Violence and American Manhood
This book cheats. If you do read it, skip the prologue and the epilogue and you have, more or less, what you might expect: the predictable mix of sociology and literary criticism. It begins, however, by setting up a different set of expectations
It is a good opening. It suggests its contents will be enlivened and richly complicated by a starkly confessional tone. The author describes his twelve-year-old self picking up from a rotating bookstand a crime novel, Mickey Spillage’s One Lonely Night and, innocently flicking through it, coming across this paragraph:
The young Herbert is intrigued, excited and appalled and the experience of this ‘pornographic enchantment’ proves formative. His larger response to the paragraph will be this book, which tries to understand:
However, the young Herbert’s initial response was to re-read the paragraph and then look for others. Can you blame him? I suppose you could, but, believe me, not as heartily as his later self does. Is our hero embarked on a life of depravity and the book one in which the abuser recants? No, not really. Not at all, in fact.
The personal note soon becomes limp, even bogus. His future life proves to be one of ordinary convention and smoothly civilized values. Herbert is a happily married man. He confesses he has not always been an exemplary feminist (he did not always help with the housekeeping!) but he has had the support, understanding and example of a good wife to bring him and their marriage to ‘mutuality and equal standing.’
The trouble is, he’s right. He is unexceptional. Personally, I am pleased for him but, as his reader, I feel duped. He sets up a promise he only half-delivers. What he confesses to—he once flicked through a dirty book!—is a minor offence described as if it were a capital crime. It gives the book a canting and faux-confessional tone that makes the reader distrust him and, as a consequence (and because we hear no more about that young boy who accidentally reads some Mickey Spillane), the book reads rather like one by an alcoholic who has never had a drink. I ended up feeling aggrieved for the young Herbert and then disappointed that the only person he went on to beat up was himself.
My own stack of Spillane is pretty low but I was intrigued by those ellipses in Herbert’s quotation and tried to find the passage on the Internet. I typed those opening sentences into Google and found the same passage, (quoted by the way with a similar intent) and also with ellipses but the emphasis is more than slightly changed:
In Herbert’s quotation the female character is entirely passive, entirely abused—Herbert, for the sake of his own argument, even deprives her of a name. The abused doll feels like a counterpart of the good wife who redeemed the author and I am suspicious of both. As Herbert offers up a notion of ‘manhood that visits abuse on women’ he is also offering up a notion of women as saints men unreflectively desecrate. This isn’t too far away from Spillane. It only seems more benign. It is certainly no truer.
And that Google page I found strongly suggests that Spillane’s tone and style is not strictly for hard-boiled fiction alone. The sites it offered up with a similar vocabulary to Spillane were devoted to Romantic Fiction. Men raising hands and yanking open dresses are not features of male tales alone—and what might that tell us? That it is not men alone who are seduced by ‘dramas of manhood conquering womanly weakness (156).’
He is right to argue that men and women must engage each other on grounds of ‘equality and mutual respect (156)’ but the darker desires of both men and women are still in thrall to battle—especially as it is expressed in popular culture and advertising. Herbert’s book would have benefited from confronting the notion explored that women might also collude and promote—even nurture—such violence in men even as they suffer it and, even, because they suffer it. If society distorts men, it must also distort women. An awareness of this—not even an acceptance of it—would lead the author into murkier territory. This absence goes even further in deepening Herbert’s pitying and stentorian tone.
He warms to his theme intermittently. An early chapter on ‘Rape as an Activity of the Imagination’ does makes heavy and assertive work out of twelve atypical lines of Whitman and two partly quoted sentences from Thoreau’s Walden and there are relatively few examples of deep and detailed scrutiny of the texts he mentions but there are strong passages on college fraternities acting out theories of ‘warrior manhood’, on Harriet Beecher Stowe, and an excellent chapter which begins with pornographer, Bill Margold—‘The most violent we can get…is the cum shot in the face’—and then leaps back to Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter.
Such boldness is not typical however. He hauls out Norman Mailer for a kicking—is Mailer hauled out for any other reason these days? And he wrongly praises Peeping Tom as a more acute examination of the roots of male violence than Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both are indisputably great films, each with something to say about male violence (although Peeping Tom is British, a fact that Herbert does not allow to complicate his theme) but Powell’s film is a monodrama, and one only needs to compare Powell’s characterization of the Anna Massey role with those played by Vera Miles and Janet Leigh to see the Hitchcock film is a far bolder and more insidious movie. (One could also look again at the way in which Hitchcock used Massey in Frenzy). Simply put, Herbert prefers Peeping Tom because in it women are blameless victims; the father is the determining influence on the psychopath’s development whereas, in Psycho, Norman is ‘the plaything of womanly forces’ and women, in Herbert’s view of the world, do not instigate violence—ever.
There is also very little in the way of detailed analysis of commercial pornographic texts—which seems odd considering that this is his main focus. In the epilogue he returns to the personal note again. One wishes devoutly that he would not do so. He recounts an afternoon spent registering students when he momentarily fixed:
He does not tell us what he thought as he looked at her and, certainly, he does not go on, of course, to physically abuse this student. He does not say if he regards her in sexually violent way. He need not. His gaze is an abuse.
Well, yes, I suppose it might be but, as with that Mickey Spillane-glimpsing teenager, Herbert rounds on his older self for falling prey yet again to ‘pornographic fascination.’ He was feeling bored and inadequate and, once he realizes this, the pornographic enchantment disappears.
His self-castigation does him some credit I suppose but it seems excessively puritanical to this admittedly coarse and unreconstructed reader—as does the book as a whole. It has a penitential tone that seems unearned, unnecessary, unenlightening and a confessional stance his ‘sins’ don’t justify.
I learn more (and feel more implicated) by texts that Herbert might
benefit from mentioning such as the novels of Michael Connelly,
Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, the novels of James
Elroy and, especially, his memoir, My Dark Places. I mention
them because these are writers who are in the vein of Mickey Spillane—who,
after all, initiates these reflections. Such writers imaginatively
investigate notions of masculinity and male violence to depths that,
on this showing, Herbert cannot reach or, seemingly, contemplate.