Academic journal article Style

To Blot It All Out: The Politics of Realism in Richard Wright's 'Native Son.'

Academic journal article Style

To Blot It All Out: The Politics of Realism in Richard Wright's 'Native Son.'

Article excerpt

The strategies of the classic realist text divert the reader from what is contradictory within it to the renewed recognition (misrecognition) of what he or she already "knows," knows because the myths and signifying systems of the classic realist text re-present experience in the ways in which it is conventionally articulated in our society.

Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice

But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles . . . that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light.

Richard Wright, Black Boy


Although now almost twenty years old, Belsey's forceful dismissal of a realism that, to her mind, "performs . . . the work of ideology" (67) remains, to this day, a virtual axiom of Anglo-American literary criticism. Despite Rita Felski's more recent claim that "the 'conservative' status of realism as a closed form which reflects ruling ideologies has been challenged by its reappropriation by . . . oppositional movements such as feminism" (161), recent scholarship, implicitly or explicitly deploying what Belsey dubs "[p]ost-Saussurean work on language" (3),(1) has tended to take the diagnosis of realism as reactionary as its starting point in discussions of the realist novel. Indeed, even such a recent reclamation of American realism as William Solomon's 1996 essay, "Politics and Rhetoric in the Novel in the 1930s," begins by conceding realism's effectively conservative character as a mode of ideological "closure" (799). If the ostensibly realist fiction of the 1930s is to be rescued from critical scorn here, this is to be done by demonstrating that it is not in fact realist at all, but rather an attempt to go "beyond" realism and toward a rhetorical form exhibiting a healthy and "at times extreme skepticism towards the referential reliability of realist modes of narration" (800). Nor has the Wright who, in our second epigraph, praises realism as a kind of personal and political epiphany escaped scholarly censure for just this allegiance. To be sure, Wright's work, and Native Son in particular, was initially praised by reviewers for nothing other than the power of its realism. Thus critics who praised Uncle Tom's Children for its "brutal reality" and "authenticity" would likewise applaud in Wright's first novel an "authentic, powerful writing" and a "factual quality as hard and real as a paving stone" (Reilly, Critical Reception 2, 28, 50, 61). More importantly, as regards recent formulations of the politics of literary realism, these first critics and reviewers would see this realism itself as at the very heart of a potent and oppositional political act, as "a considerable factor in awakening a social sense and conscience willing at last, after much evasion and self-deception, to face the basic issues realistically and constructively" (Locke 20).

By 1963, such readings of Wright's achievement in Native Son were so current that Irving Howe could claim of the novel that it was not only a disclosure of the facts of racist oppression, but further, a form of literary liberation from the "protest" novel for those black American writers who came after it ("Black Boys" 137). Yet it is instructive that such an argument should come some two years after Howe's own fearful eulogy for Wright, which lamented that his works were now largely unread, his name unknown (Reilly, Critical Reception 350). For indeed, by the 1960s, Wright's literary fortunes had waned - so much so, in fact, that his 1954 novel, Savage Holiday, would receive not a single American review (Reilly, Critical Reception 239) - and had done so in step with the declining esteem in which the realist novel was held in American literary circles. …

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