First of all, I am shocked--shocked this book was published in 1940. Not only was it published by an American publisher, but it was read, well received, and even chose as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection (although some changes were made to the BotM edition to tone down some of the more objectionable material). Someone explain to me how this happened? This book is four times the controversy of The Grapes of Wrath and yet both were published in the same year.
Now the disclaimer: Most (if not all) books are filled with propaganda of some sort. Sometimes it’s sprinkled in there, other times it’s dipped in propaganda and it drips out into your lap as you flip through the pages. A reader of Native Son may wish to know beforehand that it is closer to the latter. Readers who have their minds made up about Communism and refuse to find any merit in anything that supports Communism will not like this book. If this is you, don’t read this book as you’ll only drag down the rating.
Overall, I really enjoyed Native Son. It reminded me considerably of Ellison’s Invisible Man in regards to style and tone. Considering that Ellison and Wright were not only contemporaries but also well acquainted makes this similarity not surprising at all. Wright did a fabulous job creating a story that garners conflicting emotions from his reader. Though some readers undoubtedly hate Bigger Thomas, and some root for him, most will be both appalled and sympathetic toward him. This is the result of Wright’s mastery of the subject and his handling of it. The points Wright makes about race relations through his characters are eloquent and spot on.
I only had two small complaints about the book. First of all, it could’ve dropped a third of the material and been okay. Throughout the book, Wright is fairly repetitive. Bigger’s thoughts often repeat themselves. The book’s later scenes drag. And the courtroom scenes, while integral to the books message, seem ridiculous to me. Were lawyers really allowed to go on for so long? Secondly, Wright seemed to need to explain things a little too much to the reader. Perhaps he believed the audience he was writing to wouldn’t get it—and perhaps they wouldn’t have—but the dumbing-down exasperates the reader who does “get it.”
Native Son is a unique take on race relations in the early half of the twentieth century. I recommend it for anyone with an interest in the subject.