This book isn't included in the recognized list of Best Sellers for 1940, the year it was first published. Among that year's more memorable titles: Grapes of Wrath, Mrs. Miniver and For Whom The Bell Tolls. Native Son is missing.
It's omission is quite strange, because at the time, its impact was stunning. Native Son caused a huge sensation that went far, far beyond literary circles. One reason: it was written by a Negro. The New Yorker magazine claims,"Nobody in America had ever before told a story like this, and had it published. In three weeks, the book sold two hundred and fifteen thousand copies." If I had reviewed this book in 1940--I would have given it a 5-star rating, no question.
This is perhaps the first modern work of fiction that captures the way life was for "African Americans." Not in 1740 or 1840, but in 1940--contemporary America. Says one character: "Taken collectively, [African Americans] are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped and held captive WITHIN this nation, devoid of political, economic and property rights."
This is the background for the "lurid crime story" (as pulp magazines of the era would have put it) of Bigger Thomas, a black man accused--and found guilty--of two brutal homicides. Author Richard Wright pulls no punches, here. The reader witnesses every gory detail.
Unfortunately, the author also overwrites. The book's a "tough read." Some of Bigger's inner musings are beyond his ability and weaken the book. His defence attorney's "summation" is a monologue 24 pages long. The character's name is Max, but it's really Wright speaking. The courtroom summation offered wright an opportunity to provide a scathing condemnation of America's treatment of the Negro. It's important today, too--because it remains a testament of what life and death was like if you were "coloured."
This isn't a story of the rural South. Richard Wright very consciously chose to place Bigger Thomas's life and crimes in a big northern city. There's no escape for sophisticated folks in a fashionable, forward-thinking metropolis. The only real difference? Bigger's story would have likely been shorter had it occurred in a small town in Mississippi or Alabama. In the big northern urban world in which he lived, at least Bigger Thomas got a trial.
Bonuses in this edition: Wright's essay on writing the novel, and a 12 page author's chronology.