I’ve written before about the myth of Papa Hemingway’s toughness. Not that he wasn’t tough, anyone who visits war zones, has adventures, and plays dangerous sports is tough. But it’s such a narrow, hetero-normative (excuse the jargon) kind of toughness. It’s a little too on the nose, a little too cookie-cutter in its formulation, and completely lacking awareness of its own easy-going, white, male privilege. As an example, and I hope this isn’t too obvious, take Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn’t fight in a war, box, or hunt big game, but you’d be hard pressed to make the case that he wasn’t tough.
A quote widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov says of Hemingway’s work, “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.” Of course, that’s a glib thing to say about one of the best prose stylists ever, but the larger point seems valid: Hemingway’s brand of stoicism deals with traditional, sometimes even reactionary, symbols of maleness. Bells, balls, and bulls. Papa H. projects toughness by amplifying those symbols, by elevating them to almost mystical status. Again, not that Hemingway wasn’t tough, but why let his particular brand of toughness drown out the more interesting, and sometimes more complex, forms that are out there? I’m thinking specifically now of women. It’s an interesting paradox that women, for so long kept away from the cultural machinations of normative toughness (the army, sports, adventure), were pretty much forced through their exclusion into having to be tough in their own way. Again, forced to be, because when you’re marginalized as an outsider, even just being yourself becomes an act of courage on par with squaring off against a charging bull. Here are some of the women that I think beat the bull, every time.
Nightwood, Barnes’ best novel, has the distinction of being the only lesbian-themed Modernist gem to garner praise, and an introduction, from arch-conservative T.S. Eliot. Before writing it, Barnes was born in a log cabin, raped as a teen, and lived as a Bohemian journalist in Greenwich Village. She was ahead of her time in just about every way possible, even pioneering the kind of New Journalism that wouldn’t catch fire until mid-century. A poet, novelist, playwright, and illustrator, Barnes exemplified both the glory and isolation that come with being a perpetual outsider. Hemingway wouldn’t have known what to make of her.
Hemingway spent his entire life trying to be as rough-hewn as Wilder HAD to be. Born in Wisconsin, and later moving to the plains of Kansas, Wilder based her most famous series of books on her real life experiences growing up in the American wilderness, most famously in Little House On The Prairie. And even though she eventually became a best-selling novelist, she had to scrape and toil to earn a living before she would become a member of middle class society. She’s the real deal, and she makes Hemingway look like a studio gangster.
George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, a walking, breathing lesson in the power of having a single-minded will. Sure, other women authors were publishing under their own names by the time she wrote what some have called the greatest English novel, Middlemarch. But, ever a realist, she didn’t want her gender to get in the way of being taken seriously. Also, she was living with a married man for 20 years and didn’t want to cause further scandal. Mary Anne Evans knew what she wanted and pursued her goals with the rugged tenacity of a big game hunter.
Some people make their claim to toughness in one single and flawless action. For Hall, that action happened to be writing the earliest and, some say best, novel to feature lesbian themes and characters, The Well of Loneliness. It became the subject of obscenity trials in both the US and the UK, Hall’s native country. The UK eventually banned it altogether. For all of his bluster, Hemingway was never willing to publish a book that had the potential to end up in a courtroom.
Hemingway’s dad was a well-off doctor. He walked through peoples’ front doors. Butler’s mom was a maid. She was only allowed to enter through back door. It was an experience that would stay with Butler the rest of her life. As an African-American woman writing science fiction, there just weren’t many other people like her working in the genre at the time. If it seems like speculative fiction authors today are a more diverse crowd than other genres, we have tough pioneers like Butler to thank for that.