New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview

6 • Native Sons Divorce: A Conclusion

Let me give examples of how I began to develop the dim negative of Bigger. I met
white writers who talked of their responses, who told me how whites reacted to this
lurid American scene. And, as they talked, I’d translate what they said in terms of
Bigger’s life. But what was more important still, I read their novels. Here, for the
first time, I found ways and techniques of gauging meaningfully the effects of
American civilization upon the personalities of people.

—Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” (1940)

In the small-time vice-village of Matamoros I took a room in a hotel run by a
woman who had entitled herself “The Mother of the Americans,” though she did-
n’t look like anyone’s mother. There I wrote the first chapters of a novel I first called
Native Son.

—Nelson Algren, 1965 preface to Somebody in Boots (1935)

Days after the first, March 1940 printing of his own novel entitled Native Son, Richard Wright mailed Nelson Algren a complimentary copy enhanced with a lavish inscription:

To—

My old friend

Nelson

Who I believe is still

the best writer of good

prose in the U.S.A.

—Dick. (qtd. in Drew 121)

Algren, yet to become the celebrity underworld connoisseur of The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), received Wright’s words as an inspiration and a summons, a confidence booster when facing publishers and a challenge at the writing desk. “Dear Dick,” he quickly wrote in reply, “Native Son [sic] arrived this morning. I haven’t begun it yet because I can’t get past the autograph. I hope you meant it all the way, because it did something to me: I had a luncheon engagement

-193-

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