David M. Brown's Blog

March 28, 2011

It’s okay to be a Paladin

In a well-written but cynical article about about “Have Gun–Will Travel,” novelist Alan Vanneman writes:

It’s a well-known fact that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Rarely was the code masculine defined with so broad a brush yet so severe a regard for honor’s finest punctilio than in the U.S. during the 1950s. The culprit, if one is needed, was a shy kid from Oak Park, Illinois named Ernest Hemingway who somehow convinced himself that a man wasn’t a man unless he combined the unlikely and unstable virtues of Geronimo, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, and Gustave Flaubert.

Naturally, poor Ernesto ended his days by blowing his brains out, but the real damage was done long before. Ernie’s beard, his boozing, his wives, his wenches, his boxing matches, his lion hunts, and his endless braggadocio became the stuff that dreams are made of for generations of aspiring American writers, most especially the kids who came out of World War II anxious to trade in their M-1’s for a typewriter and a shot at the big time.

A classic instance of machismo a la Ernest is the fifties “adult western” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” now making its appearance on DVD. Have Gun, Will Travel starred the very existentialist Richard Boone as “Paladin” — “a knight without armor in a savage land,” as the show’s theme song had it.

Oh yes, “naturally”! What else is any man of ability, intelligence, courage and self-confidence to do but descend into braggadocio, alcoholism and suicide! Perhaps there are a few salient details omitted in this recap of Hemingway’s character and life?

Are we really supposed to believe that a man like Paladin, the hero of the late 50s, early 60s western “Have Gun–Will Travel,” must end by blowing his brains out like Ernest Hemingway? That strength, courage, integrity and skill are intrinsically self-defeating, especially when attended by a zest for the finer things in life?

For all its strengths, I think “Have Gun Will Travel” could be better done on many counts. If only every worthy show had infinite resources at its disposal.

But I can’t muster Alan Vanneman’s above-it-all ironic contempt for a hero and a show that he seems to like despite his impulse to cordon himself off from any complicity with its dramatization of moral and manly ideals. Vanneman seems to assume that the fact that fictional myth-making cannot be taken literally means that the moral ideals it expresses cannot be be achieved in reality in any practical form, no matter how responsive to and reflective of the values and virtues that do make our lives possible and worth living. Would it be better if men and women did not seek to be well-read, responsible and honorable—if we all stopped sipping wine and stopped trying to learn new skills and stopped partaking of our cultural inheritance—if we always ran like the wind from any great challenge?

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4 Comments »

  1. I think this is a well thought-out blog entry. Vanneman is a bit indulgent with his rhetoric and plays very loose with his attempted analysis. He has written a similar post about Emily Nussbaum’s very intelligent review of the Showtime series Dexter. It isn’t clear that Hemingway (or, Ernesto) killed himself because of his lifestyle. Hugh Kenner makes a similar claim in The Counterfeiters. Moving from Hemingway’s advice to blocked writers — write one sentence, write the truest sentence you can — Kenner judges that when he got too old to produce the “truth” to match his fiction, when he could no longer wage war, fight a bull, or bag a lion, Hemingway had no choice but suicide. But he may also have suffered from a medical condition, which seems likely since his father and granddaughter also both committed suicide. I also loved “Have gun” growing up in the 50s and 60s. Paladin was smart, dandified, cultured, AND he had a mustache and wore black on the job and white in the San Francisco hotel. Yesterday I saw again the episode where he rescues Oscar Wilde by quoting the author to himself. I think that may have been the first time I heard Wilde’s name pronounced. Really, a better example of foolish machismo would be Vanneman’s self-preening and ego-driven prose, in which rhetoric (Ernesto!) masquerades as argument.
    Michael Harrawood

    Comment by Michael Harrawood — December 15, 2011 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  2. Make sense seem you to do in what you say much of.

    I wouldn’t hazard a diagnosis about why Hemingway killed himself. His vision as a writer seems more cynical and hopeless than the more romantic if less artistically subtle vision of the “Have Gun–Will Travel” team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something about whatever is bleak in Hemingway’s “macho” values had something to do with his suicide. I don’t hold out for that conclusion. My brief is not so much about a particular assessment of Hemingway and his work as it is about the ludicrous assumption that whatever in his life can reasonably be taken as self-destructive has an obvious one-to-one relationship to a healthy idea of a masculine hero. Vanneman seems to argue that because there is poison in the world, we should not eat food. Well, I think that without the food I’m going to starve, aren’t I?

    Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — December 15, 2011 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

    • I think I understood your post and for the most part agreed with it. The word “macho” in quotation marks bothers me. Perhaps because macho loses itself so deeply into “queer”: Hemingway’s cross-dressing, his periodic insistence that he was a woman, and his demand to be called “Mary,” were not the dark flip side to his hyper-masculinity, they were its very essence. Now, within a cultural moment that is trying hard to rethink womanhood and the feminine, I think it would be a mistake to come up with any one unified model of manhood or masculinity. “Real Men Don’t Rape,” says Charlize Theron in a South African ad (where there is a rape every seven minutes). I think it makes sense to wonder what we mean when we talk about Real men, about machismo, and about healthy self-maintenance. The thing that is so charming and so infuriating about Vanneman’s attacks on Dexter (which he’s never seen; but, hey, who needs to ?), and Have Gun is that he writes with a kind of snottiness (you call it cynicism) that is canonical “male” writing. The issue is not so much that there’s poison in the world as it is that Vanneman has found it out and he alone has the courage to expose it. Only men write like this. . . I just landed here by accident. But I’ve enjoyed cruising your blog. Thanks,

      Michael Harrawood

      Comment by Michael Harrawood — December 16, 2011 @ 1:19 am | Reply

      • Well, now you’ve lost me, partly. Demanding to be called Mary is the essence of “hyper-masculinity”? Even if there are fuzzy edges to the concepts of masculinity and femininity, I don’t think the concepts are useless or melt into each other. Also, I’m not in favor of cultural moments trying to rethink things. Cultural moments have been getting way too upstartish lately. But thanks for your kind words.

        Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — January 26, 2012 @ 7:47 am


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