You wish to be a man, my boy?
Not a jerk, dweeb, pansy, simp, twit, fool, clown, or conformist — simply, a good man?
Manhood cannot be conferred on you. Virility is not measured by romance or battle, fame or wealth. Those come later, if ever. Nor need you be tall, handsome, smart, or particularly well-favored in any social way. Other people may like you or despise you. That doesn’t matter to a man, does not reach where you live.
No, boy, to be a man, first and foremost, you must have a word and be able to give it.
Promise-keeping begins in the language and actions of our family. Classically, in the West, the first word we speak names our mother — lisping “mama” — and the first word we ever write names ourselves — block-lettering “Johnny.”
Here I am, only a few years old, and I live in the sunny eye of now. Mama will coo and shine on me, using pet names whose only meaning is love. And I am a good boy but sometimes mama clouds up and scolds — “Bad boy!” – which at first startles and offends me. I begin crying. After all, what suddenly has changed? Always in action is just myself, the warm focus of all household love.
One day mama walks in, sees me and says, “Don’t pet the goldfish.” I understand her to mean, “Stop doing it right now.” Nothing new. I have been curbed many times before. But then something different happens. Mama goes on to ask me never to pet the goldfish ever again. She sweetly explains the good reasons why I should not, but this future-binding makes no sense since I always encounter myself now and only now. So, next day she catches me, wet up to my elbow again.
For the first time, I experience the terror of her being really and truly angry. It has never before occurred to me that the elastic boundaries of her sympathy might pop. “Johnny Jones, promise me you will never ever do it again!” In short, I am being put in charge of myself. What compels me to try is the threatened withdrawal of her love. I am terrified. Only her love guarantees my existence.
So I, Johnny Jones, resort to the language of my family. Mistaking talk for an easy expedient, I commit instead an irreversible act. Tearfully, I promise out loud not to do it again and get sternly questioned but swear, yes, I give my solemn little boy’s word, and so I am hugged and kissed and forgiven. But I know now mama can always become terribly angry if I forget and do you-know-what again with the fish. My blurted words, at a stroke, have altered everything between us. Words spoken, I dimly perceive, can be as deeds done.
A certain kind of boy will have told mama a cold lie and meant to. These bad boys are not so common. Let’s suppose, in this majority case, my first-given promise has a child’s hopeful pretense to good faith. But what has this use of language led me to? If I mean to keep my oath, what must I be prepared to try to do?
Taking personal responsibility demands wrenching myself loose from now and projecting myself above my own head, to look down and judge what I do every second of every day, and, simultaneously, I must also send myself ahead to some far-off day when I agree to meet myself again in a calm place of honor called Never Did.
Impossible! And yet I love my mama. On a child’s swelling heart, eyes shiny, I swear my promise must be true forever…
We know the rest. Johnny will keep or break his word after a great or minimal private struggle.
A boy either builds up or else fails to assemble a good character. And, briefly put, character is the ability to say no. If I do stay true, I am acquiring a full human power of self-discipline that can be lent later to other, more public oaths — pledges of allegiance, wedding vows, business contracts. I no longer merely behave like a child but become capable of taking action.
That is to say, I am a man of my word. And of what worth, really, are truthful, honest men? Do we not laugh at them today? Are boys not taught manhood is antique, truth a flimsy construct ad-libbed on shifting sands, and virility admirable only as a female trait?
And yet, look ahead, boy. Without average men of a character strong enough to honor a few simple oaths, history warns us. What English-speakers call “civilization” breaks down into murderous hell.
So, my boy, the fundamental event of Western consciousness is a promise kept.
I give you my word.
20th century Americans tended to favor, in each other, cute over charm.
Perhaps cute was our innocent small-town rebuke to charm, that smart city-slicker sparkle of snake-oil salesmen. Cute was as natural as the countryside. Charm, suspiciously Big City.
Cute is one-sided and unselfconscious, a helpless demand to be found adorable. Cute, in musicals, were equally-virginal Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day, peppy as puppies, all gee-wiz, aw shucks, and oh let’s! You, the guy, finally break down and marry cute.
Charm, on the other hand, is intimately mutual, a special someone’s open invitation to love and be loved, renewed from moment to enchanting moment, for as long as you two are together. Charm might be Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy swapping Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer repartee in a sophisticated “white telephone” comedy. Charm conjures up delicious romance.
Now the greatest charmers are often not the best-lookers. Consider Cary Grant.
More than just cute or charming, Cary Grant was admirably handsome, and that indelible yet somehow unresentable male beauty focused his personality. His charm was in not taking being Cary Grant too seriously. So, uniquely, his charm was for himself, and this self-distancing gave his personality depth and made the audience’s reaction to Grant more complex than stunning good-looks alone usually requires.
Of course, neither of these two happy qualities is a be-all and end-all. Incessant cuteness eventually makes us feel used. And what exactly is at the bottom of charm? Charm is always elusive and half-mysterious, especially to the degree it seems frank and open. Certainly, styles of allure are as perishable as actors’ careers. What beguiles us one year, bores us the next and, at a third showing, may even bang on our anger.
But ever-changing fashions in what is charming ought never overshadow charm’s original wonder. This fascinating grace blossoms among a handful of blessed characters in every generation. Not all are actors, by any means. The two greatest charmers of the 20th century were also writers. Neither was American-born. We over here were too busy being cute to perfect infinite charm.
A French woman and an English man. This pair of choicest European spirits have somehow never lost their power, across time and space, beyond languages and customs, to make us love them.
Cherchez la femme. Next time, we meet the 20th century’s most charming woman.
Most popular 20th century fiction? Murder mysteries.
Everybody from all walks of life constantly read detective stories. Even avant-guard geniuses like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner scandalized literary critics by stuffing their bookcases with private eye novels.
Why this universal popularity? Perhaps because heavy times demand light reading. Two World Wars and a Great Depression had taught people how often history is committed, like murder, in the dead of night. Mystery readers took back a measure of personal control, under the guise of guessing who-done-it, when they spent their hour or two searching mean streets as a wised-up truth-seeker in a cheap suit.
When did the private detective debut in English literature? Who founded this genre?
Our premier mystery story was written, noir-ly enough, in the gas-lit mid-Eighties, by the greatest outlaw among America’s literary masters. Edgar Allen Poe invents the amateur sleuth in 1845 when, for a fat reward, C. Auguste Dupin deduces where The Purloined Letter is hidden.
It took popular fiction forty years to follow-up on and to perfect Poe’s conception of a “consulting detective.” The immortal sway of Sherlock Holmes begins with 1886′s A Study In Scarlet. Meanwhile, twelve months after Arthur Conan Doyle’s coup, E. Philips Oppenheimer publishes the first of more than one hundred books, mostly thrillers, among which he creates the modern spy novel.
The turn-of-the-century ushered in a vogue for gentleman burglars — the very first heroes-as-villains — beginning, in 1893, with France’s long-running good-guy thief Arsene Lupin, soon followed, in1899 England, by Raffles, celebrated cricketer and, by night, “Amateur Cracksman.”
Also a fad from out of pre-WW I France comes Fantomas, in 1911, the first modern villain-as-hero. Thirty-two volumes feature this faceless sadistic criminal master-mind, a Gallic Dr. Moriarty, or forerunner to Hannibal Lector.
In 1915, Richard Hannay first appears in The 39 Steps by John Buchan, who was also Lord Tweedsmuir, Prime Minister of Canada, a major diplomat who wrote best-selling thrillers until 1941. As captured in Alfred Hitchock’s 1935 film version, Hannay was a veteran of Empire, stolid and resourceful, but, after the First World War, more dangerous men step forward.
Now the magic year for murder mysteries was 1920.
In 1920, The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, debuts with her first Hercule Poirot puzzler. “Sapper” (Herman Cyril McNeile), in that same year, has Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (“Detective, patriot, hero and gentleman!”) advertise himself for-hire out of sheer post-war British boredom. Meanwhile, back in the States, no less a literary figure of his time than H.L. Mencken helps publish the first issue of Black Mask magazine out of a pressing need to offset losses from his stylish monthly The Smart Set.
In 1928, W. Somerset Maugham collects in one volume his famous spy stories, Ashenden: Or the British Agent, based on the author’s own intelligence experiences during World War I. Cynical and cool, Ashenden is an immediate forerunner of James Bond (so much so, for years herbork assumed — incorrectly — that Ian Fleming’s spy master “M” stood for “Maugham.”)
Above all, in 1928, half-English, half-Chinese Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin took the name Leslie Charteris and introduced Simon Templar, The Saint, in the novel Meet The Tiger. “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime” will prove to be, in novels, short stories, radio and TV serials, and motion pictures, the 20th century’s longest-running international action detective.
During the Thirties, Black Mask editor “Cap” Joseph Shaw discovers Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, who had been a Pinkerton agent. The hard-boiled detective is born. Legions of newsstand imitators revolutionize pulp mystery fiction with endless knockoffs of wise-cracking Philip Marlow and tricky Sam Spade, low-rent agents who nonetheless stand for justice.
In 1939, British author Geoffrey Household comes up with Rogue Male, where “the hunted man” becomes a new sub-genre and, years later, the direct inspiration for the first Rambo story. As World War II looms, many other memorable crime-fighters are coined, including arcane vigilante Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, with his “power to cloud men’s minds.”
In post-war America, from Ellery Queen to Nero Wolfe, detectives were a dime a dozen. Then, with his scandalous I, The Jury in 1947, Mickey Spillane ignited a national obsession with brutal Mike Hammer. Only Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand (with whom Spillane enjoyed a brief but fond love affair) was more openly and universally despised by journalists and critics. Yet, selling millions upon millions of Spillane thrillers helped make possible the entire paperback book business, even as pulp magazines were dying from a new disease called TV.
Nobody could compete with Spillane in street-toughness, but, starting in 1950, Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott began a fifty year run as a mostly humorous and softly naughty send-up of trench-coated avengers. Then, in 1953, everything changes.
In 1953, James Bond shows up in Casino Royale, based on a true card game with a real Nazi bagman which, unlike his hero, former British spy turned journalist Ian Fleming lost badly — thus, inadvertently funding the German war machine. Bond only becomes an international cult when it is revealed President John F. Kennedy reads his adventures.
By the Sixties, then, all the wannabe Mike Hammers were morphing into spy-guys and lone-wolves. Gold Medal paperbacks — a line created to capture Spillane readers — began successful runs, in 1960, with Donald Hamilton’s counterspy Matt Helm, and in 1963, Philip Atlee’s secret agent Joe Gall. Most triumphant of all, however, were John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels from 1964 to 1984. McGee is, at last, the anti-Hammer, a sympathetic Florida-based Saint-like rogue male who understands and helps women in distress.
The great “lost” action author from the mid-Sixties is John Quirk. He wrote three straight novels — about the rivalries of hot-shot Navy fliers in wartime, big executives scrambling for control of their company, and a novella about a pro footballer’s rookie year — and then, in 1964 and 1965, Quirk published three Peter Trees adventures.
Peter Trees, The Survivor, is a shockingly blase millionaire jet pilot for, and business associate of, pop fiction’s first billionaire, Michael Archangeli. Trees himself is a former Navy combat pilot, a Medal of Honor recipient, and, as a personal friend of the President, “a hidden power in the secret lives of nations.” On the back cover of the Avon editions of his first two novels, Quirk proudly poses, holding a custom-made pilot’s helmet, before a Crusader jet like Trees’.
The three Trees adventures — The Bunnies, The Survivor, and The Tournament — constitute the last stand for the mindset of triumphant World War II veterans who still felt they were hard-chargers like Peter Trees, with “the world at his itchy fingertips.” Of all the talented writers who created action-detective heroes, only Quirk and Spillane actually seem to believe they are their protagonists, and this gives a verve and snap and “hypnotic conviction” to their prose which sets them apart.
But, perhaps because of his awkward name, Trees is not a success. The country’s mood no longer favors super-masculine winners.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, men, who had defined every kind of 20th century writing, began to disappear from print, along with their male readers, as feminism, drugs, a faltering public school system, and mass media changed the entertainment habits of guys. And so the last burst of mass-appeal paperbacks for men came with the launching, in 1969, of Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan series. The Executioner character has recently, rather wistfully, been revived in paperback, to scant notice.
Now let’s tiptoe away altogether from the Seventies literary scene. As women took control of popular fiction, the lowly detective novel became a semi-precious college-educated art form, often effective as fiction but, like university-educated jazz, too self-consciously derivative.
So, if you walk the mystery story back to its origins, the British Empire birthed as many fictional action heroes as the back alleys of American cities coughed up pulp magazine private eyes. The founder in England was James Buchan, who wrote, mostly for men, to reminded us: “No great cause is ever lost or won. The battle must always be renewed, and the creed must always be restated.”
“I can see the crab-loves-lobster joke from here.” –herbork
Underwater by the coral head one day, a pretty pink little girl lobster by chance caught the eyestalks of a hip young crab. She stole his heart in a heart-beat. He scuttled off at an angle, to intercept her and to confess his passion.
“I love you!”
The girl lobster clicked her claws sympathetically — he was nice-looking for a crab — but, advancing straight ahead past him, sadly shook her antennas no.
“It cannot be. It is not natural. For, crabs walk sideways, and lobsters walk straight.”
“But if we truly love one another!” The crab pleaded, touching his claws together prayerfully.
The girl lobster moved on ahead of the crab, who zigzagged desperately, trying to catch up with her. “But I do love you!” He cried out as she pulled away from him.
“No, dear little crab, this love cannot be,” she called back. “For, crabs walk sideways, and lobsters walk straight.” And before the broken-hearted crab could catch up again, the pink and pleasing girl lobster disappeared beyond the coral.
The next day, the girl lobster happened to be going by the same coral, and there ahead of her — the crab, his eyestalks fixed on her, came straight across the sand.
“Why, crabbie!” The girl lobster exclaimed. “You’re walking straight!”
“Yesshh, I am,” he slurred, going by her, ” ‘an’ hiccup don’ care WHO KNOWS it!”