This article contains spoilers for Native Son.
Selling more than 215,000 copies in the three weeks following its American debut, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, successfully captivated readers nationwide. The story of Bigger Thomas—a hardened, murderous black 20-year-old confronting poverty in Depression-era Chicago—thrust audiences into a complicated conversation about race and racism in America. The book garnered comparisons to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and earned Wright the title of America’s “best Negro writer.”
But James Baldwin, Wright’s then-25-year-old protegé, was not so generous in his estimation of Native Son. Although he first praised Wright’s novel, and celebrated the righteous indignation of the work as an “immense liberation and revelation,” his later concern with Bigger’s portrayal led him to excoriate his mentor in the 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In the critique, which later sprouted into the strategically named essay collection Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin admonishes his literary forefather for what he described as Native Son’s grating, dimensionless depiction of black life in America. For Baldwin, Bigger’s acts of rape and murder perpetuated dangerous stereotypes at a time when black men were lynched for less, and served only to “whet the notorious national taste for the sensational.” He argued that with lines like “[Bigger’s] [murder] seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this,” Wright had created a character who was too grotesque to be a representative portrayal of black people.