Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Man Who Was Almost a Man” is one in a collection of eight stories, written at various times and published under one cover in 1961. The word “man” appears in all eight titles, and four of these begin with the phrase, “The Man Who . . . ,” suggesting that each protagonist is a universal figure, a kind of Everyman. Thus David Glover is representative of the adolescent dimension of humankind, and Richard Wright employs various techniques to elevate the main character to a level of universality.
One technique is the use of interior monologue to reveal David’s psychological state. Instead of relying on the omniscient narrator’s description of the adolescent’s turmoil, Wright presents David’s own thoughts about, for example, his growing up:Shucks, Ah ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me! Aw, Ah know whut Ahma do. Ahm going by old Joe’s sto n git that Sears Roebuck catlog n look at them guns. Mebbe Ma will lemme buy one when she gits mah pay from ol man Hawkins. Ahma beg her t gimme some money. Ahm ol ernough to hava gun. Ahm seventeen. Almos a man.
Revealing David’s state of mind through his private thoughts—in David’s own southern black dialect—creates a sense of immediacy as well as identification with the character’s dilemma. Readers are not simply reading about the protagonist’s struggle; they are witnessing it as it occurs in David’s mind.
At times, Wright uses figurative imagery to...
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Racism and Black Masculinity
The first decades of the twentieth century were difficult and violent ones for African Americans in the South. The agricultural economy was suffering, leading to poverty for poor whites and blacks; but with ‘‘Jim Crow’’ segregation laws, which appealed especially to poor whites, blacks were kept oppressed with limited opportunities. Moreover, African-American masculinity was threatened during the time when ‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’’ takes place, offering a useful context for Dave’s struggle for manhood and respect.
More than two thousand African Americans—the great majority being men—were lynched by angry mobs between 1890 and 1920. Historians cite economic frustrations as the primary cause for this violent phenomenon, but at the time the common excuse for lynching was the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man. Lynching victims were subjected to torture, burning, and even castration.
According to The Oxford History of the American People, ‘‘hundreds of lynchings were for theft, alleged insult, altercations between black tenants and white landowners, or such trivial causes as killing a white man’s cow or refusing to sell cottonseed to a white man at his price.’’ This relates to Dave’s reflection that ‘‘he was glad he had gotten out of killing the mule so easily,’’ when he is punished for killing Jenny with two years of labor and a beating by...
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The story is set in a rural southern community in the early years of the twentieth century. All of the events of the story take place within the space between Hawkins’ large farm and Dave’s modest home, including the road that connects them and the store along the way. This constricted setting suggests the limitations of Dave’s options and contributes to an atmosphere of entrapment.
The two locales of farm and home suggest a duality between have and have-not, rich and poor, white and black, which is evocative of the larger segregated culture. The road is a particularly significant setting as it is a place of movement and transition where the story both begins and ends.
‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’’ is narrated by a third-person, omniscient narrator. That is, the story is told by a narrator who is not part of the story’s action and who is able to see into the minds of the characters. In this case, the omniscient narrator has insight into Dave’s consciousness, as in the first paragraph of the story, which describes Dave’s private thoughts and feelings.
One of the most notable stylistic aspects of the story’s narration is Wright’s use of dialect—the particular grammar and pronunciation of black southern farm workers—in juxtaposition to standard literary English. When he describes thoughts as well as quoting speech, Wright uses dialect, but when he describes...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s Spurred by the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression cripples the United States economy. In 1932 approximately 25% of the work force is unemployed. Social security and unemployment insurance do not yet exist to help the disenfranchised.
Today: During the late 1990s the United States enjoys a period of strong and steady economic growth. The stock market reaches record highs and unemployment is at its lowest point since the 1960s. Welfare programs are significantly cut in many states.
1930s There is a national glut of agricultural products, resulting in wheat and corn prices falling to the lowest point in American history. Under a New Deal program, the planting of staples such as grain, tobacco and sugar is reduced, fields of crops are plowed under, and surplus foods are bought and distributed to the needy by the government. The exploitative economic system of sharecropping—where black tenants work the land of white landowners—remains prevalent.
Today: Agriculture is run like a big business and is dominated by a small number of corporations. Yet farming remains carefully regulated by the federal government. Due to developments in farm machinery, populations shifts, and reductions in cotton productions, the number of sharecroppers in the South has declined by more than 80% since 1935.
1930s African Americans are oppressed by ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws that enforce...
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Topics for Further Study
Dave believes that a gun will make him a man. What are other objects that signify manhood in contemporary culture? Choose one such object and compare it to the gun in ‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man.’’ What do these two objects say about what it means to be a man in each time and place?
Do some research about the economic situation of black farm laborers in the early twentieth-century South. How was the situation of such laborers similar to and different from the institution of slavery that had been abolished half a century earlier? How does this comparison enhance your understanding of the story?
At the end of the story Dave jumps aboard a train heading north. The story takes place during a period when huge numbers of African Americans were migrating north for a variety of social and economic reasons. Do some research about this migration.
When Wright wrote an early version of ‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’’ in the mid-1930s, he was an active member of the Communist Party. Research the basic tenets of the Communist political philosophy and consider how the story reflects these ideas.
In the 1930s many authors—both black and white—utilized dialects in their writing. Find another author who uses dialect, and compare its effect on the representation of African Americans with that in ‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man.’’ Why do you think Wright chose to write in dialect?
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What Do I Read Next?
Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Wright’s first and best-known collection of short stories, explores the legacy of slavery and the psychology of oppression among blacks of the deep South.
Native Son (1940), Wright’s most celebrated work, was the first novel by an African American to become a bestseller. It tells the controversial story of a young black man’s anger and rebellion.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), offers an insightful portrait of African-American identity and race relations at the turn of the century. Its author, James Weldon Johnson, is considered an important precursor to Wright.
Invisible Man (1952), written by Ralph Ellison, was a best-selling novel and a National Book Award winner. This landmark novel offers a powerful account of a black man’s struggle as he migrates to a northern city.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a semi-autobiographical classic by James Baldwin, tells of a minister’s son’s search for identity in 1935 Harlem.
Makes Me Want to Holler (1994), an autobiography about growing up black and male in the 1970s by Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall, describes his experiences with violence, prison, and the education system.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baldwin, James, ‘‘Alas, Poor Richard: ‘Eight Men,’’’ in Dial, 1961, pp. 188-99.
Bramell, Gloria, ‘‘Articulated Nightmare,’’ in Midstream, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1961, pp. 110-12.
Gillman, Richard, ‘‘The Immediate Misfortunes of Widespread Literacy,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 74, No. 5, April 28, 1961, pp.130-31.
Howe, Irving.\, The New Republic, Vol. 144, No. 7. February 13, 1961, pp. 17-18.
Rogers, W. G., Review in Saturday Review, Vol. 44, No. 65, January 21, 1961.
Fabre, Michel, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, New York: Morrow, 1973.
A comprehensive biography of Wright that covers a great deal of material not found in either of his autobiographies. Fabre views the various political and artistic stages of Wright’s life as a series of partially successful struggles.
Kostelanetz, Richard, Politics in the African-American Novel: James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Greenwood Publishing, 1991.
A study interpreting the novels of Wright and three other major African-American writers in terms of political ideas.
Wright, Ellen, and Michel Fabre, eds., The Richard Wright Reader, New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
A wide selection of Wright’s writings including some of his important nonfiction essays...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Butler, Robert.“Native Son”: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” New York: Twayne, 1997.
Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary: 1933-1982. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Rand, William E. “The Structure of the Outsider in the Short Fiction of Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” CLA Journal 40 (December, 1996): 230-245.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner, 1988.
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