This essay reads Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the New Deal, and the intervening history of white women’s sentimental activism. It argues that Native Son is a work of domestic fiction that self-consciously engages the history of sentimental and domestic discourse in the United States and the pivotal role that discourse played in the formation of a two-track US welfare state. Attentive to the racist effects of the New Deal’s long-term provisions for African Americans, Wright’s novel gives us the story of a marginal man absorbed into a new, federally configured social order that promises but ultimately fails to deliver security. When Bigger kills Mary Dalton in her bed and then uses her dead body to heat her parents’ home, he makes a mockery of the very idea of domestic security. Through his recourse to physical violence, Bigger also opposes and illuminates an otherwise invisible order of violence instituted by the welfare state. Wright associates this second order of violence with a disembodiment of white racial power, which he traces to the historical figure of the good white sentimental woman whose activism mediates between nineteenth-century domestic ideologies and twentieth-century social welfare policy. When his crimes draw the entire city into the search for a suspect, Bigger embarks on his own mission of detection, gathering and assembling clues about the nature of the invisible adversary he faces. Before he dies, he offers the reader a comprehensive understanding of a new structure of racial domination in the United States that he is the first to perceive—the one governing both the fact and the terms of his original domestic entrapment.
Susan Louise Edmunds; “Just Like Home”: Richard Wright, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the New Deal. American Literature 1 March 2014; 86 (1): 61–86. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2395519
Download citation file: