USA Lit unseen: Richard Wright

This week the unseen is from Richard Wright’s  The Man Who Was Almost A Man. Whilst the book was published in the 1960s, the content and style make it eminently suitable for unseen practice.

Richard Wright’s short story entitled The man who was almost a man, suggests by title alone a tale of frustrated ambition or thwarted dreams.

As the passage opens, we meet ‘Dave’, later identified as ‘David Saunders’, a young black farmhand who seems to be in trouble for the shooting of a mule and who leaves at the end of the passage to seek a new life by travelling the railroad. At once we are reminded of the trope of re-invention and journeying which runs through much American Literature, from the young Huck riding his raft, the the young Jimmy Gatz adopting a new identity as he begins his journeys with Dan Cody. In this literature, the journey is often a journey to maturity and discovery. Identity is often changeable as characters can alter their lives and their identities across the vastness of the American continent.

The passage begins at night – often a time of lonely reflection on past deeds – with Dave in bed in the family home. Later he will  creep out of the house without awakening his brothers. As we first meet him he is troubled and cannot sleep. Wright uses the metaphor of ‘something hot’ turning over as recalls the humiliation of an anonymous ‘they’ ridiculing him for his deeds. Just as in Native Son, there is a sense of anger and resentment tangible in the central character who is not being given the respect he deserves. This is not always an issue of Race per se and a similar discontent broods within Tom Joad as his family are humiliated in their Westward migration. Wright shows us Dave’s inner monologue with no overt punctuation markers, presenting a seamless narrative. The discourse is written in the vernacular – the vernacular commonly used to represent an ill-educated black voice in literature studied on this course. His thoughts disclose a life of cruelty and fear – ‘Pa says he’s gonna beat me’ suggests the careless cruelty of the whip and the beatings of slaves along with the thoughtless cruelty of the lost pioneer ‘Pap’ in Huck Finn. As he lies tossing in his bed he decided on escape form his predicament and the setting shifts to an altogether more peaceful exterior where ‘the moon was bright’ and the woods offer a sense of shelter. This is a more peaceful and calmer environment which leads Dave to the decision to use the railroad as his means of escape and of re-invention of his spoiled life. The tracks are ‘glinting in the moonlight’ almost as though nature is helping the young man to see the way ahead. The tracks of the Illinois Central lead him to his new future, much as in an earlier time, the moon lights up the Mississippi which will be the highway by which Huck leaves ‘sivilisation’ to seek a new life. Moonlight is often redolent of a loneliness or isolation, together with an urge to achieve the thwarted dreams of life, and is best noted in this form in the Great Gatsby, when the eponymous hero is first seen looking across the sound by moonlight.

Dave is is given this informal nomenclature by the omnisicent narrator, only receiving the full version of his name ‘Dave Saunders’ when he is stating his conviction that he be taken seriously as ‘a man’. His understanding of this idea is linked to the ‘gun’ which is referenced throughout the passage. Indeed the imagery when he is firing the gun in paragraph 4 is overtly sexual and phallic – the gun ‘hard and stiff’ in his hands and the ejaculatory firing echoing across the fields. It is clear that manhood is equated with the power of the weapon. Yet there is a more complex character here, and possibly more dangerous one, still. It is clear that he feels a sense of resentment as he is treated ‘like a mule’, a beast of burden almost synonymous with a slave, the simile being followed by the anger towards his mother who ‘had t tell on [him]’. He feels rejected and humiliated at his treatment. Evidently he has shot a mule and now has to compensate the owner. He sparks with anger: his short sentences and exclamations – ‘by Gawd, ah kin!’ – lead him to rise and ‘like a dog’ go digging in the woods in which he has previously hidden the weapon. Wright reduces him to an animal as he ‘paws it up’ and ‘puffed his black cheeks’ – the single reference to his skin colour – using a palate which recalls Steinbeck’s descriptions of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Certainly writers seem to wish to link the underclasses of the early 20th century to animal imagery in order to emphasise their ‘otherness’.

Dave’s now-found power, as he stands ‘proud’ is linked to his physical description as standing at the ‘top of a ridge’ and viewing the ‘big white house’ of his nemesis, Jim Hawkins, possibly from above, as though representing the possible new order to which he aspires. It is here he dreams of scaring Hawkins, the gun being personified to be ‘sagging’ in his pocket, as though tired after its exertions. To him, the ability to ‘taka shot’ would make him a man.

As he hears the train approach – itself metamorphosed by the ‘hooof-hooof’ sound into the ‘iron horse’ of Native American legend – he sense the chance of freedomand now instead of pain, something ‘quivered’ in his stomach and we sense his excitement. He has to drive himself on to grab the train – ‘I betcha Bill wouldn’t do it’ – and his movements become quick and powerful with verbs such as ‘gripped’ and ‘jerked’ defining his movements. As he lies ‘hot all over’ the glinting tracks suggest a hope for the future. The moonlight suggesting that this hope might be a dream.

Wright uses the vernacular to portray the young man, slipping in and out of his dream-like thoughts with little warning. The character is clearly shown to have a degree of resentment for his own weakness – ‘C’mon you slow poke’ suggests not just an urgency, but a sense of Dave’s inner thought processes with much greater clarity than an impersonal 3rd person statement. The onomatopoieia of the gunshots and the train has a clear additional purpose – the gun makes a sound ‘blooooom’ suggesting not only the immensity of the sound in the still night air, but also the sense that this gun will lead to a new life – literally to bloom anew. The exaggerated spelling of the sound is a clear attempt to engage with this idea and the excitement it causes Dave.

In a passage in which Dave explores his new found power and the chance to reinvent himself, Wright is tapping into many levels of the American psyche – guns equate to power, though often to misuse of power as the 20th century unfolds, whether in the writing of Steinbeck or Hemmingway – and the land of infinite possibility has always been seen to give the opportunity of reinvention – again, usually with a negative connotation as seen in the King and Dauphin in Huck Finn. Often the character who remains steadfast in their position, taking on the slights of fortune can be seen as the honest man, the changer as the cheat. An interesting contradiction of this ideas may be seen in ‘Sister Carrie’ in which Carrie Meeber transcends her reinventions to end as a symbol of a form of social success in the new century. In this passage, Dave’s future is unknown – merely hinted at by the ellipsis at the end of the passage. For me, the sense of ‘information left out’ suggested by the ellipsis suggests that the outcome might not be the success for which Dave is hoping.

wright unseen