Native Son by Richard Wright

For today, I read Native Son by Richard Wright. I think this is one that is part of some high school curriculums and possibly college, but I never ran into it as more than just knowing it was a book, that it was about a black man in the 1930s and that it was by Richard Wright. So, when I saw a deal for it for Kindle (1.99) I knew it would be my next book for the blog (contingent upon Dave not insisting he wanted to read it and us having to come to blows over the whole thing.)

Bebe Moore Campbell (which I’ve never noticed before has the same names as me, just reversed. No, I didn’t hyphenate, Campbell is now a middle name with the SSA office. Everyone asks) listed this in her top ten. Ken Kalfus did as well.

So, the main character of Native Son is Bigger Thomas. He’s a 20 year old man who is always seething in some way. He says at the beginning of the book that he feels something horrible is just waiting to happen to him. He runs around drinking, sleeping with a woman named Bessie and participating in petty thievery with her and a few of his friends. He lives in a tiny one room apartment with his brother, sister and mother. And for some reason, wordpress is putting a red underline now under everything I am typing as if I have done something wrong. It’s driving me nuts. Just a FYI.

His family has been receiving the “dole” (welfare in common terms) and have been told that Bigger must take a job that they find for him or they will remove the family from receiving it. Bigger doesn’t want a job. He doesn’t really know what he wants, he wants freedom, he wants a chance to explore the world, be a part of it. Not just be a part of a system designed to keep him down. But his mother convinces him to take a job offered to him.

A philanthropist millionaire needs a driver. His previous one has retired after ten years with the family. They paid for him to go to night school and encouraged him to get an education. Now, he wants to give another black kid the chance to do the same.

Bigger is intimidated by the way the family, which includes the millionaire, his wife and their 21 year old daughter treat him. The first time Mary, the daughter, meets him she gets in his face and wants to know if he’s in a labor union. That night, he is required as chauffeur to drive her to an event she is attending. However, the event doesn’t exist or if it did, Mary had no intention on going. She met up with Jan, a Communist and her boyfriend. She tells Bigger she wants to know what a Negro experiences, she wants to find out all about them, to see into their homes. Jan and Mary make Bigger take them to an all black restaurant on his side of town. They sit in the front with him, they make him eat at the same table as him. He is intensely uncomfortable with this. He resents them for it.

Later that night, while helping Mary into her room and into bed, he finds himself groping her. He later explains that he felt like white people expect all black men to want white women desperately. Then, her mother, who is blind comes into the room. In a panic, Bigger attempts to keep Mary quiet from her drunken mutterings, terrified her mother will find him. He kills her by accident.

The rest of the story is about what happens next.

I thought Native Son was compelling and beautiful in many places. I couldn’t tell how I felt about Bigger half the time. Some of the thoughts he has and some of his lack of feelings of guilt and remorse, and his feeling of freedom from having murdered makes me not like him. At other times though, my empathy for the struggle he was going through prior to the murder and then in the what happens next, made me like him a bit.

In a way, I don’t feel qualified to be writing an in depth analysis of Native Son. I feel like that’s akin to Mary sticking her face in Bigger’s and wanting to know all about the “Negro experience”.

I do think that the whites of this country delude ourselves into thinking racism doesn’t exist. I think it’s ridiculous how we do it. Yes, we no longer think black men can’t keep their hands off white women, we no longer lynch black men, we no longer refer to black people as “apes”, we no longer make them stop schooling at young ages. But, through my 30s I saw more and more evidence that racism is still alive and thriving in the United States. It’s in our general attitudes about welfare recipients, even in the face of statistics that show that just as many white people use benefits. Yet, politicians and people continue to bring up “welfare queens”. Which Reagan coined. Reagan also referred to “young bucks using welfare to buy themselves steaks”. On slave auction posters, young men were referred to as “young bucks”.Current politicians like to harp on single black mothers raising kids, and how they should really be coming from two parent households. It’s in white women drawing their purses closer to their bodies upon seeing a black man (this actually happened to fellow students of mine in Seward, NE). It’s in so many people refusing to believe that a black man could be President, he just has to be illegally so (no one said anything about Ted Cruz until Donald Trump challenged him, and he was not born in the United States, as Obama was. Bernie Sanders came from Polish immigrants to this country and no one has questioned his citizenship). It’s in the media calling a demonstration that is mostly peaceful, with just a few unruly members in Baltimore a riot. It’s in white people whining about reverse racism. A character in the book who is of the Communist party pegs it as fear. Which is true. I can speak to that as a white person and my observations, deep down whites exist in a state of guilt, shame and fear about what happens in this country. They react with anger. And I know some people will tell me “Nuh uh! I don’t. I just think Obama is a shit President, I believe that police have been in the right in every shooting they do. I think that as a white person I am always discriminated against.” You can feel that if you want, I won’t try to argue you out of it (so please, no need to comment on it, all inflammatory comments about the subject will be deleted and/or ignored). I can only speak from my own experiences and my own observations.

Richard Wright did a beautiful job drawing a reader into Bigger’s mind, into his soul. It brought me a little closer to understanding some things. But again, I feel in a way like Mary demanding to know more.

My one problem with the book is it is stated more than once in the book that Bigger had to stop school at the eighth grade. There’s no indication that he is an avid reader (though at the beginning of the book he is hungering to buy a magazine). Yet, he reads newspaper accounts of the murder and subsequent events with no problem at all. While it’s not completely out of the ordinary that he could read that well after 8th grade, it is a little odd for the most part.

Read this book. Stuff said in it still resonates and rings true today. And, it’s also important I think to really get a sense of what it was like in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s our history as a nation. Wright does an amazing job of bringing it to life.

Have a great weekend!

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Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part two Mr. Bridge

As I mentioned before, I was going to talk about Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell in two separate but sequential entries due to their odd connected yet disconnected relationship. Mrs. Bridge was last time. Now we get to Mr. Bridge.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Bridge is written similarly to Mrs. Bridge. It’s got the similar small sections, covers the similar events of the same upper middle class white family in Kansas City in the early part of the twentieth century, and all that. The difference is now we see it all from Walter’s, Mr. Bridge’s, view.

A copy of the will was in the safe-deposit box, and though he knew every word of it he sometimes read it through, searching for possible points of contention. The logic and clarity of the will were pleasing to him; the measured cadence of the sentences he had composed was reassuring, as though the measure of his mind must be respected when it was read aloud at some future date. Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and by the children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

Only once had he shown her the contents of the box. Then he had pointed out an envelope containing five one-hundred-dollar bills to be used in case of emergency, and had unfolded a few certificates and gone over them with her so they would seem familiar; but he had minimized the total worth of the documents in the box. Women tended to behave curiously where money was concerned. She was not extravagant, at least she had not been extravagant so far; if anything she was quite the opposite, worrying mildly about the cost of almost everything. Still, change was in the nature of women and no good could come from letting her know his exact worth.

It is interesting how different a perspective we get in this from two people who are still so closely related. It’s the same family, the same white respectability of the era of the World Wars, but minor differences can yield big shifts.

Mr. Bridge is somewhat of a role in Mrs. Bridge than a person. In Mr. Bridge he is a real person, one of a relentless provider. Any time his family is in need, he redoubles his efforts to provide for them…regardless of what they actually need. He clings to the only things he knows. Often what they need is him as a person, and his drive to provide for them in response makes things worse. He dramatically fails his family and the same time that he is a dramatic success in serving his family.

Mr. Bridge was too exasperated to go back to bed. He paced through the house examining the doors and windows again. He thought of how often he had told his son to make certain the house was locked. It had been a waste of time. He returned to the bedroom, reached under the mattress, and pulled out the pistol. He had planned to give it to Douglas on his twenty-first birthday, but now he decided not to. He shifted the gun from one hand to the other, weighing it in his palm and fondling the knurled grip and the icy barrel. Twice a year he cleaned and oiled the gun, and occasionally he lifted a corner of the mattress to see if it was where it belonged. There was always a chance Harriet would steal it. He did not like the fact she knew about the fun. If she did take it and sell it or give it to some Negro in the North End there could be a great deal of trouble. It could very well be used in a holdup. She had been warned never to touch it, and each time he looked he found the gun in the same place; yet he could not forget that when Douglas was a child she had shown it to him.

The clock in the hall struck three times. He was surprised. An hour had passed since he went down stairs. He shoved the gun into the holster and slid it beneath the mattress. He hung his robe in the closet, stepped out of his carpet slippers, and lay down in bed carefully so as not to disturb his wife.

Connell’s characterization is just as impressive in Mr. Bridge as in Mrs. Bridge. The tiny points that bring each of the characters so wonderfully to life are so carefully and sparingly placed. Although, I was already familiar with most of these characters from Mrs. Bridge, so Connell did not have to do as much for them. Frankly, I liked Mrs. Bridge better. I think there were a few points where Mr. Bridge himself seemed a little off in his reactions to things. Mrs. Bridge never did that.

Bottom line? One probably should read Mr. Bridge if one is going to read Mrs. Bridge. However, the latter is more moving than the former…at least for me.

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.

 

Anton Chekhov & His Short Stories

For today, I read some of Anton Chekhov’s short stories. Now, when Dave and I run across “short stories by…” in Top Ten, it creates a bit of a problem. It never gives a definitive list of which ones. And, by that I mean that often there are multiple editions out, ones that have 15 of the author’s stories, ones that have every word that ever dripped out of the author in them, ones that only have 30, et cetera.

For me, I tend to just pick the book that I feel would be the most representative, sometimes all of them, sometimes less. Sometimes it’s about what book of them I can find and about how the book itself looks (if it has microscopic print, I will go for the one with bigger print because, well it’s more pleasant to read that way).

This collection had approximately 30 of Chekhov’s stories in it.  He has more. But, I always figure that reading even 20 or 30 of a prolific author’s short stories gives you a fairly decent idea of the author’s work.

Chekhov had quite a few fans in Top Ten. The following authors all listed him: Stanley Crawford, Mary Gaitskill, Allan Gurganus, Kent Haruf, Elizabeth Hay, Ha Jin, Valerie Martin, David Means, Susan Minot, David Mitchell, Stewart O’Nan, Roxana Robinson, Arthur Phillips, Francine Prose, George Saunders, Jim Shepard.

If you like short stories and have yet to read Chekhov, go and read him. His short stories are…simple. But, I say simple and realize it seems like I’m calling them stupid. This is not stupidity. His stories don’t have a lot of adornment. There’s no shiny thing yelling “LOOK OVER HERE WHILE THE MAN IN THE HAT DOES SOMETHING OVER THERE” in order to deliver a twist at the end. There’s no pages and pages of description that doesn’t fit into the story. He’s not as spare as Hemingway, but there’s no part of one of his stories that I read that I felt didn’t need to be there.

Chekhov writes what I call “slice of life” pieces. His characters run the gamut from a young woman who finds her living spaces by serving students until they tire of her to a professor at a college near the end of his life. There’s no pretentious morality about his pieces either. He’s not afraid to say that a character had a child out of wedlock or to have one of his characters detail his infidelity with a neighbor’s wife. But he is discreet. There is no singular tone to his stories either. There’s a similar flavor to all of them, but they didn’t run together at all when I was reading them. And, that’s even more amazing since I was reading on my Kindle and my brain doesn’t always process “classics” as well on Kindle as in print.

Please read Chekhov’s stories.

Dave will be with you for the next two weeks, not because I need him to fill in at the last minute (for once!) but because he is reading a two book series (I think it’s 2 books). See everyone in 3 weeks!