- Subjectivity in the American Protest Novel
For readers of protest novels, there is a basic tension between admiring a sharp political critique and hoping to find within that critique some rich, complex characters that are more than simple embodiments of social problems. James Baldwin, in his disdain for the protest novel, famously attributed the genre's failure to its focus on insurmountable social categories at the expense of creating psychologically complicated characters. In order to move past the false choice between activism and craft, Kimberly S. Drake's Subjectivity in the American Protest Novel points out that many important works [End Page 403] of protest fiction employ psychologically complex characters whose efforts at self-definition constitute political acts. The authors whom she considers responded not only to social problems but also to the determinist ideas established by naturalist fiction, all of which tied characters to their circumstances and precluded the subjectivity that Drake locates in this generation of protest fiction. Her book rereads important protest novels from the twentieth century and makes the persuasive argument that the fictional characters themselves struggle against the categories into which society and some readers have placed them.
Drake's book makes a significant contribution to the study of the protest novel by redirecting our attention to the psychological landscape on which her chosen authors have staged their social and political critiques. Her rationale for making the personal political comes from Du Bois's idea of double consciousness, which Drake positions as an important foundation of the American protest novel. This allows her to bridge the worlds of public activism and individual subjecthood, thereby making clear that the seemingly small concerns of the fictional characters she examines have much larger implications for American society. By demonstrating the way in which Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Tillie Olsen, Sarah E. Wright, and Chester Himes assert their characters' subjecthood against otherwise repressive environments, Drake presents a new definition of protest, one that is rooted in the internal struggles of characters.
After surveying and reframing the history of the American protest novel, Drake's study moves on to examine the work of Richard Wright. In addition to dealing with Native Son, this chapter also considers Wright's early fiction, including the novels Rite of Passage and Lawd Today! Throughout her examination of these early works, Drake traces the psychological similarities among Wright's characters and argues that these works collectively represent Wright's theory of racial trauma. In particular, the analysis focuses on the metaphor of rape and the way in which Wright responds to the determinism of Jim Crow society, which has categorized black men as always already rapists and black women as inherently "unrapeable" (55). As Drake's careful textual analysis proves, the characters in Wright's fiction have internalized such external categories. Therefore the extent to which Bigger Thompson and others can assert their own interior definitions of themselves is itself the fundamental act of protest against the forces of social determinism. What is especially valuable about this chapter is its consistent focus on the reader's experience. While some protest novels, most notably Uncle Tom's Cabin, aim to inspire the reader's pity, "Wright's goal is to prevent this reaction by traumatizing the reader" (57). This point reinforces Drake's claim that in Native Son the metaphor of rape is both an act of protest [End Page 404] and a narrative strategy, but it also offers an important part of this book's critical achievement—a theory of how the protest novel works to change the reader's perception of social problems. Drake argues that whereas some of Wright's earlier fiction, such as Lawd Today!, occasionally disengaged from the protagonist's point of view, thereby providing "safety valves" for the reader (58), Wright removes these safety valves in Native Son, "forcing the reader to identify continuously with a character who is neither a victim to be pitied (by white readers) nor a hero to be admired (by black readers)" (58-59). It is this tactic—what Drake calls Wright's "act...