How is Wright’s story "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" indicative of modernism?
Modernism is a literary movement of the early twentieth century that arose from the widespread feelings of disillusionment and dislocation felt by many Americans in the aftermath of WWI. Writers sought to capture the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, through stories that were open-ended, thought-provoking, and devoid of easy, formulaic plot lines. Often, Modernists were experimental in their approach to constructing the narrative.
Wright's story does not open with the type of exposition that establishes a setting or introduces a character in a way that orients the reader. Rather, Wright opens the story with Dave's interior monologue, and readers must gamely accept his thoughts and work to construct meaning on their own using context clues and their own intuition. Modernist Ernest Hemingway called this method "the iceberg theory," meaning that very little is revealed explicitly to the reader; much of the meaning is concealed below the surface.
The structure of the narrative of Wright's story is also experimental. It consists primarily of dialogue instead of narration. Dave speaks to Joe, his mother and his father, and Jim Hawkins. Mostly from this dialogue, readers understand the plot from which the story's themes emerge.
And finally, Modernist stories often lack a conclusion. That is true of Wright's story; Dave's fate remains unknown to the reader when the story ends.
I think central question the story poses—is Dave a man?—is a modernist one, in the sense that Dave is alienated from his family and discontent with his life (although unable to explain why). He sees the gun, and the forbidden promise of violence it offers, as a way to personal empowerment. His decision to hop a train and run away from home is a natural development of this thinking—of course he would prefer that to the years of servitude required to pay for the mule he shot by accident. In a way, the gun comes to replace the family he chooses to leave: the gun offers Dave protection and promises to "make him a man" by making him someone to be feared. Wright's attitude toward Dave is a little more ambiguous; while we understand how he feels, it is also true that the story shows Dave to be incredibly immature, old enough to kill things but not old enough to understand the consequences of his actions. In this sense, it's not clear how we should feel about his running away at the end of the story. Dave is following an essentially modernist impulse to become a man through a transformative adventure, but, as with his accidental shooting of the mule, he seems unable to think about what the consequences of that decision will be for his family.
Wright's story is indicative of Modernism because it shows a fundamental "shift" in human relations. One of the premises of Modernism is that it helps to show how human relations have "shifted" to quote Virginia Woolf. Dave is in this position as he sees his own world as one where shift is evident. His desire to own the gun is reflective of his own shifting perception of his masculinity. He wishes to no longer be seen as a boy and the purchase of the weapon is one in which he can shift both his perceptions of self and the perceptions others have of him. At the same time, there is a shifting in the entire coming of age narrative. The purchase of the gun, an instrument that ends up indicating and symbolizing strength, ends up embodying weakness as he is shamed after the mishap with the gun and mule. This is another element of Modernism evident as the traditional structure is not followed in the narrative. At the same time, I think that one can see a Modernist ending demonstrated in the ending of the story. There is little in way of resolution and harmony present. Dave leaves. He leaves his family, his way of life, and the only real surrounding he has known. The only thing he takes with him is the gun, reflecting a very disconnecting and disconcerting vision of reality. This is Modernist in scope and tone.