Tuesday, July 12, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "Might you consider The Outsider by Richard Wright to be overlooked because of the success and attention given to Native Son? Is The Outsider a more challenging book? 

One of the criticisms that Ralph Ellison made of his mentor was that Richard Wright never wrote a story with a protagonist as complex as himself. With The Outsider, Wright corrected this problem (if indeed it was a problem) in his character Cross Damon (that name is just freighted with symbolism; and it's where I got the name for Faith Cross in Faith and the Good Thing). It's my understanding that with this novel Wright hoped to recreate the success he had with Native Son.

 Now, it's been a long time since I read The Outsider, but I will never forget its first 90 to 100 pages because they are a perfect example of a compelling premise or "ground situation," and of "organic story flow," which every writer strives to achieve.
When the story opens Cross, an intellectual who works at the post office in Chicago (a job Wright hated and described often with contempt), is mired in problems that range from being a black man in the racist era of segregation to being married and having a pregnant, teenaged girlfriend he met at a liquor store. He is as alienated as a man could possibly be, and reads dense, canonical works of philosophy secretly because his less educated black coworkers would see him as being strange for doing so. All the black misery of Native Son and Lawd Today (the original title for which was "Cesspool") is here in Cross's life. But when he is riding on the subway, a freak accident occurs on the train (that symbol of modernity), killing many around him. He escapes the carnage and realizes that he is assumed to be among the dead. In one stroke, he is freed from his former life, is tabula rasa, and can recreate himself as he pleases. (Or so he thinks.)

From a creative writing standpoint, and from that of existentialism (Wright was pals with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris when he wrote the novel, and was studying Husserl's Phenomenology), these first 90 pages are what John Gardner would call "a vivid and continuous dream." Everything one could want in a story is there. Ideas crackle and hum beneath concrete action.

 But when Cross checks into a hotel to ponder his new freedom, he encounters someone who knows him (if memory serves), and he commits the first of many murders, thus inscribing into his new "essence" (the meaning of his life) the worst of all possible actions. It's at this point, I believe, that Wright's novel begins to fall apart. The story and most imaginative possibilities slip away from him with that first murder. Wright cut his teeth as a child in Mississippi on violent stories in the pulps, and nearly all his stories resort to some form of violence to move the plot along, which prompted James Baldwin to remark that in Wright's fiction violence takes the place where sex would normally be.

Worse, as The Outsider progresses, Wright falls into didactic, essayist dialogue---long, tedious speeches---which is one of the things that simply ruins a philosophical fiction. That is, the abstract ideas (and lecturing the reader) overwhelm character and event. The perfect embodiment of ideas in character and situation in the opening 90 pages is lost, giving way to Cross talking for pages and pages about ideas, which Wright fails to imaginatively dramatize. What is the principle here? Ideas must be given flesh, incarnated in character, setting, props, even in the weather and, most important of all, by showing us characters revealed through action.

The old saying about novelists, "heroes in the beginning, cowards at the end," applies, sadly, to The Outsider. It happens often that a writer begins with a powerful premise in Act One of a story, but fails to make the best choices in developing it in Act Two, then toward the end simply wills the story forward in order to finish it (This happens, sad to say, in Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog, which is wonderful until the last third of the story), manipulating his (or her) characters like puppets and putting into their mouths exposition instead of speeches they would naturally make. To a degree we see this problem in Native Son. The first two books are all dramatization, showing not telling. (It's all scene after scene, as in a well-made play.) However, in the third book, much time is taken with explanatory speeches by Bigger's lawyer. Max tells us what we've already powerfully experienced. There, didactic, essayist dialogue is perhaps less offensive than in The Outsider because---well, because lawyers in fiction and film do give windy speeches. But in The Outsider, that approach is less forgivable. 

 I think I understand the problem Wright faced. I wrote a quick, first draft of Middle Passage. Things worked well through the mutiny when the Allmueri take over the ship, the Republic. But after that, I lost control of the story. I had the remaining crew and Africans stop at an island during their wanderings, where they meet an entirely new tribe of people (I was still thinking at that time of Gulliver's Travels since the novel's working title was Rutherford's Travels), and First Mate Peter Cringle stays with these newly introduced people in that version. The others wander on, encounter a ghost ship, and it is the cabin boy Tommy (not cook Josiah Squibb) who returns to New Orleans with Rutherford, where after a year they discover Isadora has married Rutherford's very spiritual brother Jackson ( Think about it; he's far better suited for her than Rutherford, and in this version came to New Orleans looking for him), and they have a child they name after Rutherford, who they believe was lost at sea. Rather than let these two people he loves most in the world know he is alive, and thereby disrupt their apparently happy lives, he and Tommy go back to sea. He is, after all, a true sailor by that time.

 But that plotting of the second half of the novel, while fun to play around with, was wrong. Just wrong. A mistake. (But one can't really know it's a mistake until one sees it on the page.) The unfolding of events in a story should feel, not arbitrary, but inexorable and relentless and driven by cause and effect. (And an episodic plot, which would be perfectly fine for, say, comedy, would also have been wrong for a rousing sea adventure story.) So I ditched all those pages and decided that after the slave ship leaves Africa, Rutherford would not again set foot on land for the rest of the story. That little excursion to the aforementioned island broke the suspense that comes from knowing at any moment the characters might all wind up at the bottom of the briny. And as I re-plotted the story, I discovered the parallel mutiny against Captain Falcon brewing among the white crew. Furthermore, I decided Rutherford and Isadora had to be reunited by the novel's end, like Odysseus and Penelope, because they deserved that reconciliation.

All of this is simply to point out (I'm wearing my creative writing teacher hat now) that plot, as John Gardner once wrote, is the novelist's equivalent to the philosopher's argument. Plot must have internal coherence. And developing that takes time (time to be surprised by the characters, time to be ambushed by possibilities not in one's original outline for the story) and often several false starts. (For example, Hermann Hesse put Siddhartha aside for a year because he wasn't sure how to end the story.) The Outsider, in my view, was a promising novel that simply needed more time for creative incubation. It was written too quickly (perhaps because Wright was eager to recreate his success with Native Son) and thus it fails to fully realize its dramatic and imaginative possibilities. But, believe me, those first 90 pages are so pure a novelist would gladly give his first-born child to have imagined them.

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