Although much a typical coming-of-age story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” also depicts Dave’s greater struggles with racism and poverty, and it is an exemplary piece of naturalist writing. Naturalists such as Wright incorporated stinging social criticism into their stories and novels by pitting their characters against social, economic, or environmental forces that they can’t control. In making Dave a victim of racial oppression, for example, Wright attacks whites’ lingering power over the lives of blacks. Like his parents, Dave is stuck in a life of subservience to men such as Mr. Hawkins, Joe the shopkeeper, and other financially secure whites and will never have the education or money necessary to achieve his full potential. He consequently believes that only brute power—the ability to shoot a gun—will win him the respect he wants. Dave’s desire to own a gun thus reflects a greater desperation and psychological need to establish himself in the community as an empowered human being rather than a mere field hand.
Dave’s struggle to overcome the uncontrollable forces pressing down on him speaks for all young people whom society has overlooked and dismissed. He therefore becomes Wright’s unlikely hero, a young man who refuses to cave under overwhelming social forces while simultaneously shirking his debts and commitments like an irresponsible child. Even though readers know that Dave will probably never find the success, independence, or power he craves, the mere fact that he’s willing to risk striking out on his own redeems him and makes him more than “almost a man.”