerry and Butler, Robert, eds., The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008), 301–2. For brief mentions of “personalism” see Fabre, The World of Richard Wright, 14; and Gilroy, who identifies Wright's “aesthetics of personalism” in Frederick Douglass's Narrative and other writings of ex-slaves. See Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 69.

13 Wright, Richard, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in Mitchell, Angelyn, ed., Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 97106 , 104.

14 Ibid., 101, original emphases.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 103.

17 Wright, Richard, Richard Wright: Early Works, ed. Rampersad, Arnold (New York: Library of America, 1991), 912.

18 Ibid., 909.

19 James Campbell, “The Wright Version?”, Times Literary Supplement, 13 Dec. 1991, 14. For the controversy over the Library of America edition played out in the Times Literary Supplement see also James Campbell, “Letter to the Editor: Richard Wright,” Times Literary Supplement, 14 Feb. 1992, 16; Ellen Wright and Julia Wright, “Letter to the Editor: Richard Wright,” Times Literary Supplement, 31 Jan. 1992, 17; and Mark Richardson, “Letter to the Editor: Richard Wright.” Times Literary Supplement, 1 Jan. 1992, 15.

20 Tuttleton, James W., “The Problematic Texts of Richard Wright,Hudson Review, 45, 2 (1992), 261–71, 270.

21 Ibid., 271.

22 This close examination of Wright's working manuscript and final published version of Native Son also importantly emphasizes the author as literary figure and not simply an ideologue, which is too often the case in scholarship on Wright. By observing the numerous changes to the Native Son manuscript, we come to see his literary craft in real time, and how this expressive practice was shaped by larger social and political concerns. See Joyce, Joyce Ann, “Style and Meaning in Richard Wright's Native Son,Black American Literature Forum, 16, 3 (1982), 112–15.

23 Menand, Louis, American Studies (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 78. Here Menand is referring to the “restored” Library of America text, not the typeset manuscript discussed here.

24 Keneth Kinnamon has briefly surveyed these changes in Wright's Native Son manuscript, arguing rather superficially, “If the novel had been published with the omitted original opening, many bored readers would have put the book down after the first few pages.” Although Kinnamon claims that the manuscript opening “lacks any drama,” rather the earlier draft of the novel stages any entirely different kind of drama. See Kinnamon, Keneth, “Introduction,” in Kinnamon, ed., New Essays on Native Son (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 133 , 9–10. Scholarship on Wright has largely neglected this sort of comparative work, despite the “need for … comparative studies of published works with manuscript versions.” See Graham, Maryemma, “Introduction,Callaloo, 28 (1986), 439–45, 444–45.

25 See Rowley, Hazel, “The Shadow of the White Woman: Richard Wright and the Book-of-the-Month Club,Partisan Review, 66, 4 (1999), 625–34; and Olney, James, “Richard Wright in the Library of America,Partisan Review, 61, 3 (1994), 518–28.

26 Young, John K., “‘Quite as Human as It Is Negro’: Subpersons and Textual Property in Native Son and Black Boy,” in Hutchinson, George and Young, John K., eds., Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race since 1850 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 6792 , 69.

27 Hutchinson and Young, Publishing Blackness, 9.

28 For the primer on the theory of genetic criticism in English see Deppman, Jed, Ferrer, Daniel, and Groden, Michael, “Introduction: A Genesis of French Genetic Criticism,” in Deppman, Ferrer, and Groden, eds., Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Textes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 116 .

29 The focus on Book I of the novel is for two reasons. First, the domestic sphere of the exposition sets the tone for the entire narrative arc of Bigger's crime and punishment. Second, it is arguably the most aesthetically realized or effective section of the novel. See Elder, Matthew, “Social Demarcation and the Forms of Psychological Fracture in Book One of Richard Wright's Native Son,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 52, 1 (2010), 3147 .

30 Wright, Early Works, 447.

31 Ibid., 448–49.

32 Original typescript to Wright, Richard's book, Native Son (published by Harper & Brothers, 1940), showing extensive intercalation and revision of the text. Acquired by the Schomburg Collection in April 1969, 1.

33 Wright, Early Works, 447.

34 Throughout this essay, I have bracketed Wright's handwritten edits to the manuscript.

35 Original typescript, 1–2.

36 Growing tension between Bigger and his mother is not totally absent from the final version of the novel. See JanMohamed, Abdul R., The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); and Hoeveler, Diane Long, “Oedipus Agonistes: Mothers and Sons in Richard Wright's Fiction,Black American Literature Forum, 12, 2 (1978), 6568 .

37 Wright, Early Works, 447.

38 Ibid., 448.

39 Ibid., 452.

40 For more on clocks, time, and the working class, see Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,Past and Present, 38, 1 (1967), 5697 .

41 JanMohamed, Death-Bound-Subject, 84.

42 Original typescript, 5, underlining in original. On the role of religion in the novel see Miller, James A., “Bigger Thomas's Quest for Voice and Audience in Richard Wright's Native Son,Callaloo, 28 (1986), 501–6.

43 Original typescript, 6.

44 Ibid., 11.

45 Ibid., 11–12.

46 Wright, Early Works, 454.

47 Ibid., 455.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Original typescript, 14.

53 Wright, Early Works, 485.

54 Original typescript, 40–41.

55 Ibid., 39–40.

56 Elder, “Social Demarcation,” 32.

57 Bayliss, John F., “Native Son: Protest or Psychological Study?”, Negro American Literature Forum, 1, 1 (1967), 56 , 5.

58 Wright, Early Works, 854.

59 Ibid., 863.

60 Ibid., 864. For a fuller account of this particular passage in Wright's essay see Mehring, Frank, “‘Bigger in Nazi Germany’: Transcultural Confrontations of Richard Wright and Hans Jürgen Massaquoi,Black Scholar, 39, 1–2 (2009), 6371 .

61 Wright, Early Works, 860–61.

62 Ibid., 861.

63 See Mitchell, Ernest Julius II, “Zora's Politics: A Brief Introduction,Journal of Transnational American Studies, 5, 1 (2013), 138 .

64 On the global reception of the novel see Warnes, Andrew, Richard Wright's Native Son (London: Routledge, 2007), 5774 .

65 Sartre, Jean-Paul, What Is Literature? and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 80.

66 Ibid., 137.

67 Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Philcox, Richard (New York: Grove, 2008), 118.

68 Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 155–61.

69 Ibid., 155, 159, 186.

70 Ibid., 159.

71 Roache, Joel, “‘What Had Made Him and What He Meant’: The Politics of Wholeness in ‘How “Bigger” Was Born’,SubStance, 5, 15 (1976), 133–45, 137.

72 Wu, Yung-Hsing, “Native Sons and Native Speakers: On the Eth(n)ics of Comparison,PMLA, 121, 5 (2006), 1460–74, 1465.

73 Ibid., 1467.

74 Foley, Barbara, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 210–11, original emphasis.

75 Ibid., 211, original emphasis.

76 Mullen, Bill V., Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–46 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 27.

77 Ibid., 38.

78 Ibid., 41.

79 See Damrosch, David, What Is World Literature? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 281.

80 See Hakutani, Yoshinobu and Kiuchi, Toru, “The Critical Response in Japan to Richard Wright,Mississippi Quarterly, 50, 2 (1997), 353–65.

81 Thomas, Dominic, “Intertextuality, Plagiarism, and Recycling in Ousmane Sembene's ‘Le Docker Noir (Black Docker)’,Research in African Literatures, 37, 1 (2006), 7290 , 76.

82 Ibid., 84, original emphasis. The resonances between African American segregationist and francophone postcolonial arrangements as revealed by the intertextual borrowing between Le docker noir and Native Son are perhaps further elucidated by Wright's planned but unfinished fourth travelogue, “French West Africa.” See Smith, Virginia Whately, “‘French West Africa’: Behind the Scenes with Richard Wright, the Travel Writer,” in Smith, Virginia Whately, ed., Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001), 179214 .

83 Phu, Thy, “Bigger at the Movies: Sangre Negra and the Cinematic Projection of Native Son,Black Camera, 2, 1 (2010), 3657 , 37.

84 The title Sangre Negra also alludes to the particular history of racial hierarchy in Latin America (especially colonial Mexico's sistema de castas) according to anxieties about blood purity, or limpieza de sangre, a concept inherited from exclusionary practices targeting Muslims, Jews, and newly converted Christians in the Iberian context. See, for example, Martínez, María Elena, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

85 Phu, 54–55, original emphases.

86 Ibid.

87 Reed, Anthony, “‘Another Map of the South Side’: Native Son as Postcolonial Novel,African American Review, 45, 4 (2012), 614 . Ngwarsungu Chiwengo has also remarked that the novel's mention of Trader Horn lends a certain (post)colonial logic to Bigger's predicament. See Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, “Gazing through the Screen: Richard Wright's Africa,” in Smith, Richard Wright's Travel Writings, 20–44.

88 See Dow, William, Craven, Alice, and Nakamura, Yoko, eds., Richard Wright in a Post-racial Imaginary (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

89 Menand, American Studies, 85.

90 Ibid., 97.

91 Such an interpretation would pose a sturdy challenge to the argument advanced in Warren, Kenneth, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

92 Gaines, Kevin, “Revisiting Richard Wright in Ghana: Black Radicalism and the Dialectics of Diaspora,Social Text, 19, 2 (2001), 75101 , 78.

93 Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Oliver, Terri Hume (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 17, emphasis added.

94 Dissanayake, Wimal, “Richard Wright: A View from the Third World,Callaloo, 28 (1986), 481–89, 483.

95 Comparative readings and analogies between Native Son and postcolonial texts are not at all uncommon. Consider, for example, Menand's juxtaposition of Wright's novel and E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, and Wu's notion of “ethnic comparison” between Native Son and Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, among others. See Louis Menand, American Studies, 83; and Yung-Hsing Wu, “Native Sons and Native Speakers.” Outlining the “oneiropolitics” of Native Son, Mikko Tukhanen notes the resonant dream-oriented rhetoric of both Wright and Frantz Fanon. As such, “Wright predicts that the West will live the time of post-coloniality as a series of traumatic awakenings” See Tukhanen, Mikko, “Richard Wright's Oneiropolitics,American Literature, 82, 1 (2010), 151–78, 159.

96 Numerous critics have bemoaned what could be called “neocolonialist” tendencies in Wright's writing on the Third World, particularly Africa. Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls Wright's “condescension” that “colonialism was the best thing that had ever befallen the continent of Africa.” See Gates, Henry Louis Jr., “Third World of Theory: Enlightenment's Esau,Critical Inquiry, 34, 5 (2008), 192–95. For critiques of Wright's African writing see Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “A Long Way from Home: Wright in the Gold Coast,” in Rampersad, Arnold, ed., Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1995), 188201 ; Arnold Rampersad, “Introduction,” in ibid., 1–11; S. Shankar, “Richard Wright's Black Power: Colonial Politics and the Travel Narrative,” in Smith, Richard Wright's Travel Writings, 3–19; West, Cornel, “Introduction” to Wright, Richard, Black Power: Three Books from Exile (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), viixiii . For critiques of Wright's Asian writing see Chiwengo, “Gazing through the Screen”; Yoshinobu Hakutani, “The Color Curtain: Richard Wright's Journey into Asia,” in Smith, Richard Wright's Travel Writings, 63–77; and Mullen, Bill V., Afro-Orientalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

97 Mullen, Bill V., “Discovering Postcolonialism,American Quarterly, 54, 4 (2002), 701–8, 701. Virginia Whately Smith, too, shares this view. She writes, “After all, it was Richard Wright the foreign traveler who had the prescience of vision as a global humanist and eyewitness to history to pioneer postcolonial studies, and to forecast in The Color Curtain (1956) its preeminence in the academy… The body of resistance literature and transcultural studies promoted by such esteemed critics of Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt … fulfills the author's prophecy.” See Smith, “Introduction,” in Smith, Richard Wright's Travel Writings, xi–xv, xiv.

98 There is also another possibility, namely that Wright's internationalist consciousness preceded his encounter with Marxism. Indeed, his childhood experiences under Jim Crow segregation and lynch law might have pushed him to question his place in society in connection with international systems of various kinds. See McCarthy, Harold T., “Richard Wright: The Expatriate as Native Son,American Literature, 44, 1 (1972), 97117 . Here one is reminded of C. L. R. James's recollection of a visit to Wright's home, wherein he showed James his volumes of Kierkegaard and remarked, “I want to tell you something. Everything that he writes in those books, I knew before I had them.” See James, C. L. R., “Black Studies and the Contemporary Student,” in Grimshaw, Anna, ed., The C. L. R. James Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 390404 , 399. For a discussion of this encounter, see also Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 159.

99 Mullen, “Discovering Postcolonialism,” 707, 705. For examples of this tendency see especially Smith, “Introduction”; Hakutani, “The Color Curtain”; McCarthy; Reilly, John M., “Richard Wright and the Art of Non-fiction: Stepping Out on the Stage of the World,Callaloo, 28 (1986), 507–20; and Weik, Alex, “‘The Uses and Hazards of Expatriation’: Richard Wright's Cosmopolitanism in Progress,African American Review, 41, 3 (2007), 459–75.

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