Book ReviewRichard Wright as a Protest Writer: A Re-evaluation “I did not embrace insurgency through open choice.” [Archives:2007/1051/Education]

May 17 2007

Reviewed by
Anil K Prasad Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English, Faculty of Arts, Ibb University, [email protected]

A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 enabled Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908-1960) to complete his novel Native Son which is considered a monumental achievement in the world of fiction. The novel earned Wright the “reputation as a protest writer who dared to expose the stresses and pathologies of the urban ghettos” and in addition to that “both critical acclaim and commercial success simultaneously.” A masterpiece, his Black Boy, published in 1945, prompted Ralph Ellison to greet Wright as a “black boy singing lustily as he probes his own grievous wounds” and predicted that the book would ” do much to redefine the problem of the Negro and American Democracy” (Gates Jr., Henry Louis & Nellie Y. McKay Eds., 1997: 1377-79).

Dr Poddar's book Socio-Psychic Protest in Richard Wright is also an attempt at redefinition of the problems of the Negro in American Democracy in terms of different nuances of the protest through Wright's quest for vision. In the 'Foreword' to the book it has been rightly remarked by Professor D.Thakur of Richard Wright's “unalloyed vision which projects” itself in his literary works “in terms of dynamic togetherness of truth, goodness and beauty.” Commenting on the “measure of creativity” in Richard Wright's novels he further states, “One feels that the novelist is putting his characters through such vicarious experiences of life – high and low, simple and complex – that they, at last, have to withdraw into themselves to find out the way best suited to them and to their Protest” (iv). The book deals with, as Dr Poddar acknowledges in the 'Preface', “the profundity and seriousness of the protest” and the different aspects of this protest have been presented before the reader after having analyzed “the subterranean world which [Wright] creates in each of his fictional works” (xiii-iv).

The first chapter, “The Voice of Protest”, begins with the famous lines from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times “) commenting on the contradictions which were there during the time the “black race found itself segregated as a new class of black minority” (1). This chapter outlines the “artistic protest[s]” (9) which were shaped by the works of African American writers beginning with Jupiter Hammon. The list of “protest writers -major and minor” (23) provided in this chapter is very exhaustive and draws from the writings of the famous African American authors up to Countee Cullen. It quotes generously and appositely from the representative works. For example, Claude Mckay's famous sonnet “If We Must Die” has been quoted in full and Langston Hughes's “I, Too” is quoted along with extracts from his essay. Summarizing the literature of slavery and freedom, literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance, and the Harlem Renaissance it surveys the “bumpy, crusty road that Richard Wright was bound to move” (24).

Quoting from the creative and critical writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge and showing the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, George Moore, Mark Twain, Baudelaire, Stendhal, Turgenev, and T. S. Eliot on Wright, Dr Poddar demonstrates in the second chapter: “The Quest for Vision”, that Wright's quest for vision was linked with “his search for the right expression” (37). Undeniably, his short stories, as Dr Poddar comments “can be said to be the first artistic creation which gave a mature and concrete shape to his vision” (43). It is worthy to mention here that in his short story “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1945) Wright created a discourse of “invisibility” of the blacks in American society and this inspired Ralph Allison to continue this further in his famous novel Invisible Man (1952). The following lines from Allison's novel will clarify the point: “I am invisible simply because people refuse to see me” I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation .” (quoted in Gates Jr., Henry Louis & Nellie Y. McKay Eds,1997: 1518-1519). We find the echo of this in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) when Tayo, the protagonist feels invisible, “The new doctor asked him if he had ever been visible, and Tayo spoke to him softly and said that he was sorry but nobody was allowed to speak to an invisible one.” “The sun was dissolving the fog and one day Tayo heard a voice answering the doctor. The voice was saying, 'He can't talk to you. He is invisible. His words are formed with an invisible tongue, they have no sound.' “(15) The memories of the life he spent as an American soldier in the Philippines at the time of the World War II haunt him, “They sent me to this place after the war. It was white. Everything in that place was white. Except for me. I was invisible. ” (123) (Emphasis added). One can also read the counter-discourse on this “narrative of hibernation” in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977) when Milkman, Morrison's protagonist defines his own identity unlike the invisible protagonists of Wright and Ellison whose identity is shaped by how other people define them (Prasad: 2005).

The third chapter is a detailed analysis of Wright's fictional world – Lawd Today: A paradigm of introverted protest, Native Son: A psychosomatic protest, The Outsider: An existential protest, and Long Dream: Dream of protest – forming the basis of Dr Poddar's conclusion of the total significance (the final chapter) of Wright as a crusader fighting against poverty, racial discrimination, and the oppressive monolithic discursive practices of his time. Wright was the first African American writer to explore profoundly the problems of identity of his community “by rejecting the 'decadent aestheticism' of Harlem renaissance writers and by turning to the 'nourishing' formula of Marxism and social protest”. In so doing he established “for African American writing ” a center of gravity” (Gates Jr., Henry Louis & Nellie Y. McKay Eds., 1997: 1321). His influence can be seen on James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and even on Leslie Marmon Silko, a famous Native American author. Significantly, Dr Poddar's book is a re-evaluation of the different tones and shades of the Protest delineated in the novels of Wright, hitherto only referred to as “perhaps the highest form of 'social protest' ” ( Ibid).

Besides, the book reflects the comparative vision of its author, Dr Poddar, the way he has compared and contrasted Wright's intellectual outlook and his literary, social and artistic consciousness with those of some of the most significant writers of World Literature like Shakespeare, Swift, Jane Austen Dostoyevsky, Emile Bronte, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Sartre, and Camus. While discussing the existential protest of Cross, the protagonist of Wright's The Outsider, he brings out similarities with those of Mersault, the central character in Camus's The Stranger. In the same way, he traces the influence of Shakespeare's King Lear on Wright's Native Son by cogently comparing the psychological states of King Lear and ” Wright's heroes” whose protest ” does not have the same intensity as those of King Lear yet the unconscious parallelism adds to Wright's protest a new dimension” (67).

The book is a commendable step on the part of Dr Poddar as he has “served the academic and literary world well” ('Foreword', v). The publisher deserves to be thanked for an impressive lay out of the book, and also for bringing out the book with only a few typographical mistakes (on pages 5, 9, 14, 17, & 25). Dr Poddar has successfully dealt with the theme of protest in the novels of Richard Wright whose life resembled a typical American success myth – “from his impoverished and educationally barren early years to his achievement as a favored literary touchstone.”