'Til Death Do Us Part: White Male Rage in Richard Wright's: Savage Holiday

By Dubek, Laura | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

'Til Death Do Us Part: White Male Rage in Richard Wright's: Savage Holiday


Dubek, Laura, The Mississippi Quarterly


RICHARD WRIGHT'S 1954 "WHITE LIFE" NOVEL SAVAGE HOLIDAY FEATURES a deeply troubled male protagonist searching for an escape from his suddenly chaotic and sordid existence. A forty-three-year-old insurance agent living in Manhattan, Erskine Fowler finds himself forced into early retirement, guilt-ridden over having caused a young boy to fall from a tenth-floor balcony and violently torn between his sexual attraction for and moral loathing of the boy's mother, Mabel Blake. In a desperate attempt to recover some sense of order in his life, Erskine decides that marrying Mabel will solve all his (and her) problems. He quickly withdraws his proposal, however, deciding instead that he needs a vacation, "a good sea trip" to "get all of this churning rot out of his system" (187). What Erskine does not realize is precisely what Wright shows in this novel--that the system is the rot. And because it is a specifically American rot, if Erskine wants to escape it, he must indeed take a sea voyage, as Wright himself did in 1947 when he left his native land for Paris. Wright's expatriation allowed him to escape the full impact of the various political, economic, and social systems that dehumanize and destroy so many of his fictional characters; it also gave him a unique perspective from which to write about America and its white citizens. Savage Holiday--published the same year the Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional and one year before Emmett Till would be lynched for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi--speaks directly to a white American audience about the psychology of anger, guilt, and denial. The novel's depiction of a bizarre and deadly courtship ritual exposes the postwar cult of domesticity as a fiction that, not unlike nuclear power, promises safety at the risk of annihilation.

While critics continue to praise Wright's early works--Uncle Tom "s Children (1938), Native Son (1940), and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)--the tendency has been to characterize his later works as striking a very different, if not dissonant, note. In his Afterword to the 1994 edition of Savage Holiday, Gerald Early challenges the widely shared view that these later works do not warrant sustained critical attention, arguing that the postwar years "were not only the most productive ones for Wright but may also be the most crucial in our understanding of his ambition and aspiration as an artist" (227). The fiction and nonfiction Wright published as an expatriate do signal various shifts in thinking that followed the writer's geographic displacement: Wright moves from naturalism to existentialism, from a sociological perspective to a psychological one, from a critique of US racism to an interest in colonialism and international race relations. But while this bifurcation of Wright's career highlights significant aspects of the writer's artistic and intellectual development, it does so at the expense of a richer, more complex understanding of both his individual texts and his legacy. Most importantly, it obscures what two of his biographers--Michel Fabre (1971) and Hazel Rowley (2001)--identify as Wright's life-long commitment to exposing the absurdities of American life and values to a white audience.

Despite the critical community's disappointment with his later works, Wright remains one of the most important and revered African American writers of the twentieth century. His reputation rests primarily on Native Son, the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by a black writer, and Black Boy. Discussions of Wright's early literary accomplishments often put him in company with an illustrious group of canonical writers, including Feodor Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and James T. Farrell. In 1977 Robert Stepto placed Wright in the African American literary tradition. Pointing out the writer's preference for white literary models, Stepto compared Wright's "posture" to that of Booker T. …

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