Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review of the Day: Black Boy (American Hunger)



Richard Wright is famous for his novel, Native Son, which is a classic of American realism, made it to the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and was the first Book of the Month Club title by an African-American author. His autobiography – at least part of it – is an acclaimed account of life in the Jim Crow South.

Only the first part of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, was published contemporaneously with his finishing it in 1945. The second part, American Hunger, was not published until 1977.

Understandably. The Black Boy section of his autobiography tells the story of Wright's childhood in the Deep South in the early part of the 1900s. Born on a plantation, abandoned by his father, and raised by a passel of relatives, his was as racist, poverty-stricken, and generally grim a childhood as could be imagined. But American Hunger, the second part of his autobiography is all about Wright’s life as a Communist. Not a sympathetic, leftist intellectual of the 1930s, but a full-fledged, card-carrying Party member and true believer. No wonder he could not get this part of his story published in the 1950s. It would have been scandalous.

Now, after the horrors of Stalin are known and the Soviet Union has disappeared, his story is historically notable, but borderline ludicrous. What is worse is that Wright does not delve into the ideas that made him a Communist, which might have been interesting. He provides only one glowing summary of his fervent belief that Communism was the only solution for mankind, that the world would be in awe of the success of this system based on self-sacrifice, and that Europe would be unable to stand up to the military might of the Soviet Union. He offered this as an introduction to his description of the “glory” of the Soviet-style show trial of one of his Comrades. The rest focuses on the in-fighting among Party members.

Wright's whole point seems to prove that he was the better Communist than the hacks running the Party.  He recounts the maneuverings among factions that led to his election as the Party Secretary of his division, detailed conversations with Party sub-officials questioning his loyalty, and his ultimate break with the Party – not over ideology, he insists, but tactics. All this is as tedious as listening to the office receptionist relate the details of her long-standing feud with the HR department.

The Black Boy section of Wright’s autobiography is a must-read. The American Hunger section belongs, like the bankrupt ideology that inspired it, in the dustbin of literary history.


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