ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 2 - Richard Wright, Black Boy
Chapter 1. Classifying the Literary Object: Fiction and Autobiography [00:00:00]
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.
Chapter 2. Choices in the Construction of an Autobiography: A Close Reading of the First Scene [00:06:06]
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:
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.
Chapter 3. Decoding Meaning in Wrightís Descriptive ìCatalogsî [00:11:26]
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:
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:
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.
Chapter 4. Powerlessness and Exertions of Agency [00:16:58]
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:
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:
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!
Chapter 5. Language and Power: The Voices of the Author [00:28:00]
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.)
Chapter 6. The Fisher-Wright Letters: Author vs. Audience, How Outside Forces Shape the Formation of a Personal Account [00:38:36]
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:
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.”
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:
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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