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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.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Have not read Native Son – will be back when I have – glad you have been writing about An American Tragedy – have wondered why no one seems to remember this book, or I have looked in the wrong places – have really enjoyed your posts


    July 10, 2012
  2. I’ve read both books, but for some reason the similarities did not occur to me. Perhaps because they were read so far apart. The main question that occurred to me as I was reading Native Son was, “Could Bigger have acted differently?” But the same question could easily apply to Clyde. I think both novels enter the debate on how much freedom do we really have? Or are our actions determined (or to what extent are they determined) by our environments.


    July 10, 2012
    • I think that’s it. Nature versus nurture is a big question in each one.


      July 10, 2012
      • Nature versus nurture is really the mysterious question behind all human activity…


        September 3, 2012
  3. So I prayed that the reviewer might establish a new level of complaints towards the two novels and avoid walking amongst the topiary race gardens; one side designed for blacks of that time and the other all munificent for the milky white goons on the other half. Oh, the two novels are far more reaching than any of our minds trapped in the boxes of history repeating itself filling each box: only difference is the way the box looks. I read Native Son in H.S. and I really hated it then. This book exists, on won’t do again list. I’m not fond of literature, I guess about the history of Black people/my professor Dr. Shillock responded to a girl stating she concerned him, because Black people are an ethnicity not a race–that’s all I need to know.So I try to: Respect others no matter their race, creed, religion, lack of religion, sexual preference or not, job no job (money wealth), education, lack there of, just strive to be useful to the people or organized functions, or institutions that ask for my help. That’s the hardest thing. The easiest thing to do is to see people and not divide them up into salad ingredients–I have had enough of it.


    July 10, 2012
    • I was long past high school when I read Native Son. I have to admit that I didn’t like the book. Bigger seemed to me too unthinking in his reactions. I want to say he acted stupidly, but his reactions were too complex for this. In thinking back on both books, it makes me wonder how much of my dislike for Bigger were due to his race. But I don’t think this is a factor, at least in my own response. Clyde’s reactions were ultimately unthinking, too, but there was more calculation in what he did. And this leads me to suspect that readers might sympathize more easily with Clyde than with Bigger. Not because of race, but because Clyde acted rationally, while Bigger reacted emotionally. And we have a long tradition in Western culture of distrusting our emotions, while honoring our rational faculties.


      July 10, 2012

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  1. Book #44: An American Tragedy | 101 Books

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