From the HBW Archives: Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), On the Page and On the Screen

[By Meredith Wiggins]

Here at the HBW offices, we’re working through the much-needed process of taking a complete re-inventory of our large collections of novels, plays, books of poetry, pamphlets, critical works, and other assorted African American cultural productions.

It’s a fairly massive undertaking, but it’s led to some fantastic (re-)discoveries–especially for me, since I’m still fairly new to staff and haven’t had much of a chance to really dig into the HBW archives yet and see what all we have.  Over the coming weeks and months, as we take on the inventory project, we’ll be sharing some of our holdings with you through the blog.

First up, to mark the beginning of American Archives Month: an early edition of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940).

Held in HBW’s Special Collections, this copy of Wright’s groundbreaking novel isn’t a “true” first edition.  True first editions of Native Son were published by Harper & Brothers Publishing.  The copy HBW holds is a re-print edition, published by Grosset & Dunlap Publishers simultaneously to the true first.  However, it appears to be a first edition of the Grosset &Dunlap printings. 


Although the dust jacket is long gone from our copy, originally, it would have looked similar to this one.  The cover of HBW’s copy is somewhat damaged, and the edges of the pages are a little weathered.  But it’s still very readable, with very few rips or tears in the pages, and the title page especially remains gorgeously preserved.

HBW received this copy nearly 30 years ago, when we were still known as The Afro-American Novel Project, and we’ve treasured it ever since.  It’s moved with us from the University of Mississippi to Northeastern and finally made its home here at the University of Kansas.

Another interesting “first edition” of a sort is the 1951 film version of Native Son, written about earlier this year by IndieWire’s Shadow and Act,
a blog dedicated to Cinema of the African Diaspora.  Directed by French
film director Pierre Chanel and filmed entirely in and around Buenos
Aires, Argentina, the film stars none other than author Richard Wright
himself as Bigger Thomas.

While the novel remains deservedly revered, the film’s reputation is somewhat less sterling, owing in no small part to Wright’s poor acting skills and the sheer oddity of casting him (as a 42-year-old) to play the 20-year-old Bigger Thomas.  Still, it’s an interesting piece of African American film history and could surely be of use for any scholar interested in adaptation theory.  HBW doesn’t hold a hard copy, sadly (it seems that none may exist for purchase), but it’s available on Youtube and embedded below.