Academic journal article African American Review

Richard Wright's 'The Long Dream' as Racial and Sexual Discourse

Academic journal article African American Review

Richard Wright's 'The Long Dream' as Racial and Sexual Discourse

Article excerpt

When The Long Dream, Wright's last novel, written in exile in France, appeared in 1958, two years before his death, it encountered largely negative reviews in America. Despite Wright's efforts to portray black people's bitter experiences in the deep South, as he had done so successfully in Uncle Tom's Children and Black Boy, The Long Dream, some readers felt, betrayed a distinct decline in his creative power. Saunders Redding, who had earlier detected a danger inherent in Wright's exile, observed that in The Long Dream Wright had "cut the emotional umbilical cord through which his art was fed, and all that remains for it to feed is the memory, fading, of righteous love and anger" (329). In "A Long Way from Home," Nick Aaron Ford, another black critic, concurred with Redding that Wright had lost touch with his native soil and the swiftly changing racial current in the United States (335-36). Agreeing with Redding and Ford, Maxwell Geismar remarked that, while Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy are "solid, bitter, savage, almost terrifying fictional studies of the Negro mind," The Long Dream turns out to be "a surrealistic fantasy of paranoid and suicidal impulses, veiled in political terminology" (333).

Yet the lack of depth some critics deplored was appreciated as socially authentic by others. Such reviewers as Redding and Ford considered the novel merely repetitious of what Wright had shown before, whereas others deemed Wright's racial discourse as developing and continuing in relevance. Roi Ottley argued that the novel presents "a social document of unusual worth," depicting lynching, police brutality, and a race riot in a Southern town (327). Writing in Best Sellers, another reviewer found value in Wright's depiction of black characters as amoral and as "interested in practically nothing but irregular but frequent sexual relations," although this reviewer cautioned that Wright blames this idiosyncrasy of black people "on the white people" (Kiniery 332). Still another reader compared The Long Dream with Native Son for its direct treatment of race problems, as well as with well-established social novels like An American Tragedy and The Grapes of Wrath (Shapiro 334).

What is implicit in much of the criticism The Long Dream has received is the perception that, even though the novel thrives on authentic details, its structure and characterization lack artistic merit. Most critics have accepted Wright's racial views in the novel as realistic and convincing, but found the ending of the book abrupt, because Wright allows Fishbelly, despite his emerging manhood, to remove himself from the African-American world, go to jail, and then flee to France in search of freedom and equality. What seems lacking at the crucial point in Fishbelly's development is his mental and physical toughness in battling against racism and achieving the independence of other Wright heroes such as Bigger Thomas and Cross Damon.(1)

To reassess The Long Dream would require a new approach - not to its social and cultural backgrounds, which are history and legend, but to Wright's construction of a unique discourse. It was especially important for Wright to express what he actually felt as a black youth growing up in the deep South. This subjectivity, which early critics of the novel overlooked, enabled Wright to develop the theme of miscegenation as personally felt experience for Fishbelly, rather than as the background for character development, as is the case in Native Son. For The Long Dream, Wright would construct a twofold discourse racial reality and self-portrait - unified on the strength of the sexual theme, for the taboo of interracial sex is the product of socio-historical environment and personal desire.

Although the title The Long Dream suggests that the novel is concerned with an unrealistic quality which Wright finds in Fishbelly's life, the book is based on solid facts and believable events. In fact, many of its episodes draw upon the young Wright as he is portrayed in Black Boy. …

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