The Phallic Gun as Masculine Confidence in "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"
December 8, 2007
ENGL 451 – Maxwell
The Phallic Gun as Masculine Confidence in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”
While contemplating the tradition of game-hunting stories, John E. Loftis contrasts Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” to the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. He argues that because “the hunt is a European and thus white tradition, and its heroic and mythic dimensions hardly seem available to black writers,” the story of Dave Saunders’ murder of a mule “can embody the hero’s maturation at the same time that its parodic implications dramatize the disparity between black and white possibilities of growth and development in American society” (437). At first glance, his thesis seems sympathetic to the unfair disadvantages black people in America face on a regular basis. After all, he proposes to expose the disparities caused by racial prejudice through Wright’s story. At second glance, however, the first part of his statement reeks of racism. Black people writing stories about hunting. . . Ha! Loftis seems to say. Hunting stories are only for whites, because only whites understand the heroic and mythic dimensions of hunting. That is the tradition, so it must be true. Blacks can only approach the hunt narrative by adding their own spin on it, parodying it at the expense of the white writers of the past. His argument bubbles over with airy fallacies. His logic imposes an inherent limit on black writing without justifying the general statement it makes. Without displaying any evidence, he declares that black authors whose characters happen to shoot animals in their stories automatically stand on the outside of a writing tradition and hock literary loogies on it. In his opinion, black writers cannot address hunting in a manner that extends or amends the tradition—like all the aforementioned white authors permitted themselves to do. Loftis proclaims them as the wallflowers of the literary world, looking in from the outside and commenting on everyone dancing without dancing themselves.
Not only does he limit the capabilities of black writers, but he also smacks a lid on the possibilities for traditional hunting stories. In his mind, the white guardians of the exclusive tradition always “dramatized the threat of the wilderness as an element in their heroes’ rites du passage” (437). Hunting stories by white authors all more or less amount to straightforward coming of age narratives with little to no other complications. By virtue of being white, their stories enter the tradition. Loftis neglects to account for variation within the tradition.
With all black and white authors ordered in their assigned seats, and with his essentialist perspective well established, Loftin slips in a more valid statement that “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” contemplates on the topic of male adolescence. Race-conscious readings of the story examine important truths of the troubling stratified southern culture, but they limit the depth of literary analysis in one direction. Yes, Wright is an African-American, and yes, Dave Saunders is an African-American, too, but Wright is also an artist, and Dave is also a character, and they deserve for literary critics to treat them as such, taking into account the multidimensionality of people and their many problems. While “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” demonstrates social and financial hardships of Southern African-Americans in the Great Depression, it also resonates with insight on the young male psyche and the struggle to reach adulthood in the transition between boy and man. Dave’s desire for a gun represents his lack of confidence and his quest for phallic power, the latter of which he cannot attain without abusing.
Filtered through free indirect discourse, readers learn that “One of these days [Dave] was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy” (Wright 2067). “They” refers to the other workers in the field. Although Dave labors with them and earns money for his family, his peers refuse to consider him a peer. He shares their same racial and class background, but they consider him different. Their redundant act of calling Dave both a “boy” and “little” serves dual purposes. Referring to Dave as a “boy” would suffice, but their addition of “little” sets off alarms in Freudian analysis. By degrading him with those two terms, his coworkers point out both his age and penis size—and therefore, his manhood.
One might argue that interpreting the workers’ insults as more than jests at Dave’s youth overanalyzes the relationship between Dave and the others. Since when does the word “little” necessitate a Freudian reading, concerned with phallic manhood? The narration asserts this reading via sheer repetition and sexual suggestiveness in other instances. The binary images of large and small continue throughout the story. Dave rejects their insult two sentences later, rebutting that he “ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me!” (2067). He knows that, in more ways than one, the workers dwarf him. He resolves to compensate for his lack with a gain. When Dave first entered the workforce and became the butt of everyone’s jokes, he must have wondered what could gain their respect. What could he buy that would add to his masculinity, that could use to scare his peers, much like how they attempted to scare him with their demeaning jeers? Then it must have struck him. With their long cylindrical barrels and their ability to violently ejaculate, guns fit the bill for a phallic replacement.
The big versus little binary echoes in Dave’s dialogue with a storeowner. Dave enters a shop and “felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze” (2067). Before the characters even speak to each other, Dave already notes Joe’s fatness through free direct discourse narration. In effect, Dave feels big, marches into the shop swelling with courage, until a real man appears. Joe’s fatness reminds Dave of his own meager boyish stature, and his false pride deflates.
Joe then initiates a conversation, and for each of his questions Dave offers a coy answer. Joe’s first five speaking parts in this short story are one-or-two-sentence paragraph questions. As an adult male gun owner, he possesses the authority to attack Dave with questions, which affirms Dave’s status as an inferior. Dave wants to ask the questions, to be answerable to no one but himself, so he refuses to give straight answers at first. Dave replies to Joe’s first question of “Whutcha want?” by saying he “don wanna buy nothing” (2067). Dave lies to Joe by omission. He may not technically want to purchase a firearm at that moment, but Dave came to the store with the intention of finding out about guns for sale. Like a child, he conceals that information until he forces Joe to promises not to tell anyone.
Joe’s description of his gun for sale reemphasizes the big and small binary. “Oh, it’s kinda old,” Joe says. “. . . a left-hand Wheeler. A pistol. A big one” (2068). Joe offers Dave exactly what he seeks—a replacement phallus, and a big one. He realizes that describing his gun as “kinda old” depreciates his merchandise, so he adds the detail that the gun shoots left-handed, which could discourage Dave from purchasing the gun unless he is also left-handed. Joe also specifies the gun type by calling it a Wheeler, which cannot help Dave picture the weapon, as he knows nothing about guns. Finally, Joe opts for simplicity and calls the gun a pistol. The gun’s size sells it. Joe seems to know that calling it “big” will tempt Dave, because he alters his description of the gun as an old left-handed Wheeler to a big pistol. As the last sentence in the gun’s description, “A big one” burns a lasting image in Dave’s mind. Sold on the gun despite witnessing Joe’s fumbling improvised product description, Dave promises to buy it as soon as he receives his pay. To Dave, the reality of the gun’s age and its cheap price—which ought to cast doubt on its quality—matters little. He sets his sights on his future manhood without considering what that status requires. Thus, Dave heads on a path toward disappointment early on by over-idealizing guns to the point of buying one without regard for its functional soundness. To Dave, as long as it shoots bullets, the gun makes the grade.
After eating dinner with his family, Dave fantasizes about how much better his life will be when he acquires a gun. Contemplating his acquisition of a new phallus approaches obsession. He fantasizes about the “slickness of the weapon with his fingers,” and promises in his mind that “If he had a gun like that he would polish it and keep it shining so it would never rust” (2069). His vow to polish his gun constantly and his desire to feel the gun’s slickness mimics masturbation. Since his gun represents his metaphorical phallus, daydreaming about rubbing it indicates his urge to sexually satisfy himself. Dave has worked himself up to the point that he will only find self-satisfaction if he acquires a gun and the masculine confidence that comes with owning one.
After he finally receives permission from his mother and buys the pistol from Joe, his thoughts seem more neurotic than ever. In his bedroom at night, Dave “held it loosely, feeling a sense of power. Could kill a man with a gun like this. Kill anybody, black or white” (2070). His masculine confidence achieved by owning a new gun/phallus enables him to murder, a prospect that excites him, energizes him with a power trip. The phallic metaphor completes itself when Dave straps his gun to his “naked thigh while it was still loaded” with a piece of flannel (2071). In attaching the powerful new phallic symbol to his body, Dave attains manhood and confidence, especially since it rests on his thigh, putting it in close proximity to Dave’s literal phallus. His physical transformation complete, Dave prepares to prove his masculinity. Like a naughty child who Christmas Eve cannot bear to wait until the next morning to unwrap presents and play with them, Dave grabs his new toy and heads to the wilderness with his boss’s mule.
Content at his isolation in the woods, with a mule named Jenny as his only witness, Dave waves his gun, shuts his eyes, and shoots and kills Jenny by accident (2071-2072). The story of Dave’s neurotic obsession with the thought of firing a gun and his eagerness to assert his newfound manliness climaxes in death. He literally jumps the gun on maturity, proving the dire consequences of using one’s adult agency too early. By strapping a loaded weapon to his body and firing a gun with flailing arms and closed eyes, Dave shows his inability to make levelheaded decisions. Dave should know that the gun strapped to his body could fire and wound him on his walk to the woods, and he could prevent Jenny’s death by just holding still and looking before pulling the trigger. With blood on his hands and tears in his eyes, Dave considers returning to childish subservience to his parents and boss impossible after his experience. He becomes a man the hard way: a dead mule’s blood buys his entry into maturity. He jumps on the next train to somewhere else, where he hopes to learn from his mistakes and practice mature adulthood.
Placing “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” in opposition to hunting narratives misses the point. Killing a mule in the forest by accident does not equal hunting, and just because Cooper and Faulkner, and Wright’s stories discuss maturation does not necessarily equate them to each other. Loftin perceives Dave as a failed hunter stunted by adverse social conditions, but Dave’s intention has nothing to do with killing animals and feeling connected to the soul of the wilderness and its creatures as do many of the traditional hunting stories. Taking Jenny through the fields with the plow serves as an excuse for Dave to shoot his gun deep into Jim Hawkins’ property where he can prove his masculinity to himself in private. Dave’s irresponsibility indicates his inadequacy as a man, but he becomes a man—albeit a failed one—because he cannot return to his former occupation.
Dave fails not because he is black, as Loftis would suggest, but because he lacks maturity. Richard Wright’s story cannot enter the literary tradition of fictional hunting only because it is not a hunting story, not because Richard Wright’s race prevents the genre from being “available” to him. Whether or not they intend it, Loftis underestimates black authors by treating their stories as irrevocably separate—by assuming that tradition limits black authors’ to discussing the unfair disadvantage of African-Americanness. If critics want to treat black authors’ works equally, then they must not assume that black authors and their characters fail to fit into whole fiction genres, especially when the short story in question did not address the genre. Critics should not stop analyzing after noting the stories’ theme of racial prejudice, but should instead continue to discuss more social discourses on which the stories comment.
Loftis, John E. “Domestic Prey: Richard Wright’s Parody of the Hunt Tradition in ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’.” Studies in Short Fiction 23.4 (Fall 1986): 437-442. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University Library, Urbana, IL. 3 December 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7360246&site=ehost-live>.
Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2007. 2067-2075.