“The Man Who Was Almost a Man” is an initiation story, a tale of a teenage youth struggling to break free of childhood and enter the world of adulthood. Frustrated by being young, poor, and black, David Glover wrestles with the tension of wanting to be an adult yet being viewed as a child by the adult community. In David’s case, the action that he takes to acquire manhood merely reinforces his elders’ beliefs that he is still an adolescent.
When the story opens, David is thinking about his quest for manhood, which he connects with owning a gun. Because he is “almos a man,” he believes that he should own the symbol of manhood: a gun. Borrowing a mail-order catalog from a local store owner so that he can look at the pictures of revolvers, David becomes obsessed with thoughts of guns, becoming a man, and, most important, the strategy that he must use to persuade his mother that he should be able to buy a gun.
Employing all the typical maneuvers of a child who knows how to manipulate his mother—David knows that he should work on her and not his father—he begins by slipping his arm around her waist and telling her how much he loves her. These strategies break down her initial resistance to the idea, and when David proposes that the gun be given to his father, she relents, telling the boy that he may purchase the gun but that he must bring it back immediately and give it to her to turn over to Mr. Glover.
Elated with his victory, David buys the gun for two dollars but delays his return home until after dark and after the family is in bed. That way he is able to keep the gun, put it under his pillow that night, and take it with him when he leaves to work on Jim Hawkins’s plantation early the next morning. He arrives at work, hitches the mule, Jenny, to a plow, and starts across the fields, delighted that he will be able to get far enough away from the other laborers so that he can shoot the gun without anyone hearing.
Telling himself that he is not afraid, he shoots the gun and is nearly knocked off his feet by the power of the weapon. He is angry at the revolver for its deafening noise and its violence, which nearly tears his right hand from his arm. He kicks the gun, then looks over at Jenny, who is tossing her head and moving wildly. When he comes over to her, David discovers that he has shot her, not intentionally but nevertheless fatally. He leaves the mule, trying to decide what kind of lie he can tell to protect himself from the truth that, in a disobedient act, he has murdered Jenny.
His lie does not convince anyone. Jim Hawkins, the townspeople, his mother—all know that the story David tells of Jenny’s falling on the point of a plow is unbelievable. At his mother’s insistence, David tells the true story and elicits laughter from the crowd gathered around the boy and the dead mule. That laughter, which echoes in David’s ears even after he leaves the scene, is more painful to him than the monetary punishment, having to pay for the mule from his wages on Hawkins’s plantation. The laughter reminds David of the adults who are forever ridiculing him and thereby excluding him from their ranks.
David lies again, saying that, after the fatal firing, he threw the gun in a creek, whereas he really buried it for...
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safekeeping. He makes a decision based on that buried treasure; he decides to dig up the gun and fire it again, because he believes that firing the revolver one more time will finally show people that he is truly an adult. He thinks to himself, “Ah’d like t scare ol man Hawkins jusa little. . . . Jusa enough t let im know Dave Glover is a man.”
Standing on top of a ridge, looking down on Jim Hawkins’s house and thinking about his next firing of the gun, David hears a train whistle, a sound that beckons him to flee his current entrapment and move toward a new environment. He feels his pocket and is reassured that the symbol of his manhood, his gun, is there. He jumps on top of a railroad car and projects into the future: “Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man.”