Hard-Boiled Masculinities by Christopher Breu

[15 March 2006]

By Justin Cober-Lake

After World War I, the concept of the hard-boiled male came to prominence, starting in the pulp magazines, moving into high art literature, and peaking with its place in the noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s (often drawn from earlier, interwar novels). The hard-boiled character is a loner, traveling on the edge of society without morals, frequently as a detective with no qualms about violence and questionable attitudes toward women. These men aren’t simply literary archetypes; they both represent and influence conceptions of masculinity that play out in the real world. In Hard-Boiled Masculinities, Christopher Breu explores the cultural fantasies and material conditions that intersect with this type, and he seeks for both a historical understanding and a contemporary use for this work.

Breu selects four primary texts to explain his arguments, using a variety of characters across the high art/mass art continuum. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op offers the classic model, with various concerns altering the depiction of the hard-boiled male in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, William Faulkner’s Light in August, and Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. Avoiding the trap of depicting an “American mind”, Breu uses the specifics of these characters to show the range of ways a single persona can be tied to the culture that informs it (and the various cultures that comprise a single region).

Breu’s primary effort is to maintain ties to both the fantasies and conditions that influence the development of this character. By fantasies, Breu (who relies heavily on the term “phantasmatic”) doesn’t mean creative fancies or daydreams, but the psychological workings that, based on fact or not, construct a particular conception of reality. One of the most important of these developments, he suggests, is the myth of the virile black man, which becomes both an opposite and a component part of the white hard-boiled persona.

Breu reads the physical circumstances that influenced hard-boiled constructions primarily through a Marxist lens. The adoption of a hard-boiled persona by a character reflects his response to the particular capitalism of the US in the interwar period, frequently against the normative movement and in desire of a pre-industrial, agrarian society. However, the persona allows a means of negotiating an enveloping culture, even as it re-inscribes the very boundaries it seeks to resist.

The importance of Breu’s examination lies in his ability to escape determinist readings of the texts. He understands that the Continental Op (and Hammett’s Red Harvest as text) has only limited ability to critique the genre and the persona from within, in part due to Hammett’s elimination of the subjective within his narration. Breu reads the four major works as a progressing narrative that gradually open to larger interrogations of the political implications of hard-boiledness, climaxing with Himes’s Bob Jones, who has an increased ability to work through internal fantasies without a material acting out (he resists, for example, the raping and murdering that come to mind).

Breu sees this development in the fiction of Himes as “asserting the value of phantasmatic change to material change and vice versa” in the physical world. Breu disavows the idea that material circumstances are ultimately determinant, that people are solely the result of their culture’s systems of production. He sees the limitation of individual agency to change fantasy as a stricture imposed by the material conditions. The presence of this bind means that industrial/capitalist systems must be changed alongside the myths and concepts present across the culture (a series of individual agents adding up to mass shifts).

Unfortunately, Breu outlines this argument quickly across his conclusion, raising the book’s most useful topic only as he closes the discussion. After a series of solid close-readings and culture analysis, Breu suggests that the importance of this work is ultimately extra-academic, yet he shuts down as he leaves the literary world. He offers a Benjaminian alternate history in which pulp readers were given the language of fantasy to discuss the fictional materials within their reading communities. At some point, he hints, a mass discourse could rise up that offers a “collective politics of fantasy,” in which psychological concerns are worked through as economic culture is modified.

And here’s the catch: in an ostensible critique of liberal readings of and acting in history, Breu sets himself firmly within those very trenches. Shooting at darts of activism, but couching them in the jargon of his profession. In aiming for progressivism, he offers only a trickle-down presentation of thought. Once the elite can work out a discourse that enables the masses to reinterpret their low art texts, the masses will use these tools for positive change. It’s a top-down prescription for bottom-up change, and, while those tactics are rarely successful, Breu’s safe because he addresses the top, keeping his work primarily within a literary fold and largely accessible only to those schooled in intellectual conversation. The challenge for Breu, then, isn’t to write smart analyses (he does it here), but to argue for uses of his thought that actually comes from a utilitarian sensibility. At that point, he’ll have as much as the pulp magazines to offer those of us who could benefit from a little change.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hard-boiled-masculinities/