Yeah, the Kid is his name
And he’s too tough tuh tame,
He’s the fastest, the meanest, the best!
Jist blam! blam! blam!
And he don’t give a damn!
He’s the Savior of the West!
He’s the Savior of the West!
— Robert Coover, “The Kid,” 1970
For me, the Kid was machismo, and he’s almost gone now, and Goddamnit, in a lot of ways, I’m going to miss him.
I know: The style was full of exaggerated masculinity; peacock pride; brutal vanity and the language of stunted boys. And the Kid, carrying the baggage of that style, is riding out of town at last, leaving the women and freeing the men from the force of his presence; it was one of the longest, most violent visits in history. The Kid always wore the mask of chivalry, appearing tough, resourceful, brave and solitary, and his image seduced generation after generation of Americans, including mine. Statesmen and steamfitters, prizefighters and presidents, foot soldiers and Harvard men: few were immune.
And now, at last, it’s over; the chivalric mask has been removed. In the end, we saw Richard Nixon’s features crawling underneath: we saw the dead of too many wars speaking from the eyes of the Kid; we saw marriages dissolved into bitter personal history, bodies lying on the streets of a dozen cities, macho princes filling up the prisons, all of them moving around behind the mask. The Kid could not stand exposure. Battered by long attack from the female citizenry, deprived of crucial support from some of the men, and worst of all, subjected to laughter, the Kid is riding off into what might prove to be a permanent sunset.
It hasn’t been easy. In some ways, the Kid has been central to being an American, affecting men and women almost equally, deeply integrated in the American character. The Kid, after all, was a product of the American frontier, rootless, without limits, making law with his cock of a gun, and moving on. The reality of the frontier was barbarity in some instances, banal in others. But legends, as constructed by Ned Buntline and made into poetry by John Ford, are always more powerful than facts. Those popular legends — of which the Kid with his code of machismo was the centerpiece — created the images by which American men were measured. They taught at least five generations of American women their place (as whores or school-teachers or mothers, but seldom anything else). And far more important, these legends became, the spine of the American ideology, frequently superseding capitalism and democracy for several generations of American foreign policy makers. American statesmen, American presidents, and American spies were Americans before they were anything else; that means they were educated to respect and emulate the Kid.
And it is no simple thing to damn them for this. After all, the Whole Macho Thing was one of the most attractive life-styles ever constructed. For me, it was Shane riding in from nowhere to clean out a corrupt town. It was the Continental Op wiping out Poisonville. It was Gary Cooper, standing alone before hostile guns at high noon. It was Robert Jordan on the side of his hill, with his wounded leg and his machine gun, waiting for the Fascists. I was there with all of them; they peopled the empty spaces of a young man’s mind. I walked out on the tarmac of the Casablanca airport with Bogart and stood with him in the fog, as the woman he loved flew off to safety, while he lit another Camel and started his beautiful friendship with Claude Rains. I was in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, cheering in the steaming New York night, while Ray Robinson flicked away the blood from the gash over his brow and called on himself to come on and knock out Randy Turpin in the 10th round. They were heroes, muy macho, and I loved them all.
The macho style was careless, death-defying, existential, and it had its own Pantheon: Edward R. Murrow, the trench coat pulled tight, the cigarette dangling from the long piano player’s fingers, describing the Blitz from the roof of the BBC in London, oblivious to danger; Jackson Pollock, grizzled, swaggering, hard-drinking, busting open the timid traditionalism of American painting, scoring one-round knockouts over the children of the School of Paris, carousing with Franz Kline at the bar of the Cedar Street Tavern, surrounded by the art history majors from Wellesley and Sarah Lawrence; Dylan Thomas destroying his gorgeous sullen art with drinking and whoring until he landed in his final bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For a kid growing up in America, they were the models: Along with John Garfield, with the gentle eyes set in the face of a tough Brownsville Jew, dying in bed with a woman who wasn’t his wife; Pete Reiser, smashing his beautiful talents against the walls of Ebbets Field; Charlie Parker, reinventing jazz on the tiny stages of the 52nd Street clipjoints, his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with his Countess; Beau Jack, Stanley Ketchel, Babe Ruth, Rocky Graziano (“I brung home the title to Noo Yawk, Mal”) lighting a Pall Mall in the dressing room, swallowing a beer, as they worked on Zale down the hall). And Hemingway.
“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev,” Ernest Hemingway told Lillian Ross in 1950. “Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. Nobody is going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy.”
That was the precise tone of the later, debased Hemingway, the Hemingway that Norman Mailer once described as “the cavalry of American letters,” and the Hemingway who became the central figure in the modern American macho style. That style was boastful, competitive, full of sports metaphors, because sports had become the arena for acting out the legend that had once been very real on the frontier. Hemingway became the poet of machismo, the chronicler of bullfighters, deep sea fishermen, hard drinkers, saloon brawlers, and wasted soldiers. Two generations of American writers were forced to confront him: They emulated him or rebelled against him, but they had to deal with him, because in Hemingway, they were dealing with a deep, ferociously strong component of the American character itself: the Kid.
“Hemingway’s he-man performance was, among other things, a means of combatting the American stereotype of the writer as a sissy,” the critic Harold Rosenberg has written. “… One might say that each of his novels origjnated in a new choice of male makeup.”
And there was a strain of theatricality in everything that Hemingway did from the time he arrived in Key West in 1928. He became one of the country’s first media heroes, a development that coincided with the triumph of the gossip column and the rise of the picture magazine, and he worked hard at it, dropping notes to Leonard Lyons, posing for photographs with giant marlin, or slaying water buffalo. Other photographs showed him at the front in Spain, or drinking with the partisans after liberating the Ritz in Paris in 1944. Growing older, the broad-shouldered body thickening, the moustached face finally assuming a full white mask of beard, as he made the transformation from Ernest to Hemingway to Papa. There were many people who thought the whole performance was ludicrous; critics like Edmund Wilson made more serious observations, pointing out that as the media image grew, as the focus shifted from the writing to the Hemingway persona, in short, as the macho image overwhelmed the scared young poet of World War I and the young man who sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the art itself was being ruined. Certainly the Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” would have snickered at the Colonel Cantwell of “Across the River and Into the Trees.” If you looked closely at the photographs, only Hemingway’s eyes — increasingly uncertain, vulnerable, and remorseful — indicated that Hemingway himself knew what was happening to him.
Because central to the macho style was performance. The macho man should be able to climb into a ring with a hangover and a bad stomach and win the title: he should be able to drink and whore all night and still work a typewriter the next day: and more than anything else, he must always be capable of an erection. It is a young man’s style; it doesn’t encourage a writer to grow old and write masterpieces; it does not teach anyone to embrace weakness, most importantly, one’s own. All that business about Grace Under Pressure is the code of the Kid: it leads to a brief performance, a culminating explosion of violence, and a slow ride out of town. And in some way, Hemingway was our best writer of Westerns. It is no accident, perhaps, that when he reached for that last shotgun, he was living in Idaho.
When I went looking for a definition of machismo for these notes, it wasn’t easy to find. The new Random House Dictionary talked about “maleness, virility, male domination.” There was nothing at all in the Webster’s New Third International, and the Oxford English Dictionary described a variety of birds, from the “macho mullett” to the British puffin. In defining the word “macho,” the Velasquez Spanish-English Dictionary was more helpful, if somewhat comic: “1. male animal; in particular, a he-male or a he-goat. 2. A masculine plant. 3. A piece of some instrument that enters into another; a screw-pin. 4. An ignorant fellow.”
All of the above might apply, of course, but no dictionary definition could come close to explaining what machismo has been in action. One thing is certain: machismo kills.
“We know that men stand a 500 per cent greater risk of a coronary than women,” writes Harvey E. Kaye, M.D. in his book, Male Survival: Masculinity Without Myth, “and, in the past two decades, deaths from heart attacks have jumped 14 per cent among men aged 25 to 44, while declining among women in the same age group.” Kaye, whose book is one of several recent volumes dealing with what he calls The Masculine Mystique, goes on to say: “Characterized by intense striving for achievement, competitiveness, aggressivity, impatience, a preemptive speech pattern, and a constant awareness of the pressure of time and responsibility, the candidate for a coronary is a living embodiment of the ideals of the Mystique.”
In “Naked Nomads,” his recent study of unmarried men in America, George Gilder also shows the effects of macho pressure on single men who are asked to perform to impossible standards as “swingers” and sexual athletes, and cool urban versions of the Kid. He quotes studies showing that single men are over 30 per cent more likely than married men or single women to be depressed; 30 per cent more likely to show ‘phobic tendencies’ and ‘passivity’; and almost twice as likely to show severe neurotic symptoms. They are almost three times as prone to nervous breakdowns.”
And certainly married people are in some trouble with machismo. Male possessiveness, and its dark side, sexual jealousy, are central to the macho style. And in the United States, jealousy is a killer. One New York homicide detective told me that “jealousy kills more people in New York than heroin,” claiming that in his experience, two thirds of the city’s 2000 annual homicides can be traced to jealousy. Impossibly high standards of male performance have also contributed to the wildly escalating rate of family abandonment, and the resulting social disorder and swollen welfare rates about 700,000 women and children without an adult male in the household in New York City alone. The male who finds that his life simply cannot measure up to the standards imposed on him by movies, television, and some literature can solve his problems with violence, the passivity of alcohol or drugs, or with flight. The macho style, trapped in an eternal adolescence, usually sides with Huckleberry Finn, urging us all to light out for the Territory. Take the Struggle somewhere else. Start all over again. The Kid is never asked to fully understand another human being, to learn to love a woman raise a family, admit human frailty and weakness and fear.
But if the macho style can be killing on a local, domestic level, it becomes almost suicidal on an international scale. And there is no way to disguise the fact that the same myths that formed the rest of us also formed our recent presidents. The first champion of the macho style in this century was clearly Theodore Roosevelt (who was, incidentally, the president when Ernest Hemingway was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and who was one of the early examples of the rough-riding, war-hardened, big-game hunting style that Hemingway exemplified later; in some photographs, Hemingway even looks like Teddy Roosevelt). Consider this passage from Roosevelt:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place all never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Jason Miller quotes these words in a crucial scene in his play about the failure of machismo, “That Championship Season.” Worse, they were quoted with approval by two recent American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. But when you examine the words, they are so clearly foolish, so dangerously romantic, that a high school student should recognize the horrors they might bring to a nation that believes them. Who, for example, are “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat,” those to whom, presumably, no credit belongs? Einstein? Freud? Leonardo da Vinci? Jonas Salk? Buddha? Walt Whitman? Karl Marx? Tolstoy? These are the words of a football coach, the “winning-is-the-only-thing” credo of a Vince Lombardi, whose courage is always of the sideline variety, growing stronger with each mauling yard earned by the players who suffer the actual pain.
What they are in reality are the romantic words of a man who needs glorious rhetoric to cover up murderous reality. Roosevelt was the champion of the American Empire; he clearly saw it as an American right to grab Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to carry the message of a burgeoning American capitalism to the far corners of the earth. He didn’t have the power then, but he certainly had the words. Imperialism is the ultimate form of machismo: aggressive; possessive; competitive; fearful of appearing impotent; its malign reality covered with the language of chivalry, talk of duty, honor, and courage.
In the era of Roosevelt, it was necessary to create a rhetoric to justify the killing of Indians, the robbery of the American land, and the terrible working conditions in the great cities.
The macho style served that purpose for almost a half-century to follow. If the American male was made to believe that it is somehow “manly” to endure discomfort and pain, then he could go down to the coal face every day and believe he was doing something valuable. If World War I had been explained as a struggle for colonial markets, Woodrow Wilson would not have been able to raise an army to go to Europe and fight; call it a “war to save democracy” and the volunteers would line up in the millions. The American male was given some small edge: He could enforce monogamy on his wife, have her as his possession, and perhaps even beat her up once in a while. (The ultimate macho advice was once given to me years ago: “Kid,” he said, “never marry a girl you can’t knock out with one punch.”) Women were generally kept off the job market so that they would not compete with men as a source for cheap labor, and discriminatory laws were passed almost everywhere to make certain that women were treated as slaves and/or children.
The result was that men did all the terrible jobs. Men fought the American wars. And machismo, elaborated and codified as the century grew older, became the dominant force in our foreign policy. When an aroused United States reacted passionately to Pearl Harbor, the earlier events behind the quarrel with the Japanese were forgotten — the struggle for raw materials and markets in Asia — and the duty of every American male was to enlist. In the words of one song of the era, it was time “to knock those Japs/down to their Jap-a-knees.” When the war was over, when the survivors moved through the ashes of Hiroshima and Dresden and Nagasaki and Berlin, the United States was the greatest power on the earth; the Kid ruled the town.
But with great power came the macho style, and the macho style requires enemies. You cannot be the toughest gun in town unless there are other people in town, and the romantic nature of the argument requires that the hostiles be the epitome of evil. The results are familiar: the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency, populated by romantic anti-Communists who had started out in the OSS, and were soon engaged in gunfights in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and a hundred other places; Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had its own macho types sitting at the feet of Stalin in the Kremlin; the attempt to impose order over all forms of nationalist revolution; commitments to fight against anyone who tried to overthrow a colonial power; the still-puzzling war in Korea. The War Department changed its name to the Defense Department, but the people were the same and the weaponry grew enormous. Presidents other than Eisenhower, who had been a general, and, therefore, understood better the limitations of the military mind — seemed in awe of the men with the scrambled eggs on their hats who walked so briskly, so efficiently, in such manly fashion through the corridors of the Pentagon. By 1960, the stage was set for tragedy.
“The main thing implicit in the Pentagon Papers,” Daniel Ellsberg once said, “is a great and sometimes irrational fear of losing; both the decision-maker’s fear of appearing irresolute or ‘soft,’ and his perception of the American voter’s inability to accept defeat.”
So John F. Kennedy, who had written a book about political courage, and who had grown up in the Hemingway era, went to Vienna and met Khruschev. Somehow his manhood was thought to be at stake. And soon the troops were moving to Berlin, and to Southeast Asia. He could not appear weak. He could not let Khrushchev think of him as a boy. The Americans financed a botched invasion of Cuba. They moved more strongly into the civil war in Vietnam. And then came the Missile Crisis. In the recent television version of the events, called “The Missiles of October,” it was clear how the entire crisis was a question of proving masculinity. To prove he was a man, Kennedy risked the obliteration of the Earth. It was chilling and foolish, a 13-day exercise on the brink of doom, about a relatively minor episode (Cuba, which, after all, had been invaded two years earlier by American-financed Cuban exiles, certainly had a right to arm itself defensively against the United States, and if the Americans had the right to place missiles in Turkey, on the border of the Soviet Union, then the Soviets had the right to place missiles in a friendly country near the border of the United States). But Kennedy seemed prepared to risk everything, and all accounts describe how cool he was during the events, how he displayed Grace Under Pressure. Fortunately for the earth, Khrushchev was not so dedicated to macho principles; he was willing to back down, to be reasonable, to display simple human fear about the consequences of the nuclear poker game.
Unfortunately, the Missile Crisis was seen by many observers as a triumph for the macho style. Clearly, it helped propel us into the quagmire of Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson came to power, the decision-makers in the White House, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara, the CIA people, and Johnson himself seemed convinced that If You Stand Up To the Communists They Will Back Down. Nobody passed the word to the little men in the black pajamas. They fought on, and the Americans plunged deeper into the war. By the winter of 1965, it seemed as if a Western were unspooling Johnson’s head, and his cavalry was plunging into the fray against the hostiles. Americans, after all, went West to get to the Far East; the new frontier seemed to be located somewhere in the Mekong Delta.
Billions of dollars were thrown into Vietnam. Almost 55,000 Americans died there and another 200,000 were wounded as 2 million young Americans fought across swamp and highland. Johnson destroyed himself politically. His Great Society programs died and the money went to Asia, and the once-mighty American dollar started to shudder, as the Treasury printed paper to pay for the war, because Johnson refused to ask the Americans for a tax increase.
Richard Nixon arrived in the White House but nothing changed. He said he was not going to be the first American president to lose a war. America would not become “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Nixon surrounded himself with macho types: Bob Haldeman was tough; John Ehrlichman was tough; John Mitchell was tough. Antiwar demonstrators were “bums.” They talked to each other, as the White House tapes showed later, in a curious private language, partly derived from sports, partly form the Pentagon, and the rest from the advertising business. They were all tough. Yeah.
Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, and later secretary of state, was Henry Kissinger who actually described himself in an interview with Oriana Fallaci as “a gunfighter” striding into town alone. Nixon invaded Cambodia. His attorney general tear-gassed and arrested antiwar demonstrators. When Nixon took a strange late night journey with his chauffeur to talk to antiwar demonstrators during one of the moratoriums; he tried to talk to them about football. They were flabbergasted.
And while the bombing continued, while thousands died, and Nixon talked about how terrible it would be for the United States to be “defeated” or “humiliated” or turned into a “second-rate power,” his vice-president was roaming the country attacking the “effete” intellectual snobs. Nixon had picked Agnew, he explained, because he had been a “tough guy” with black leaders when he was governor of Maryland (he didn’t know, presumably, that Agnew had also been a pretty tough thief), and because Agnew was capable of “forcefulness” and had a “strong-looking chin.” For as long as it was possible, Agnew carried your Nixon’s domestic policies, creating enemies when none existed intellectually mugging those who disagreed with the Nixon administration. It was no accident that when Agnew wanted to abuse Republican Charles Goodell in the 1970 New York senatorial contest, he described him as a political “Christine Jorgenson.”
It lasted for almost five years. The war ended after the murderous Christmas bombing of 1972 when Kissinger was finally able to negotiate an American retreat “with honor,” a peace that left the war going on, but at least took American bodies out of the way of Vietnamese guns. And at home, Watergate had already happened; Agnew resigned and was saved from the penitentiary through a deal. The cover-up was begun, and then started to unravel, and finally Nixon was led away in disgrace to his Elba in San Clemente. No more phone calls to football coaches. No more tough speeches to hand-picked audiences. Only silence, as his followers, those champions of the macho style, enter and leave their various prisons.
Vietnam and Watergate probably finished off the Kid. But there were other forces at work too, all of which led to the decline of the macho style. In literature, Joseph Heller demolished the Hemingway ethos in “Catch-22” (although Yossarian’s final decision — to make a separate peace — was essentially no different from the decision made by Frederick Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), Hemingway’s last novel before he became a celebrity). More important perhaps was the rise of rock music; rigid codes of dress fell away as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones took center stage in a generation’s consciousness. “Gates of Eden” was a long way from the Man in the Arena. The Beatles grew their hair long and in a single year changed the way young men had worn their hair for a half-century; through the Nixon years, all of his young men, like Haldeman himself, made a point of wearing their hair in the short ’50s style, as if telling the young that power was clearly masculine, and you proved it by the way you chose to look. Mick Jagger sniggered, and did his epicene dance.
More important was the way women were changing. The Pill had opened up an era of freer sexuality, and women were increasingly demanding the same rights as men. From the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, the basis of male-female relationships was brought under the most stringent examination in memory. Many men resisted from the beginning, but others saw it clearly, if not immediately, that equality for women was certain to lead to an expansion of the humanity of men themselves. The docile, submissive woman was going out of style quickly; in sexual matters, women were more aggressive (in some cases scaring some men into bouts of impotence); more important, women started moving into politics, demanding that their voices be heard on matters other than specifically “women’s issues.” In literature, hundreds of novels by women seemed to appear, explaining their lives in ways that men had never seemed capable of understanding before; Erica Jong became a best-seller by writing the sort of book Henry Miller had written in the past. Joyce Carol Oates exploded all over the place, issuing a stream of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays that made her a major writer in a space of a few years. There were, of course, problems. If American male writers had always had trouble fashioning believable female characters, women seemed to be having the same problems with creating male characters. But the change had begun. The future appears rich and fecund.
But all of this is a continuing process, and the Kid is still with us, if not as powerful a figure as before. He hasn’t yet left town. The vast American public still prefers its movie heroes in the old style, and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, and Warren Beatty are in the classic mold. Women stars are more visible on television than in movies, and the only woman among the top-10 box office stars is Barbra Streisand. A lot of people laughed at Gerald Ford’s “WIN” button, but still talk yearningly about the need for a charismatic leader in 1976. Some of the best young American writers — Thomas McGuane, Tom McHale, Jim Harrison, Don DeLillo — work out of the Huck Finn tradition, their books full of football players, fishermen, rock ‘n’ roll stars, and other lone men struggling with problems of courage, honor, and sexuality. In sports, Muhammad Ali remains a superstar, although he is the only one of the current world boxing champions who is an American; professional football, which became the repository for most of the theatrical macho brutality of the late ’50s and ’60s is still drawing big crowds, but doesn’t seem to be as packed with win-or-lose emotions; baseball, that lone holdout from a gentler era, seems to be making a comeback.
There is, in fact, a growing conservatism, some of which can be traced to an exhaustion with the issue-oriented life-styles of the ’60s, and the rest to the growing economic recession. The rock music industry is having its troubles, and with the Beatles a thing of the past, and the Rolling Stones only sporadically active, the time when rock stars could determine the way people dressed and acted seems behind us. When Dylan made his triumphant tour of the United States last year, the audiences seemed restrained and even middle-aged. On the campuses, short hair is back in fashion and there has even been a resurgence in fraternities and sororities. The National Equal Rights Amendment, which seemed such a certainty to pass a few years ago, is now in trouble.
But there have been some important changes, and they seem permanent. When President Ford tried to make the defense of Cambodia a question of national honor the American people refused to go along; some 78 per cent of those polled by George Gallup said they didn’t want to support the Lon Nol regime any further, and all the talk about the “fall” of Cambodia, or it “loss” to the Communists was simply shrugged away. It will be a long time for an American president will able to raise an army to fight a distant war over something as abstract as honor, courage, or some specious commitment to a dubious ally.
Men are no longer afraid to admit that they don’t want to die for their country, or for any other good reason either. The current assault on the CIA and the FBI can be seen in one light as another example of the fall of the macho hero; the last James Bond film did not do well at the box office, and it is difficult to imagine a film being made today in which the hero is a member of the CIA or the FBI. Very few Americans today would cheer for a man who steals, cheats, burglarizes, or kills for a Higher Purpose. And there has not been a hit Western since “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which parodied the form, so that even the Western, that most enduring American legend, seems to be a vanishing form. Those changes seem permanent.
And yet … There is something odd and appealing about all those movies I see late at night. We have changed, but those movies remain the same: documents of old emotions, heavy with nostalgia. None of us, men or women, will be able to live with those emotions again. They are finished, as dead to our time as Trilby and East Lynne. The Kid doesn’t work for us anymore. He’s left town for good. I guess what bothers me is that we never got a chance to say goodbye. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 18, 2020