Clyde Griffiths, Meet Bigger Thomas
Lengthy essays and journal articles could be written about the topic of today’s post. It reminds me a of something I might have chosen as a topic for a research paper in college.
Now, that I’ve done a horrible job of selling this post (after all, who doesn’t want to read research paper material at 7:30 in the morning?), let’s get to it. At least it’s not 30 pages, right?
As I’ve wrapped up An American Tragedy, I noticed a lot of similarities between it and another novel I read from the Time list—Native Son by Richard Wright.
The protagonist in each is a poor outcast who dreams of a better life. He’s grown up in a crappy environment and he’s envious of those who are better off. He’s a bit of a womanizer and gets involved in relationships that end tragically—sending him on the run and eventually to prison.
Famous literary critic Irving Howe compared An American Tragedy and Native Son this way:
At first Native Son seems still another naturalistic novel: a novel of exposure and accumulation, charting the waste of the undersides of the American city. Behind the book one senses the molding influences of Theodore Dreiser, especially the Dreiser of An American Tragedy, who knows there are situations so oppressive that only violence can provide their victims with the hope of dignity. Like Dreiser, Wright wished to pummel his readers into awareness; like Dreiser, to overpower them with the sense of society as an enclosing force. Yet the comparison is finally of limited value, and for the disconcerting reason that Dreiser had a white skin and Wright a black one.
And, aye, there’s the rub.
Dreiser’s protagonist—Clyde Griffiths—is white. Wright’s protagonist—Bigger Thomas—is black. When we’re talking about America in the first half of the 20th Century, any young white man—no matter how unfortunate his situation—was in a much better spot than his African-American counterpart.
The similarities end there.
If you’ve read both of these novels, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.
My review of An American Tragedy is coming tomorrow.