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A concise biography of Richard Wright plus historical and literary context for The Man Who Was Almost a Man.
Richard Wright was born on a plantation in rural Mississippi to parents who were born free after the Civil War; his grandparents on both sides were former slaves who were freed as a result of the war. His father left when Wright was young, and, soon after, his mother began having strokes that led to a lifelong medical condition. As a result, Wright was raised primarily by an aunt and grandmother. Despite graduating as valedictorian of his junior high school, he dropped out of high school to work in order to help cover family expenses. In 1927, Wright moved to Chicago, where he wrote the manuscript for his first novel (published posthumously in 1963 as Lawd Today) and joined the Communist party. He remained a member until 1942. In 1937, he moved to New York, where he published the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and his most famous novel, Native Son (1940). Wright’s Black Boy (1945), a semi-fictionalized book about his childhood, was an instant bestseller. In 1946, disillusioned with the United States, Wright moved to Paris, and he lived abroad until his death in 1960. Wright was a major influence on the following generation of Black writers, in particular Ralph Ellison (who served as best man at Wright’s first wedding) and James Baldwin (who titled an essay “Notes of a Native Son” in reference to Wright’s novel Native Son), even though these writers often differed from Wright in style or politics.
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Wright’s best-known works—Native Son and Black Boy—deal with the effects of the so-called Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South in the hope of finding a better life in Northeastern and Midwestern cities. Wright himself took part in this migration when he moved from his home in Mississippi to Chicago in 1927 and later to New York City. While Wright and his parents were born free, the effects of slavery were still felt in his life and in his work; his grandparents were slaves freed by the outcome of the Civil War. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many states, particularly in the South, passed racist Jim Crow laws that limited the rights and freedoms of Black residents. Wright himself went to segregated schools before he dropped out. At one time, Wright and his second wife both identified as Communists (an economic and political movement that aims to replace private property with public ownership), and Wright was particularly interested in the similarities in the experiences of oppressed workers across the world. Even after publicly breaking with the Communist party in an essay, Wright was tracked by agencies of the United States government for his involvement.
While Wright never earned a college degree, he was well-read in novels of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century. Dostoevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment was an acknowledged influence on Wright’s novel Native Son, which also examines contemporary life through the context of a crime, and it may have also influenced “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” (where Dave commits a violent, if accidental, act against a mule and must face the consequences). Wright was also influenced by various forms of literary realism, including two literary movements that began in France: naturalism (a realist movement that embraced logic and fact, based on the theories of the author Émile Zola) and existentialism (a complex movement that explored the problem of human existence and the fear of death; Wright’s favorite authors included Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus). Wright went on to influence a new generation of Black writers, who acknowledged a debt to him while at the same time rejecting elements of his style or politics. Two of the most famous are Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son). The way that, in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Wright mixes literary narration with his characters speaking in dialect is reminiscent of some of the work of Zora Neale Hurston, another Black modernist writer best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
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Full Title: The Man Who Was Almost a ManWhere Written: New York CityWhen Published: 1940 (reprinted in 1961 as part of the collection Eight Men)Literary Period: Black American modernismGenre: Coming of age storyClimax: Dave is caught after accidentally killing a mule and is sentenced to pay for the damages.Antagonist: Jim Hawkins, Bob Saunders (Pa)Point of View: Third person limited
Writers and Spies. Wright wasn’t the only the only writer with an FBI file. While the agency has been criticized for its extensive focus on Black intellectuals like Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin, other famous individuals who were surveilled by the agency include Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, and Allen Ginsburg.
Adaptation. In 1976, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” was adapted into a film starring LeVar Burton, who is most famous for playing Kunte Kinte in the acclaimed mini-series Roots, for hosting the children’s television series Reading Rainbow, and for his role as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.