Adapted by an editor from the last two chapters of Richard Wright’s novel Tarbaby’s Dawn, this story appeared under the title “Almos’ a Man” in Harper’s Bazaar in 1939, and then in the O. Henry Award Prize Stories of 1940. Perhaps because he had not adapted the story himself, Wright claimed that he had not wanted it to be published. In 1944 Wright conceived of a collection called Seven Men, in which he intended to resurrect work that had been cut or rejected by publishers, including a revised version of “Almos’ a Man.” By 1959 this collection had become Ten Men, a title borrowed from Theodore Dreiser; however, Wright’s agent, Paul Reynolds, advised him to cut two of the stories. Wright agreed, and Eight Men had been accepted for publication at the time of Wright’s death in 1960.
Turning the previously published and adapted story “Almos’ a Man” into “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Wright made the protagonist younger and unmarried, thus making his escape in the final scenes unambiguous. (In the original, the protagonist abandons his wife and child.) In the revised version, the 17-year-old Dave believes that owning and firing a gun will earn him respect and make him a man. When his first shot accidentally kills his employer’s mule, however, he faces two years of wage slavery to compensate his employer, a prospect he cannot stomach. After sneaking out of his home and firing the gun in the woods, he hitches a ride on a train bound for somewhere where he could be a man. This plot, a boy’s painful yet liberating transition to adulthood after an unplanned or accidental killing, is a favorite of Wright’s; Dave is similar to Wright’s protagonists Big Boy and Bigger Thomas, although he is less intelligent and reflective, and thus a more strictly naturalist character, than either.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Margolies, Edward. “The Short Stories: Uncle Tom’s Children, Eight Men.” In Critical Essays on Richard Wright, Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974.
Wright, Richard. Eight Men. New York: World, 1961.