Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1940, Richard Wright's Native Son quickly soared to the top of best-seller lists and established Wright as the most successful black writer of his time.

In Native Son, Wright attempted to show the inevitable results of a society that systematically oppresses black people from the day they are born. The critic Irving Howe put it best:

The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever....Richard Wright's novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.

Native Son was ranked 20 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, and it has earned a well-deserved place on Time magazine's list of the best 100 novels since 1923. Native Son helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement and is without a doubt one of the most influential American novels of the 20th century.

1. Richard Wright borrowed the book's title, Native Son, from a friend.

Native Son was the original title of author Nelson Algren's novel Somebody in Boots. Richard Wright and Nelson Algren were good friends and colleagues, and Algren agreed to let Wright use his idea. Algren had borrowed the phrase native son from a popular ballad satirizing a presidential candidate.

2. Native Son was influenced by real-life legal cases.

The Scottsboro Boys case (the trial of nine black boys falsely accused of raping two white girls in 1931) and the prosecution of Leopold and Loeb (two young men who murdered a boy in 1824) all provided fodder for Richard Wright. Wright reportedly referenced Clarence Darrow's Pleas in Defense of Loeb and Leopold when he wrote the trial scene in Native Son. The Scottsboro Boys case also provided Harper Lee with inspiration for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

3. Native Son was an instant best seller.

It was the first best-selling novel by an African American writer, selling an incredible 215,000 copies in the first three weeks after it was published.

4. Native Son established Wright as the most respected black writer of his time.

It also made him the wealthiest black writer in America. In 1941 Wright became the recipient of the Spingarn Medal awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

5. The book was heavily criticized by writer James Baldwin.

In his Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin, an African American author and one of Wright's contemporaries, famously criticized Native Son, comparing it to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. He considered both works to be thinly disguised political propaganda and wrote that they are "both badly written and wildly improbable."

6. Native Son has been frequently banned and challenged in schools.

Even a half century after its release, Native Son appeared on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, coming in at number 71 in the 1990s. The book's detractors complained of it being sexually graphic and overly violent. It has been challenged or banned in at least eight states.

7. Richard Wright was a member of the Communist Party.

Although he later denounced the party, he was a member of the Communist Party—which, among other things, organized unions for African Americans. Some critics have noted sections of the book that appear to have been influenced by Wright's communist beliefs.

8. Orson Welles directed the stage version of Native Son in 1941.

Richard Wright—in collaboration with playwright Paul Green—adapted his best-selling novel for the stage. It was directed by Orson Welles, the writer and director best known for Citizen Kane and The War of the Worlds. The New York Times review of the play's opening night was mostly positive, concluding that "Native Son is drama and theatre with mind and style of its own."

9. Richard Wright played Bigger Thomas in the film adaptation.

Despite being twice the age of his novel's protagonist, Wright himself played Bigger Thomas in a 1951 Argentine film adaptation of Native Son. The New York Times was less impressed with this adaptation, proclaiming Wright is "less of an actor than he is a novelist and playwright." They also called the movie's direction "pedestrian."

10. Native Son was mentioned in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Native Son was praised by the character Benny Russell in the "Far Beyond the Stars" episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The book is also mentioned in a flashback scene in the 1998 movie American History X, and it appears on a bookshelf in the 2011 movie The Help.

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