Will the Real American Male Please Stand Up?

I’m married to a Brit – an international IT consultant who neither knows nor cares about SEC football. A guy who once debated in high school in England that classical music is better than pop (he lost the debate). A man who dances with two left feet. A non-drinker and non-smoker. When I began writing Summer Squall, he was apprehensive that I would base my male antagonist on him. “Never fear,” I assured him. I had a different type male in mind. Someone who excels in sports. A man who drinks bourbon while smoking a cigar and telling off-color jokes. A male who can charm the pants off a woman while lording his superiority over her at the same time. I wanted a Hemingway man.

You remember Papa, right? The egotist who exaggerated his heroic feats in the Great War. The guy who hunted sharks with a machine gun. The Great White Hunter who loved being photographed standing beside his kills. The aficionado of bull fighting. The writer who had no respect for any other writer (including his third wife). A person whose only comment on the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald was to call him “a poor son of a bitch,” conveniently forgetting that Fitzgerald was instrumental in getting Hemingway published. Hemingway’s image is so powerful that he is probably the one American author that even non-readers know, making their yearly pilgrimages to Key West to tour his house and see one of the six-digit cats. There’s even a martini named after him (made with pink grapefruit juice, of all things.)

American movies are full of this type male. He’s both Harry Bosch and Dirty Harry. He’s Rambo, Rocky Balboa, and probably any movie made by Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone. He’s the loner who despises any form of cowardliness, calling it unmanly. (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a perfect example of the Hemingway code at work.) Matthew Adams in a Washington Post article, “Ernest Hemingway: the Man Behind the Cultivated Image of Hyper-masculinity” calls him the “macho face of 20th century prose,” citing his habit of shadowboxing while walking down a street and luring friends into the ring with him in order to test their physical strength. Fearful of being considered gay, he cultivated a masculine image that boarded on parody, boasting once of shooting a dog in such a way that it would take all day to bleed to death.

In Mary V. Dearborn’s new book, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, the first one published in 15 years, she traces how the “golden young man” who seems carved by the gods down to his perfect white teeth became a loathsome human being who eventually gave in to his manic-depressive demons and killed himself at 7:00 am outside his home in Iowa while dressed in his “emperor robe.” “And,” Dearborn writes, “He told enormous whoppers.” As is often the case, she, like most of his biographers, traces his mental decent to the family dynamics in Oak Park, Illinois where a cold-natured mother and manic-depressive father ruled. (Those Daddy and Mommy issues have a way bringing down even the hardiness of men.)

How the male code is passed from one generation to the next brings me back to Summer Squall and my antagonist, who I named Mark – a man who hero-worshiped his father. I was inspired by Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” where a strong-willed male tries to force a vulnerable female to accept his world view. Changing the setting from a railway station in Spain to a marina in southwest Florida, I strove to examine the dynamics between what Hemingway called “the American” in his story and his female traveling companion, “the girl.” As I tightened the screw on Beth, my protagonist, I wanted Mark, my all-American hero, to become a “force de Jure” – equivalent to the violent weather that often visits the Gulf. I wanted readers to feel the tension as they eavesdrop on Mark and Beth.

Critics still debate the ending to “Hills Like White Elephants.” Does the American succeed in convincing the girl to do things his way, or does she choose a different path for her life? Readers of women’s fiction can probably predict the final choice my “girl” will make, but as I have her face challenge after challenge, I trust I have created an engaging read tracing her journey.

Back to my original question about the real American male. We are still a nation attracted to forceful men – guys who tell it like it is, who are suspicious of anyone remotely different from them, who see nothing wrong with women still being the butt of jokes and objects of unwelcome advances in the workplace. (And don’t get me started on equal pay.)

It’s 2020 and the Bro Culture is alive and well. But here’s an antidote that makes me smile. Over the Christmas holidays, a neighbor of mine took her grandchildren to Cleveland, Georgia, home of Babyland General Hospital where Cabbage Patch dolls can be adopted. She expected her granddaughter to adopt a doll but was surprised and delighted when both her grandsons wanted one too. There they were, fresh from the soccer pitch and baseball field, two boys who love sports and video games, breaking the male stereotype by choosing their dolls and naming them after two major league stars – Mike Trout of the LA Angels and Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings.

Even if Papa Hemingway is rolling over in his grave, I suspect their fathers are proud of them. (Not to mention that one of their daddies still has his Spike doll from 1986.) And as to my Brit who sings like an Irish tenor and tells the funniest jokes and has my back always, I’ll take him any day over some of the jocks I’ve known. (Although it would be nice if he showed some interest in my Tennessee Volunteers.)