In the summer of F. Scott Fitzgerald getting the hit 3-D movie that eluded him in life, it might be good to summon his old Paris buddy Ernest Hemingway—who later on pretty much rolled him in A Moveable Feast. Nevertheless there is nobody like Hemingway and there never will be—and that does not mean the Hemingway of caricature but the man who remade American writing—and he kicked things off for modern manhood when he wrote a letter to Fitzgerald in 1926 saying that “was not referring to guts but something else. Grace under pressure.” It was later bastardized as “Courage is grace under pressure.” Both are good.
Twentieth-century men were very prone to manhood-defining adages. John F. Kennedy said the ancient Greeks had defined happiness as “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” And we do not even have to bring up Vince Lombardi.
This story first appeared in the June 4, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But what of this ragtag century— an urchin century in which men have pretty little to look to in terms of navigation lights in the fog. There is a kind of terror of romanticism in this age—you tell me why. We may be living in the least romantic moment in the history of the American civilization.
And the easiest measurement of that may be the current paucity of American heroes. Who can you name? Let us not go to the easy wells of movie stars and presidents—good for pollsters although you might even come up cold among them. Most of the American culture heroes lately have come out of cold storage anyhow. There was a Jackie Robinson moment this spring—he is looking greater than ever. Abraham Lincoln was the rediscovery of last autumn—but both of them count as movie marketing, not currency.
We have run through a spate of sprightly Jacks in the last 50 or 60 years—from Jackie Robinson to Jack Kennedy to Jack Nicholson. But in 2013 the only proof of a hero is the ease with which his Jack-ness is shredded by ideological jackdaws. We can chalk it up to the usual stuff— the sputtering speed of the media and vicious cruelty of time-warp politics—but that may not be the issue.
You need an agreement on American idealism to create heroes in the culture. And we do not have one.
Once there was an easy formula—self-effacement plus idealism plus courage equals heroism. In the 1950s—despite countervailing winds—we were loaded with them. Jonas Salk, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Edward R. Murrow, Joseph N. Welch, and Mickey Mantle all fit the equation. So did Charlie Brown and in his own way, Elvis Presley, who looked great in a uniform and suppressed his own sexual super-powers with a grin and a quaver. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, he added wit to the self-effacement component of the equation, as in: “How did you become a war hero?” “It was easy—they sank my boat.” Muhammad Ali turned the self-effacement on its head but kept the wit intact.
But in the Age of Obama—and in so many ways it is—the concept of heroism has evaporated. Physical courage and ethical courage have generally been split up, and intellectual courage has been kicked into the dumpster. We have heroes. Gabrielle Giffords counts. So does her husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly. There are two. And first responders everywhere.
But generally the culture is not friendly these days to the idea of heroism. Part of it is the abandonment of a reverential society—you cannot honor when it is not safe to respect. We have great men and women returning from the wars who have had the idealism part of the equation snatched from them. Our emblems in the culture are devalued projections since there are no screen-writers or auteurs interested in building even Clint Eastwood–levels of heroism in the movies and digital video—let alone Gary Cooper–like saintliness of High Noon or the bloodied-but-unbowed John Wayne–ism of True Grit.
This issue of M is not devoted to heroism—it is devoted to Manhood. But it is pointed toward heroism. Manhood as an ideal adds up to a kind of living twenty-first-century heroism. Being a man is a bumpy business with a certain amount of fun attached; achieving manhood is another thing altogether. It is rather hard. Every man in this issue of M is achieving a certain kind of ideal that adds up to Manhood. The easiest two to point out are Dries Van Noten and Mariano Rivera—two men who have probably never been paired before. But Van Noten’s self-effacing brilliance and integrity as a designer who has refused to sell out puts him squarely in the hero equation—at least two-thirds of it. And as for Mariano Rivera—his general human goodness and his cutter make him a baseball hero of the first order—a delayed gift to Hemingway’s old fisherman who loved the great DiMaggio.
The tall and rather beautiful Swedish movie star Alexander Skarsgård did us a great favor in this issue of M in partnership with the amazing photographer Matthew Brookes. He did a version of Paul Newman playing Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me—and put on the Everlasts and took on some blood and cuts. Was there a reason that Norman Mailer and Hemingway and A.J. Liebling were fascinated by the sweet science? It was another aspect of Manhood—and Skarsgård rising off the canvas will give you a glimmer of why it never fails to move—even in an age of HBO matches.
Erik Maza follows three young models seeking to cut it in a not particularly heroic profession—and yet their ambition will remind you of the aspect of manhood that follows the quest. Jim Windolf interviews Vince Kartheiser— whose acting creation is the Mad Men scoundrel Pete Campbell—who explains as only a parent could why Pete is not so bad. And the great Frank DiGiacomo finds the new shape of manhood in The Guys Who Would Be the Rat Pack—the Frat Pack of Jay-Z, JT, Ryan Gosling, and Jimmy Fallon. Finally, Matthew Lynch follows his manhood back to his boyhood and back once more— in the most painful path he could retrace. His boyhood took place in Newtown, Connecticut. His elementary school was Sandy Hook.
Often it takes a crisis in America to bring boys to manhood. “Moral courage,” Robert F. Kennedy said, “is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.” But that kind of courage may be more rife than we know. This issue of M is dedicated to Manhood but also to the moral courage to know how to carry it forward into the present.