Indy Study: Savage Holiday by Richard Wright

Inevitably, I was going to read something as part of this study that was not that good. And Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday was unfortunately that book. It is an overly simplistic, contrived, and unrealistic story based on a shallow interpretation of Freudian psychology. Standing on its own, I can’t see much literary value in the text. It does have some value when, as suggested in the afterward by Gerald Early, it is considered as part of Wright’s larger project tof analyzing what exactly is wrong with American society. However, even then, it pales in comparison to Native Son and Black Boy.

The novel looks at three days in the life of Erskine Fowler, analyzing the effects of a life of emotional and sexual repression. I opens as Erskine is forced into early retirement from his high status position as a New York insurance executive. The following day, Erskine is accidentally locked out of his apartment while naked, which ultimately leads to the accidental death of a young boy, who falls of a balcony because he is scared of Erskine’s nudity. In his guilt, Fowler attempts to befriend and pursue the boy’s mother, a war widow, who bears a striking resemblance to Fowler’s mother who was the cause of his repression. For anyone familiar with some of the basic ideas of Freudian psychology, the book’s climax is obvious.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Unlike Giovanni’s Room, Savage Holiday does have one black character, Erskine’s maid. While she is only in a couple scenes, it is clear that Erskine perception and relationship with her is based on the “mammy” stereotype. This serves in some ways to point to Erskine’s many psychological problems as somehow intersecting with his whiteness. However, this is not a primary concern of the novel. While race is not invisible, it is certainly significantly less visible than in Wright’s other work.

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
Without any doubt, this book is meant to highly critical of Erskine and the society he represents. Wright has a strong critique of Protestant Christianity made through Erskine’s position as principal of his church’s Sunday school and his devout religious beliefs. Wright also critiques the corporate structure which chews up the best years of Erskine’s life only to spit him out at their convenience. The strongest critique is against the hypocrisy of of Puritan moral judgement. Erskine, and the other “respectable” tenants in his apartment building, are quick to blame the boy’s death on his mother and her perceived immoral sexual activity. While Erskine is quick to judge and condemn others, he is unable to see the disturbed nature of his own sexuality.

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
Had the work been written by a white writer whose politics I did not know, I may have seen the depiction of the maid as a product of the author’s own racism. Being familiar with some of Wright’s other work, it was clear that this was meant to criticize the white characters. However, other than that, I do not believe my reading of this work was effected by my knowledge of the Wright’s race.

How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?
Like Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Savage Holiday is the product of the author’s time living in Europe. The novel does not deal changing conditions in America, which can likely is attributed to Wright’s self-imposed exile.

Work Cited: Wright, Richard. Savage Holiday. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. (Originally published in 1954)

Next: Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Introduction
Background
Goals
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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