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The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Context


Social Realism

Realism is a literary style that emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Realist writers tried to recreate scenes, action, and people as realistically as possible, including psychological aspects of characters and their inner conflicts. Realist fictional settings are familiar and recognizable, characters and their actions are believable, and plots and style are unembellished. Writers strive to present life as it is, often emphasizing its dreary, unattractive aspects. Culture and social environment are important parts of realistic writing.

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is written in the style of social realism, which focuses especially on the social and often racial conditions of the working class. Richard Wright praised such American realist writers as Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) for their critiques of American society. Writers like Lewis, he wrote, "seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it." In "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," Wright emphasizes the hardships of African Americans in the early 20th-century South through the relationships between Dave Saunders and other characters. Though the story has a strong coming-of-age theme, the events and dialogue illustrate a class- and race-based social structure. Ultimately, Dave rejects this life, leaving to pursue a life where he can become a "man" uninhibited by such oppression.

The 20th-Century Rural South

The racial history of the American rural South is complex and difficult. African Americans arrived in the South not of their own free will, but as slaves owned by white plantation owners. Owners' rights over their slaves included corporal punishment, as well as the right to sell slaves at auctions. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the Civil War (1861–65) officially ended slavery in the United States. During the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction (1865–77), attempts were made to bring about a more just society in the American South. There were also intense reactions on the part of whites, who mostly rejected Reconstruction and passed laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans. These laws were known as "black codes." After Reconstruction, from 1877 to the early civil rights movement in the 1950s, laws were passed in the American South to enforce racial segregation and the subjection of African Americans to whites. These laws, the successor to the black codes, were known as Jim Crow laws. "Jim Crow" was a derogatory term derived from American minstrel shows.

The agricultural economy of the South suffered in the early 20th century, making Jim Crow laws appealing to poor whites who were competing with African Americans for land to farm and jobs. Jim Crow laws were also appealing to whites who feared African Americans rising to prominence or gaining positions of political and economic power. Economic hardship, racism, and white Southerners' fear of losing power were the catalyst for a host of lynchings of black men at the turn of the century. The lynchings were intended to terrorize and disempower black Americans in order to maintain white supremacy, economically, politically, and socially. These men, many of them successful, black businessmen, were accused—almost always falsely—of everything from theft to rape. These tense race relations serve as a backdrop for "The Man Who Was Almost a Man." Readers get a glimpse of Dave Saunders's life and mentality as a young man growing up and working at farming in the rural South. While both black and white farmers were part of a low social tier, the story clearly depicts an economic and social system designed to oppress black workers.

Eight Men

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" appeared in Richard Wright's story collection Eight Men, published in 1961 after his death. The collection included eight short stories focusing on struggles and dramas involving black men; the word man appears in each story title. In the words of British scholar Paul Gilroy (b. 1956), who wrote an introduction to one edition of the book, the central focus of the stories is on masculinity. Wright's focus in the collection is the way in which psychological factors for his black protagonists collide with "economic, cultural, and historical forces."

Wright first published "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" in the magazine Harper's Bazaar in 1940 under the title "Almos' a Man." He deliberately placed "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" first in the book-length collection despite the fact that another of the stories, "The Man Who Saw a Flood," had actually been published earlier. In Gilroy's words this was because the story presents "a number of core issues" that are seen in the subsequent stories. These include the role of violence in masculinity and race relations and the idea that people can be physically close without sharing strong relationships.

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