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09 March 2010

This is the book club thread Greetings MetaChaters, this is the metafilter book club thread as discussed here and here.


The organizing principal of the club is Professor Amy Hungerford's class "The American Novel Since 1945" on the Open Yale site.

The book under discussion is Richard Wright's Black Boy with the lectures being the second half of the introduction and the second lecture.

Let the book clubbing begin!
For me Black Boy succeeds more as an intellectual and political work then a work of art.

The book fails for me as a novel - though perhaps succeeds as journalism - because it does not make convey any real feelings of the narrator or of the other characters. I do not see how it could be otherwise as Wright says repeatedly that he has not formed any true connection to other people. He is clearly a keen and sensitive observer and the sections Professor Hungerford calls 'catalogs' are some of the more vivid parts of the book for me.

The fleshing out of the story after Wright leaves the south seems incredibly important to me. Without it is easy to dismiss racism as a southern problem not an American problem. With hindsight I cant help thinking of Martin Luther King also going to Chicago and all the trouble he had there. I find it unfortunate that Dorothy Fisher Canfield would only publish the first half of the novel. Considered with the letters Professor Hungerford choose she clearly wanted to shape this into an American story, not a black man's story, hence also the change of title from Black Boy to American Hunger.

I see the benefit of professional instruction when Professor Hungerford highlights the importance of Words and Writing in Wright's survival of a nearly inhuman childhood. The development of the parenthetical voice - even further removed from the action, from feeling, then his customary voice and later when he says "If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative. I strove to master words…" shows me that Hungerford is correct in describing what Wright was trying to do and successful in doing it. The quote on the back of my edition is supportive too: "I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to crate a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."

While with some prodding I can understand and admire the ladder of words he has built up and out of a desperate beginning, its still not really what I read literature for. Without much real lyricism or feeling I cant imaging wanting to re-read it.
posted by shothotbot 09 March | 11:51
I wonder if I ever read this book before because it seemed so fresh for me. I found it gripping, yet alienating, because reading it was both a revelation about how it felt to be black in the south and repulsing because of the cold, pseudo scientific way Wright analyzes his surroundings and even his closest family members. (Did he ever have friends or a lover?) I was dazzled by Wright's style, and I was particularly struck with his account about the first work of fiction he wrote and the sense that his ability to do it was miraculous, to him and others.

The Hungerford lecture was great and frankly I wish she had more time to talk about the novel. I am thinking about her discussion about the problems for readers in their approach to any novel, including this one, and about the difficulty for authors of actually telling the truth. Writing and reading are really not straightforward efforts. I keep recalling Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous quote: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”

Finally, I was intrigued both by Wright's involvement with the Communist party -- what a dichotomy between the philosophy of liberation for the masses and accepting tolerance, and the intolerant and dictatorial approach of the party hierarchy! I'm not even going to get into the contradictions and dualism of Wright's account of the trial of his study subject -- too much to say. It just added extra interest to find out what actually happened to that second and vital part of the book in the process of getting the Book of the Month Club selection.

I'm still working on the collection of letters revolving around the publication of this book, but it is very interesting so far, both from a historic and a literary analytic point of view.
posted by bearwife 09 March | 12:09
The book fails for me as a novel - though perhaps succeeds as journalism - because it does not make convey any real feelings of the narrator or of the other characters.

You know, I generally agree that the book's focus on the protagonist keeps things pretty tightly bound up inside his own head, but I fucking loved Shorty. I found it interesting that he seemed to use Shorty largely as an example of a coping strategy, given that I think a full and incredibly interesting could have been written just about that guy.
posted by Greg Nog 09 March | 12:27
I wonder if I ever read this book before because it seemed so fresh for me. I found it gripping, yet alienating, because reading it was both a revelation about how it felt to be black in the south and repulsing because of the cold, pseudo scientific way Wright analyzes his surroundings and even his closest family members. (Did he ever have friends or a lover?)

Yeah, he banged all those insurance girls!
posted by Greg Nog 09 March | 12:35
One of the great things about classics is that they can be read on many different levels. We first had to read this in high school in the 80s, where the message I got was clearly OMG, racism in the south was terrible. (A good message.) Rereading it later, the message I got was racism all over the place was awful, and the communists were a bit disorganized. Now, the message I get is that Wright was a tortured artist, the poor man, he never was able to fit into any environment that he attempted, and poured it out in his writing. I'll probably get a different message 10 years from now.
posted by Melismata 09 March | 12:48

Yeah, he banged all those insurance girls!

I didn't ask if he was a virgin . . . but who did he love? Anyone? The book seemed to indicate complete estrangement from other people.
posted by bearwife 09 March | 13:38
Note from your friendly local mod: This post is now sidebarred so you can find it easily even if the front page scrolls a lot.

shothotbot, it might be a good thought to post on MeTa that the discussion is now live, just in case people who primarily hang out there missed this!

I'm enjoying the discussion so far - thank you for having it here.
posted by Miko 09 March | 13:43
What a shame, I'm reading Native Son right now.
So close...
posted by kellydamnit 09 March | 16:03
I'm with you shothotbot, I enjoyed Black Boy for giving me a glimpse into the life of an African American of the time, but was not impressed with it as a novel. Compared to the great novels of the 20th century, the development of the characters and the authenticity of the dialogue were really lacking.

My perception is that this only made it onto the course list because the Beineke library has so much source material and it is a way for Hungerford to introduce the undergrads to the resources in their special collections library.

I would think that the Book of the Month Club (BOMC) editing was an improvement. The dealings with the Communist Party did not contribute to the story, and in 1945 I'm not sure if the American reading public wanted to hear about how he wanted to be a good communist, but the party bosses got in his way. Somewhere I ran across the assertion by Wright that the communist party influenced the BOMC to block that portion of the book.
posted by Edward_L 09 March | 18:02
I agree Bearwife that he was completely estranged, and much of the book is his complaints on being so misunderstood - how he could not be a writer (or even a reader) in the black community, and how he could not be accepted in white society; but the people he is estranged from are treated as such caricatures that I came away with the feeling that the telling of the story was dishonest or inauthentic.

Hungerford certainly suggests that this is to some extent a work of fiction - with the story of the Uncle taking him in the wagon into the Missippi. In today's Oprah memoir revelations, he would have been taken to task for that. I wonder if I would have enjoyed a more authentic, nuanced memoir. His mother was a school teacher, but is not portrayed as such in the book. How close to actual is the portrayal of his mother?
posted by Edward_L 09 March | 18:20
My perception is that this only made it onto the course list because the Beineke library has so much source material
The Beineke's digital collection is pretty amazing and its nice to have it here but I imagine the reason it is in the sylibus is because Hungerford is interested in developing the threads of how the last 65 years of literature show 1) the expanding definition of what it is to be an American 2) the tail end of the modernism project, what is art? In our case, what is fiction?

Though on preview I have looked and dont actually see Hungerford asking those questions. She asks "What can literature say that nothing else can? How can it address us in a way that is compelling in a way that nothing else is?" and I guess I still find Black Boy wanting on that scale.

I agree that Shorty is well drawn and would have liked more characters like that. I enjoyed reading about the absurdities of the communist party.
posted by shothotbot 09 March | 19:08
I Agree that it would be good in this class to demonstrate how our recent literature shows what it is to be an American, but in the American Novel since 1945 why start with an autobiography/memoir rather than a novel.
posted by Edward_L 09 March | 20:07
So in looking back at the transcript of lecture 2 to get a feel for where Hungerford is bringing us as a class, her closing comment struck me:

My point in sum, what I want you to take away from this, is to see how an account of a life is struggling against forces outside of itself--publishing forces, the forces of politics, of war, of an editor--how a writer is struggling to make his account faithful to his own artistic vision, his own social vision, against those forces, and how those forces have an impact--try as he might, have an impact--on what the text looks like when we hold it in our hands.

posted by Edward_L 09 March | 20:40
Anyone ever read Jimmy Carter's An Hour Before Daylight? Another data point in southern life at the time (although a few years later). I'd recommend it. Any other memoirs of growing up in the south?
posted by Edward_L 09 March | 21:00
Shothotbot, can you drop a line on MetaTalk reminding people this thread is up? Interesting comments so far, it would be nice to see more. (For example, now I want to read An Hour Before Daylight.)
posted by bearwife 10 March | 15:16
Done and done.
posted by shothotbot 10 March | 16:18
Thanks shothotbot for setting this up. You've inspired me to try to continue on through the lectures. I do enjoy Hungerford's style through these first two.

Outside of Shorty, any other favorite scenes?

I enjoyed the other boys pressuring Richard to accept the Lord (somewhere around Chapter 6) - it seemed to ring very true. Then when the black communists were trying to get him to go to Ross' trial, Wright seemed to echo that earlier scene of peer pressure. (more struggling against forces).
posted by Edward_L 10 March | 19:14
I am sad that we don't have more folks on this thread, but just wanted to throw in a little more for us few:

1) There weren't a lot of favorite scenes for me in this book, in which so much that happens is wrong and unjust. I found especially tough the parts involving cruelty to animals. Wright's milieu is so oppressed they have no kindness for those creatures even more powerless than themselves.

2) I was struck with the parallels in the book between the church/Christianity and the Communist party. Both are social organizations which welcome African Americans and preach love and brotherhood, and both are in practice judgmental, oppressive and intolerant.

3) I was also struck by the contrast between the way Wright viewed the trial of his former study subject -- as glorious, particularly in forcing a "confession" of guilt from his former subject -- yet the way he fled himself from the apparent desire of the group to have him experience the same glory. In almost all settings, submission to the will of a group is something Wright avoids, thereby avoiding human contact and association too.

Anyway, that's my additional two cents for today.
posted by bearwife 11 March | 14:15
I also was hoping for more people, but a handful of people to talk to is a lot more then zero. I am definitely doing the next couple of books and hope you guys are too. Maybe the awesomeness of the conversation will draw in a few lurkers.
posted by shothotbot 11 March | 22:37
I am definitely on board for more reading, Hungerford, and MetaChat debriefing. What are we reading next and when shall our next MetaChat club meet commence? I'd suggest setting this up in MetaTalk again.
posted by bearwife 12 March | 14:08
Our next book is Flannery O'Connor's, Wise Blood. Leaving a monthish means our discussion is to start on Tuesday, April 13th. I will post reminder threads closer to the date.
posted by shothotbot 12 March | 15:27
Sorry I'm late to the party.

I'm glad I read the book, but I didn't like it. It really felt like a homework assignment to me. I realize that great literature means having to work harder but I still remain unconvinced that this is great literature.

The only reason I can think of as to why it's considered great literature is that it is a valid document of what it was like to be African American in the jim crow south or Chicago (I liked the comparison to journalism above).

I had particular trouble connecting with Wright as a child, particularly the scenes in which he burned down his house and hung the kitten. I was not a fan of the "catalogues" either.

I did like the second half of the book more than the first half: The pervasiveness of the racism in the south and the in-fighting of the communists in chicago were both more compelling subjects.

I agree with the parallels of the Church to the Communist Party as well.
posted by cjets 13 March | 21:02
Sorry I'm late as well. I actually really enjoyed the book, overall. I read the book expecting it to be primarily about race, and really related to it for Wright's sense of alienation from overall society in general, even people of his own race.

I actually liked the first half better than the second half, I thought the second half dragged and wasn't as focused.

Definitely, Hungerford's lecture influenced how I read the book, and I wonder what was part of his life and what was either fiction or part of others' lives.
posted by hazyspring 16 March | 10:04
This is a whiiiiiining thread || Lovebirds