The Macho Fifties

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

James Jones

In the wake of Ernest Hemingway, who made the idea of the Great American Novelist respectable– even macho– the 1950’s was the heyday of the male American novelist. The decade showcased a score of ambitious new male authors, if no great ones, all pursuing the traditional novel.

Among them, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Michener, J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk. At the end of the decade but ably writing about it, J.F. Powers and Richard Yates.

(Throw in playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge; poets from John Berryman to Kenneth Rexroth to the Beats; and short fiction writers like Truman Capote, and the list becomes more impressive.)

The role of novelist was thought of not as an effete pursuit but as masculine as working construction– and as fast a road to celebrity as pop singer or baseball player. A legion of men leaving military service in particular wanted to be novelists. They wanted to be Hemingway.

Not every one of these men can make the tourney brackets.

Should any of them?

 

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#2 Selections Aftermath: Fuller Report

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Scott wide shot

As hinted at by the photos posted previously, the Tournament site became a wild place last Saturday after the #2 seed announcements.

The Big Four dropped back into town so Ernest Hemingway could join Scott Fitzgerald in the celebration. They held court at the new bistro. Norman Mailer joined the two for a time but couldn’t keep up with their drinking. Mailer was last seen staggering out the back door after losing an arm-wrestling contest to a grinning Hemingway. Mailer hasn’t been seen since. Scratch one of our commentators.

emily-dickinson painting
At the same time, Emily D joined the two friends. She wore a sleek white dress, and spoke to Scott while Hem was engaged in his arm-wrestling.

“I am small like the wren, and my hair is bold,” she told Scott, “as is my pen. If you would have the leisure to speak to me, I should feel quick gratitude.”

She fell instantly in love with him, but was also intensely intimidated by Scott and by the situation. While Hemingway bellowed nearby.

Fitzgerald’s green eyes were indeed entranced by the poet. He gazed at her wistfully– but two glasses of wine were too much for Emily and she fled back to her room, vowing to ever remain. Scratch our other commentator.

Fitzgerald was later carried off unconscious himself, but has promised not to take another drink while in training. An observer, Raymond Carver, remarked that this “was a good thing. A small thing, but a good thing.”

The rest of the night is blurry. Hemingway stood in the middle of the street challenging any writer to a fight. Herman Melville and Mark Twain wondered whether or not to intervene. Just then a dogsled pulled up. Jack London stepped out from behind the pack.

jack london
“What’s doing?” he asked.

Herman M pointed to swaggering Hem, as if to ask for a favor.

Jack London, an authentic tough guy, knocked the bear out with one punch. Melville thereupon picked up the sprawling writer, threw him over his shoulder, not without difficulty, and the Big Four went back to their camp to resume fishing in the morning.

The night culminated at the coffeeshop across the street, which was packed to the rafters when Jack Kerouac stepped to the podium.

jack-kerouac other
“This reading this coffeeshop this small all-American town incredible big porch big bridge in the mist this Emily Dickinson evening of beatitude writers everywhere without beginning or ending, heavenly, man. O Whitman! O Salinger! O Twain! It’s Saturday night all over America.

“I think of Hemingway bears, Scott purple pink ties, Mailer Pound Plath noisemakers hepcat Walt Whitman writers sucking on beers and pipes scratching into paper nutty wild jazzy sweet words people are yelling or whispering blown boom trombone insights and attitudes to the beat of their inner peace,

“I think of soft smart Wharton Eliot Updike Redcoats sky-high with their reps happy to be part of this sacred gathering prayerful celebration,

“I think of all writers everyplace carrying on the tradition, man, karmic drinking of this art this experience, this too-musical too-cool tournament give me the vibe the beat the bebop syncopation keeping me going man while I sneak out the back door back stairs back on the road back into the starry Van Gogh heavenly night.”
*******

Next: More analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ayn Rand. More “Appreciations” from real guest writers. Possibly an answer to our Trivia Question.

Report from the Venue

boxing ring

There’s a palpable buzz in town today. People suspect something big may occur. I figure they’ve heard the loud voices coming from the Selection Committee room. But there’ve been other happenings. Among them:

-Several mysterious writer figures have booked into the Grand Hotel.

-The Poetry community, practitioners of the art who’ve taken up residence in the area, have undergone a change in mood. Initially euphoric that one of their number was the second name chosen, they’ve now dropped, as is their nature, to the other extreme. Speculation exists that it’ll be many seeds before another poet makes the brackets. I’ve heard grumbling. “Where’s Eliot?” they’ve asked. “At least Eliot! Or Poe? How can you leave out Poe?” I don’t tell them that Poe’s entry, when it occurs, will have more to do with his fabulous stories than his poetry.

-The poets are especially ticked-off at sudden rumors that T.S. Eliot isn’t even American! (More about that controversy upcoming.)

-At the same time, a coffeeshop is poised to open at the end of the main street. Poetry advocates have been seen inside, directing workmen. There’ve been arguments about where to place the tables. Poets, as is their nature, seldom agree about anything. The poets must see the coffeeshop as a way to lobby for their kind. Poets have been known to host impromptu readings at such places.

-The Big Four have been conveniently sent out of town to scout for pine trees. Good American pine will be needed to construct the outdoor arena in which the matches will take place. Before they left, Herman Melville was seen to duck quickly back into the Grand Hotel, possibly to see one of the new visitors. All is speculation! Then the four left. Hemingway was grinning, impossibly happy to be with his new compatriots. They’re supposed to locate tracts of pine, but word in town is that instead they’ve gone hunting and fishing.

-Some of the writers– Joyce Carol Oates among them– have located an exercise room in the basement of the old hotel. I dropped in to take a look. It’s not at all like a modern gym, but instead has equipment last used in the 19th century– dumbbells and boxing gloves. When I glanced around I saw Mary McCarthy, or someone who looked like Mary McCarthy, using the heavy gloves to punch out a silhouette of Lillian Hellman. Oates watched, egging the burgundy-haired woman on. “Bunny” Wilson the lit critic– an extreme longshot to make the event– stood by as well.

emily-dickinson painting

-Emily D, overwhelmed by the excitement of past days, has taken to her room. She’s assured me through her new friend, Sylvia Plath, that she’ll be back as guest commentator as soon as she’s able.

-In the meantime we’ve been forced to take on as Emily’s temporary replacement, Norman Mailer. He must sense that he’ll not be chosen in the next few brackets, and so has time on his hands, is eager for any way to gain the spotlight. (Also upset that the “OPA! protesters have switched their attention to the Big Four instead of him.) Or, as he explained to me,

“I reluctantly concluded that with the inevitable reaction against maleness, of which I’m of course the embodiment, as well as being the essentially pre-eminent literary figure of his time, I, Mailer, caught in this really predictable and shitty existential crisis of identity, this primordial mentality truly American, American-ness sense of existential angst– dread, dread!– the mountains of critical response to this figure Mailer who’s always stood independently for this instinctively pure essence of writer, I say essence because it’s so anally basic, this maw of warm shit excreting itself from the corpus of the art, the community, expressing itself against this symbol of male willness, I, Mailer. . . .”

This isn’t what he said exactly. I’m giving a shortened facsimile. If I were to post his full explanation for why he’s signed on as a substitute commentator, I wouldn’t have enough space.

Even Mailer senses the electricity in the streets. That something, as early as tonight, is about to break. We hope to be able to give a report, as well as an announcement of the #2 seeds, within the next several days.

The Press Conference! Part I

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

microphone at lectern

THE PRESS CONFERENCE

As we prepare to introduce the four bigs– #1 seeds– to the expectant crowd, we look around for our newly booked commentator, Emily Dickinson (“Emily D”). We notice she’s been cornered by Norm Mailer (our other commentator candidate), who while clenching and unclenching his fists and talking nonstop is explaining to Emily why he should’ve been a commentator, as well as a top seed and up on that stage. We think, Emily! Emily D is very talented and very cute, but she’s not very worldly.

The Four are invited to step to the microphone to make a few remarks.

***

Hem fishing

Ernest Hemingway: “It was an honor. It was a surprise but it was also an honor. It was not a surprise at all but he said it was because he didn’t want people thinking he wasn’t humble. It was easier to be humble. He didn’t want to think about not being humble.”

***

Walt Whitman

(Editor’s note: Whitman has quite the contingent of young poetry groupies in the audience.)

Walt Whitman: “You who celebrate bygones! I, habitan of a cemetary in Camden, treating of himself as he is in his cups, Chanter of verse, I project the history of this contest, the great pride of this man in himself, Cheerful– knowing this man Walt Whitman will win.”

(Enthusiastic applause.)

***

melville profile
Herman Melville: (Melville declines the opportunity to speak, but instead remains in his chair on stage, puffing on a pipe and observing the proceedings like a bemused sea captain surprised to be on land.)

***

Mark_Twain_young other

Mark Twain: “I had a lurking suspicion that Ernie Hemingway was a myth, that there never was such a fantastic personage. I asked old Wheeler about him, and he said it reminded him of the infamous Jim Hemingway last seen flexing his neck muscles around the barroom stove in Algonac due south and over a bridge from here. Big-bearded big-headed Jim backed Wheeler into a corner then sat him down and reeled off a monotonous narrative about flyfishing in a river not ten miles from this very spot. A fishing story, we used to call it. The one that got away. But no fishing story like the one Herm Melville on this stage has been known to tell.” (Twain takes a puff from his own pipe.) “Fishing stories! You propose to defeat this old riverboat captain with fishing stories. Good luck.”
***********************************

(Editor’s note.)

In this town’s local barroom afterward, three of the Big Four stand around a stove telling yarns. Across from me, Emily D sips from sherry in a glass, the sherry the color of her eyes. “I taste a liquor never brewed,” she confides.

I’ve known many poets and they’re a strange bunch.

“What do you think of this event so far?” I ask, gesturing toward where Mark Twain holds court, where even Melville joins the group and silently listens, four giant men in the small wood room– Mailer trying to butt into the conversation rises barely to the others’ shoulders. Emily gazes around the little tavern.

“Such a delirious whirl!” she says.

*******

“Part II” will be a quick Press Conference wrap-up. Stay tuned.
 

Interview with Mailer

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

mailer w microphone

an interview conducted by tournament analyst Mel Diper

(Background: A protest group calling themselves “Outraged Writers Against” has been protesting the Tournament because of the possible involvement of renowned author Norman Mailer. The group accuses Mailer of being a misogynist, and has said this disqualifies him from public notice. This past weekend, Mel Diper sat down with the controversial figure to ask him about the matter.)
*********

MEL DIPER:  “Did you once stab your wife.”

NORMAN MAILER:  (Leaning forward in his chair while gesturing with his hands.) “The matter has already been adjudicated. Ancient history– like the ancient Egyptians who I wrote about you know in a novel which was not very well received despite its ambitious heft– nothing to do with my wife, ha! you know. But surely you’re aware I was advised by my attorney not to discuss the matter. My wife, not the novel. Fire away with all other questions, and I’ll try to dodge them like Joe Frazier dodging jabs from Ali. Ali! Ali! Ali! I understand you’re a former sports personage so you know the allusion– writers good writers anyway are full of allusions.”

MEL:  “Uh, yeah. I guess they are.” (Reviews notes.) “But how do you respond to the protesters who don’t want you involved with the All-Time American Writers Tournament?”

NORM:  “It’s all very surprising you know yet at the same time not at all surprising to I, Mailer, when you have understandably these types of ‘womyn’-led kind of interest groups or causes, fragmentations of actual philosophies which are representations of the female need to control what I call the male ego, masculine gritty-in-the-bowels or at least the balls instinct you know our need for self-expression in this shitty kind-of existentialist universe of bowel-led ‘protesters’ without a cause in our causeless phenomenological universe and–”

MEL:  “Thank you Mr. Mailer.”
*******
Mad Mel

 

 

(Mel Diper can be emailed at meldiperjr@gmail.com. His twitter handle is @meldiper.)