A Man's Game explores the development of American literary naturalism as it relates to definitions of manhood in many of the movement's key texts and the aesthetic goals of writers such as Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, Charles Chestnutt, and James Weldon Johnson. John Dudley argues that in the climate of the late 19th century, when these authors were penning their major works, literary endeavors were widely viewed as frivolous, the work of ladies for ladies, who comprised the vast majority of the dependable reading public. Male writers such as Crane and Norris defined themselves and their work in contrast to this perception of literature. Women like Wharton, on the other hand, wrote out of a skeptical or hostile reaction to the expectations of them as woman writers.
Dudley explores a number of social, historical, and cultural developments that catalyzed the masculine impulse underlying literary naturalism: the rise of spectator sports and masculine athleticism; the professional role of the journalist, adopted by many male writers, allowing them to camouflage their primary role as artist; and post-Darwinian interest in the sexual component of natural selection. A Man's Game also explores the surprising adoption of a masculine literary naturalism by African-American writers at the beginning of the 20th century, a strategy, despite naturalism's emphasis on heredity and genetic determinism, that helped define the black struggle for racial equality.