No man celebrating his eighty-sixth birthday can avoid thinking about whether he has measured up to the standards he held when he was first starting out. I am not speaking here of the mundane problems that plague all men: how good a living he made, the professional success he achieved, or where he settled down and spent his life. I have in mind something both more and less tangible. For men of my generation, the mid-century idea of manhood was vitally real. What would his life look like when he saw it framed against his expectations? Would he have measured up? Or would he sense that he had disappointed a hope that had left him with more debts than could be accounted for by checkbook stubs and paid-off mortgages?
For me, and for the men I grew up with, manhood began at eighteen, along with draft eligibility. We reached that age already armed with an idea of what manhood was. It had been imparted by the books we read, the movies we saw, and the newspaper headlines that blared at us from the rickety green wood-and-tin newsstand in front of Sandow & Israel’s candy store. Long before I read Ralph Waldo Emerson on the theme, the idea of self-reliance had done much to shape, perhaps even save, my life. I was crippled by polio at eleven, and self-reliance remains the standard against which I measure myself.
No eighteen-year-old of my generation would have understood the term “toxic masculinity.” Manhood had nothing to do with bullying others or the inane behavior suggested by the word “macho.” Manhood meant toughness and endurance—virtues that pushed me through physical workouts that were long, strenuous, and at times excruciating. No matter what those workouts demanded of me, no matter how much pain and exhaustion they caused, they promised that, if I kept at it, I would forge an independent self. I would be a man, however crippled. And the self I achieved would belong to me alone. My toughness would make me whole.
It never occurred to me that manhood had anything to do with dominating women or beating down opponents on the football field or becoming rich and famous. Manhood was closer to the adage “grace under pressure.” Manhood had less to do with physical strength than with mental persistence. I would be a man by building my arms and shoulders until they could serve as legs and give me the independence I would need as a husband and father.
Postwar America instilled this idea of family and fatherhood. Hollywood depicted the powerful attraction of home and family in any number of films made after the war. I saw The Best Years of Our Lives a few months before my eighteenth birthday. The film spoke not only to returning veterans but to a soon-to-be man who was learning to live with being a cripple. There is little sexuality or physical bullying in the film. The idea of manhood the film projects is American in its assumption that a man must take responsibility for the self he is working to create. Among those struggling to take responsibility is an amputee ex-sailor who must live with hooks where his hands used to be.
Family and responsibility: Those were what made one a man. Yes, there were those pulp magazine ads in which a newly muscled Charles Atlas kicked sand into a bully’s face and enjoyed the adoration of the girl on the beach. But everyone knew that was comic-book silliness.
A more realistic version of manhood was portrayed by the sullen, introverted Marlon Brando in The Men. Brando played a paraplegic veteran intent on possessing a body functional enough to allow him to marry and perhaps raise a family, like any American man. Brando struggled in a V.A. ward—as I struggled on the streets of the Bronx—to create a physical presence out of a damaged body. Manhood in The Men came down to that much-prized normal life young American men were expected to seek. Brando’s wheelchair-bound vet possessed a will as alive as the memory of the legs that once had played football and now were dead.
I watched him with envy and awe as he pushed his way back into that world by pushing back against it. Before I saw The Men, I had spent a year and a half in a rehabilitation hospital in a wheelchair. What moved me about Brando’s performance wasn’t just that he looked more natural wheeling through his V.A. ward than I had ever looked, but that he looked like a man struggling to earn the kind of physical grace—a cripple’s grace—that I was seeking.
I was seventeen when I saw The Men, twenty when I read Saul Bellow’s picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March. I knew even as I read the words that the agonized truths voiced by Bellow’s crippled poolroom entrepreneur, William Einhorn, described exactly what I had gone through in my quest to be a man. His was the crude reality I had long experienced, a reality lurking in the darker corners of what manhood signified. Einhorn was a man at war with the world, trying to live with what he knew he couldn’t live with and would never live without: the hatred of normal men who feared they might end up like him. I had been learning about that hatred. Einhorn’s confession to Augie is one that any man who lives with serious loss must make. “I couldn’t take it but I took it,” he says. “And I can’t take it, yet I do take it.” To live with his incapacities, he must adopt a cripple’s stoicism, stripping his courage of sentimentality. That stoicism is a manly way of meeting the world, and it still resonates with me. Nothing I have since read speaks so well of the power of facing the future that infused me, body and soul.
The idea of manhood to which I am indebted is unfashionable today. And yet I believe that what inspired me, what kept me going in the 1950s, survives. It is no less necessary now than it was then. Emerson’s line, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” remains a warning for all of us. Even as men are urged toward greater self-examination, one hopes they are smart enough not to confuse self-examination with self-flagellation. The former should lead to a sense of what a man’s life is and what he is willing to pay to make that life what he thinks it can become. The latter leads to morose self-pity. In our gender-confused world, the idea of manhood that sustained me, with my crippled body, can still sustain adolescents who are physically whole but emotionally unstable. I suspect it might make life less painful for some eighteen-year-old who is crippled in one way or another, trying to face his future and struggling to become the man he dreams of being. And I suspect that if all he is offered is the retreat from manhood evident in popular culture, it will be far more difficult for him to become that man. As wounded as I was in body and soul in the 1950s, the idea of manhood burned for me as a beacon of aspiration. As it does for me today, even at eighty-six.
Leonard Kriegel is the author, most recently, of Flying Solo.