Edgar Allan Poe is arguably the master of macabre fiction but a pretty reasonable counterargument is that for however well-crafted and atmospheric his stories can be they are written too baroquely and archly to truly capture the horror of the criminal in his mental and physical environs, a great deal of that horror coming from relative mundanity and recognizable close-at-hand circumstantial capriciousness (i.e. the little evil thoughts going in and typically quashed out of the brain). Whereas Poe sends shivers down your spine as you read in some cozy parlour – spelled with an extra ‘u’ to reinforce that sense of refined distance – safe and warm and detached from absurdly grotesque madmen without motive or explanation and who are therefore fanciful beasts more than imminent threats, Richard Wright tenses you up, just the same way his nonhero (antivillain?) Bigger Thomas is constantly tensing, and probably evokes you yourself (whatever your race or stratum) at your weaker or more impulsive or less pretty, and probably also evokes today’s headlines and criminals and social issues, none of which seem to have changed very much over sixtysomething years including a civil rights movement and an African-American president.
It’s tempting to say as many did then and do now that Native Son indulges in the worst visions that people foster of black criminals or “delinquents,” since the main character is conniving, deceptive, calculating and unrestrained rather than remorseful, considerate or articulate about his motivations. Wright would later endure thorough international surveillance by the FBI and the CIA, and in one’s dark suspicions one could perceive the first half of the novel as the potential work of an agent himself interested in perpetuating an inflamed racial consciousness in the reading public. (People ridicule conspiracy theorizing like this no matter how frequently conspiracy is uncovered as the backbone with which lurches forward the national body of the US and other countries [which are not really separate entities but rather a collection of sorts of posh residences or tax havens for people of wealth and privilege and power with globally interchangeable policies and motivations] and despite the fact that so many of them are resigned in total nonengagement and jaded disaffection from politics and the rule of law. But such theories are worth considering if only because they heighten concern with how media and information can be exploited and serve to manipulate – one can speculatively entertain an idea without necessarily espousing it or vouching it against all other possible realities.) A young black man is invited by a liberal white couple – entrepreneurs and philanthropists – into their home to work as a chauffeur despite his known criminal record, given a chance to succeed. Not only this, white radicals (or at least aspiring radicals) reach out to him from the moment he enters their home: he is well-paid, well-fed and receives polite if not outright sympathetic treatment. Within hours of obtaining this job so ripe with opportunities for rising his station, however, he has murdered and gruesomely mutilated the family’s daughter. He enjoys the fact of his deed, blames it on a Communist who has been nothing but friendly to him, and then attempts to profit from it. He partners up in crime with his “girlfriend” for whom he seems to feel no passion or interest but lust and treats her awfully before raping and killing her too; this is foretold by his turning violently against his own friends. It’s all horrendous stuff – one can almost see it as required reading for the KKK.
The clever thing is that as enriching details gradually seep into the story in its second half, this sensationalistic nightmare fear-fantasy is reinterpreted in retrospect as the very perspective of the courthouse-engirding lynch mob awaiting the conclusion of Bigger’s trial, a perspective similar to Bigger’s own in that it cannot really look beyond its immediate needs and desires to understand whence they emerge. We have the tendency to severely limit the scope of our analysis of crime and all other problems to the immediate horror of the events, deeds and offenders themselves, rather than search for patterns and find more useful approaches to the issue that take into account systematic defects (or features) that go about producing the awful situations and people in question. It is only after Bigger is imprisoned, inevitably – as all characters in the story understand, and as most hope for – to be sentenced to death, that the reader is allowed to grasp a broader picture, because that is the first real opportunity given to Bigger to actually think about and express his feelings and his consciousness, and then only because he has the luck to be involved with sympathetic Communists and Jews who care to ask.
Similarly more complex than the typical whitewash given to such figures today, it comes to light that the victimized philanthropist so nobly employing the disadvantaged is actually a major real estate magnate in the city who happens to own the property where Bigger’s family lives, and knowingly rents to them and many other blacks at a price greatly inflated in contrast to white housing. It’s the free market, so his argument goes in his defense, there’s a limited supply – speciously omitting the detail that demand is so high as to raise the prices because blacks are unable to rent anywhere except a cordoned-off segment of the city. His philanthropy, besides, consists of things like ping-pong tables donated to recreation centers with the hope that table tennis will keep the poor from blighting the urban streets. And Bigger, as has been hinted at earlier, has none of the economic or social opportunities available to whites; he is left only with frustration at perpetually failing to attain the dreams furnished in the moviehouses and magazines he escapes to. Despite the fact that even his most compassionate companion, a kindly defense lawyer, is horrified in the end, Bigger finally achieves a small degree of apotheosis in recognizing the shreds of rightness buried and deformed inside of his terribly wrong actions, which though it may scare us too would serve us well to appreciate. If we spent more time analyzing a crime in terms of motivation, mental state and circumstance as Wright does than in terms of horror and culpability, we would probably end up with more useful information and less crime.