The Death-Bound-Subject

Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death

The Death-Bound-Subject

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: Published: April 2005

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Theory and Philosophy > Critical Theory

During the 1940s, in response to the charge that his writing was filled with violence, Richard Wright replied that the manner came from the matter, that the “relationship of the American Negro to the American scene [was] essentially violent,” and that he could deny neither the violence he had witnessed nor his own existence as a product of racial violence. Abdul R. JanMohamed provides extraordinary insight into Wright’s position in this first study to explain the fundamental ideological and political functions of the threat of lynching in Wright’s work and thought. JanMohamed argues that Wright’s oeuvre is a systematic and thorough investigation of what he calls the death-bound-subject, the subject who is formed from infancy onward by the imminent threat of death. He shows that with each successive work, Wright delved further into the question of how living under a constant menace of physical violence affected his protagonists and how they might “free” themselves by overcoming their fear of death and redeploying death as the ground for their struggle.

Drawing on psychoanalytic, Marxist, and phenomenological analyses, and on Orlando Patterson’s notion of social death, JanMohamed develops comprehensive, insightful, and original close readings of Wright’s major publications: his short-story collection Uncle Tom’s Children; his novels Native Son, The Outsider, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream; and his autobiography Black Boy/American Hunger. The Death-Bound-Subject is a stunning reevaluation of the work of a major twentieth-century American writer, but it is also much more. In demonstrating how deeply the threat of death is involved in the formation of black subjectivity, JanMohamed develops a methodology for understanding the presence of the death-bound-subject in African American literature and culture from the earliest slave narratives forward.


The Death-Bound-Subject provides a sympathetic and productive reading of Wright's life-long negotiation with the racist dialectics of death he saw thriving, after slavery's abolition, under the aegis of Jim Crow. The study's merit for Wright scholarship should be obvious as we celebrate, in 2008, the centennial of the author's birth. . . . Moreover, at a time when monographs concentrating on a single author are notoriously difficult to publish and market, JanMohamed's volume provides an incisive example of how, at its best, the single-author book makes a considerable contribution to the broader concerns of literary and critical theory.” — Mikko Tuhkanen, Postmodern Culture

“[A]n impressive scholarly and theoretical achievement. . . .The Death-Bound-Subject should become an important work not only for Richard Wright scholarship in particular, but for African American studies and theorizations of subjectivity in general.” — Jeffrey Atteberry, Modern Fiction Studies

“JanMohamed is no crude formalist: his stylistic and narratological analyses are genuinely illuminating and have lots of interesting things to say about the symptomatic repetitions of Wright’s fictions. At such moments The Death-Bound-Subject is an impressive scholarly addition to Wright studies and to black psychoanalytic cultural theory more generally.” — David Marriott, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“JanMohamed’s is a book worthy of the most serious reflection and debate, a work that critics and graduate students will turn to as a model of substantive revisionism and theoretical rigor. . . Should African American studies continue in its pursuit of rendering the vagaries of death intellectually legible, the field should turn to this book as one of its signal events.” — Rolland Murray, Novel

“The value of this book, and the success of JanMohamed’s argument, is the welding of bare life and slavery to produce the death-bound subject.” — Theofanis Verinakis, Social Identities

“Abdul JanMohamed reworks the concept of ‘social death’ to read Richard Wright in comprehensive and provocative ways. At the same time, he offers a new account of slavery, rewriting Hegel and psychoanalysis along the way to rethink ‘lordship and bondage’ as the ‘death contract’ and to discern the precise and various ways in which autonomy and freedom are asserted. This book is enormously impressive in its sweep, its detailed consideration of Wright’s corpus, its theoretical ambitions, and the new and compelling paradigms it offers for rethinking slavery, death, and resistance.” — Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley

“This is a path-breaking, imaginative, comprehensive, indeed magisterial, analysis of the ways in which death functions in the construction of black subjectivities in Richard Wright’s fiction, autobiographies, and journalism. It both expands our understanding of Wright’s achievement and models a way in which the spectre of violence, lynching, and death may be seen to shadow and shape a trajectory of African American cultural production.” — Valerie Smith, author of Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Abdul R. JanMohamed is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa and a coeditor of The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. Introduction: the Culture of Social-Death 1

2. Uncle Tom's Children: Dialectics of Death 45

3. Native Son: Symbolic-Death 77

4. Black Boy: Negation of Death-Bound-Subjectivity 138

5. The Outsider: Patricidal Desires 175

6. Savage Holiday: Matricide and Infanticide 210

7. The Long Dream: Death and the Paternal Function 233

8. Renegotiating the Death Contract 266

Notes 301

Works Cited 317

Index 323
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3488-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3476-7
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