Friday, March 22, 2013

A man’s a man for a’ that

First it was the novel of religious belief. Last December Paul Elie took to the pages of the New York Times Book Review to lament that it has “gone where belief itself has gone”—to the margins of American life. (Well, that’s where nearly all American novels have gone in the last twenty-five years, but you know what he means.) Now it is “masculine writing” that has turned up missing and presumed dead. At least according to the novelist Frank Bill, who worries in the Daily Beast that

a large number of men have lost their ruggedness. Maybe they never had it. I believe to be a man is to be tough mentally and physically. To have a small set of skills to survive from day to day when needed. Like lifting weights or boxing in a dust and spider-web-infested concrete shed with a tin roof. Where it’s sweltering in the summer and freezer-burn-cold in the winter, to keep the body and mind tough. Hunting and fishing to hone the skills my father and grandfather passed onto me.Is it any surprise, then, that these things have disappeared from American writing? Now, the disappearances may be overdue: feminist critics have argued for two generations that masculinity is the default setting in American fiction. Hence the shaking of the canon, the predictable outrage when any book list does not contain enough women writers, the Orange Prize, the Vida count. A man need not be “rugged” to produce “masculine writing”; he need only not be a woman.

But masculinity means something more. For Bill it means “to be tough, to be rugged, to be able to take care of your damn self.” Among the writers who “shed light” on this side of masculinity, for him, are Charles Bukowski, Thom Jones, Jim Harrison, Larry Brown, Hubert Selby, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Cormac McCarthy, Roger Smith, and James Carlos Blake. O, how I love a list without explanations, as if I were going to take it to the bookstore with me! The only writer Bill says anything more about is Crews, who is “like rare bourbon, hard to come by, but worth every drop—we’d have to keep him behind the counter.” Has literary criticism ever been so definitive, so unashamedly literary?

The truth is that Frank Bill is on to something, but not in the terms he proposes. There are fewer men in American fiction, there is less masculinity, but not because there are fewer hunters and less weight-lifting. Richard Katz, the rocker in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, a good man, a mentsh—not, however, because he uses power tools to build decks. He is a man because, even while “glimps[ing] his pride in its pathetic woundedness,” he renounces his adulterous lover (a woman he has loved hopelessly for twenty years) and convinces her to return to her husband.

Nestor Camacho, the 25-year-old Miami cop in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense—a man who is “tough mentally and physically.” Not, however, because he climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner to save a Cuban refugee and not because, without any help, he takes down a suspect who is a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. (Those actions make him a hero in the eyes of his fellow cops, although a taboo prevents them from saying so.) He is a man because official reprimands and suspension from the police force—public accusations of racism, ostracism by his own family—don’t stop him from investigating an injustice all on his own. “He was just being a cop,” his superior officer explains.

Charles Homar, the 31-year-old magazine writer in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, or at least he develops into one over the course of his novel—not because he shoots up the boat on which his fiancée leaves him, serves a stretch in prison, stalks Bigfoot, becomes what his old allies on the Left would call a gun nut (“You can find comfort in Misters Smith and Wesson”), and stays on the trail of his fiancée till he gets her back. He is a man because his brushes with danger lead to marriage and fatherhood.

Bill’s conception of it might called reactive masculinity, a backlash against the gender-neutralization of American culture described by Harvey C. Mansfield nearly seven years ago in his book Manliness. Bill is hardly alone: last week John Hawkins listed the “7 Movies That Show You The Masculine Ideal,” and predictably enough, all seven were action movies in which masculinity is a romanticized ideal, released from the realities (including the physical limitations) that drag upon ordinary men. Whenever reactive masculinity is confused with true manhood, I feel as if I were back in high school, being ridiculed once again by the heavy-set one-year lettermen who played offensive line on the winless football team because I was a three-year letterman in varsity track and cross country, too small to play the more “rugged” sport, not a “real athlete.”

Bill almost has it right, although his insertion of the word damn betrays his anxiety: to be a real man is “to be able to take care of your damn self,” but only because you have a horror of anyone else’s being obliged to take care of you. Taking care of others is a man’s job. A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others. If I had to define masculinity while standing on one foot, I don’t think I could do any worse.

I find myself thinking of Swede Levov in Roth’s American Pastoral with his “golden gift of responsibility,” his “fatal attraction to duty.” He doesn’t change his own oil; he doesn’t lift weights or hunt deer; he isn’t even much of a do-it-yourselfer. But Swede is a man for all that—a real man, perhaps the manliest man in recent American fiction. Not his athleticism, not his rugged frame and youthful good looks, not even his hands-on knowledge of how to make something lasting and useful (gloves, in his case), but the responsibility that “follows him through life”—that’s what makes him, for Philip Roth and the reader of American Pastoral, a shining symbol of manhood. If there are fewer men in American fiction, if there is less masculinity, perhaps the reason is that more male characters are absorbed with their “damn selves” and fewer are willing, like the Swede, to accede to responsibility, no matter (really) what it is.

10 comments:

PMH said...

"Taking care of others is a man’s job. A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others. If I had to define masculinity while standing on one foot, I don’t think I could do any worse." I agree. While generalizations about gender has doomed many a thought and comment, I would risk saying that one of the features of maleness is self-sacrifice of the kind described by you. Not that women are not self-sacrificing, but they have a line more easily reached, the one where children and family begin. Women sacrifice themselves to the point where the children/family/home are threatened and no further. Yes, many of women's sacrifices are for the family but women become self-preserving very quickly when their self-preservation means the family's preservation. Men will take self-sacrifice right past nihilism and futility and much of male culture is about finding responsible ways to die. Even death must be indispensable.

R.T. said...

"Masculinity" is a mask. Just consider Ernest Hemingway. Take away the mask, and you have a life built upon lies and selfishness. His treatment of women, John Dos Passos, and other friends and other people is all the evidence you need. Please understand that I admire some of his writing but cannot admire the man. I cannot think of a so-called "masculine" man who is not, in fact, merely wearing a mask. It is analogous to a "feminine" woman, which is another example of mask-wearing.

BTW, are you still teaching?

D. G. Myers said...

Still teaching, Tim, in my extraordinarily expendable way.

R.T. said...

I also continue the good fight in the classrooms, but I have recently been gored a few times in the arena. And, Lord help me, I am again including Hemingway's TSAR in my upcoming lit class. Students will again be focused on the drinking and Brett's carnal adventures, but they will again miss the point. Ole!

dglen said...

What's the date for A&M in the event I'm able to drive over?(a regular reader of ACB, would like to hear you)

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Bill writes, that he appreciates women who write masculine prose; "women who come from and know struggle, understand the land they were raised upon, can wield an edge or a gun and prose that will sear your mind when writing about it." So it seems he is mixing a certain image of manhood ie. ruggedness, physical strength, survival skills etc. with a prose style that conveys these qualities. What he seems to be saying, I think, is that when we forsake the traditional masculinity (the way our parents and grandparents lived) in the way we live and earn a living - pushing buttons on a PC instead of hunting deer and dressing your kill in the forest - we risk losing a robust style of writing that emphasizes masculine traits ie. individual struggle over forming and nurturing relationships, a desire to master over consensus-building, a preoccupation with political tensions over domestic ones, descriptions of nature's harsh beauty as opposed to its fluid magnificence.

George said...

"Where it’s sweltering in the summer and freezer-burn-cold in the winter, to keep the body and mind tough."

I think of the professional soldier's remark in Men at Arms: "Any damn fool can make himself uncomfortable."

I have described myself as "masculine"--but that was because the form in the doctor's office asked for my "gender".

Carl said...

Frank Bill's truncated definition of masculinity was an attempt to simply define a first step. Before one can "take care of others", some habit of self-reliance is in order, and it is this lack of self-reliance that has led to the "feminization" of American fiction. Women are hard-wired to quite ably find solutions in communal arrangements. Men, in contrast, either solve the problem using one's own resources, or they begin to drift. For a definition of "drift" just look to the latest generation of young men.

Shelley said...

Life requires mental, not physical, toughness.

Real writers know that.

D. G. Myers said...

I'll be speaking on the digital humanities at Texas A&M on April 15th, although whether that's appropriate or not is something I can't quite say.