Popeye’s Hackneyed Friends

As happened with my reading of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I’m struck again with McTeague by what seems to be a period-bound literary (or maybe vaguely “artistic”) phenomenon– here, the trope of an unbelievably strong, big dumb brute paired with oh-so-dainty little lady. Yup, the title character of Frank Norris’s McTeague, except for hair color and ethnic background at this stage, is pretty much interchangeable with our main man in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Same goes for the boys’ respective brides, who provide stark physical contrasts with their men, all fragility and nice smells.

Not quite the brute I was looking for, but sometimes you have to make do. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Not quite the brute I was looking for, but sometimes you have to make do. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Admittedly, Sinclair’s Jurgis gets political by the idealistic end of his own story, and I don’t think that’s going to happen with McTeague. But this mawkish portrayal of gendered stereotypes is equally irritating in both cases– not because it’s offensive in terms of holding anyone to an impossible ideal, but because that ideal is itself so schmalzy.* The offense, in other words, is in its naive aesthetics– or maybe in this instance, in the upper-crust Norris’s portrayal of working-class communities he probably didn’t interact with in any real way.

But my slightly peripheral question is, once again, did anyone ever actually buy this sort of set-up? Did readers of Sinclair or Norris find these characters realistic in any sense, true to any part of life they’d actually lived? The query is probably in line with the reaction of under-thirties viewing many a movie or sitcom from the fifties, and wondering how people could ever have stood such stilted goings-on, much less have believed people spoke in the manner they were seeing on screen. (And what of all those tough guys in old detective or propaganda films, who ended every demand with “see”? I’m thinking specifically of what may be a misremembered line from Reefer Madness: “Gimme the reefer, see?”)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve of course come to realize just how carefully manufactured are the mediated images and ideas we’re bombarded with at all hours of the day. And I’ve seen some masterful recognition and reaction to this situation, from a Sub Pop records employee handing out a list of fake grunge slang to The New York Times back in the ’90s, to Bruce Willis’s fantastic appearance on Wayne’s World as the leader of the high school social hierarchy, coming on to reveal the cool word for the year (which happened to be “sphincter”).

Why should the constructions of hallowed literature be any different, even the creations that purport to capture the spirit of a particular time and place? Maybe what we can at least glean from these dated pieces is not what was actually going on– but what people were being told was happening, expected, and normal. And so, “realism” might in some instances be more accurately read as “aspiration for something more interesting,” and an author’s attempt to create that richer life, at least in readers’ heads.** What if so much of what’s been assumed to be a classic presentation of the authentic life of the masses was really just the old-timey equivalent of suburban white kids taking on some sort of risky ghetto lifestyle of their own (sorely, and yeah, offensively, mistaken) imagining?

Inevitably, we’re going to arrive at the probably unanswerable question of who speaks for whom, and whether or not such ventriloquism is fair or accurate, among other considerations. But for now, I’d just like to be done with McTeague, and hope that I don’t have another run-in with such overdone stock characters for a very long time.


*McTeague’s feats of strength often approach the Baron von Munchausen variety; breaking arms and pulling not-loose teeth with his bare hands, etc., etc.

** I’m thinking here of more benign, possibly unconscious, instances of audience manipulation– not outright, purposeful propaganda.


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