In 1940, Richard Wright published Native Son. The book sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks and catapulted Wright to international acclaim.
Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20 year-old black man with an eighth grade education, a reform school background, and a mother, brother, and sister at home. The relief workers got him a job as chauffeur for some rich white folks -- who happen to own the one-room rat-trap in which he and his family live. Mary Dalton, his employer's daughter, has "progressive" ideas and has Bigger drive her to Communist meetings. After one meeting she gets thoroughly drunk and Bigger has to carry her up to her room late at night, a prospect which fills him with apprehension. Just as he's placed her in her bed he hears her blind mother coming down the hall to inquire after her. Having no desire to be found in this young lady's bedroom at night Bigger stuffed a pillow in her mouth to keep her quiet. He succeeded in keeping her silent and his presence in her room a secret.
He also smothered her:
. . . Then, convulsively, he sucked his breath in and huge words formed slowing, ringing in his ears: She's dead. . . .
The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here.
He incinerated the body in the house's furnace and, for awhile, people simply
thought Mary Dalton was missing or perhaps kidnapped. But remains of her body
were found in the furnace. Bigger fled, murdered his girlfriend, was caught after
a massive door-to-door manhunt through Chicago's South Side, and was brought to
trial. The Governor of Illinois had to call out the National Guard to keep the
peace during the trial. Bigger Thomas was convicted and sentenced to death.
Wright was asked to remove some passages from his manuscript when it was originally published. These passages have been restored in the edition published by The Library of America, which has placed Native Son in a single volume along with two other early works by Wright, Lawd Today! and Uncle Tom's Children. Along with a chronology of Wright's career and notes by Arnold Rampersad, these have been published as Richard Wright, Early Works, Literary Classics of the United States, 1991.