The Burden of Manliness

Sometimes you get lucky. There was that draft lottery held in December 1969, for all men of draft age born in 1944 to 1950 – and it was pretty simple. The days of the year were numbered from 1 to 366 and written on slips of paper, the slips were placed in little plastic capsules that were mixed thoroughly in a sort of shoebox thing, and then those were dumped into a big glass jar. Then the capsules were drawn from the jar, slowly, one at a time. The first number drawn was 257 (September 14) – so all guys with that birthday were assigned Lottery Number 1 and would be off to Vietnam. The first 195 birthdates called were off to Vietnam – and September 24 was number 195. And all of us watched. Which ones of us, now that most deferments had ended, would be shipped out to go do some killing, or be killed? And that last number – 195 – wasn’t really fixed. Things on the ground could take a turn for the worse, or Nixon and Kissinger might get some bright idea, and then those with higher numbers might be on their way to war too. But when your number comes up 360 you’re just not going.

And how were you supposed to feel about that? Gloating was clearly inappropriate. We all knew there’d be friends, close friends, who would not come home, and others who would return home damaged beyond all repair. That was certain, and then that did happen. The inevitable is, well, inevitable. And feeling relieved was natural, but this was a random thing and it was not possible to avoid feeling an odd sort of guilt – someone else, someone pretty cool or pretty smart or just a nice guy, was being sent to war in what might well have been your place. What did you do to deserve a break? What made you so special?

And then there was the manliness thing. They say war is the crucible that turns callow whiney boys into solid responsible men, even a misbegotten mess of a useless war like the one in Vietnam. Would those who remained home end up as fey dilettantes just posturing about big issues? Would they never really grow up? That was, after all, the big difference between the manly combat hero George Bush and the wimpy and cowardly fellow who never was tested in war, John Kerry. No, wait. Scratch that. But maybe the exception – being from Texas, or pretending you’re from Texas – proves the rule or something. Or maybe now it’s Alaska.

But luck is luck and you don’t waste it – and you never again feel bummed-out that not one of those weekly lottery tickets you ever bought was a winner. You did win something once, a big one. So it was off to grad school – the full free ride at Duke that you thought you’d have to give up. It was time to get all scholarly – semantic analysis of the early satires of Swift and that sort of thing. And a minor was necessary. So it was Early Twentieth Century American Lit – Paris in the twenties – Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, with Picasso in the background and Ezra Pound lurking in the shadows, and Sherwood Anderson off in the corner writing about Winesburg, Ohio. Cool.

But then it was the manliness thing again – Hemingway loomed large. And he was the manliest of men, or was out to prove he was. And he was all about war. John Walsh puts it succinctly:

Wounded on the Italian front in the First World War, he was a handsome convalescent who fell in love with a pretty nurse and wrote A Farewell to Arms as a result. In the 1920s, he was at the forefront of American writers and artists who hung out in Paris “being geniuses together.” They included F Scott Fitzgerald, who (according to A Moveable Feast) once showed Hemingway his penis and confessed his worry that it was too small to satisfy his wife Zelda; Hemingway kindly reassured him it was okay.

In the 1930s, he went to Spain to fight for the republic against Franco and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which a brave American hero falls in love with a peasant guerrilla called Maria. In the Second World War, he was at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris.

Yep, war is the crucible that turns callow whiney boys into solid responsible men, or so the stories go. Walsh also notes that the critic Max Eastman complained that Hemingway’s prose style eventually become the equivalent of “false hair on the chest” – a parody of manliness. Eastman found all the bullfighting stuff scattered about particularly absurd.

But Hemingway is unavoidable. And he’s back, in Woody Allen’s new movie Midnight in Paris – Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful but kind of goofy Hollywood screenwriter, with a wife who just wants to live in Malibu, on a visit to Paris is magically transported, at the stroke of midnight, to Paris in the twenties, the time he had always dreamed of and the setting for the novel he thinks he’s going to finish writing one day. He is picked up and taken to a lively bar by Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who take him to meet Hemingway, and then Hemingway agrees to show Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein (a well-cast Kathy Bates) – and Gil goes to fetch his manuscript from his hotel. But when he leaves the bar he is suddenly transported back to the present. That’s a bummer.

There’s more to it than that – the film is about the nature of nostalgia and longing and the infinite sadness of time and history and all that sort of thing. But at the center of it is the virile and manly Hemingway, selling his version of manliness, and he’s kind of a jerk. It’s marketing. And the guy did kill himself on July 2, 1961 – exactly fifty years ago. And how manly is that?

But he is back, and Reed Johnson in the Los Angeles Times assesses the current revival:

Boozy, boorish and self-besotted, the world-famous writer in Woody Allen’s current hit film, “Midnight in Paris,” is kind of a clown. And, as played by actor Corey Stoll, he’s an instantly recognizable replica of the author of “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

He is, of course, Ernest Hemingway. Or rather, he’s the Hemingway caricature handed down to posterity: a hard-drinking, womanizing, big-game trophy-hunting, fame-craving blowhard who pushed his obsession about writing in a lean, mean prose style to the point of self-parody.

And Johnson notes the new book by Marty Beckerman, The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!

Beckerman admits that this combination of loving tribute and tongue-in-cheek how-to guide for what Beckerman sees as “today’s Facebook generation of timid metrosexual males.” And everybody knows the Hemingway cartoon character, even if they’ve never read any of the books, so they’ll get it. But Beckerman tells Johnson he also wanted his book “to remind people of the other Hemingway: intrepid war correspondent, colorful bohemian and virile man of action, whose muscular short stories and novels define modern writing the way Picasso’s paintings define modern art.”

He may have been a jerk, but damn it, he was good:

I think there’s a lot of lessons that Hemingway taught that definitely could apply to modern guys. I think that guys today aren’t really living on our own terms and have lost a certain passion. Everything we know comes from Wikipedia and everything Hemingway knew came from adventure. Get off your iPad and get off your Smartphone and go slaughter some bulls and some lions!

That’s interesting, but Johnson notes that this is the year for reappraisals:

Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife,” published earlier this year, offers a fictionalized portrait of Hadley Richardson, the long-suffering first of Hemingway’s four spouses. A new HBO film, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman as Hemingway’s third wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn, is scheduled to air in coming months.

We are being hit with a whole lot of something like manliness. And no one really knows what to make of him:

Even during Hemingway’s lifetime, some American men who’d previously worshipped him began turning against his brawling, outdoorsy values. The birth of Playboy magazine, in 1953, posited a space-age bachelor-pad “philosophy” in which the male archetype of the sweaty sportsman like Hemingway gave way to the new ideal of the dapper urban sophisticate. With the advent of the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, Hemingway’s manly posturing seemed increasingly passé.

And there is this:

In a dialogue published in the June 1986 edition of Esquire, the writers Ken Kesey and Robert Stone cited Hemingway’s suicide as a critical blow to the American male psyche, which led some men to embrace an alternative ideal of masculinity. “He tricked us into following his mode, and then he conked out and shot himself,” Kesey says of Hemingway.

Suddenly, African safaris and Parisian bistros were out. Beat poetry, experimental drugs, Eastern mysticism and the sexual ambiguity personified by rock ‘n’ roll idols like Mick Jagger was in.

So the number of literary idolaters and imitators have dwindled down over the years:

For now, like the character in Allen’s film, Hemingway may be stuck in a kind of time warp of shifting tastes and cultural attitudes. Even those who acknowledge Papa’s long shadow don’t necessarily want to step into it.

But Marty Beckerman offers a taste of what you’ve been missing in describing Hemingway’s attitude about why Real Men drink heavily:

We get loaded because we have demons. We are dark, broody, and mysterious; we possess inexplicable desires and tempestuous temperaments. We can dull our torment with liquid intoxicants – as the amputee endures his wretched condition with morphine – but we cannot erase our misery. Nor would we want to do so, because “to suffer like a man” (like Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea”) makes us men.

Alcohol isn’t about expressing this torment. The whole point is burying it deeper, which is why nobody likes a sad drunk. But some inconsiderate people – specifically, people with vaginas – cannot help themselves; they have an ounce of schnapps and then weep about their latest breakup (with yet another soul mate) or their backstabbing girl friends (those bitches) or their dead pet (more like toy) or their horrible daddy (the molester).

Whining is for women; whiskey is for men. The only shoulder a man cries on is marinated beef chuck, and the only tears he cries are tears of joy. “You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine,” Papa implored in “The Sun Also Rises.” “You lose the taste.”

The only time Hemingway cried over alcohol: When Congress made it illegal during Prohibition. But he pulled himself together, as a man does always, and traveled to Paris, as a man does seldom. There Papa committed to a life of glorious, full-throttle chemical dependence alongside “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” In Fitzgerald’s case, the drink took ten thousand drinks and then left him dead in the gutter.

That’s just a taste of it. But David L. Ulin, a Los Angeles Times book critic, reminds us that the man was more than the cartoon:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” Hemingway observed in “Death in the Afternoon,” his 1932 study of bullfighting, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” That’s a revolutionary idea, with its recognition that writing and reading are a collaboration.

Still, there are problems:

The world has changed: How many readers, in the aftermath of Vietnam or the last slogging decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, still consider war a noble gesture, a crucible? How many, in an era when we blog or tweet with equal weight our deepest secrets and least significant interactions, have any use for Hemingway’s stylized reserve? Even back when I was actively reading him, he seemed a writer of another time.

But this one example shows how Hemingway could write damned well:

I think of “Cat in the Rain,” perhaps my favorite of his stories, which in three concise pages portrays a marriage on the cusp of unraveling, without ever making that overt. The young American wife at the center of the narrative is dissatisfied but only aware of it as an undertone. As her husband reads, uninterested, she stares out the window of their Italian hotel room, then tries to rescue a cat caught in the rain. The story unfolds over the course of only a few minutes, but these minutes are intensely weighted, especially when the wife goes downstairs and runs into the hotel-keeper, an older man who is everything her husband is not. “The wife liked him,” Hemingway writes. “She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.”

You can read that passage in a variety of ways: as a deft character description or as an example of Hemingway’s aesthetic in action, with the repetition of “She liked” working to remind us of the story as a written artifact. Yet most important is how the spareness sets up the emotion, by forcing us to inhabit these sentences for ourselves.

What is Hemingway asking us to do, after all, if not to compare this man, in the wife’s eyes, to her husband, who does not and will never match up? He doesn’t need to say it; we can see it…

This was a new style, and it changed things forever, even if the guy was a jerk.

But it’s the manliness that cloys, and John Walsh assesses Hemingway’s troubled psyche:

It’s easy to be spiteful about Hemingway. All his posturing, his editing of the truth, his vainglorious fibbing can obscure his undoubted bravery. He loved being in the thick of the war – the tank advance through the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge – dodging bullets, watching men being shot to hell all around him. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that what he was doing wasn’t bravery, but psychotic self-dramatization. And when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming.

He wasn’t all that manly. It’s more like he was one sick puppy:

The idealized life of Ernest Hemingway, the one the writer himself wanted the world to buy, was simple: he was the perfect man, the perfect synthesis of brain and brawn. Driven by a thirst for adventure, he was a swashbuckling, hard-drinking pugilist who loved being in the thick of the action, whether in the front line of battle or within charging distance of a water buffalo. He also happened to be the finest writer around, disdaining the grandiose wordiness of Victorian prose for a clean, stripped-back simplicity, conveying emotion by what was not said as much as by what was.

But this may have been a joke:

It was about the time he was finishing A Farewell to Arms, in 1928, when he learnt that his father Clarence had shot himself in the head with a Civil War revolver, that Hemingway’s life first began to crack apart. The most obvious external evidence was a succession of bizarre physical accidents, many of which were bashes on the head. One, in Paris, left him with a split head needing nine stitches, after he yanked the chain in the bathroom, thinking it was the lavatory flush, and pulled the skylight down on top of him. He became weirdly accident-prone. … Why, you’d almost think he was trying to emulate his late father, and his self-imposed head wound.

That may be a little farfetched, but then there’s this:

It seems that it was his mother Grace’s habit to dress him, as a child, in long white frocks and fashion his hair like a little girl’s. It was a 19th-century custom to dress infants alike, but she took it to extremes. She referred to him, in his cute lacy dress, as “Dutch dolly”. She said she was his Sweetie, or, as he pronounced it, “Fweetee”. Once, when Ernest was two, Grace called him a doll once too often. He replied, “I not a Dutch dolly… Bang, I shoot Fweetee”. But she also praised him for being good at hunting in the woods and fishing in the stream in boys’ clothes. It was too confusing for a sensitive kid. He always hated her, and her controlling ways. He always referred to her as “that bitch”. He’d spend the rest of his life in a galloping parody of masculinity. Dutch dolly indeed. He’d show the bitch there was no confusion in his head.

“I shoot Fweetee.” The trouble was, he also wanted to shoot his father. Clarence Hemingway was a barrel-chested, six-foot bully, a disciplinarian who beat his son with a razor strop. Ernest didn’t retaliate directly. He bottled it up and subsumed it into a ritual, in which he’d hide in a shed in the family backyard with a loaded shotgun and take aim at his father’s head. Martin speculates that, when Clarence shot himself, Hemingway, aged 29, felt terrible guilt that he’d fantasized about killing him. Unable to handle this, he took to blaming his mother for his father’s death. “I hate her guts and she hates mine,” he wrote in 1949. “She forced my father to suicide.”

After Clarence’s death, Hemingway told a friend, “My life was more or less shot out from under me, and I was drinking much too much entirely through my own fault”. He suffered a chronic identity crisis. Henceforth he could be warm and generous or ruthless and overbearing. His friendships were often unstable (he could turn vicious or cruel, even with supposedly close pals) and his relations with women were full of conflict. He sulked like a child when, on his first safari, his wife Pauline shot a lion before he did. And he was pursued, for the rest of his life, by a colossal death wish – either to join his late father, or to expatiate his guilt at his father’s death by mirroring it.

This does not seem to be a solid and responsible manly man. His prose was amazing. But his manliness was odd:

Fifty years ago, in the early hours of Sunday 2 July, 1961, Ernest Hemingway, America’s most celebrated writer and a titan of 20th-century letters, awoke in his house in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, rose from his bed, taking care not to wake his wife Mary, unlocked the door of the storage room where he kept his firearms, and selected a double-barreled shotgun with which he liked to shoot pigeons. He took it to the front of the house and, in the foyer, put the twin barrels against his forehead, reached down, pushed his thumb against the trigger and blew his brains out.

His death was timed at 7 am. Witnesses who saw the body remarked that he had chosen from his wardrobe a favorite dressing gown that he called his “emperor’s robe”. They might have been reminded of the words of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, just before she applied the asp to her flesh: “Give me my robe. Put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me”. His widow Mary told the media that it was an unfortunate accident, that Ernest had been cleaning one of his guns when it accidentally went off. The story was splashed on the front page of all American newspapers.

It took Mary Welsh Hemingway several months to admit that her husband’s death was suicide; and it’s taken nearly fifty years to piece together the reasons why this giant personality, this rumbustious man of action, this bullfighter, deep-sea fisherman, great white hunter, war hero, gunslinger and four-times-married, all-round tough guy, whom every red-blooded American male hero-worshipped, should do himself in. How could he? Why would he?

Well, one answer is that manliness is hard to manage. The second George Bush was manly. What good did that do us?

So many friends went off to Vietnam, and if Hemingway was right, that should have turned them into real men. And those of us who lucked out in that 1969 lottery, who were left home, should have remained perpetual adolescents, or turned into what Arnold Schwarzenegger used to like to call Girly Men.

But it’s never that neat and tidy. And exactly fifty years ago Hemingway blew his brains out because it wasn’t all neat and tidy, as he had tried to show us it was, marketing his brand, that perfect synthesis of brain and brawn. And it seems some of us were lucky to escape dealing with the whole question. You just have to be born on the right day.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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