SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT...

“Children, I said to her. For the first little while, they not exactly human, you don't find?”
Nalo Hopkinson

Sunday, December 5, 2010

LitCritSh*t "The Man Who Was Almost A Man" by Richard Wright

 MuleBoy: A Marxist Interpretation of Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”
One of my favorite classes in college was Literary Interpretation.  The class attempted to teach students the different ways a text could be interpreted.  What I found fascinating about the course was instruction I received in regard to looking at a single text from multiple perspectives.  I cannot say that I learned all that I needed or wanted to because when I went back and looked at some of the papers I wrote, they were not so good.  So I am hoping to learn some of what I missed by writing these essays.  If you have anything to add or have an opinion about something I wrote, please do not hesitate in responding.  I wholeheartedly welcome any relevant contribution.  Just be nice about it:)

"The Man Who Was Almost A Man" by Richard Wright was first published in 1940 and later included in the short story collection Eight Men in 1961.  The story focuses on the life of Dave Saunders, a frustrated and overworked African-American adolescent who spends his days on a farm as a laborer. The story is set is the American South between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement.

For the price of two dollars Dave buys an old gun from Mr. Jones, the owner of the community store.  Then Dave accidently kills a mule on the farm with the gun and has to pay for the animal.  In the end, Dave jumps a train and runs away from his parental home, his back-breaking job, taking the gun with him.

Eight Men containing the full text of "The Man Who Was Almost A Man" is available on Google Books.  Search for Eight Men Richard Wright.  Pages seven, eight, fourteen, and fifteen are missing from the Google Books version.  I do cite the HarperPerennial version from Google Books in this essay.  Information about the book is provided in Works Cited.  The best place to get a copy of the book is online or the library, but you may have to order the book from a non-local branch.  The book is copyrighted material.

The author Richard Wright (1908-1960) was a black, Communist, and self taught novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer.  It has been said that Wright attempted to expose inequity and injustice caused by racial and class divisions in the United States through his work. At times his writing caused disagreement and debate within various literary communities. Wright was influenced by his life as a child in Mississippi and Arkansas where he and family experienced blatant racism on an external and personal level.

Marxism is a philosophical doctrine based on the writings of Karl Marx.  Marx believed that private property should be taken from the wealthy and distributed evenly to everyone.  He named this way of living Communism based on the belief that the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual.  According to Marxist ideology economic systems such as Capitalism create a class struggle between property owners and workers.  Marxist literary critics investigate how the author uses class conflict to create support or rejection of the dominant ideology of a text.


The following link has a tremendous amount of information on Literary Criticism and Marxism.
http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/theory/marxism/

Part of the objective of Marxist criticism is to show the cause and effect of economic forces on human behavior. Marxist theories and methodologies examine the economic base, mode of production, and political unconscious present in the culture of the characters of a text in order to determine meaning and how a particular text elucidates the circumstances of real life.

All human beings need food, shelter, and clothing to survive. In order to meet those needs, most people need to interact with the economic base of the culture in which they live. The economic base of a culture is given form by the symbiotic relationship between employee and employer.  This union of worker and management supports the mode of production.   The mode of production is the process by which the particulars of what is needed to live is obtained and maintained by the proletariat (working class) and bourgeoisie (ruling class).  The political unconscious represents the part of the human mind that is oblivious to the actual power of controlling forces.  

The economic base within "A Man Who Was Almost A Man" is an agrarian farming community in which there are mutually dependent farm owners and farm workers.  Seventeen year old Dave Saunders, his family, and co-workers are the proletariat.  Dave works on a farm owned by Jim Hawkins.  Hawkins, who is white, represents the bourgeoisie.

The most prevalent mode of production in the text is the planting, harvesting, and selling of crops.  Mr. Hawkins controls the mode of production because he owns the land, plows, and mules (Wright 10-11).  Workers are dependent upon Mr. Hawkins because he pays them.  The bourgeoisie need the proletariat to do the planting and harvesting.  The owner uses the proceeds from the farm to buy seeds, plows, mules, and perhaps more land. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat need one another for the economic base to stay intact and to accomplish the mode of production.

In the case of Dave Saunders, his money is paid to his parents by Mr. Hawkins as indicated in his conversation with his mother about obtaining money for a gun: " 'But Ma, Ah wans a gun. Yuh kin lemme have two dollahs outta mah money. Please, Ma. I kin give it to Pa... . Please, Ma! Ah loves yuh, Ma.' ”  begs Dave (9).  Dave has to plead with his mother for money that he earned by the sweat of his brow.  Mrs. Saunders behaves toward her son as if he is an immature, irresponsible teenager who cannot be trusted to make wise adult choices.

Similarly when Dave interacts with the world he is treated like a child.  Dave was late coming home the day he wanted to buy a gun because he had been to Joe's store.  Joe asked Dave, "Your Ma letting you have your own money now?" rather teasingly (4).  It seems that part of Dave's frustration is although he does not go to school, works full time, and he does not have control of his earnings.

 Dave also felt alienated from his co-workers.  In the first paragraph of the story Dave talks to himself, "What's the use of talking wid em niggers in the field?" as he is leaving the farm to go to Joe's store (3). On the same page and in the same paragraph he goes on to say "Them niggers can't understan nuthin." What Dave wanted the other workers to understand is not revealed, but whatever it was, he did not feel that he received any empathy or affirmation from them.

No one including Dave seems to clearly understand how the combination of his work on the farm and not receiving pay was affecting him.  All of the characters appear to be partially or wholly politically unconscious of what is going around them.  They are not completely cognizant of the forces controlling their lives, but the characters are aware of what they need to do to survive.   For example, the Saunders want their son Dave to have the ability to earn money, live in a house, and have food to eat.  In order to accomplish that goal the Saunders expect Dave to work hard and follow the rules of their culture because they know if he does not his life as a black man will be very difficult.  The Saunders are parenting their son Dave in what they believe to be a wise and correct manner, but at the same time they do not take into account the psychological effect of the economic community on Dave or if they are aware they may not think there is anything they can do about it.

In his relationship with Mr. Hawkins Mr. Saunders knows his place as a part of the proletariat and a black man.  Mr. Saunders, not Dave, asks Mr. Hawkins how much money he wants Dave to pay for the dead mule Jenny. Mr. Saunders makes no attempt to negotiate a price. He accepts the price of fifty dollars that Mr. Hawkins wants for the mule (15).  Mr. Saunders understands what is expected of him and acts comformably to his position as a part of the working class, while Mr. Hawkins shows no indication that he expects to be challenged.  For his part, Hawkins believes he is being fair and reasonable by allowing Dave to pay for the mule in installments of two dollars a month.  After all, he likes the quality of work Dave does for him and expects him to be his employee for years to come.

So young and energetic Dave runs away with his gun because he knows he has little control over his life and the gun represents power or something like it.  Dave He feels that he is disrespected and worked like a mule (17).  He does know he does not like what is going on around him, but he does not know where he is going.  The adults in the story seem to be doing the best they can within the economic system they live in.  The proletariat (the Saunders and farm employees) and the bourgeoisie (Hawkins and Joe the store owner) work together to create a mode of production even if they know the available wealth is unevenly distributed.

After reading the story and writing this essay I have come to the conclusion that although Wright does show that Dave Saunders is adversely affected by the economic conditions in which he lives and by his perception that the world is unfair, Wright does not show the reader any realistic solutions to Dave's problems.  Maybe that was his point.  Change can be extremely difficult, usually needs prolonged concerted effort to take effect, but is necessary nonetheless.  Many blacks and poor whites left the South and went north to work in factories. Even so their lives were never easy...

What do you think?  Is this a coming of age story?  Do you think Dave will be coming back home?  Is Dave totally responsible for his actions, a victim of economic culture, or is he a hormone crazed, out of control teenager?  How can Dave obtain real power?   Do you think Jenny's death is an accident?  What if anything can any of the characters do to change the forces of economy, race, and class in their farming community, their country, the world?  What class struggles do you see between Mr. Hawkins and the Saunders?  Do you agree or disagree with any assertions in this essay?  If so, why?  I left a lot out of this essay, what would you add or take out?  Do you have any MLA formatting or grammar corrections?  Be careful when formatting MLA.  Never copy what is on this blog because it quite possibly may be wrong.  Check with your teacher if you have questions.

One more thing:  Litcritsh*t essays are meant to be a starting point to help a person begin to think about a text.  It is very, very important to read multiple sources on a subject concerning a text before writing an essay or research paper.


Additional Reading:  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Second Edition. Mulitple eds. Richard Wright Biography on pgs. 1399-1410.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/The-Warmth-of-Other-Suns/ba-p/3321

Tales From Under A Middleaged Colored Woman blogpost of Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series.

Some Information about Richard Wright's life was obtained from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author)

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Works Cited
Wright, Richard.  Eight Men: The Man Who Was Almost A Man.  New York: HarperCollins, 1989.    

Google Books. PDF. December 1, 2010.

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