[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Doreen Fowler’s Drawing the Line: The Father Reimagined in Faulkner, Wright, O’Connor, and Morrison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) is a prime example of how lost in the wilderness one becomes by following psychoanalytic maps of non-referentiality. Some critics find psychoanalytic theories to be useful in reading texts, because those theories sanction language being in conversation with language. One need not deal with the messiness of referentiality fiction and non-fiction invite. One can momentarily escape the horror of knowing that signifiers co-exist with the material presences which negate signification.
As a Wright scholar, I profit from efforts to link Wright’s works with contemporary criticism. My profit from reading Fowler’s chapter “Crossing a Racial Border: Richard Wright’s Native Son” is disappointment. I am disappointed that Fowler uses psychoanalytic theory as an excuse to avoid dealing with the totality of Wright’s reimagining the father, a rich and insufficiently explored topic in Wright studies.
Fowler travels into the dense terrain of Native Son by following paths mapped by Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. She either deliberately or inadvertently ignores the “map” drawn by Wright’s authoring of and authority in a text that reimagines the father of all its characters as early twentieth-century American society, a deadbeat parent. Fowler’s assertion that “Wright’s novel also has mapped out a way to reconcile competing drives for culturally specific identities and for solidarity with others” (71) is not illogical. It is limited. It supports the view that the lawyer “Max embraces Bigger as a son” (71). In terms of psychoanalytic theory, this morphological feature of the text is significant. It draws sharp notice, however, to the embrace as a single move in a game of language. It confuses the referential import of Wright’s blistering critique of American patriarchy with the theoretical objectives of such feminist thinkers as Kristeva and Jessica Benjamin. This accidental hegemony leaves the act of reading in the wilderness. And Fowler should have been more cognizant of what Shoshana Felman sees as traps and dupery in psychoanalysis.
The extensive map to lead us out of the wilderness is constituted by Wrights reimagining of the father in The Outsider, The Long Dream, Savage Holiday, and A Father’s Law. Without that map, readers are stuck in the critical funhouse, unable to articulate what Wright’s language games tell us about American social and cultural histories.