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Of Pit Bulls and Men : Tamed Manhood in Harry Crews’s An American Family (2006)

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L’article analyse le déclin et le rétablissement de la masculinité du Sud chez le principal protagoniste masculin du roman, An American Family : The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006), dernier livre en date d’Harry Crews. En se basant sur plusieurs études traitant de la masculinité en général et de la masculinité du Sud des Etats-Unis, en particulier—notamment la facilité chez ces hommes du Sud (une tendance souvent stéréotypée) à commettre des actes de violence et de brutalité, en particulier—cet article montre la possibilité, suggérée par Crews, de ré-éduquer un homme dépourvu de manières et abusant de sa femme, en faisant appel à une violence, une torture et une humiliation infligés par une femme. Dans le contexte de la théorie masochiste de Sigmund Freud et au moyen de textes choisis, représentant différents courants dans les mouvements masculins qui considèrent les hommes comme des victimes féminisés ; victimes qui se doivent de reconquérir une virilité fragilisée et qui cherchent également à libérer les émotions et sensibilités qu’ils ont dû contenir, cet article pose les trois étapes de la réformation masculine : l’infantilisation, la féminisation, et la re-masculinisation. Dans le roman, Crews compare l’épreuve de son protagoniste à celle des pit-bulls, marginalisés pour leur férocité, mais qui, dans les cironstances adéquates, sont capables de se comporter comme des animaux de compagnie fidèles.

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  • 1 In my article, I prefer to use “manhood” rather than “masculinity,” taking into notion the differen (...)

1Harry Crews, a southern writer born in South Georgia who spent thirty years of his life as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville, was, during his long literary career, spanning from 1969 to his death at the age of seventy-six in 2012, universally labeled as a men’s writer, an author of masculine fiction full of gender stereotypes. The protagonists of his novels are strong and tough males whose main agenda is to display their manhood, to prove to others and themselves that they are real men.1 Their channels for releasing their abundant male energy are usually manly sports and activities, such as bodybuilding, weightlifting, boxing, karate, or hawk-manning, often combined with wild sex and violence against both strangers and their own kind. Crews’s women are frequently on a par with them as far as physical prowess and brutality are concerned, and at the same time are endowed with physical characteristics that make them overblown caricatures of ideals based on men’s magazines.

2The last published book by Harry Crews, the novella An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006), set in an unnamed Florida town, explores the same southern masculine world as his previous seventeen novels and novellas. There is, nevertheless, a substantial change. The main character, Major Melton, after he repeatedly crosses the border of decency and good manners, undertakes, under the leadership of his wife Nicky, a painful re-education that is made parallel to attempts at the reformation of pit bulls, a dog breed with a bad reputation. During this process, Nicky shows distinctly masculine traits, and at a certain stage of her efforts the gender roles of husband and wife seem to switch. The seemingly uncomplicated moral tale is, however, rendered by a third-person narrator with the object of the re-education as a reflector, who at the beginning challenges the legitimacy of his son, then is turned into a passive victim who is repeatedly brutalized, and at the end, after a short period of happy masochism, reclaims his remedied self. This unexpected late twist in Crews’s writing resulted in embarrassment on the part of both die-hard fans of the author and reviewers, who largely ignored the book.

3The novella, which occasionally slips into a succession of burlesque theatrical exchanges, addresses several gender-related topics that have been heavily researched by psychologists, sociologists, and cultural theorists of various approaches and ideologies since the 1970s. Even though it is far from realistic fiction and close to a biting satire on the southern way of life, its main focus is the serious problem of the changing nature of traditional southern manhood. The southern men in the novella face the uneasy task of adjusting to the era of gender equality without losing their manly status and identity and Crews describes their plight without mercy.

4My analysis will focus on the process of the reformation of the novella’s main protagonist. Against the background of texts exploring the status of manhood and its decline since the beginning of the twentieth century, from Sigmund Freud’s studies of masochism to the theories of authors representing various streams of the men’s movement, as well as their feminist adversaries, I will discuss Crews’s use of woman-inflicted violence against her spouse as a coercive means. I will also explore the theoretical ramifications of Crews’s comparison of violent southern men and pit bulls, frequently trained as fighting dogs, considered as both mainstream and benign in the past, but increasingly marginalized and even demonized in the present. My comment on the unorthodox educational method used in the novella will include the discussion of three stages that should lead to the reinstatement of the man’s strong, self-confident manhood without its malign side-effects.

Southern Man Turned Weak

5In southern communities ruled by the code of honor it is especially difficult for low-class and middle-class men to cope with the requests for male sensitivity and emotionality feminists formulated in the 1960s. Major Melton is a typical middle-class urban southerner, with the exception of being a college teacher, which is never highlighted in the book, as it does not increase his social status, unlike the fact that he lives in a $ 200,000 house on an estate called, ominously, Crippled Horse Acres, bought with his in-laws’ money. On the very first page of Chapter One, set on the day of Major and Nicky’s second wedding anniversary, which also happens to be the Super Bowl Sunday, Major looks at a barking pit bull tied to a tree in front of his house, the only tree that was left where a forest used to be, and ruminates about his unhappiness: like the dog, he “was going quietly mad from being tied on a leash that was too short” (Crews, An American Family 1). Pessimistically, he expects the Sunday to be another lousy day “in a whole calendar of bad days” (1). The reason for his feeling of alienation comes from two directions: he is scared of his wife and he has a substantiated suspicion that his five-month-old baby son is not really his.

6After his service in the Marine Corps, Major married Nicky, the beautiful daughter of rich dentists, for flesh and money, but soon found out that his married life would not be a walk through a rose garden. All Major’s descriptions of his wife are tinted with naked fear. Her smile is “thin as the cut of a knife” (22), her hip “cocked in a sarcastic question mark” (8), and if he ever tried to have his way about anything, “the bitch would cut him cold between the sheets” (2). Major also has serious doubts concerning his patrimony. His son bears on his penis a bright purple birthmark shaped like a camel that does not resemble anything on Major’s or his wife’s body; in addition to this, the baby has a deep cleft in his chin, the same as their family friend Pete, who, years ago, introduced them.

7Only near the end of Chapter Two are readers informed why Nicky behaves towards her husband with such a mixture of coldness and suppressed hatred: it is her retaliation for the long history of domestic violence, especially a hard blow she received from him when she was five months pregnant that made her drop “like a sack of wet shit” (23). Neither of them remembers the events that led to “the little episode in the kitchen” (22), but this is because, as she says, there were “so many episodes to keep track of” (23). Major later admits, still considering his past behavior appropriate:

Yes, goddamit he had hit her. That was a fact. But behind the fact there was another. He had never hit her without justification. Nobody knew his heart but himself, and he knew in his heart that whatever he had done was for her own good. (51)

8In addition to the wife-battering, the couple also has a history of sexual abuse and perversion; without further specification Nicky alludes to some unspecified horrible acts Major had performed on her or made her perform on him (24). On the other hand, according to Major, Nicky’s “way of talking had turned violent over the past eighteen months or so” (8), that is, four months before the child had been conceived and a full nine months before the climactic incident in the kitchen. Obviously, Crews leaves open the decision as to whether Major is a mere wife-beater who faces a deserved punishment or also a victim of a femininity going berserk.

9The situation in the Melton family both represents and challenges the model that numerous researchers considered mainstream in southern families. Social psychologists Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, who explored the roots and manifestations of southern violence in their book Culture of Honor (1996), show that the violence of husbands against their wives in the South was, in the course of history, seen as useful and even psychologically profitable for women. Besides the regulatory function, the male violence against their spouses primarily served “as a way of coercing” and “establishing control” both over the women’s minds and their sexuality. Southern men acted brutally, especially in response to their wives’ “real or imaginary infidelities” (66), a practice that in the past was even supported by law. For example, in 1824 “a Mississippi court set the precedent for allowing corporal punishment of wives by husbands” (65) and until the mid-1970s there was a law in Texas that allowed a husband to kill his wife and her lover if he caught them in a “compromising position” (2). As Nisbett and Cohen emphasize, as late as 1993 “about 40 percent of northern and western states mandated arrest for a domestic violence incident but not a single southern state did so” (66).

10As southern states regularly lagged behind their northern counterparts in embracing new trends in gender relationships, some scholars excluded this vast area from their research. For example, in his history of the development of masculinity from the American Revolution to World War I E. Anthony Rotundo explicitly writes that his focus was primarily on “the Northern middle class” (2). Nevertheless, in Rotundo’s chapter concerning married life in the nineteenth century we can find several points that can be applied to southern marriages in general and the marital situation in Crews’s novella in particular.

  • 2 The first written text that documents this phrase, widely used to these days, comes from 1846. See (...)

11Rotundo gives two main nineteenth-century concepts of marriage, seen at that time as contradictory: “a union of two persons” and “a power relationship based on male dominance” (130). In both cases, the distribution of responsibilities in a family was given and spheres of influence were separated. Only at the turn of the century did women begin to be seen as “unique selves whose qualities could include the ‘masculine’ alongside the ‘feminine’” and the division of power between husband and wife “became a problem to be solved, not an arrangement to be assumed” (156). Still, women who had the upper hand in the household were sarcastically labeled as those who “wore the breeches,” which also degraded their husbands because it implied that, as there is supposedly only one pair of breeches in the family, they must wear skirts.2

12The marriage of Major and Nicky is both a union of two individuals and a power relationship. The fact that two individuals of opposite sexes are united in wedlock does not automatically imply harmony in their being together, while competition for power in the household can often take irrational and violent turns. Nicky hands over care for the baby, in the nineteenth-century model an almost exclusively female responsibility, to her husband and Major, whose first name sounds, as the story proceeds, more and more ironic, comforts the baby in the crib in the morning and changes his diaper, even though “he would rather take a beating” (6). As his surname, Melton, suggests, he has already “melted.” When he is interrupted, during a vain attempt at finding a birthmark on his wife’s body, with the uncompromising “I’ll slap you blind, if you don’t turn out the light and go to sleep” (8), he obediently does as she ordered and lies in the bed “breathing quietly into the dark of the bedroom” (8)

13This image of resignation makes it evident that Major’s role as the one who is supposed to wear the “breeches” in this family is shattered: while Nicky’s shorts, even though in the opinion of the jealous Major “too tight and too short” (14), fit perfectly, Major has a “major” problem even putting his jeans on in the morning: “He snatched his Levis from the back of a chair and hopped down the hallway on one leg, trying to pull the Levis on as he went” (5). He gradually becomes the embodiment of the concept of the “feminized male” that Patricia Cayo Sexton introduced in her eponymous 1969 book. From a feminist viewpoint, she defined the feminized male as a man “whose normal male impulses are suppressed or misshapen by overexposure to feminine norms” (4). While earlier feminists pleaded for more sensitivity and emotionality in men, the case against the overwhelming influence of women in men’s education escalated in the mid-1970s and culminated a decade later in books by representatives of the men’s movement, such as Robert Bly, who, from an opposing ideological position, called in his bestselling Iron John (1990) for the need for men to reinvent their primeval manhood through old legends and initiation rituals.

Emotionally Constipated Southern Men and Women

14In The Liberated Man (1974) Warren Farrell labels men who are “unable to handle emotions expressed by others” as “emotionally incompetent” and those “unable to express their own emotions” as “emotionally constipated” (66). The societal ban on the public display of men’s emotions such as joy, fear, grief or anger is, according to Farrell, a part of “the masculine mystique” and is responsible for various somatic problems of men—the emotionally constipated man “leaves no outlet for his stomach but ulcers” (66). Instead of tears or a spontaneous outburst of violence men accumulate their feelings and gradually turn into huge tight-lidded pots of boiling bile. Any self-imposed laxative brings only the flow of cynicism, an “emotional diarrhea” that never ends in its “logical conclusion,” that is, an “open protest,” as the real emotions stay “stuck in [the man’s] system” (66). Besides emotional constipation, Farrell also introduces the notion of “dependency constipation.” A man is so scared of losing the markers of his seeming independence, namely “success, money, and status among peers,” that he becomes dependent on them to such an extent that he simultaneously “saps his energy to the point of his being passive with his family” (68).

  • 3 Up to the mid-1980s Steinem was Farrell’s good friend. However, after 1988, when Farrell embarked o (...)

15While Farrell’s book dealt primarily with men’s problems, it was taken by several leading feminists of the time, for example, Gloria Steinem, to be of wide practical use for women as well.3 Not everybody was willing to extend the use of the theories of blockage to women, though. Sally Robinson, showing that men are blocked by their own identities, while women’s “constipation” is political and institutional, claims that such theories, instead of making men more sensitive toward women, reinstate men’s superiority over them, as “emotions most often identified as dangerously blocked are anger and resentment rather than, say, love and fear” (211).

16Crews’s novella introduces a family in which both husband and wife suffer from both dependency and emotional constipation. Major, even though grieving at being neglected and feeling like a martyr, as if he has “been crucified” (14), never forgets his dependence on monetary resources from Nicky’s parents: “God bless their money and their teeth” (4). Not only did Nicky extinguish any spark of violence in him; she also quenched his life energy, with the exception of the sexual type, which nevertheless, under the circumstances, also stays unreleased. Major’s only feeble protest against his ordeal, aside from vague and purely theoretical thoughts about killing his wife’s lover (at that time he thought that she had only one), is his screaming of Nicky’s name “into the unmarked sky” (13). Nicky’s resistance is at first passive as well—before she can bring up the topic of divorce to her husband, she must drink a half bottle of whiskey.

17As Rotundo claims, marital alienation seems to be easier to handle than outbursts of unexpected intimacy, as it promises an impending and definitive closure, as well as the end of the problem (140). However, Nicky and Major do not seek an easy conclusion of their relationship and their battle of the sexes becomes a trench war in which both parties are waiting who will become exposed first. The winner is Nicky, since Major gets himself provoked into calling her a “bitch,” and is about to slap her, imagining “how good it would feel to do it” (22).

18At this moment Nicky blows her stack and the flow of her aggressive vitality turns against her husband. This is not an uncontrolled “diarrhea” of cynicism but a controlled succession of hits, kicks and punches. The phrase “dropping like a sack of wet shit” that Nicky derisively repeats to her husband turns into a metaphor that succinctly describes the real state of Major, who feels as if “a bell tower” were “slamming in his head, . . . a thick column of blood rising like a fountain out of his throat and falling hot over his chin and chest” (23). Only then is Nicky able to express her emotions in speech as well: “I had to wait. And waiting to fuck you up damn near killed me. God, I’ve waited a long time to see your blood run” (24). While Nicky’s emotional constipation is finally over, Major still keeps “the shit” in him—what gets out is only his blood. Therefore, he must undertake a few more painful procedures before his emotional block finally dissolves, or, to follow his own metaphor of a crucified martyr, visit several more stations of the cross.

  • 4 There are very few scholars who take Robert Bly’s highly eclectic volume seriously, and for good re (...)

19From this point of view, Nicky can be considered a very efficient healer. She breaks Major’s nose, slashes his throat, kicks him in the kidneys, lashes him with a special Asian whip, and finally loads him into a cab that delivers him to her parents’ house. Ironically, her violence is close to the barbaric violent initiation rituals that make real men from boys, those which Robert Bly wanted to revive in his bestselling Iron John. However, Bly claimed that “only men can initiate men, as only women can initiate women” (16),4 which Crews, who followed this rule in his earlier works, finally challenged, even though not without irony.

20Although we are not familiar with the exact nature of the brutal acts Major committed against his wife, we should always bear in mind that the violence in the Melton family was reciprocal. Only recently did psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers investigate patterns of domestic violence in its full scope and find out that women use violence against their spouses as often as men do. David Benatar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, distinguishes between “‘normal violence’ (pushing, shoving, slapping and throwing things) and ‘severe violence’ (kicking, biting, punching, hitting with an object, ‘beating up’ and attacking the spouse with a knife or gun)” (31). Even though he found out that “half the violence is mutual,” he, surprisingly, came to the conclusion that the occurrence of “female-inflicted violence” is much higher than of the male-inflicted sort. While the psychological effects of spousal or marital violence are evenly balanced, it became obvious that wives inflict more physical damage on their spouses (see Benatar 31), partly because of their indiscriminate use of weapons that compensate for their more fragile bodily constitution (which is not the case of Nicky, who is a brown belt in karate). As Benatar concludes, abused men are also “taken less seriously than abused women when they complain of abuse or seek help” (31).

21Neither Benatar nor other defenders of disadvantaged men write about violence inflicted by women as a method to exorcise evil from their spouses, or, to return to Farrell’s “constipation” imagery, about violence as a metaphorical administration of an enema. Yet this is exactly the aim of Nicky’s violence against her husband in Crews’s novella. She is so serious in her intent to reform her husband that she even summons her kin and friends to form an amateur medical council whose recommended healing method is torture.

Civilizing Men and Pit Bulls

22In 1987, Time magazine published an article on the ferocity of pit bulls (or, correctly, American Pit Bull Terriers) with a title that suggested both their strength and their unpredictability, “Time Bombs on Legs.” The same title could be given to an article about the “emotionally constipated” men and women who finally release their negative emotions in an outburst of violence. In his novella, Harry Crews explores the possibilities of the reformation of both “breeds” known for being dangerous and violent—the pit bull and southern man—and at the same time implies that female violence, being coercive and educational, does not need any remedy.

  • 5 Additional reporting for David Brand’s Time article was done by Scott Brown and D. Blake Hallanan.

23The Time article, comparing the pit bull with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, describes the demonized breed as “a dog with a squat, muscular body and thick, steel-trap jaws that is descended from the fighting bulldogs of 19th-century England” (Brand 60).5 According to the article, pit bulls are especially pestilent in the hands of “dog-fighting enthusiasts, members of street gangs and drug pushers” who use various techniques to turn their dogs into killers that “hang on until the prey is dead.” The article also mentions that most of the “lethal weapons” are not purebred pit bulls but crossbreds with German shepherds or Doberman pinschers, breeds that were considered the most dangerous before pit bulls came into fashion among low-class and underclass people (60).

  • 6 Dogfighting is illegal in all fifty states of the U.S.A.

24The article demonstrated what scholars dealing with the history of human-animal relationships had known for a long time. James A. Serpell, a British expert on animal behavior who moved to Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, wrote that in people’s lives animals always acted “as emblems of their lofty status; as a means of impressing others and advertising the extent of their power and affluence” (51). As Rhonda Evans, DeAnn K. Gauthier, and Craig J. Forsyth, sociologists from universities in Texas and Louisiana, showed in their articles, the breeding of pit bulls in the South is more than anywhere else directly connected with the masculine status of their owners. Investigating the phenomenon of illegal dogfighting in Mississippi and Louisiana, they found out that the fighting pit bulls “serve as symbols of their respective owners” (830, italics in the original).6 Because the cowardice of a dog is automatically extended to its owner, the dogs are trained to never quit; if they do, there is a duty for their owners to put them to sleep to save their own reputation (see Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth 832-33). As one breeder said, “If a man brings a no good dog to the pit, he’s usually not 100 percent either” (831).

25Crews introduced the world of pit bulls for the first time in his novel A Feast of Snakes (1976). Big Joe Mackey, the father of the low-class protagonist of the novel, is a breeder of pit bulls for fighting. His dogs spend hours on a treadmill and are trained to attack a swinging tire smeared with chicken blood. As an initiation test before his first public fight, his best dog, Tuffy, is sent against his father, Old Tuffy, who is not able to fight or breed any more, and demonstrates his prowess by killing him mercilessly. Big Joe calls it “sharpening” of the young dog and, even though he does not particularly enjoy it, he considers it inevitable: “It was simply necessary, like feeding a young boxer a lot of inferior opponents, opponents who had some skill but no chance, no real hope. It tuned the fighter, gave him a taste for blood and the killing blow, made him feel invincible” (Crews, A Feast of Snakes 95-96). Through pit bulls, Big Joe compensates for his low economic status, as well as his failure as a husband: his wife fled with an elderly effeminate traveling salesman and when he brought her back by force, she committed suicide, which drove their daughter insane. As Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth wrote, killing a dog that is not useful any more signifies “a symbolic reinstatement of the . . . fallen man to the masculine ideal” (833). It is interesting that in his 1979 Esquire article on dogfighting, Crews described most of the attributes of the pit bull’s training he gave in A Feast of Snakes, for example, the use of treadmills, as rare and inefficient. He especially disclaimed the widely-publicized practice of killing losing dogs, also mentioned in the study by Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth:

I’ve been around dogfights all my life and I’ve never seen a dog killed in the pit. I don’t say it doesn’t happen, just that I’ve never seen it. . . . Every fight between pit bulls I’ve seen . . . has been fought by what are called Louisiana rules, which means that the dog does not have, as breeders say, “to take his killing.” All he has to do is “to cur out.” (Crews, “A Day at the Dogfights” 54)

  • 7 Even President Bill Clinton, being a southerner, was known as “Bubba.”

26Crews used the metaphor of the pit bull as a lethal weapon again in his novel The Mulching of America (1995), the book immediately preceding An American Family, even though there is an eleven-year gap between them. In the novel the owner of a pit bull named Bubba, after the traditional low-class, “good ole boy” southern stereotype (see Wilson 7),7 is an underclass teenage woman for whom the dog is a means of defense, as well as an instrument of power over much stronger men. As the male protagonist of the novel recognized, after the command “Sic the son of a bitch,” the dog bared his teeth, and slobber that looked “like shaving cream [was] hanging from his jaw” (Crews, The Mulching of America 59). When the girl ordered fix, the pit bull’s “scarred ears went forward, and a ridge of hair leapt up along his spine. His tail stiffened above his back and the only thing that moved on him was his ribs as he panted and snorted through his foreshortened nose” (108). Intimidating even the most dangerous men through her dog, she never has to say attack, which “means to chew the living hell out of him if he moves,” or even kill, which “means to take him all the way out” (108). Still in the past, as a “good practice for the future,” she once let her dog tear a leg off a man, even though he was “a right little feller” (99), thus using the same method of keeping her animal tough as Big Joe and the respondents from the study of Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth.

27In An American Family, the pit bulls are used neither as fighting dogs, nor to defend their owners. Their role in keeping or ruining their owner’s reputation is nevertheless intact, even conflated; here the saying “a dog is only as good as his master” is unremittingly valid (see Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth 833). Last but not least, in relation to the diminishing social tolerance toward dangerous dog breeds, both in the South and elsewhere, pit bulls are also perceived as a social issue by Crews, put side by side with the increasingly discussed controversial topic of the feminization of men and the masculinization of women.

  • 8 For the history of the series, including the role of the pit bull in it, see Maltin and Bann. The b (...)

28The two pit bull owners in the book are Major, who received one specimen of the ill-reputed breed as a malicious gift from his former friend Pete, one of his wife’s lovers, and Pete’s father, Mr. Zack, in whose pet store, specializing exclusively in pit bulls and called The Pit Stop, the dog was bred. The narrator, echoing the opinion of the local community, characterizes Mr. Zack as “a very famous crazy person who was trying single-handedly to rehabilitate the reputation and image of the notoriously ferocious little terrier best known for his willingness to fight to the death” (36) and introduces his “rehabilitation” project that includes a regular “dog’s social hour” (39) during which hundreds of pit bulls on the leash are walked on a huge parking lot by local seniors who volunteered for this activity. In his opinion, the problem with pit bulls is that they have never been “properly socialized” and he believes that they “have nothing in their lives more important than what they’re doing right now” (40). Even Mr. Zack’s son Pete is named after a pit bull, a famous dog from Our Gang, a popular series of American comedies for children released between 1922 and 1944 (later also known as The Little Rascals); especially Nicky is aware of this connection, calling him “Petey,” the name frequently given to the dog by kids in the films.8

29It is no coincidence that Major, after being beaten by his wife and tortured by her parents, who, as a behavior lesson, extract a healthy molar from his mouth with garden pliers, was brought to the Pit Stop—his conduct needs correction as well. Major, having lost all traits of violent manhood except foul language, arrives ignominiously in the trunk of Pete’s car only to be confronted with a real macho man. Mr. Zack is “seven feet tall if not taller,” with a profile “sharp and clean” and “intensely blue” eyes, and even though he is “massive,” he is “as quick and nimble as a ballerina” and his age “would have been impossible to estimate” (37). His attempt at making obedient pets out of two hundred ferocious animals is seen as a heroic act and confirmation of his manly status by the community, which is nevertheless not completely on his side: as his son tells him, some local people would like to see him “hanging by [his] heels” (40), and there is a crowd of protesters who carry placards and signs with inscriptions such as “SEND THE DEVIL AND HIS DEVIL DOGS BACK TO HELL!” (40).

30The members of the community in Crews’s novella represent two opposing groups to be found in the South and elsewhere in America or Europe: the opponents and defenders of pit bulls. In the mid-1980s, following several highly publicized serious or even fatal attacks by pit bulls and other dangerous dogs of related breeds or crossbreds, mostly on children and women, there was a call for breed-specific legislation; in the United States the most radical city in this aspect was Denver, Colorado, which banned pit bulls in 1989. While Florida did not adopt a complete ban on the breed, parts of the state, for example Miami-Dade County, did enforce regulations against the ownership of pit bulls. For that reason, in 2006, the year when An American Family was published, a Miami-Dade county basketball team was pushed into changing its name from the Florida Pit Bulls to the Miami Majesty. One year earlier, two Fort Lauderdale personal injury attorneys, John Pape and Marc Chandler, had been disciplined for “violating Florida Bar advertising rules” by placing a TV advertisement with a pit bull logo and the phone number 1-800-PIT-BULL (Blankenship).

  • 9 Jesmyn Ward, a Mississippi-born African American author, illustrates the double use of pit bulls as (...)
  • 10 Allen prefers Dangerous Dogs Legislation to breed-specific legislation, as in her opinion most peop (...)

31On the other hand, defenders of the breed constantly reminded people of the earlier reputation of pit bulls as “nanny dogs,” deemed especially suitable, because of their loyalty and high pain threshold, for playing with children, as well as “patriotic dogs” from posters from the World War I and the 1920s.9 Theresa Allen goes as far as to claim that “American pit bull terriers, in fact, do not functionally make good guard dogs because of their human-friendly nature” and, if they are to be used for “keeping strangers away,” their owners must make them look tougher than they really are by having their ears cropped and their tail docked, or placing around their neck “a spiked collar or heavy metal chain” (17). Allen compares the purpose and effect of the painful process of cropping pit bulls’ ears to male tattooing, as both “enhance the intimidating appearance” (69). At the same time she notes, following the findings of the earlier scholars who were exploring patterns of pit bull ownership, that the marginalization and stigmatization of the breed followed the same patterns as the oppression of their owners on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, or religion (Allen 1).10

  • 11 This scene may be inspired by a real event: in 1987, in Stone Mountain, GA, a pit bull attacked a 7 (...)

32In Crews’s novella, the good behavior of Mr. Zack’s pit bulls is of very short duration. While at first the pit bulls on leashes are “being taken smartly through complicated drills” and remind Major of soldiers (39), soon an old woman’s scream, “unreal in its pain and terror” (41), is heard, as her pit bull “had his teeth buried in her breast and she was fighting to get him off” (42).11 Watching the carnage and seeing other pit bulls jerking free of their leashes as well, Mr. Zack proves that he and his pit bulls are incorrigible, when he exclaims: “This is the most terrible thing in the world! This is the most beautiful thing in the world!” (42). This scene nevertheless brings an expected twist of fortune for Major, who, although badly injured and in pain from being tortured by his wife and her parents, tries to save a beautiful girl who is being attacked by two pit bulls on the hood of a Dodge. In performing this desperate but courageous act, he is lucky twice. First, a local photographer makes him a hero by taking his picture with the girl, who jumped off the hood, safely in his arms, not capturing the later stage when the weak Major drops the young woman face-first onto the hot macadam, ruining her face beyond recognition. Second, even though he is nipped by one of the pit bulls, the dog has “an incredibly clean mouth” (43). A hospital doctor explains to Major that the dog did not bite him at all: “If a pit bull had bitten you with his heart in it, you would right now be the sorry spectacle of a man without buttocks” (44).

33After Major’s return from hospital, Mr. Zack, who was bailed after being arrested for disregarding public safety and charged with three counts of manslaughter, tells him: “If we could socialize a pit bull dog, and God knows we’ve not succeeded yet, but if we could, might there not be hope for . . . well, for you?” (59). After this remark, the two men face each other “like pit bulls pitted to fight” (59), which not only suggests the insufficiency of Major’s reformation, but also implies that Mr. Zack might need a similar cure.

  • 12 Harry Crews wrote the character of Mr. Zack as an ironical alter ego, making him a Southern Gothic (...)

34Paradoxically, it is the weak Major who has a better chance of being successfully socialized, while Mr. Zack cannot bear his failure and hangs himself above the Meltons’ dining table, not even capable of tying a proper knot and therefore slowly choking to death in the presence of six cynical onlookers, including his son.12 To apply the dogfighting metaphor, after the conflict of two human pit bulls, the winner continues to live while the loser must die. To accentuate this point, Pete, “the young dog,” disposes of his father’s body where animal cadavers usually end up—in a huge meat grinder where ingredients for cheap hamburgers are produced. As you can deduce the quality of a pit bull dog from its pedigree, you can estimate a son’s character from his father’s traits. In Thomas Ærvold Bjerre’s words, used in an analysis of manhood in another southern male writer, failing fathers “leave in their wake dead or ruined boys who become emotionally crippled by their encounters” (736).

35After the incident on the parking lot and the confiscation of all Mr. Zack’s animals by the police, Major’s dog is the only pit bull that remains around. Only a few days earlier Major watched the animal, tied to a tree, with sympathy mixed with fear: “I’m going to give the dog some fresh water if I can get close enough to him without his tearing me off” (12). As he is not able to overcome his fright, the dog becomes, in Pete’s words, “as dry as burnt toast” (14) and “shithouse crazy” (11). Still, after Major’s suggestion that the pit bull needs water, Pete replies coldly: “Pits don’t need water, they need blood” (12). When the dog is brought to the living room by Pete, he wears a muzzle of black wire and his eyes are “malevolent and shot with blood” (17), while the five-month-old baby is slapping it with a soiled diaper. In a short time, other people start treating Major in the same way he treats his animal. The dentist parents of Nicky even call him “young beast” (28) and “filthy young animal” (30), handling him like sadistic veterinarians.

36When Major returns to the empty house, the pit bull is still tied to the tree. The more alienated Major feels and the more systematically he is humiliated by his wife and the cohort of her relatives and friends, the louder the pit bull on the short leash is, “barking and barking, not even stopping to breathe, just barking” (54-55), which, according to Crews, pit bulls very rarely do (see Crews, “A Day at the Dogfights” 52). At the end of the novella, though, both Major and the dog are reformed almost simultaneously through the baby. While Major never finds out who the real father of his son is (another candidate of fatherhood is Pete’s father, at the time of the baby’s conception the only true male around), he accepts unreserved responsibility for the baby: “He shocked himself when he realized that he didn’t give a rat’s ass whose sperm got him, this was his boy . . .” (65). At the same time he finally realizes that not only he and the dog, but also the baby are “joined in some unknowable unsayable way” (72) and brings the baby to the screen door through which he can see the dog. When the baby points at the pit bull, the dog starts wagging his tail, something pit bulls never do except for balance when fighting: “They damn sure weren’t tail waggers. Wagging their tails when they weren’t fighting was an anomaly” (72). Major opens the door and the baby boy crawls toward the dog, which greets him with “every sign of acceptance: limp, hanging tail, hind quarters twisting which could only mean it wanted a friendly hand, it wanted to be petted” (73)—in other words, behaving like a faithful “nanny dog.” The pit bull’s behavior corresponds with the observations of Richard F. Stratton, a defender of the breed: “The point is that any breed comes off second to the Pit Bull in terms of stable disposition to people. . . . He will take maulings from young children and thrive upon it. He likes rough play, as long as he knows it is play, and is tireless in his indulgence” (15-16, italics in the original). In reaction to Nicky’s angry and fearful reaction, Major replies: “I was only getting [the baby] used to my dog” (74). Major’s acknowledgment of the dog as his successfully closes the process of his “civilization” and signifies the return of his manhood.

From Masochism to Sensitive Masculinity

37In 1998, David Mavran introduced and contextualized “a new and powerful figure in U.S. culture: the white male as victim” (4), which led to a backlash from feminist scholars. But even Sally Robinson, one of these scholars, who rejected the idea that “men suffer . . . [their] hurts from the patriarchal system that channels women and men into narrow forms of personal expression” (209), taking their suffering as a strictly personal, psychological matter, admitted that bodily wounds do “have a persuasive power” (208). In Crews’s novella, where physical injuries are supposed to heal men’s mental disorders responsible for their viciousness, the concept of a male victim is brought to a different level: it marks a transitory period on the journey from pathological to healthy manhood. The journey has three stages: re-infantilization, feminization, and, finally, re-masculinization. The first stage strips the abusive man of his aggressive habits and inclination to sadism and the second turns him into a masochist, while the last one teaches him to channel his energies into family-oriented activities rather than destructive showoffs of masculine power. The whole process is presented as highly stylized, which led one of the few reviewers of the novella to call it “a grotesquely Freudian revenge fantasy” (Driscoll), a characteristic I would rather adjust into “a reform fantasy.”

38The re-infantilization of man is shown through his feelings of dependence and inability to handle his own affairs. When Major returns home from the hospital, with a swollen jaw, ailing face, knees, and feet, and bandaged buttocks, calling the name of his wife in their empty bedroom, he feels like a child but without a child’s capacity to weep:

What a child he was, a weak fucked-up child. For a moment he thought he might start crying. And he realized he would have if he could. Everything came but the tears. Self-loathing, the feeling of utter helplessness, all of it washed over him. Everything but tears. (50)

39The absence of tears suggests that his “emotional constipation” perseveres. As Robinson points out in her comment on Farrell’s theory, if “masculinity and men are to be liberated from the ‘harness’ of the male role, emotional energies must be released, the tears must flow” (208).

  • 13 Even though Freud’s concept of “feminine masochism” in men was widely criticized, it still has many (...)

40The second stage, feminization, introduces the subject of masochism, which is, according to the classic definition of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the state in which an individual “is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused” (127). In his 1919 article “The Child Is Being Beaten” Sigmund Freud suggests that male children beaten by their fathers put their mothers in their fathers’ place and when, as adults, they return to their childhood years in their imagination, “the persons who administer chastisement are always women” (197),13 at first in their fantasies and later in real-life situations. However, Major, whose parents died long ago, never had such a fantasy and Nicky’s violent performance catches him by surprise. Nor does he find any delight in his situation—his only mildly pleasurable feeling comes from Nicky’s voice, which, even though it is telling him things he does not want to hear, is “sweet, singing” and “lovely” (23-24).

41In the same article, Freud also wrote that the men who are brutalized by women “transfer themselves into the part of a woman” (200), while, on the other hand, the women are endowed “with masculine attributes and characteristics” (200). In Freud’s opinion, it is possible because “both in male and female individuals masculine as well as feminine impulses are found” (202), a finding that later became the cornerstone of the theories of gender fluidity. Crews’s novella illustrates it to the utmost, and explicitly. Nicky’s masculine disposition becomes so conflated that she turns every man in the house, not only her husband, into docile servants, “playing them all like an orchestra” (69). She cultivates in them the features that Craig Thompson Friend, exploring southern masculinity, considers the worst affront to manhood: “Foppishness, passivity, gentleness, interest in home life, even finding friendship with one’s wife rather than the guys . . .” (xiii). Indeed, all male guests in the house are there for Nicky, to help her re-educate her husband, and all are more or less feminized, which is best perceptible in their speech and even in their voices, which become higher, while Nicky’s voice “dropped . . . an octave” (69). Pete, always “a T-shirt and Levis man,” is “dressed like a Baghdad fag, . . . pastel shirts of some fabric Major could not even name, and with the shirts, trousers that a harem eunuch might favor, wide at the knee, narrow at the ankle, all of colors indescribable” (62). Nicky’s Asian helper Bac Bong Suc, a lethal black belt of mixed Korean-Japanese ancestry, is vacuuming rooms and when he finds the courage to remind Nicky that he is her superior at martial arts, she responds with a matter-of-fact remark: “And you do not forget who kicks the hardest” (81). Nicky even threatens her own parents and, after Mr. Zack commits suicide, turns the dinner into a psychotherapeutic meeting that discloses the various and often highly bizarre secrets of all the people in the room.

42The burlesque character of the last two chapters averts readers’ attention from Major’s reformation, and yet the project of Major’s “civilizing” proceeds to a satisfactory completion. Major takes care of the baby, all the time being kept “busy at wifely duties” (69). Nicky makes it clear that she considers him her slave and has “long-range plans” for him (64). Once Major even has to perform a mother’s role, when she orders him to nurse the baby; his shirt is open and the little boy has “Major’s nipple in his mouth, his eyes closed, sucking furiously” (62).

43Nicky’s first allusion indicating that her violence against Major is a coercive measure, not an end in itself or an act of revenge, comes when Major voices his concern about the sexual orientation of his son. Even though Nicky replies with her stereotypical “shut up,” she adds: “You wouldn’t know the truth if it jumped up and stung you in the ass” (64). The truth that jumped up and nipped Major in the buttocks is, of course, the pit bull at Mr. Zack’s Pit Stop, but Major is not able to understand the parallel between his slowly changing behavior and that of the dog that only nipped him instead of biting him. Not being familiar with pit bull breeding, he is even less able to draw from his wife’s remark the additional piece of information—that even though she herself might have turned temporarily into a fierce pit bull, female dogs of this breed become lethal only against dogs of their own sex. In spite of this, Nicky can enjoy the first visible sign of her reformatory success. It is the demonstration of Major’s feminine impulses, spotted in his increasingly intimate feelings toward the baby. Although he is still not able to cry, he “had to fight back tears, and the tears were entirely for the baby” (64), that is, not of self-pity.

  • 14 See Reik 49. Earlier English editions of the book were published under the title Masochism in Moder (...)

44In the next stage Nicky turns Major into a real masochist, exploiting another of Freud’s discoveries, namely that “the being beaten also stands for being loved (in a genital sense)” (198). Dressed like a Gothic vamp, all in black, in “pistol-legged pants,” a tight shirt, “shoes impossibly pointed with spiked heels like twenty penny nails,” with eyes “lined in black and her finely shaped lips painted the same color” (65), she asks her husband to undress her and perform oral sex on her. This time Major, who has no idea that the sexy garment is the Asian man’s martial arts uniform, surrenders to “a gladness of the heart he could not have named,” realizing that “nothing short of a .45 slug could have blown him away from the place where he had his face buried” (67). After the mutual sexual gratification there nevertheless comes a new level of Major’s humiliation, as the whole act is watched by Pete, Mr. Zack, and the Asian man, who start clapping their hands and laughing, turning it into a perverse sideshow performance. The scene can serve as a textbook example of sexual masochism, as it was defined by Theodor Reik, even though with a twist. According to Reik, a male masochist works like a playwright, who invents and builds a symbolic stage on which a drama is performed.14 No matter whether his female tormenter is real or merely a figment of the masochist’s mind, he needs, in Savran’s words, “a spectator, whether real or imagined, whose voyeuristic delight in the masochist’s pleasurable pain redoubles it” (182). In Crews’s book Nicky, clad and behaving like a typical dominatrix, is the author and the director of the scene, as well as the leading actress. She inserts masochistic desires into Major’s head and immediately enacts them: at the same moment as Major realizes the power of her “incredibly strong hands,” she pulls him away from her lap and pushes him so strongly that he falls backwards on his hurting back. As a result, Major, in the past a man without fantasies, tells Pete: “A little dreaming never hurt anything” (74).

45Nicky always makes sure that none of her coercive methods will cause irreversible harm to Major. That is why she rejects the Asian man’s suggestion to apply Chinese water torture; Major has to go through all Nicky’s tests to become familiar with his infantile and feminine selves but at the same time he must not lose the healthy core of his manhood, which, as Savran aptly notices, “is not an achieved state but a process, a trial through which one passes” (38). This corresponds to the idea of men’s liberationists of Farrell’s type that manhood operates on performance, not the pleasure principle, and must be proved repeatedly through deeds. For example, George Gilder, a harsh critic of feminism, wrote in his controversial 1973 book Sexual Suicide: “While the female body is full of internal potentiality, the male is internally barren . . . Manhood at the most basic level can be validated and expressed only in action” (18). Such a man is not supposed to be stereotypically macho, a term that since the late 1960s has been increasingly considered a dirty word, but a responsible male who is both tender and strong.

46Major’s newly acquired tenderness is greeted by Nicky with satisfaction, even though it is still not perfect. When, on one occasion, Major replies to Nicky’s order: “But of course, my dear” (80), Nicky praises him for his fine sentiment but asks to be called by her first name. In return, Nicky reluctantly hands over the command of the family back to him. The properly reformed Major is able to stand not only against the feminized Pete but also against the Asian martial arts expert. He is not an abuser any more but at the same time takes no offense. When Pete tries to diminish Major’s manhood by reminding him that his wife was just several hours ago his lover, calling him “Mr. Strong, silent type” (87), Major drives a salad fork through his left hand, pinning it to the table top, and later “buries the tines of the thin shrimp fork in the flesh under the right eye” (88). The “justifiable” violence that, according to Savran, has been the foundation of male subjectivity since the end of the seventeenth century (see Savran 25), gets Nicky’s tacit support, but still she maintains her “slave/master tone” (91) with Major and occasionally resorts to pronouncements such as, “A lot of things used to BE yours. Nobody took’m, you gave’m away” (92). The last ordeal she devises for Major is a candid talk about their infidelities staged under the hangman’s noose in their kitchen, as in her opinion only truth can save their marriage.

47While most of Crews’s novels end in murder and mayhem, this is his only book of fiction with an indisputable happy end. Nicky gives Major a second chance, which Major gratefully accepts, summing up her reasons in the following way:

We know the absolute worst about each other. I’ve put scars on you you’ll carry to the grave. And you’ve hurt me in ways God himself couldn’t name. The last thing in the world I want is for our boy to be a latchkey kid. And for you and me to marry one son-of-a-bitch after the other which is the American Way. (100-101)

48The painful process of Major’s reformation is over, and the baby, who receives the name Mack, after the “razor sharp” London killer Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera by Bertold Brecht, is sleeping with his head on the pit bull’s stomach, Nicky’s tears end her emotional blockage, and the couple, after a very long time, joins hands. Even though some day “the poor puppy’s liable to end up tearing some innocent’s throat out” (103), now there is time for a southern idyll—the only permissible violence is the one used “to cut through the bullshit of this world” (102).

49The novella does read like a stylized self-parody but, returning to most of Crews’s favorite themes, serves as a logical closure to his oeuvre. The male southerner, a victim of the violent culture of honor, turns weak, emotionally constipated, and feminized, and goes through hell only to reappear scarred but not broken. He realizes that women are equal to men, and his battle of the sexes ends in a draw. Southern manhood, which Crews embodied as a persona and made the center of all his books, was, in his last novella, at first abandoned, then purified, and finally re-instated. It did not lose its influence and power, and like the pit bull, Crews’s favorite dog breed, rehabilitated its reputation.

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Crews, Harry. An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings. Los Angeles: Graham; Blood and Guts P, 2006. Print.

____. “A Day at the Dogfights.” Florida Frenzy. Gainsville: UP of Florida, 1983. 50-59. Print.

____. A Feast of Snakes. New York: Atheneum, 1976. Print.

____. The Mulching of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.

Driscoll, Brendan. Review of An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings, by Harry Crews. Booklist, 1-15 June 2006: 33, 36. Print.

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1 In my article, I prefer to use “manhood” rather than “masculinity,” taking into notion the difference between them as it was constituted in the 19th century. While manhood involved practical qualities, such as “courage, valor, virility, honor,” which “could be applied to any man to indicate that he was morally or physically equal to all and superior to most other men,” masculinity became a theoretical concept, “more a category than a characteristic.” See Friend xv.

2 The first written text that documents this phrase, widely used to these days, comes from 1846. See Rotundo 138.

3 Up to the mid-1980s Steinem was Farrell’s good friend. However, after 1988, when Farrell embarked on his strictly anti-feminist journey that culminated in his 1993 book The Myth of Male Power, where he called men “disposable sex” and “new ‘niggers,’” the friendship ended. See Blake.

4 There are very few scholars who take Robert Bly’s highly eclectic volume seriously, and for good reasons, but, in spite of its numerous shortcomings, it can be useful if approached as a work of a poet, not a psychologist, sociologist or ethnographer.

5 Additional reporting for David Brand’s Time article was done by Scott Brown and D. Blake Hallanan.

6 Dogfighting is illegal in all fifty states of the U.S.A.

7 Even President Bill Clinton, being a southerner, was known as “Bubba.”

8 For the history of the series, including the role of the pit bull in it, see Maltin and Bann. The book is a revised and updated edition of their 1977 volume Our Gang. However, instead of Petey, the authors use the spelling “Petie” for the familiar version of the dog’s name. One of the dogs that played Pete was among the first registered pit bulls in the United States, when, in 1935, the American Kennel Club recognized them as an official breed, even though under the name “Staffordshire terrier” (see Maltin and Bann 281-83).

9 Jesmyn Ward, a Mississippi-born African American author, illustrates the double use of pit bulls as both fierce fighting beasts and nanny dogs in her National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones (2011). In an interview, she remembers her father’s favorite pit bull as her babysitter : “I remember sitting in our dirt driveway as a six-year-old crying because I was alone while that dog licked me” (Hoover).

10 Allen prefers Dangerous Dogs Legislation to breed-specific legislation, as in her opinion most people are not able to tell the breed of a dangerous dog correctly, and in crossbreds it might be entirely impossible. See Allen 23.

11 This scene may be inspired by a real event: in 1987, in Stone Mountain, GA, a pit bull attacked a 71-year-old woman and dragged her across her driveway, mauling her so severely that her injury needed one hundred stitches. See Brand 60.

12 Harry Crews wrote the character of Mr. Zack as an ironical alter ego, making him a Southern Gothic writer: “Good reviews but didn’t sell for spit” (80).

13 Even though Freud’s concept of “feminine masochism” in men was widely criticized, it still has many followers among proponents of the men’s movement.

14 See Reik 49. Earlier English editions of the book were published under the title Masochism in Modern Man (1941). According to Freud, this kind of masochism in men, as it is based on the switching of sex roles, is feminine, not masculine. See Freud 197.

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Marcel ARBEIT, « Of Pit Bulls and Men : Tamed Manhood in Harry Crews’s An American Family (2006) », Babel, 31 | 2015, 131-157.

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Marcel ARBEIT, « Of Pit Bulls and Men : Tamed Manhood in Harry Crews’s An American Family (2006) », Babel [En ligne], 31 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 avril 2016, consulté le 24 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.4076

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