Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Meriwether’s fictional technique has two distinguishing characteristics. The more apparent is Francie’s first-person narration, which is realistic and clever and hardly ever calls attention to itself. From her opening encounter with her neighbor Mrs. Mackey (“Lord, I thought, don’t let Mrs. Mackey stand here with her big, black self telling me about her dreams”), through her description of her father’s hurt pride and anger at welfare, to her final blasphemy (“Goddamn them all to hell”), Francie’s narration comes by way of the authentic voice of a preadolescent girl struggling against the odds of survival in this all-too-real world. Much of the story’s power comes from the uninflected but absolutely honest character revealed through that voice.

The broader characteristic of Meriwether’s story is its naturalistic style. In detail as in language, the author reveals the ways in which these characters are trapped, not only by socioeconomic factors but by the psychological as well. Naturalism works best in a style that is flat and uninterpretative, which is why Francie’s first-person narrative voice works so well. From the vomit-green kitchen walls inside her apartment to the violence of Harlem outside, “Daddy Was a Number Runner” is steeped in the naturalistic tradition of writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Paule Marshall.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. This comprehensive study of the African American novel places Daddy Was a Number Runner in its twentieth century context. This novel about growing up black in Harlem, Bell argues, is a bildungsroman and an example of traditional realism.

Dandridge, Rita. “From Economic Insecurity to Disintegration: A Study of Character in Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner.” Negro American Literary Forum 9 (Fall, 1975): 82-85. Argues that “the three interacting factors in the novel—economic insecurity, loss of self-esteem, and self-debasement—all operate in the life of each of the Coffins and contribute to the disintegration of the family unit.”

McKay, Nellie. Afterword to Daddy Was a Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether. New York: Feminist Press, 1986. A detailed analysis of the historical context of the book, which McKay calls the “personal side of the story of living and growing up feeling entrapped by race and class in the black urban ghetto between the two great wars.”

Russell, Sandi. Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. New York: Pandora, 2002. Chronological study of African American women’s literature; includes a chapter on urban realism featuring Meriwether alongside five other female African American realist authors of the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Chapter 3—“Harbingers of Change: Harlem”—contains an excellent analysis of Daddy Was a Number Runner that shows how “the protagonist’s determined effort to acquire historical sensibility” is at the center of the novel. Argues that Francie “matures as she learns to understand how the public arena informs private lives.”