Reading as a Subversive Act

Goya, "Men Reading Black Painting"

Goya, “Men Reading”

This semester I’ve been supervising a guided reading with an African American senior who is breathing new life into books I haven’t read for a while. Therm James didn’t want to graduate without having read some of the African American classics so we chose poetry by Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Alice Walker’s Color Purple.  We hit a homerun with Clifton the first time we met, and yesterday we hit another with Black Boy.

Therm is one of those thoughtful student leaders who is politically aware and wants to understand all points of view. Although he is an Obama supporter, he sometimes listens to Fox News to hear what others have to say. He feels hurt when he sees Facebook postings of people who say they “want their country back” since he sees himself as the perceived enemy. Racial profiling is an issue, and he says that one of the biggest shocks of his life was the “innocent” verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. He is discouraged by what he sees as the constant attempts by America’s rightwing to delegitimize our black president.

Although Richard Wright’s autobiography is set in early 20th century Mississippi, it speaks to many of Therm’s concerns, especially the scenes of racial profiling. Therm was particularly struck by Wright’s determination to maintain his dignity in degrading conditions.

As an English major, Therm was also impressed with how Wright turned to literature to liberate his mind, borrowing a library card from an Irish Catholic friend so that he can get access to books. (To get past the librarian, he has to pretend he was getting the books for his friend.) Together Therm and I enjoyed the following passages where Wright describes his experiences with literature:

That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces [by H.L. Mencken] and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words . . . Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevski, George Moore, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Zola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Thomas Mann, O. Henry, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Gogol, T. S. Eliot, Gide, Baudelaire, Edgar Lee Masters, Stendhal, Turgenev, Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names?

I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and I either looked them up in a dictionary or, before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different…


I forged more notes and my trips to the library became frequent. Reading grew into a passion. My first serious novel was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. It made me see my boss, Mr. Gerald, and identify him as an American type. I would smile when I saw him lugging his golf bags into the office. I had always felt a vast distance separating me from the boss, and now I felt closer to him, though still distant. I felt now that I knew him, that I could feel the very limits of his narrow life. And this had happened because I had read a novel about a mythical man called George F. Babbitt.

The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently…

Therm liked Wright’s reference to Sister Carrie, which he had read in another class:

I read Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and they revived in me a vivid sense of my mother’s suffering; I was overwhelmed. I grew silent, wondering about the life around me. It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel, and I could not read enough of them…

Rousseau once said something to the effect that a good education will make one unfit for  society. He was thinking along the same lines as Wright in the following passage:

I held my life in my mind, in my consciousness each day, feeling at times that I would stumble and drop it, spill it forever. My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety. I wondered how long I could bear it.

And finally:

It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books — written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis — seemed defensively critical of the straightened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving [the South] I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.

Throughout his reading explosion, Wright feels that he has to hide what he’s doing from the whites around him and he’s right. Reading for him is a revolutionary act.

At the end of our discussion, Therm said he wished he had read this book years ago as it would have given him more respect for literature. I pointed out to him that reading the book now, in his final semester, wasn’t a bad time to come to this realization. After all, he had developed the reading sophistication to appreciate what Wright was saying.

I teach for moments like this.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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