Degree Granting Department
Susan K. Mooney
Baldwin, Failure, Masculinity, McCarthy, Morrison
My study highlights a link of U.S. American hypermasculinity running through Cormac McCarthy's two novels Blood Meridian (1985) and All the Pretty Horses (1992), Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977), and James Baldwin's Another Country (1960). My literary interpretations of these texts suggest that U.S. American hypermasculine man originated in the American frontier and transformed into a definition of hegemonic masculinity embraced by many southern rural American men. These southern rural American men then concocted the myth of the black rapist in order to justify the mass murder of African American men after Reconstruction, inadvertently creating a figure more hypermasculine than themselves. Many black men embraced the myth of the black rapist as well as the baser patriarchal aspects of white male southern power. Consequently, black hypermasculinity evolved into the paragon of American hypermasculinity.
Failed Heroes further argues that some protagonists in postwar American literature heroically fail in order not to perpetuate hypermasculinities. Continuing a modernist trend of anti-heroism, the selected protagonists develop into marginalized men due to their failure to live up to hypermasculine societal expectations. The protagonists' failure to perpetuate hypermasculinities proves heroic since it illustrates the destructiveness of these sensibilities; as a result, a sense of ironic heroism emerges from the narratives.
In Blood Meridian, set in the mid-nineteenth century U.S. American West, the kid fails heroically to construct a masculine identity outside of the textual order of the judge, indicting the hypermasculine philosophies of the judge and calling into question the book's violence. In no way is the kid a classic hero; rather, his collapse exists as a direct critique of the judge's destructive philosophies.
In All the Pretty Horses, set in the mid-twentieth century U.S. American South, John Grady fails to actualize his cowboy fantasy, but proves heroic in exposing its danger and destructiveness. At the end of the novel he vanishes into the countryside a failure, but unlike the mythic cowboy, he assumes the role of heroic failure because his narrative contributes to the relinquishment of a destructive male myth.
In Song of Solomon, set in Ohio and Virginia during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements, Milkman Dead functions as a black man who has the opportunity to break free from choking definitions of black masculinity. In the end he fails to break free and flies to Africa, leaving his family and his only hope at real freedom, his aunt Pilate, to die. Continuing a cycle of male flight at the expense of his family, community, and cultural guide renders him a failure. Morrison's final critique of hypermasculinity positions Pilate as the failed hero and shifts the emphasis of the novel to the women who represent victims of kinship systems and the incest taboo. The incest in the novel functions as a metaphor for Pilate's philosophy that black identity ought to come from black culture, a notion I call cultural incest.
Another Country, set in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s, details the plight of an urban African American man struggling to reconcile his homosexual desire with the black hypermasculine cool pose he dons as overcompensation. Rufus Scott's death proves heroic as a critique of the rigid definitions of urban black masculinity.
African Americans, and by extension all Americans, might employ their U.S. American history of oppression as a platform for a new vision of masculinity based on heteronormative failure and queerness. The association of blackness with oppression, and as a result non-normative sexuality, presents an opportunity to redefine blackness as abjection. The very failure of African Americans in measuring up to destructive notions of hypermasculinity might exist as a new definition of blackness and masculinity for all Americans.
Scholar Commons Citation
Benson, Josef D., "Failed Heroes: Hypermasculinity in the Contemporary American Novel" (2012). Graduate School Theses and Dissertations.