"It Was Always Life Intense I Was After": Heroes, True and False, in Barry Hannah's Fiction

By Bjerre, Thomas Aervold | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

"It Was Always Life Intense I Was After": Heroes, True and False, in Barry Hannah's Fiction


Bjerre, Thomas Aervold, The Mississippi Quarterly


THE FINE LINE BETWEEN HEROIC BEHAVIOR and mere violence is one that Barry Hannah walks in most of his fiction, and his characters often veer from one side to the other, combining the two in a confused quest for meaning. As Hannah's characters search for meaning in life, their pursuit finds expression in sporadic bursts of violence and foolhardy attempts at heroism. Hannah's fiction is full of heroes, both true and false. The narrators of Hannah's stories are rarely the heroes, though they try to be. Instead they find themselves reduced to seeking fulfillment through sex and violence. (1) To Hannah, their attempts may be noble enough in their earnestness, since any action is better than inaction, but the characters are not gratified. All the while they strive to reach the level of the real heroes in their lives, those who seem to symbolize some kind of peace and tranquility and who are able to communicate their thoughts through either music or art. Like a true Hemingway hero, Hannah's hero must display a passion for his art, but he must also demonstrate a Faulknerian ability to endure suffering. Through his passion, the Hannah hero is able to prevail and to communicate values to which the confused narrator can relate.

As a Southerner Barry Hannah grew up surrounded by myths of the valiant heroes of the Lost Cause. Most of his fiction is permeated by characters who, in one way or the other, try to live up to the burden of the Lost War and the masculine codes of honor and heroism it connotes. They often attempt foolishly heroic deeds, but Hannah shows the hollowness of their actions by juxtaposing them with a more subtle form of heroism: the passionate expression of life through art. The ambivalent relationship between masculinity and art runs like a leitmotif through Hannah's fiction and his characters have problems combining the two without feeling emasculated. This is partly due to the traditional view of heroism ingrained in American culture. Hannah's characters fit the pattern of men who, in Mark Gerzon's words, "consume certain images of manhood even though the world from which they are derived may have disappeared--if it ever existed." Gerzon argues that, "in comparing themselves to the dashing figure riding off into the sunset or racing across the goal line, ordinary men in everyday life cannot help but feel overshadowed." (2) What makes life so difficult for the male Hannah character is his failure to understand that his model of masculinity' is no longer relevant. The new models of masculinity emerging only confuse Hannah's characters further and make them latch on to their preconceived notions of what a real man should be.

Perhaps the most striking example of Hannah's false heroes can be found in his Civil War stories and especially in the figure of J.E.B. Stuart, "the Confederacy's greatest cavalry officer." (3) As both Kenneth Seib and Mark Charney have shown, Hannah's portrayal debunks the traditional image of the Southern hero by a harsh and satiric unmasking of the old myths and values. Hannah's picture of Jeb Stuart is one that supports some parts of the Southern myth, but it is eventually a rebuttal of the popular picture of a brave and courageous soldier. As Mark Charney sums up, Stuart ultimately "symbolizes for the vainglorious South an almost comic mixture of foolishness, humor, and noble intentions." (4)

The clash between traditional heroic behavior and a search for something more meaningful takes place in most of Hannah's fiction. His characters are caught in the traditional masculine codes, especially in what sociologists have coined "hegemonic masculinity." R.W. Connell defines the term as something that "guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women," and adds that "it is the successful claim to authority, more than direct violence, that is the mark of hegemony (though violence often underpins or supports authority)." (5) Furthermore, the cultural ideals of masculinity do not necessarily correspond "with the actual personalities of the majority of men. …

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"It Was Always Life Intense I Was After": Heroes, True and False, in Barry Hannah's Fiction
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