“Native Son” and the Public: Literature, Media, and the Politics of Reading

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    Abstract

    Few books have summoned a reading public on the scale of Native Son (1940), the first novel by African American author Richard Wright. This paper explores—in the jolt created by a single novel in the readership of its time—the power of literature involved in generating that institutional space of the public sphere on which democratic societies crucially depend. Furthermore, in extending on Jürgen Habermas’s notion of readership as a key constituent of the public sphere, it proposes that media, like readers, are shaping agents in this process in ways that merit renewed exploration.
    Native Son is ideally suited to study the U.S. public sphere, which from its inception did not aspire to an ideal of consensus, but instead relied on a system of checks and balances. The resulting pluralization of the public was inflicted with the fact that a large part of the population was enslaved. The reading public had long been exposed to this reality, not least through the many slave narratives brought into circulation by the abolitionist movement. But with the publication of Native Son at the end of the depression era, pressure on the predominantly white, bourgeois public sphere gained a new quality, which this paper approaches as the product of an unusual degree of synchronization between the literary field and the public sphere.
    I argue that three factors were crucial in the making of this constellation: Wight’s rejection of the aesthetic categories of the Harlem Renaissance (widely accepted by the black reading public) to shock his white readers; his mutual endorsement of political activism (he was a card-carrying communist) and celebrity authorship (with large stakes of visual media); and the multi-media-network engaged in proliferating his reading public on a national and global scale. This public was pluralized (and in part segregated) along lines of race and class, but pluralization was not yet propelled by the identity-political engine of the post-Civil Rights era. My paper thus examines an exemplary moment of in the transformation of the public sphere when pluralization and politicization worked hand in hand.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2018
    EventAnnual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association - University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, United States
    Duration: 29-Mar-20181-Apr-2018

    Workshop

    WorkshopAnnual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association
    Country/TerritoryUnited States
    CityLos Angeles
    Period29/03/201801/04/2018

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