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  • The Art of the Incredibly Serious:Native Son as Künstlerroman, Native Son as Fiction
  • Michael Jay Lewis

“You see, granny, everybody knows that the story isn’t true, but…”

“Then why write it?” she asked.

“Because people might want to read it.”

“That’s the Devil’s work,” she said and left.

My mother also was worried.

“Son, you ought to be more serious,” she said. “You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?”

—Richard Wright, Black Boy (198)

An Artist’s Story of a Fictional Artist

In “Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son,” Heather Duerre Humann suggests that “Native Son resists easy generic classification,” possessing attributes of several forms but satisfying the conventions of none (143). “Native Son,” Humann writes, “is a bildungsroman without any of the traditional outcomes,” “a protest novel with a not wholly sympathetic protagonist,” and “a crime novel/courtroom drama where justice does not prevail” (144). Proceeding from Humann’s premise, at least initially accepting that the power of Native Son’s “commentary and…critique” reflects the “unfinishable” identity of its protagonist (154), I want to frame Native Son as a specific kind of Künstlerroman, one that tells the story of a creator of fictions and implies the artistic maturation involved in all Bildungsromane. Taken as such a Künstlerroman, Wright’s novel concerns not only the burgeoning of art and the [End Page 234] conditions that permit such development but also the conditions that encourage fictional thinking. While the incomplete Bildungsroman is a common topic in the study of circum-Atlantic African-American arts, and while much has been written regarding the African-American Künstlerroman, studies rarely consider Native Son as the narrative of a would-be artist, much less the story of a developing artist of fictions. This is, in part, what the following paper considers.

Yet this paper means to do more than attach a preexisting lens on a well-known text in order to mine for new, perhaps idiosyncratic, interpretations; instead, it means to analyze Native Son as a specific kind of Künstlerroman, one concerned with how the art of producing specifically fictional narratives informs the relationship between personal creativity and social participation. In this setting, Bigger Thomas represents the would-be artist whose arrested development demonstrates the collaborating social impact of personal privacy, self-obliteration, and the creation of fictional narratives or fields, a trio of experiences the reader-as-author simulates via his or her configuration of Bigger as a fictional character.

While much criticism implies that the society of Native Son fears Bigger as criminal more than Bigger as creator, far less attends to ways in which the social order recognizes the importance of—and thus orchestrates the repression of—his right not to be. In depriving him of private space and personal time, or even in its promise of execution, the society of the novel aims not to obliterate, erase, or use him, but rather to control the narrative of his not being, what we might call his fictional symbolism. It is thus not death alone but his specific role in a narrative of death that Bigger maligns when he remarks that “they kill you before you die” and that “[he] got to die” (351). Bigger’s social conditions therefore stall his development not by delimiting his ability to enact his specific, socially constructed identity, even unto death, but by denying him the opportunity to ignore, obliterate, and thereby transcend that identity—by denying him the right to determine the significance of such an intellectual, if not actual, suicide.

Initially, the analysis above may seem to recapitulate familiar arguments regarding the unique development of the African-American Künstlerroman, if not the African-American novel as its own genre. Indeed, these arguments have points in common, especially insofar as prior treatments could be read as metaphorically treating Bigger as a kind of suicidal artist, a figure whose capacity for self-expression is indomitable...


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pp. 234-258
Launched on MUSE
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