I have a lot of thoughts swirling through my head, and I think there’s some common threads running through them, so I thought I’d try to connect them. The reader will be the judge of whether or not I am successful at doing so, but be warned this is longer than most of my posts. (But if you read far enough, there is a link to a free PDF of one of Hemingway’s greatest short stories).
I just finished reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and I loved it.
Besides being an engaging story, it was humorous, satirical, and offered some commentary on slavery. It’s obvious we’ve come a long way in bettering our attitudes about racism since Twain told that story, but it’s also obvious we’ve still got a long way to go.
It’s also obvious that what boys did for fun back in the 1860s is quite different from what boys do today, and I’m not sure I can say which one is better.
I read Huck Finn right after had I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which were both part of my quest to read some classic literature over the past couple of years.
I’ve been somewhat successful in that quest, having recently read the following books:
- Great Expectations
- The Brothers Karamazov
- Crime and Punishment
- Don Quixote
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- Animal Farm
- The Name of the Rose
After I finished Huck Finn yesterday, I started looking for my next book, and I came across a couple of great lists of classic books:
- Great Books of the Western World
- Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction
- High School Summer Reading List
- National Association of Scholars Books for College Common Reading Programs
- Books that have been considered the Great American Novel
As I read through the various lists, the first thought that struck me is that I need to seriously up my reading game, It was somewhat depressing realizing how few of these classic books I have read. A second thought, and a more positive one, is that there are enough books on these lists to keep me busy clear through my golden years.
Some of the books I have marked to read are:
- The Confessions by Augustine (probably a good idea since I work at Villanova, an Augustinian University)
- The Old man and the Sea (I think I read this in high school, and while I remember the basic story, I’ve forgotten most of the details)
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities (my oldest son recommended this to me)
- Apology of Socrates and Crito
- one of Shakespeare’s plays
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- The Idea of a University
- the Rabbit books by Updike
- All the Light We Cannot See
- Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
- War and Peace
- Moby Dick
- Gulliver’s Travels
- The Prince
- The Canterbury Tales
- The Iliad and The Odyssey
That list should keep me busy for a few months/years?
Anyway, while going through the lists, I saw one by Hemingway that I did not recognize – “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. Apparently it is a highly acclaimed short story set in Africa, written by Hemingway in 1936. I went searching on Amazon to see if there was a free download Kindle, but I actually came across a web site that had the full text of the story.
So I read the story (it took less than half an hour, it’s only 23 pages long), which featured an American couple on an African big game hunt, led by a stereotypical macho guide. While there a few different themes in the story, one of them was about manhood. There seemed to be an implication that killing lions and buffaloes and then drinking whiskey afterwards is part of “being a man”.
While I’m no expert on Hemingway, I have a sense that many of his books, and he himself, focused on a macho definition of a man – someone who likes hunting, fishing, drinking, running with the bulls, boxing, etc.
As I thought about it, it reminded me of a Wall Street Journal story I had read earlier in the day yesterday, “Take Off Like a Man on These High-Adrenaline Guy Getaways“. These adventures, also referred to as brocations, featured men going heli skiing in the Alps followed by a night of drinking, white water rafting in South Sudan, mountain biking in Afghanistan, Antarctic glamping trips, climbing uphill on skis for two hours to Switzerland’s 1,000-year-old St. Bernard monastery to have lunch with monks before spending the rest of the day skiing downhill, or going into a jungle with villagers to spear hunt wild boar.
The headline says it all (“Take Off Like a Man”), implying that these are the sort of vacations that real men take. Here’s one person’s description of his experience:
We land on a remote glacier for cocktails chilled with glacial ice and a lunch served with silverware and linen napkins. The staff snuggle you up with warm blankets and you have the fire going and might get to see a grizzly bear attack something. It’s really like the wild kingdom.
And here’s the words from one of the leaders of such tours:
“The first thing men do when they go away together is stop shaving,” he said. “It’s a primal expression of their freedom from authority and constraints.”
And here’s another one:
“Today’s type-A male traveler needs more than a shady palm tree and swim-up bar.”
I guess I’m not a Type-A sort of guy, because a shady palm tree and a pool sound quite appealing to me.
These vacations seem to be the type of adventures people like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway would go on if they were alive today (and wealthy enough to afford them – one of the places mentioned in the WSJ story charges over $125,000 per week).
As I was thinking about Hemingway and brocations, I then realized that this year’s presidential campaign has an underlying theme of machismo as well.
Ted Cruz has stated he will carpet-bomb ISIS, Donald Trump claimed that he will bomb the sh*t out of them, and Marco Rubio may be the most aggressive of all of them when he speaks of how to defeat ISIS. They refer to President Obama as weak, and Trump has bullied a good man, Jeb Bush out of the race, and doesn’t even seem to care.
But I think the candidates are just responding to what our culture has become, and something I have written about before, a culture of violence and trying to prove that might makes right.
So I guess what ties all of my random thoughts together is literature and the question of what makes somebody a man?
Is it your ability to kill a lion with a shotgun, to drink whiskey all night, to win a bar fight, to belittle someone in a vulnerable position, to talk tough, to curse, to lead others into war?
Or is being a man more about being a kind person, someone who cares about others, who treats everyone with respect, who would do no harm to any living creature, who looks for a peaceful solution to problems, who believes in fairness?
I sure hope it’s the second set of character traits, but even if it’s not, I have no intention of living up to someone else’s definition of a man.
Thanks for reading.