Where Have All the Good Men Gone?: Afflicted Fathers and Endangered Daughters in Russell Banks's the Sweet Hereafter
Baiada, Christa, The Journal of Men's Studies
What has happened to the American male? For a long time he seemed utterly confident in his manhood, sure of his masculine role in society, easy and definite in his sense of sexual identity. [...] Today men are more and more conscious of maleness not as a fact but as a problem.--Arthur Schlesinger, "The Crisis of American Masculinity" (1958, p. 292)
The cover of a recent issue of The Atlantic (July/August 2010) announces "The End of Men," its implications accentuated by a pink, flaccid male symbol. Positioned centrally as part of "The Ideas Issue," the accompanying article by Hanna Rosin is presented as one of the "most powerful ideas of the year." Powerful, perhaps. Unique or surprising, not at all. The Atlantic's bold proclamation crystallizes a sentiment that has pervaded the media for over a year now, growing more incessant with the perseverance of the recession and shifting gender demographics in secondary education. Moreover, we've heard this ominous prediction before. As the quotation from Schlesinger above attests, the sense of loss and doom surrounding American manhood is a recurrent theme of postwar American culture. Sociologist and scholar of men's studies Michael Kimmel (1996) has pointed out that American masculinity is in fact a constantly changing construct, but these changes are almost always accompanied by a perception of crisis and responses of confusion, defensiveness, and anxiety. At such moments, scholars and thinkers seek reasons (for Rosin, post-industrial society has revealed itself to be better suited to the characteristics traditionally associated with women; for Schlesinger, the phenomenon of the group absorbing a sense of individual identity strips man of his sense of self and therefore self as a man); mass media, pundits, and society at large cast blame (often at women) and long for remedy and restoration, at any cost.
Russell Banks, author of more than a dozen books of fiction spanning more than three decades, engages frequently in his writing with the experience of conflicted masculinity. Influenced by Hemingway and often compared to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, Banks has established himself as "a major American novelist with access to the mainstream" (Graham, 1992, p. 47). His effective interplay of post-modern technique, meta-fiction, and experimental narrative voice with gritty realism in novels including Continental Drift (1985), Cloudsplitter (1989), and Affliction (1990) have won him critical praise and impressive literary awards.
Though his fictional scope is ever-expanding, Banks's most indelible contribution to contemporary American literature is his uncompromising yet compassionate depictions of blue-collar American life in New England. The characteristic Banks protagonist, despite notable exceptions, is the disenfranchised, blue-collar, white, heterosexual man attempting to find his place and purpose. (1) With these protagonists (e.g., the eponymous Hamilton Stark, Bob Dubois of Continental Drift, Wade Whitefield in Affliction, Chappy "The Bone" Dorset in Rule of the Bone), Banks has developed a sustained literary exploration of thorny father-son relationships, male alcoholism and violence, familial abandonment, spiritual and emotional isolation, the failed American dream, and confused values in a rapidly changing world, all addressed as aspects of a problematic working-class American manhood.
In The Sweet Hereafter (1991), one encounters layers of complexity and an undeniable concern with besieged masculinity and its imagined consequences for the future of "our town." The novel sheds new light on the recurring "crises" of American manhood. The devastating death of "the children of our town" in The Sweet Hereafter serves as a metaphor for an ostensibly pervasive national tragedy that Niemi (1997) identifies as a prominent concern at this point in Banks's career: "the wholesale abandonment of the family as a basic social structure" (p. 149). …