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- Author Biography
- Plot Summary
- Historical Context
- Critical Overview
- Further Reading
Wright was born on September 4, 1908, near Natchez, Mississippi. His father, an illiterate farm laborer, left the family when Wright was six. He was raised by his mother, a well-educated schoolteacher. Wright had a difficult childhood, as his mother was seriously ill; Wright and his younger brother went to live with her parents in Jackson, Mississippi, where he came under the strong influence of his grandmother’s strict Seventh Day Adventism. At the age of nineteen, Wright moved to Chicago. He became involved with a leftist literary group known as the John Reed Club and joined the Communist Party. He worked as a journalist for several leftist newspapers and published essays on Marxism and Black Nationalism as well as short stories and poetry. During this period he wrote an early version of “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” as part of an unfinished novel. In 1938, after moving to New York, he published his first collection of short stories entitled Uncle Tom’s Children. The following ye...
The story opens as Dave, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, heads home from a day working in the fields. He fantasizes about buying a gun and knows that if he had a gun his fellow workers would no longer treat him like a boy. He goes into the local store and asks to look at catalogues. The proprietor, Joe, questions him about what he wants to buy and shows him an old pistol he wants to sell. Dave is excited that Joe is only asking two dollars for the gun and resolves to convince his mother to let him buy it. He brings home the catalogue and looks at it during dinner. His parents question him about it but he waits until after dinner. When his father has left the room, he asks his mother for the money he has been saving. Dave’s mother first dismisses Dave’s request, calling him a fool; but when Dave suggests that he could buy the gun for his father, she reconsiders. She gives him the money and tells him to bring the gun straight to her. He buys the gun, but doesn’t go home right away...
Jim Hawkins owns the large plantation where Dave works as a farm laborer. Dave is working on Hawkins’s farm for the summer in order to save money for school. When Dave accidentally shoots the mule, Hawkins charges Dave fifty dollars—equal to two years labor—for the dead mule. At the end of the story Dave longs to shoot at Hawkins’s big house in order to scare him and gain a sense of power in relation to Hawkins, but he has already used up his bullets. As a wealthy white man, Hawkins represent...
Joe is a white merchant in the rural community where the story takes place. He lends Dave a catalogue and when he learns that he wants to buy a gun, offers to sell him a revolver for two dollars.
Ma is Dave’s mother. She controls the finances in the family, so Dave asks her to give him money to buy the revolver. At first she responds by calling him a fool, but she agrees when he tells her that he loves her and points out that his father has no gun. Dave is not afraid to defy his mother and finds her easy to manipulate.
Coming of Age
As the title suggests, Dave is poised between boyhood and adulthood. In various ways, all of the other figures in the story—Dave’s parents, Hawkins, and the unnamed men he works with—threaten Dave’s fragile sense of manhood. Dave’s problem is that he is almost a man, yet his lack of social and economic power make him acutely aware that he is not quiteone. The story is structured around Dave’s quest for a gun as a symbol of power, maturity, and manhood as well as the ironic results of attainin...
Race and Racism
Although racial issues are not in the foreground of “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” racism and injustice are underlying themes. Dave’s feeling of being disrespected results in part from a typical adolescent struggle with how he is seen by his peers and his parents. Yet this lack of respect is more acute and poignant because of the segregated, racist culture. The social circumstances that relegate blacks to an inferior status contribute to Dave’s sensitivity about being seen as nothing but a b...
Dave’s economic status is central to his struggle for power and respect. Although he works hard to earn money, he has none of the autonomy that comes with financial independence. On one level, his mother controls the his earnings because she wants to save it for his schooling; education is a means for Dave to escape from his limited potential as a farm laborer. On another level, Hawkins controls Dave financially. Dave fantasizes that the gun will give him the power that he lacks as a young bl...
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, w...
“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 particula...
The story’s structure is based on irony, which means that the outcome is the opposite of what one or more characters had expected. Irony always has to do with a difference or gap in knowledge. In this case, this gap is revealed through actions and events rather than through tone or speech. Dave believes that buying and firing a gun will lead to manhood, respect, and autonomy. Thus it is ironic when firing the gun knocks him to the ground, causes his peers to laugh at him, his father to beat h...
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...
Compare & Contrast
1. 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 Statesenjoys 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 man...
The Great Migration
Due to the economic problems and racial violence of the South as well as new opportunities in industrial northern states, a huge population shift among African Americans took place between the 1890s and the 1940s known as the Great Migration. The interruption of European immigration after 1914 led to a labor vacuum in the northern states; subsequently, black labor from the South was heavily recruited. In fact, Wright left the South for Chicago in 1927. While racism, violence, and segregation...
Wright’s literary reputation was established in the early 1940s when he published two critically acclaimed bestsellers, Native Son and Black Boy, in rapid succession. Though he was a prolific writer in many genres, over the decades the great majority of critical attention has focused on these two major works and, to a lesser extent, his first book of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children,all written before Wright turned forty. At the height of his popularity Wright was considered the best African-American writer of his generation, but his critical reputation has since declined. In fact, recent critics view his work as uneven. In 1946 Wright left the United States to live in France. He continued to write fiction and nonfiction until his death at age fifty-two. In 1960, when Eight Men appeared, Wright had fallen into relative obscurity with his earlier success sometimes attributed to his topical subject matter rather than the literary merits of his writing. Additionally, scholars may ha...
Sarah Madsen Hardy
Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literatureand is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the significance of the gun as a symbol of manhood in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” “Shucks, a man oughta hava little gun aftah he done worked hard all day,” muses Dave, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s short story“The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” A man ought to have a little gun. Throughout the story, Dave, who is almost but not quite a man, never wavers in this co...
What Do I Read Next?
1. 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. 2. 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. 3. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), offers an insightful portrait of African-American identity and race r...
In the following essay, Hannon discusses the exploitation of African Americans in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” in the context of the exploitation of temporary faculty at universities. In response to an early draft of this essay, a reader at College Literature made the point that “adjuncts have always existed; until the 1970s they were typically faculty wives”; the reader went on to ask, “has adjunct exploitation only recently become an issue because there are more men in the ranks?” The rea...
Baldwin, James. “Alas, Poor Richard: ‘Eight Men,’ 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. Kostelanetz, Richard. Politics in the African-American Novel: James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Dubois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison,Greenwood Publishing, 1991. Wright, Ellen, and Michel Fabre, eds. The Richard Wright Reader,New York: Harper & Row, 1978. Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth,New York: Harper, 1945.
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