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A difficult and important novel, Native Son draws on literary antecedents like Crime & Punishment to explore race and racism in America. Depicting the murder of a white woman by a black man, Wright's novel exposed important questions about enduring and systemic oppression of African Americans "'The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,' Irving Howe once wrote, and the remark has been quoted many times. What Howe meant was that after Native Son it was no longer possible to pretend...that the history of racial oppression was a legacy from which we could emerge without suffering an enduring penalty. White Americans had attempted to dehumanize black Americans, and every one carried the scars; it would take more than calling American 'Land of the Free' and really meaning it to make the country whole...Native Son also stands at the beginning of a period in which novels by black Americans have treated the subject of race with a lack of gentility almost unimaginable before 1940" (New York Times). Unlike Civil War and Reconstruction era works that sought to ingrain the Noble Negro in the cultural imaginary, Wright and his peers forced their fellow citizens to confront the history and continuation of racism in all its ugliness. Adapted to film in 1986, there are recent reports that another film will be appearing in 2019 or 2020. Near Fine in Near Fine dust jacket.
Richard Wright’s Native Son tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black American youth living in utter poverty in Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. When Bigger unintentionally murders a white woman, he is put on trial and eventually convicted, and sentenced to the electric chair. Often recognized as a protest novel, Native Son stresses systemic racial issues, prompting the reader to feel both sympathy and empathy for Bigger. In this, the novel is one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. Soon after publication, Native Son was selected by the Book of the Month Club as its first book by an African-American author. Indeed, the novel was an immediate best seller, selling 250,000 hardcover copies within three weeks of its publication. As a result of the novel’s success, Wright became the first bestselling and the wealthiest black writer of his time, establishing him as a spokesperson for African-American issues and, to many, the “father of Black American literature.” In 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Wright awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal. Unsurprisingly, Native Son was challenged in many public schools and libraries and is listed in the American Library Association's list of the “Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999.” Yet most institutions in which the novel was challenged successfully fought to keep Wright's work accessible, particularly in the classroom, defending it as a guide into the reality of the complex adult and social world. Native son is listed as 20th on the Modern Library’s list of the “100 Best” English-language novels of the 20th century. It is also included in TIME’s “100 Best Novels” (since 1923).
Read more: Identifying first editions of Native Son
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