31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 27: “Man of All Work” by Richard Wright

May 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Eight Men

Eight_Men_Richard_WrightRichard Wright wrote from a staunchly masculine perspective, but a perspective informed by his background as a black man in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. As Paul Gilroy asserts in the introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of Eight Men, Wright’s later work was not met with positive critical reception, in large part because numerous critics felt that he had sold out the purity of his writing by picking up stakes and moving to Paris. In the view of many commentators of the time, Wright’s “immersion in Parisian intellectual and political life [was] regrettable because it led the world’s preeminent Negro writer far away from the vital roots of his creativity in the Southern Black Belt.”

However, as Gilroy points out, the stories in Eight Men all extend Wright’s examination of masculinity – in particular, black American masculinity – that is “marked by its author’s sensitivity to the interplay of distinctive psychological factors with economic, cultural, and historical forces.”

The story “Man of All Work” was actually written as a radio play, which accounts for the way it is presented – that is, entirely in dialogue. In this, it is not as successful as, say, William Gaddis’s National Book Award–winning novel JR, which is fearless in its presentation of unattributed dialogue. By contrast, “Man of All Work” strains against its constraints, constantly providing signposts to remind its reader who is speaking at any given point:

– Mama, does Lucy know about Little Red Riding Hood?

– Miss Lily, I know all about her.

– O.K., Lucy. Now, do you think you can rustle up some breakfast for us?

– I’ll try, ma’am. What would you-all want?

– What do you specialize in for breakfast, Lucy?

– Reckon you all would love some pancakes? I cook ’em light as a feather. You can digest ’em in your sleep.

– Just a moment, Lucy. Dave!

– Yeah, Anne.

– Lucy wants to try her hand at some pancakes. She says she’s good at ’em.

– Well, tell her to rustle some up. I haven’t had any good pancakes since Heck was a pup.

– You’ve got your orders, Lucy.

The constant repetition of names would be unnecessary in the context of a radio play, where different voices would designate the characters, but comes off as equally artificial in a written context, where the seams holding the story together begin to show a bit too clearly.

Despite this, “Man of All Work” is a worthy fiction, both for its rhythms of spoken prose, and for its thematic resonance.

As Gilroy states in his introduction, the story exemplifies the intersection of gender and race in Wright’s work: the two subjects are never far apart, but “Man of All Work” highlights the ways in which black men and white women both suffer oppression and subjugation under the rigidly segregationist and patriarchal society in place in America at the time.

“Man of All Work” is about a black man named Carl who is unemployed and in danger of losing his house. He has a wife and two young children to whom he is fiercely devoted: the story is insistent upon the harmonious family life that Carl enjoys, and careful to portray him as a diligent husband, who accepts responsibility for feeding the newborn baby in the middle of the night, and is torn up by the possibility that he might be shirking his duty as provider.

Carl is a chef who is unskilled at any trade; when he scours the want ads for work, the only jobs available to men are machinists and masons and bookkeepers. However, when he spies an ad for a cook and a housekeeper for a white family, an idea sparks in his mind: he will don his wife’s dress, assume her name, Lucy, and pass himself off as a woman in order to get the job (he has already grown his hair long in the fashion of the time).

This premise is, of course, inherently comic, recapitulated in such cinematic fare as Some Like It Hot, La Cage au Folles, Victor/VictoriaTootsie, and (especially) Mrs. Doubtfire. However, Wright adds the level of racial politics to his scenario, which provides an extra frisson to the situation. “Who looks close at us colored people anyhow?” Carl says to his wife when she objects to his scheme on the basis that he will be caught out as a fraud. “We all look alike to white people.”

Carl’s assessment proves to be true, at least where the adults are concerned. The couple who placed the ad, Dave and Anne Fairchild, are readily duped by the ruse; the only person who is not taken in is the young child, Lily. The girl remarks on the new maid’s big, hairy arms and deep voice, to which the housekeeper in drag can do little but respond, “You notice everything, don’t you, Lily?”

The child is not blinded by the same prejudices as her parents, but neither is she experienced enough to understand the implications behind her father wanting to “wrestle” with the new maid in the same way he did with the former maid, Bertha, who “left” her position abruptly, because, Lily explains, “Mama said it was not nice for a lady to wrestle with a man.”

When Dave comes home for lunch, gets tipsy on whiskey, and tries to “wrestle” with the new maid, things don’t work out as expected, first because the maid is stronger and less malleable than the patriarch expected, and then because the two are discovered mid-grapple by Anne, who shoots the housekeeper in a fit of pique over her husband’s persistent infidelity.

There are a number of things going on here. There are the obvious racist overtones in the way the couple treat “Lucy.” The maid “[k]nows her place,” Dave says of her after their first meeting. But more than this, there is the gender and power disparity between a black housekeeper and her white master, who forces himself on her (him) in a way that we are given to understand is habitual, Dave having ceased paying sexual attention to his wife. “Mrs. Fairchild is still in the bath and will eat later,” he tells his new servant at the breakfast table. “She’s on a strict diet and will only want a slice of toast and black coffee.” Dave has become dissatisfied with his wife’s appearance, something she has come to feel guilty about. “I’ve just got to watch my figure,” Anne tells the maid at one particularly vulnerable moment.

Anne shoots Carl/Lucy in a fit of jealousy, hating the fact that her husband is constantly chasing after the black help while ignoring her. The racial and gender politics in this scene are undeniably fraught, and become even more so when Dave discovers the truth about his housekeeper’s duplicity: “That’s our answer!” he exclaims, suggesting he will take the blame for the shooting. “I was protecting white womanhood from a nigger rapist impersonating a woman!” The white man’s persistent fear of the black male as a sexual predator stalking his vulnerable white mate is here made explicit, and is given a heightened irony by Dave’s attraction to ethnic women, the most recent of whom turns out to be not at all what she seems. (The homoerotic overtones here, especially in the notion of “wrestling,” are perhaps not unintentional, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far.)

The conceit of Wright’s story may be comic, but its substance and implications are deeply serious, and retain a piercing and troubling resonance today. In Gilroy’s words, the story “mainfest[s] the violence that is always latent within contact between blacks and whites,” and “enumerates some of the gender-specific forms that racism can assume.”