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The American Man: From Ichabod Crane to Jackie Chan

This is the third in an eight-part series of interviews with Michael Bronski about the A Queer History of the United States, this year's Lambda Literary Award winner for LGBT Nonfiction. The interviews were conducted by Richard Voos. 
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Listen to Queer History Episode 3-The American Man: From Ichabod Crane to Jackie Chan

In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, “tarried,” in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity... He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. 


The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson... Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address. 

From his half-itinerant life, also, he was a kind of traveling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house, so that his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction.


Among these [country swains], the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar... He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. He had three or four boon companions, who regarded him as their model, and at the head of whom he scoured the country, attending every scene of feud or merriment for miles round... Sometimes his crew would be heard dashing along past the farmhouses at midnight, with whoop and halloo, like a troop of Don Cossacks; and the old dames, startled out of their sleep, would listen for a moment till the hurry-scurry had clattered by, and then exclaim, "Ay, there goes Brom Bones and his gang!" The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, 1820.

Illustration from Legend of Sleepy Hollow
America's definition of itself has been tightly connected to our definition of manliness and masculinity. There's a contrast between the British fop and the self-reliant Colonial; the educated and rather girly Ichabod Crane, as we've just heard read, and the manly Brom Bones; the Eastern intellectual and the cowboy; finally, from the invert and homosexual to a new heterosexual man at the start of the 21st century. Would you take these in turn, starting with the earliest definition of the American Man? How and where does that definition come into being?

The American Man has a very odd history, the remnants of which are still with us today, maybe even magnified in some ways. Certainly, we see the first American Man as a reaction to the English fop, as we see in the Washington Irving story. But even before the Washington Irving story, which was written in the 1820s, we see the American Colonialist really fighting against the notion of the effeminate Englishman, an odd notion since in fact George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and those other people all wore powdered wigs, had large libraries, and were actually rather dandified. One of the first American plays ever written is called The Contrast by Royall Tyler. It features two main characters: the effeminized English sympathizer-- also an American-- named Billy Dimple; and his opponent in love-- they're both after the same girl-- whose name is Colonel Manly. So from the very beginning, we see this dichotomy, and we see it play out again and again. 

I think the Brom Bones/Ichabod Crane story is simply one early aspect of this, but one which is really formative for American culture, even now, since most school children have to read this story which is at heart a story about a queer bashing. 

Say some more--remind us of how this story ends.

In the story, which I'm sure most people know, Ichabod Crane is the effeminized school teacher who comes into this small town, who teaches children but hangs out with the women, who does knitting with them, who is part of the women's sewing circle. His opponent is Brom Bones, who is a bully. At the height of the story, relying on the legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is that the headless horseman rides at night, Ichabod Crane is very fearfully riding home one night with this legend in mind. Suddenly, from across the bridge and chasing him is, indeed the headless horseman, who we know is actually-- probably-- Brom Bones with a lighted pumpkin on his shoulder. Ichabod Crane runs off-- is bullied-- out of town, essentially, and never is seen again. Presumably, he's moved, although there's always the possibility that he's actually dead. What I think is most interesting, and most people don't realize this about the story now, although certainly it would have been true back in Washington Irving's time, is that the first line in the story says that the action takes place next to "Major Andre's tree." This is a reference to the tree upon which Major Andre, the man who worked with Benedict Arnold against the American forces, was hanged for treason. Now, people would have realized this in 1820, not now, but Major Andre was generally thought to be a homosexual or certainly a man who was in love with other men. So, even Washington Irving back in 1820 was quite aware of the homosexual subtext for the story.

So there's a link right in 1820 between the girly-man and betrayal, betrayal of your country.

Completely. And I think what's interesting is that we see this played out again and again and again, in increasingly more complicated ways, when we come to World War II, but certainly as far back as 1820 and even before that we see this dichotomy between men who are learned, men who teach, men who like women versus who want to have sex with women, men who work with children, and the more "manly" American man.

And that's reflected in the legends around Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales as well.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, we do begin to have these other American legends coming up. Ultimately, by the early to mid-19th century, the legends of Davy Crockett and of Daniel Boone, which are quite distinct legends, but both really show American men in this new light as frontiersman, as men going out to the West, as men who can conquer nature. A man who can-- in the case of Davy Crockett-- kill huge amounts of animals to prove his manhood. The Daniel Boone story is slightly different. He's somebody who actually seems to be taming nature versus killing it.

6a00e54ed2b7aa88330154325e385f970c-150wiSo the distinction that you write about in James Fenimore Cooper--the additional complexity in his work--involves that these are settlers and Native Americans in his stories.

Yes. I think if you look at Washington Irving, the paradigm here is the American Man is praised for being the bully against the effeminized Ichabod Crane. Shortly after this, we have James Fenimore Cooper, who is spinning out a different legend, which is that the white American man who is conquering the continent becomes friends with the Native American. In fact, they become very intimate friends. So in the five Leatherstocking novels by Cooper, we have Natty Bumppo becoming best of friends with Chingachgook. And the writing is quite erotic, the relationship is quite erotic. They have female love interests, but the center of the novels is this evolving male companionship and friendship, where they leave civilization, they leave the city, they leave the fort, and they go into the forest to bond together. I don't think Cooper intended for us to see them as being physical lovers, but the paradigm of the white man and the nonwhite man, or what Leslie Fiedler in his essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey" would call "the colored man," is st up as an American paradigm. It begins back in the 1840s and we see it play out again and again. We see it with Cooper, and we see it in a slightly different way in Moby Dick, where we have the intense relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Melville is quite clear that they are a couple, since there is a chapter called, "The Wedding Night." We see it again even in Mark Twain, and this is what the reference is to the Fiedler essay-- we see it in the relationship of Huck to Jim, who's a runaway slave. I think that we can trace this from the 1820s throughout the 19th century.

And we see it today in movies such as Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. And there are a spate of these movies in the 1980s with black and white cop teams. So one way of looking at these books-- be it James Fenimore Cooper or Mark Twain or Herman Melville-- is these are really the early template for what we now understand to be the buddy movie. The buddy movie as it exists now could either be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with two white guys, but more recently-- in the '80s and we see this today in a more advanced, complicated way-- all those cop buddy movies. The newest spate of these is with an African-American actor and Jackie Chan, so we do have the biracial tension and the biracial loving relationship, only now it's an Asian man who has replaced the white man.