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    11. Richard Wright's Poetic Marxism

    Marx, a Poet?

    The final question of an interview with Richard Wright for France-U.S.A. in September 1960, asked by translator and journalist Annie Brierre, was “Do you read a lot?”[1] Replying to this standard, even banal, question for a famously voracious reader, Wright began his answer rather mechanically, listing novelists for whom he had long expressed admiration. The names offered—Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky—are unsurprising, as is Wright’s emendation that he would “give them all up for a book by Dreiser” who “encompasses them all.”[2] But in the very moment that we are prepared, as no doubt Brierre was as well, to learn nothing new from this practiced recitation, Wright chose to disrupt his rote. After a full stop, he noted separately, “And I should like to add that I am fond of Freud and Marx, not from a political angle but because they are poets.”[3] Wright’s Delphic response piqued Brierre, who immediately attempted to secure a future interview on this idea of Karl Marx as poet. Although that interview never materialized—Wright died of a heart attack two months later—this line survives as the most explicit if interpretively oblique expression of Wright’s engagement with the form of Marx’s writing. Offering a new lens through which to read and understand Wright’s complex relationship to Marxism throughout his writing career, Wright’s recasting of Marx as poet is of special importance to critics and readers of Wright’s postwar fiction, a body of work that, due in no small part to Wright’s departure from the Communist Party in 1942, has been stripped of its Marxist valences.

    What was Wright trying to communicate through this provocative recasting of Marx as a poet? The subject here is not poetry, neither Wright’s nor Marx’s, but a method of reading. In reading Marx as a poet, Wright expands the interpretive possibilities engendered by a traditional reading of Marx. No longer the author of a fixed discourse known as Marxism, Marx is transformed into a “founder of discursivity.”[4] Although this distinction between Marx and Marxism comes from “What Is an Author,” Michel Foucault’s 1969 essay in which he explains his relationship to Marx’s thought as structural rather than conceptual or political, the import of Wright’s critical act must not be subsumed by Foucault’s more concentrated explanation. While the deliberate ambiguity of Wright’s statement is powerfully reinforced by the precision of Foucault’s theoretical language and its comparative familiarity to postwar theoretical revisions of Marx, Wright’s dialectical reading of Marx prefigures and, as will become clear, far exceeds the parameters established by Foucault.

    Nevertheless, Foucault’s reclassification of Marxian discursivity offers crucial support to a topic—Wright’s Marxism—overdetermined (and routinely distorted) by methodologies that align Wright’s support for Marx with positive representations of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).[5] Under Foucault’s rubric, the test of conceptual allegiance—wherein a work’s Marxist potency is determined by the degree to which it appropriates and deploys a content that has been vetted as properly Marxist—is proven not only insufficient but also theoretically (and ultimately politically) impotent. It is not enough for a discursive field to generate new ideas and discoveries; whether a work is praised for the ease or for the complexity of its appropriation does not matter if the discursive field itself is left unchanged. What distinguishes Marx (and Sigmund Freud) from other “initiators of discourse”—including Aristotle, Ferdinand de Saussure, Galileo, and Isaac Newton—is a formal quality that communicates an active resistance to such imitation and orthodoxy.[6] Thus, while the study of either historical materialism or psychoanalysis necessitates a “return to the origin”—to Marx or Freud—the product of this return is not delimited in advance by the initiator’s original findings.[7] The endgame, then, is neither revision nor supplementation. No matter how potentially useful to the host discipline, such additive practices, which deny the principle of historical contingency, affirm their own discursive stagnation.

    My primary motive for integrating Foucault is terminological. Foucault’s systematic critique of the discursive limits of contemporary Marxism, buttressed by his revision of Marx as a “founder of discursivity,” carries intellectual resonance with my present inquiry.[8] Significantly, though, the points at which Foucault and Wright overlap—their shared resistance to allegedly pious readings of Marx, including both the motivated distillation of Marx’s thought into isolated propagandistic mandates (e.g., “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”) and its codification into a comprehensive system (as with Stalinist diamat, or dialectic materialism)—are balanced by different and ultimately incommensurate understandings of form.[9] Foucault’s explicit disinterest in “the totality of Marx’s thought,” combined with his public “shun[ning]” of “all things related to the dialectic,”[10] reveals the limits of his formal interest in Marx and as such distinguishes his project from Wright’s.[11] Additionally, Wright’s primary aim—to “locate [in Marx] the rules that formed a certain number of concepts and theoretical relationships”—affirms his as a structural and disciplinary (philosophical) approach to Marxian discursivity.[12] Wright’s re-creation of Marx as poet stands as a direct challenge to such systematized methods of reading. Rather than reading for rules in order to establish structural patterns in Marx’s thought, Wright reestablishes Marx’s writings as a guiding but ultimately unrealizable aesthetic—as poetry—locating the revolutionary potential of Marx’s thought in its formal qualities, those that cannot be easily lifted for political or philosophical appropriation.[13] Poetry, neither “the name for a [restrictive] form of writing made by poets” nor a generalized “metonym for the arts,” becomes for Wright a way of coding what he identifies as a structural imperative in the specific context of Marx’s thought.[14]

    Wright Reads Burke

    Wright’s understanding of the poetic quality of Marx’s thought was likely influenced, albeit rather quietly and ultimately very critically, by Kenneth Burke’s aborted project, beginning in Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1938), to render Marxist aesthetics—and specifically Communist practice—poetic.[15] It is through Burke rather than the Russian formalists (whose works Wright neither owned nor read) that Wright was first introduced to a politicized understanding of poetics undetermined by the generic limitations of race and even class-specific forms of linguistic or narrative transgression.[16]

    Burke’s theory of poetic action, his move away from the study of static symbols in literature, poetry, and criticism in order to develop a vocabulary that could represent the hidden movement, or action, of dialectical thought, resonated with Wright, who was struggling, after sentimental reviews of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), to develop a mode of expression that exceeded existing forms of literary radicalism.[17] However formative to his development as a writer, the guiding principles of proletarian fiction—to represent the revolutionary potential of the laboring classes—had by this time run their course. Rather than continue to create literature designed for the “cauldron of the Revolution” as specified by CPUSA literati,[18] Wright, at the height of his celebrity as the “Party’s most illustrious proletarian author,” began to amend his narrative principles.[19]

    Given the increase in CPUSA suspicion toward unorthodox approaches to Marx’s thought, particularly those practiced by its African American members, Wright’s new interest was at risk of intellectual atrophy.[20] Left with few viable theoretical models, Wright turned to Kenneth Burke. Although Wright had encountered Burke three years earlier at the First American Writer’s Congress—Burke’s iconoclastic speech “Revolutionary Symbolism in America” would have been all but impossible to miss—he was not moved to further inquiry until late 1937, the year that the New Masses published Burke’s scathing critique of Jacques Barzun’s Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937). The review, which was printed on the same page as Wright’s “Between Laughter and Tears,” a similarly critical analysis of the retrograde race writing of Walter Edward Turpin and Zora Neale Hurston, confirmed the special interest in race of these leading Marxists (and the journal in which they published).[21] The final lines of Burke’s “The Science of Race Thinking” proved to be an ideal preface to Wright’s own article:

    This book [Barzun’s Race: A Study in Modern Superstition] should also be read by Marxists because it indicates how both class and regional divisions can in naïve hands lead to a schematization of psychological traits that is hardly other than a concealed variant of the same oversimplified patterns as prevail in race thinking. On Marx’s own testimony, a theory of purely economic classification must be subtilized when one is analyzing the expressions of any specific individual.[22]

    Burke’s recourse to Marx in the context of naive theorizations about race and racialized psychology would have appealed to Wright, who had been forced to neglect the very subject that had inspired his interest in the Party due to his heavy workload as the Harlem bureau’s editor of the Daily Worker. Even more, it would have surprised him. Wright considered contemporary Marxism’s interest in the psychology of the oppressed a recent phenomenon, one he attributed to Stalin’s Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (1934) rather than to Marx himself.

    The timing of Burke’s words combined with their proximity to Wright’s own review was nothing short of serendipitous. Prior to this reading encounter, Wright had identified the primary function of Marx’s thought—the demystification of the logic of capital—as a content to be transcended by the black literary vanguard. Now less than three years later, Wright began to reconsider his “blueprint.” No longer did he believe that Marx’s “capacity to lay bare the skeleton of society” was an end unto itself.[23] He was now in search of a vocabulary to support his thinking.

    Wright records his thoughts on Burke’s Permanence and Change in “Writing from the Left.” A generically strange and infrequently cited piece of writing with a mysterious publication history, “Writing from the Left” documents Wright’s thoughts on emerging theories of the relationship between Marxism and aesthetic practice. He offers the following précis of Permanence and Change: Kenneth Burke, in Permanence and Change, sought to frame a definition of Marxist aesthetics in terms of a poetry of action; from Burke’s point of view, Communism becomes a poetic conception of life, of men unfolding their personalities through action.[24] Insofar as Wright’s reading was guided by his dissatisfaction with the aesthetic parameters of committed art as it was then defined in American Marxist-inflected literature, Wright was particularly attracted to Burke’s more capacious understanding of poetics in narrative. Burke criticized the necessity of singular “ideals” in narrative, proposing instead that writers work toward a more gestural ethic to be advanced through a complex dialogue among expository (or semantic) and hortatory (or poetic) forms of expression. No longer limited to the representation of specific (and existing) forms of liberation, the function of committed art was to instill a revolutionary sensibility, a sense of futurity, of the not-known. An author would “not merely give the names and addresses of events” in his work “but would,” through the form of his prose, “also suggest exhortations for the promotion of better names and addresses.”[25] For Burke, this new, prospective vocabulary was a necessary translation of Comintern materialism for American Marxists. Burke knew that the unmediated importing of the core of Soviet discourse—its promise to deliver “jobs for all”—would have a limited shelf life for Americans as they gained greater distance from Depression life. In order to “make revolutionaries out of people who were used to easy living,” a “shift in nomenclature” was needed.[26] If, Burke mused in an unsent letter to Malcolm Cowley, the word “leisure” replaced the word “unemployment,” American Marxists would be forced to admit that the abolishment of class required a signifying turn, or, as he would write in The Philosophy of Literary Form, the cultivation of a “strenuous cult of style.”[27]

    While the hortatory quality of Burke’s understanding of poetic meaning-making stayed with Wright, informing the most significant of Wright’s major revisions of the first draft of Native Son, other aspects of Burke’s theoretical musings did not. Although Burke’s intentionally incongruous approach to both Marx’s thought and Communist practice makes concision difficult, there exists a thetic moment in Permanence and Change that communicates at once the ideological constraints of Burke’s appropriation of Marxist thought and also the limits of his influence on Wright. In what initiates the complete reversal of his premise—that Marx’s thought demonstrates a poetic quality ignored by doctrinaire interpretations—Burke suggests that the “highly humanistic or poetic nature” of communism is concealed due to a conceptual and symbolic rigidity in Marx’s thought.[28] According to Burke, the “homogeneity” of Marx’s “emphasis on one unifying ideology” can only be corrected by “exorcising” from the Marxist repertoire not only its many “misnomers,” with which Wright would have agreed, but its “signifying logic” as well.[29]

    In a lengthy passage, one of many cut from the first (1935) edition of Permanence and Change, Burke further explains the limits of his Marxist affiliation. In brief, Burke suggests that although communism, “by whatever name it may finally prevail,” constitutes “the only coherent and organized movement” in existence, “a philosophical corrective to its technological rationalization” was needed. Replacement of the term “Communism” was first on Burke’s list of revisions. Burke mistrusted the term’s echoes of the word “communicant,” which he identified as “the key term about which the entire religious rationalization of the West was constructed.”[30] Burke insisted that unless Marxists wished to abandon their aims to build a “new rationalization” unfettered by oppressive precepts (Burke suggested that communism also invoked the language of “competition”), the word “cooperative” must overtake communism as the key term around which Marxist/communistic activity was organized.[31]

    While both the sentiment and its rhetorical packaging are unsurprising—Burke was not shy about his desire to “convert [Communism] to [his] own vocabulary,” expressing this publicly in “My Approach to Communism,” published in the March 19, 1934, issue of the New Masses and privately in various letters to Malcolm Cowley throughout the 1930s—his efforts to translate Communism’s “pivotal terms” amounted to a critique of Marx rather than a critique of contemporary Communist interpretations of Marx.[32] According to Burke, Communism, as a political ethic, was being held back by a terminological allegiance to Marx:

    I am not a joiner of societies. I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own vocabulary. I am, in the deepest sense, a translator. I go on translating even if I must but translate English into English. My book [Permanence and Change] will have the Communist objectives, and the Communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me.[33]

    Burke writes of the “Marxian method” and “Communist doctrine” as if they were exchangeable terms. In the same letter to Cowley, Burke admits that his endorsement of Communism required a complete overhaul of the “Marxian method,” a process he refers to as his “personal manipulation of Marxian doctrine.”[34]

    What began as a traditional, even conservative form of study due to its principally affirmative relationship between writer (Burke) and reader (Wright) had by the monograph’s end shifted to criticism. Wright had expected a poetic rendering of Marx outside CPUSA constraints and received its opposite, a poetic translation of Communist terminology supported by a displaced rhetorical critique of Marx’s conceptual rigidity. As a generous but discerning reader, Wright did not discount Burke entirely but appropriated what he knew to be useful, the idea of a poetic Marx, in order to return to a stalled process of revision. Ironically, Burke’s theoretical imprecision, his conflation of “Marxian logic” with “Communist doctrine,” brought Wright out of what had seemed an impassable quandary.

    Wright’s Poetic Revision of Native Son

    Wright’s revised approach to Marx’s thought, shaped by his reading of Permanence and Change, appears in the developmental notes for his first completed draft of Native Son.[35] In a direct challenge to Burke’s deployment of the term, Wright uses “poetic” as a metonym for a form of Marxist overwriting or revision that exceeds simple conversion or replacement. Going beyond individual metaphors and symbols, as is the case for a poetics based on either word or image-specific substitution (such as Burke’s), Wright, under the heading “POETIC MOTIFS TO BE WOVEN INTO FINAL SCENE,” composed a list of seven principles to follow in his revision of the novel’s end:


    I. A sense of others striving to wrench the world away from a few and remold it to a truer shape of desire.

    II. A sense of that world in concrete form, buildings, earth, sunshine, snow still unmelted upon roofs.

    III. A [sic] up and surge of self-confidence, “What I killed for I am.”

    IV. The realization that he is tried wrongly.

    V. Realize in flow of time the nearing goal of death, making him more feverish and feeling more what is in him to be emptied.

    VI. A storm of passion of remorse and regret—then a quiet curiosity about what is to come—and a pride enough to walk to death.

    VII. Most important of all poetic motifs is that of life being a deep, exciting and enthralling adventure; that is the note on which the book should end to carry over the premise and feeling of something which must happen in the future.


    At once diagnostic and proleptic, the above criteria, embedded in nearly one thousand pages of a heavily worked-over draft, served as a guide for Wright’s revision. Although he had already submitted his manuscript to trusted readers as all but done, Wright’s heavy annotations reveal a persistent anxiety about the novel’s reception. He had learned from the lachrymose response to Uncle Tom’s Children that to write a novel for which tears could be no consolation, he would have to create less sympathetic characters and pay greater attention to form. With Native Son, he set out to do both, focusing less on the novel’s plotline, for which he appropriated stories from the Chicago Tribune, and more on narrative structure and depth of character. In “How Bigger Was Born” (1941), Wright’s retrospective on the process of writing Native Son, he explains his reason for relying so heavily on local news stories:

    Life had made the plot over and over again, to the extent that I knew it by heart. So frequently do these acts recur that when I was halfway through the first draft of Native Son a case paralleling Bigger’s flared forth in the newspapers of Chicago. Many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and rewrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune.[37]

    It was not for lack of imagination that Wright relied on news stories for the plot of Native Son. He believed that a quotidian plot would force readers to focus their attention elsewhere; the dramatic action that he hoped to relay was located not in the novel’s basic plotline constituted by Bigger’s murder of Mary and his subsequent trial but instead in the governing structures that made such a story so known, so acceptable, and so inevitable. It was this latter quality of inevitability that Wright hoped would shock the reader out of political submission.

    Wright’s apprehension was especially concentrated around the novel’s final scene, which had “Bigger going smack to the electric chair.”[38] Wright’s concern lay with the finality of this act, which he feared too closely resembled the narrative logic of Uncle Tom’s Children.[39] Unable to reconcile the scene’s regressive qualities—particularly its emphasis on immediate (and symbolic) corporeal violence—with his burgeoning aesthetic and political vision, Wright cut the ending entirely. Rather than depicting Bigger’s death, which would reinforce a reading of Native Son as yet another story of racial oppression focused on the retributive aspects of the “catastrophically damaged” American justice system, Wright began a process of revision designed to confront the methods through which political and ethical judgments are made.[40]

    Although his marginalia indicate that he was under immense pressure to complete the novel, Wright refashioned the final scene as a conversation between Max and Bigger. Far more than a superficial endorsement of a more democratic ethos, Wright redeveloped the form of the novel’s end to reflect the structural nuance of his own position between the Marxism endorsed by the Party and his own understanding of the emancipatory potential of Marx’s thought. No longer convinced of the inevitability of deliverance by a communistic social order, Wright denied his readership the emotional and psychological relief of a fully drawn conclusion. The satisfaction of a positive political message, whether it was mandated by the Communist Party (Max) or articulated by a lumpen figure (Bigger), directly contradicted Wright’s burgeoning understanding of the utopian quality of historical materialism. As with Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch, for whom there could be no “positive conception or vision of utopia,” Wright identified the utopian as a prospective cognitive and material condition that evades fixed signification.[41]

    Toward this end, Wright strove to create a narrative structure that would formally reinforce the irreducibility of the novel’s political content. Therefore, the bottom line was characterization. Knowing that the tendency to interpret a single character as an isolated political symbol was something of a cultural compulsion, Wright fashioned Bigger as a figure of radical disidentification. Neither the proletarian rebel of traditional 1930s protest fiction (including his own) nor a reprisal of the culturally deft drifter (emblematic is Claude McKay’s Lincoln Agrippa Daily in Banjo, 1929), Bigger is a figure undefined by either work or play. Although the consequences of race and class oppression have marked his life, his precarious status within rather than outside his political and cultural milieu have kept him impervious to traditional Marxist revolutionary appeals.

    Dramatized subtly throughout the novel, Wright reinforces Bigger’s recalcitrance to the period’s supreme form of organized Marxism—the CPUSA—in the novel’s final, revised scene. In an appeal designed to reveal Bigger’s suppressed political consciousness—a space where one might expect his humanity to dwell—the unsubtly named Boris Max uses Bigger’s death sentence to advance a polemic on the inextricability of race and class:

    Bigger, the people who hate you feel just as you feel, only they’re on the other side of the fence. You’re black, but that’s only a part of it. Your being black, as I told you before, makes it easy for them to single you out. . . . They rule and regulate life. They have things arranged so that they can do those things and the people can’t fight back. They do that to black people more than others because they say that black people are inferior. But, Bigger, they say that all people who work are inferior. And the rich people don’t want to change things; they’ll lose too much. But deep down in them they feel like you feel, Bigger, and in order to keep what they’ve got, they make themselves believe that men who work are not quite human. They do like you did, Bigger, when you refused to feel sorry for Mary. But on both sides men want to live; men are fighting for life. Who will win? Well the side that feels life most, the side with the most humanity and the most men.[42]

    However sobering and emotionally potent to readers, Max’s rather paternalistic explanation—he goes so far as to call Bigger “son”—inspires laughter in Bigger. Further convinced of his righteousness, Bigger, who had been silenced by Max’s authoritative presence, finally gains the confidence to speak. Bigger’s initial acceptance of his subordinate status, supported by his “trust” that “the sound of his voice rather than the sense of his words [would] carry his meaning” to Max’s empathetic ear, is reversed by Max’s speech.[43] Breaking his silence by shouting “I’m glad I got to know you before I go,” Bigger, who had felt the shock of Max’s depersonalized speech as he would a slap, proceeds to explain to Max the limits of his—and by extension the CPUSA Marxism’s—revolutionary approach.[44]

    Wright uses Bigger’s silence to reaffirm the structural inequity between Max and Bigger. In doing so, Wright illuminates a major problem in Communist dissemination of Marx’s thought: Party regulation of Marxist interpretation. Wright dramatizes the CPUSA’s comparative neglect of cognitive development by emphasizing Bigger’s automatic recourse to black nationalist appeals. A warning rather than an endorsement, Wright’s intermittent return to black nationalist rhetoric through Bigger calls forth Marcus Garvey’s imagined community of black nationalists, “The Bigger Brotherhood.” When Max first enters Bigger’s cell, Bigger feels too intimidated to speak. Though Bigger had much to communicate, he is repeatedly silenced by Max’s presence, who leaves him without language; we are repeatedly told that he “could not speak” and “sighed” rather than spoke “an answer.”[45] Through the exchange between Max and Bigger and the structural reversal between the two—first it is Bigger but ultimately it is Max who is without language and understanding—Wright reveals the limitations of CPUSA unity with African Americans and their struggle for liberation.

    Wright’s focus on the limitations of the historically revolutionary relationship forged between the Communist Party and disenfranchised African Americans does not eliminate the radical import of Communist-fostered Marxism altogether. Bigger owes the emergence of his structural awareness of social and political destitution to Max, whose preliminary interview with Bigger was the first meaningful interpersonal connection of his life. Bigger reminds Max of this during their final meeting: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man.”[46] Bigger’s reference back to their first meeting resuscitates—in what could otherwise prove a singularly damning critical moment—the revolutionary foundation of African American and CPUSA relations. Max’s broader indictment of capitalism as a system that thrives on the compulsory dehumanization of the laboring classes appeals to Bigger, whose insight into capitalist machinery, communicated by his grim utterance “all I know is that they hate me,” is expanded by Max’s sociological unmasking of class oppression.[47]

    Significantly, it is the question of form rather than the particular content of Max’s conversation that Bigger identifies as emancipatory. While Max’s questions inspired Bigger “to think,” the fruits of Bigger’s cognitive labor shocked and even disappointed his lawyer, who, as it turns out, finds himself in the position of identifying and even empathizing with the slain Mary Dalton. Horrified by the extent of Bigger’s disgust with Mary’s touristic interest in the “the way Negroes live,” Max attempts to overcorrect Bigger, refusing him the rhetorical space to disagree.[48] Despite his rhetorical savvy, Max’s attempt to frame Mary’s queries as “kindnesses” falls flat, as Bigger refuses to interpret Mary’s condescension as a humane gesture. Able to sense the hypocrisy of Max’s qualification that Mary “was acting toward [him] only as she knew how,” Bigger confronts Max with his regressive logic. In a direct challenge to Max’s interpretation of Mary’s social transgression, Bigger reminds Max that he too was “acting toward her,” a rich white woman, “only as he knew how.”[49] With only his “feelings as a guide,” Bigger recognizes that his vulnerability in the culturally overdetermined situation is ignored. Max’s revolutionary fervor is tempered by his liberal generosity to Bigger’s oppressor.[50] At this point in the conversation (and in the novel), we are meant to see that Bigger rather than Boris Max possesses the more sophisticated structural critique.

    What begins as a straightforward juxtaposition of Bigger’s revolutionary rawness with Max’s political sophistication quickly becomes a staged confrontation between Bigger’s extralinguistic understanding of structural oppression and Max’s command of basic Marxist concepts mediated by the interpretive constraints of his association with the CPUSA. Yet rather than privilege Bigger’s undisciplined political unconscious over Max’s doctrinaire pedantry, Wright uses the conflict to demonstrate the limits of each. Bigger’s insights may be used to emphasize Max’s comparative naïveté, but Wright is far from offering Bigger as a Marxist exemplar. While Wright describes Bigger, in “How Bigger Was Born,” as a “meaningful and prophetic symbol,” his subsequent description makes his intent very clear.[51] Wright identifies Bigger as an unequivocally destructive harbinger of the future, a figure amenable to Nazi logic:

    When the Nazis spoke of the necessity of a highly ritualized and symbolized life, I could hear Bigger Thomas on Chicago’s South Side saying: “Man, what we need is a leader like Marcus Garvey. We need a nation, a flag, an army of our own. We colored folks ought to organize into groups and have generals, captains, lieutenants, and so forth. We ought to take Africa and have a national home.”[52]

    Wright’s confirmation of Bigger as a figure psychologically attracted to fascist rather than communist leadership serves as a warning to Marxist pedagogues, specifically those within the Party, to rethink not only their recruitment practices but their own approach to Marx’s thought. The inclusion of this latter critique is essential to understanding the full importance of Wright’s appraisal of contemporary Marxism. The novel was more than a “cynical reduction of the party” conveyed through the mouthpieces of the novel’s Communist characters, as it was so often characterized.[53] Instead, Native Son‘s defiance of narrative and ethical expectations dramatizes Wright’s personal struggle with existing models of Marxist thought.


    1. Annie Brierre, "R. Wright: America Is Not Conformist: It Renews Itself Endlessly," translated by Michel Fabre, in Conversations with Richard Wright, edited by Michel Fabre and Keneth Kinnamon (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993), 210.return to text

    2. Brierre, "R. Wright," 210. To this list, Wright occasionally included Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Henry James. On even fewer occasions, Wright included Gertrude Stein and Meridel Le Sueur.return to text

    3. Ibid.return to text

    4. Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?," in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, edited by Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 131.return to text

    5. The majority of studies of the US Literary Left, especially the Marxist Left, employ the usage of procommunist representation to determine a literary work's engagement with Marxism. It is generally not enough that a work of art include some aspect of the necessity for the destruction and restructuring of the economic system.return to text

    6. Foucault, "What Is an Author?," 131.return to text

    7. Ibid.return to text

    8. Ibid., 118.return to text

    9. Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach," in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 10–11.return to text

    10. Foucault, "What Is an Author?," 118.return to text

    11. Etienne Balibar, "Foucault and Marx: The Question of Nominalism," in Michel Foucault, Philosopher, translated and edited by Timothy J. Armstrong (New York: Routledge, 1993), 39, 55–56.return to text

    12. Foucault, "What Is an Author?," 131.return to text

    13. My language here (until paragraph's end) is strongly influenced by Christopher Nealon's theorization of the "poetic case" in his article of the same name. The language supporting my argument is taken directly from the following sentence: "Poetry is not 'the name for a kind of thing made by poets—either literal writers of poems or artists generally' but a name for an aesthetic that pushes its reader to 'think' about aesthetic experience as marking a kind of human capacity, whether or not it produces traditionally aesthetic objects." Christopher Nealon, "The Poetic Case," Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007): 868.return to text

    14. Ibid.return to text

    15. Eugene Miller has also developed a theory of Wright's poetics based on Burke. In doing so, Miller has eliminated any trace of Marx's thought from both Burke's concept of poetics and Wright's appropriation. Thus, Miller has not only depoliticized but de-historicized the work (and processes) of both. Eugene Miller, Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010).return to text

    16. Michel Fabre's annotated listing of Wright's library in Richard Wright: Books and Writers does not include any titles by members of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, nor do his notes include indexical reference to Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovksy, Yury Tynyanov, or affiliated members Vladimir Propp and Roman Jakobson. Michel Fabre, Richard Wright: Books and Writers (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2008).return to text

    17. Wright discusses the relationship between sentimental reviews of Uncle Tom's Children and the production of Native Son in "How Bigger Was Born": "The second event that spurred me to write of Bigger was more personal and subtle. I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest." Richard Wright, "How Bigger Was Born." Saturday Review. June 1940, 16.return to text

    18. Mike Gold, "Towards Proletarian Art," in Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, edited by Michael Folsom (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 62.return to text

    19. Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 21.return to text

    20. While the extent of such suspicion and regulation remains contentious among Left scholars, there is an increasing amount of empirical evidence to support the fact that anxiety among nonorthodox black Marxists was prevalent as early the mid-1930s. For a recent example, see Lawrence Jackson, The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). Jackson credits Marian Minus for providing "one of the earliest pieces of evidence" that "gets at" the theoretical complications for African Americans whose commitment to Marxism was compromised by various CPUSA mandates (60). In 1936, Minus declared with aplomb the ideological limitations of the Communist Party as the default organization for black Marxist expression. In fact, we learn from Jackson that it was Minus who first identified—and defended—Wright's preference for noncommunist forms of Marxist expression. Jackson quotes from a letter between Minus and Dorothy West:

    Someone just rushed to tell me that Dick Wright is a Trotskyite. If only you could have seen the horror in her face! I must talk to Dick because I think he's going through the same thing which I am just recovering from. The Party is, of course, embittered because Dick was the Communist front in literature so far as Negroes are concerned. Now he will always have a message because he has always been proletarian. But thank heaven he won't be forced to type out shibboleths just because he is a Communist. They should have seen long ago that he was beyond that stage and was crying to be allowed to let his mature work be born. (60)

    21. For a visual image of this spatial juxtaposition, see "The New Masses, October 5, 1937 Issue PDF,", to text

    22. Anthony Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism, and Interwar African American Literature: A New Pandora's Box (Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 8.return to text

    23. Richard Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," New Challenge (1937), 11.return to text

    24. It is unknown how widely, or if at all, "Writing from the Left" was circulated. This excerpt is taken from Michel Fabre's annotation of the essay in Richard Wright: Books and Writers (19–20), but it is neither dated nor otherwise annotated.return to text

    25. Kenneth Burke, "Semantic and Poetic Meaning," in Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 127.return to text

    26. Ann George and Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in the 1930s (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 85.return to text

    27. Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 161.return to text

    28. Ibid., 93.return to text

    29. Ibid., 93, 134.return to text

    30. Ibid., 93.return to text

    31. Ibid.return to text

    32. See Paul Jay, ed., The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1981, 3rd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1988), 22–23.return to text

    33. Letter from Burke to Malcolm Cowley (June 4, 1932), in Jay, The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 202.return to text

    34. See Stacey Sheriff, "Resituating Kenneth Burke's 'My Approach to Communism,'" Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 23, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 281–96.return to text

    35. See Keneth Kinnamon, ed., New Essays on Native Son (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 10.return to text

    36. Ibid.return to text

    37. Wright, "How Bigger Was Born," 16.return to text

    38. Ibid.return to text

    39. This is particularly true of "Big Boy Leaves Home" and "Bright and Morning Star." Both stories end with the torture and death of black youths.return to text

    40. The phrase "catastrophically damaged" comes from Jonathan Elmer, "Spectacle and Event in Native Son," American Literature 70 (December 1998): 772.return to text

    41. Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 198.return to text

    42. Ibid., 421.return to text

    43. Ibid., 422.return to text

    44. Ibid., 416.return to text

    45. Ibid., 421.return to text

    46. Ibid., 424.return to text

    47. Ibid., 322 (my emphasis).return to text

    48. Ibid., 350. See the following sentence for an example of the coercive structure of Max's appeal: "But Bigger, you don't hate people for that. She was being kind to you."return to text

    49. Ibid. (my emphasis)return to text

    50. Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism, and Interwar African American Literature, 8.return to text

    51. Wright. "How Bigger Was Born," 441.return to text

    52. Ibid., 445.return to text

    53. Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1949 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 209.return to text