Baldwin and Wright were connected in many ways, and the ambivalence of their connection adds an intriguing tension to the essay. Like Wright, Baldwin drew upon his own experiences to write about the crushing effects of racism and poverty on African American communities. Baldwin also dabbled in Communism, albeit more superficially than Wright, and amassed an FBI dossier more than 1400 pages long (Murphy). It was Wright, in fact, who saw the twenty-year-old Baldwin’s potential and recommended him for a $500 fellowship. By the time Baldwin wrote “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in 1949, both men were living in France. The essay was first published in the literary journal Zero—directly after a short story by Wright (Field 15). It reached a wider audience when it was republished in the liberal, anti-communist magazine Partisan Review. Baldwin’s second essay on Native Son, “Many Thousands Gone,” was published two years later. While still critical of Wright, this later essay is more sympathetic to Wright’s aims, declaring that “no American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in the skull” (Baldwin 42). In 1955, when Baldwin titled his first collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, it was a testament to the hold Wright’s work still had on him.
Before we delve into Baldwin’s analysis, recall what Wright said about his ambitions for Native Son:
When the reviews of [my first] book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”)
In other words, Wright promised himself that he would not write a sentimental novel. Baldwin is arguing that Native Son is precisely that. Even if it does not elicit a paradigmatically sentimental response (“the consolation of tears”), it still produces gratuitous spectacles of suffering, reduces people to cartoonish figures of good and evil, and fails to acknowledge the interconnectedness of “the oppressed and the oppressor” (Baldwin 21).
Much of Baldwin’s understanding of sentimentalism comes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which we’ve mentioned a few times before. (If your memory is hazy, revisit the introductory section of Unit 3, or visit Stephen Railton’s webpage on the University of Virginia’s website for more background). Stowe’s anti-slavery novel from 1852 remained popular in the twentieth century among white and black readers alike (in fact, Wright’s first collection of short stories was called Uncle Tom’s Children). However, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” isn’t really about Stowe or the nineteenth century; it’s about what literature is or should be.
Baldwin’s argument is recognizably Realist and liberal in its commitment to real people and relationships over abstractions. It is also recognizably Modernist in its intuition that art should not merely represent the world but usher in a “journey toward a more vast reality” (15).
The religious allusions in the essay may be difficult to untangle, particularly for readers who are unfamiliar with Baldwin’s nineteenth-century sources. Since the Puritan era, the colour black has been associated with sin, and white with purity. Sentimental authors inserted black characters into a Christian redemption narrative. This left no room for black characters to be complex moral or sexual beings: one could be “black” (fearsome, a body without a soul) or “white” (angelic, dead). By this reading, Bigger can only be humanized by being portrayed as a Christ figure, dying for America’s sin.
- Literary context #1: In chapter 40 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the enslaved Uncle Tom forgives the black men who had been ordered to beat him to death; upon his death, they convert to Christianity.
- Literary context #2: Some African American writers associated lynching with the crucifixion of Jesus, as in Langston Hughes’s controversial poem “Christ in Alabama.”
Is what Baldwin says about protest novels in general true about Native Son in particular? The answer is probably not a simple yes or no. For instance, consider the following passage from the essay:
In overlooking, denying, evading his [i.e., any character’s] complexity—which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves—we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. (Baldwin 15)
Is not Native Son staging the same argument? Recall the way Max recoils from Bigger when Bigger says, “What I killed for, I am!” Here Max is turning away from (in Baldwin’s words) the “complexity” and “darkness” in Bigger as an individual, even though he purported to understand Bigger as a representative of a social phenomenon (Afflerbach). While you might resist the insinuation that what Bigger needs most to be “freed” from is himself (such things are easier when one is not in a rat-infested apartment), Bigger does glimpse that freedom, however briefly.