Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The five most hardcore writers ever

We writers are a pretty pathetic bunch. Life in the comma mines has left most of us pale and bleary eyed with the muscle tone of banana slugs. A scattered few, though, rise above the rest. They stride the Earth, doling out alliteration and ass-whippings in equal measure. These are the five most hardcore writers ever.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Growing up, Hemingway always got picked last for soccer, and he spent the rest of his life making up for it.

During World War I, he joined the ambulance corps. And after a bunch of ninnies signed the Treaty of Versailles, Hemingway bounced around the globe, reporting on the Spanish Civil War and World War II, taking up amateur bull fighting and big game hunting, all in between writing some of the most influential books of the 20th century.

In 1952, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. Halfway through his acceptance speech, he tore off his shirt and challenged all comers to 12 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing.

Okay, I made that last bit up, but Hemingway is often considered the ultimate manly-man author. Despite all his pomp and bluster, though, he just squeaks into the lowest slot, and that’s mostly because of his fine, luscious beard.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?)

Lots of writers, including Hemingway above, got their start as war correspondents, but not many decided to end their careers that way, and only one did it at age 71.

“Bitter Bierce” was already famous thanks to his short stories and satirical Devil’s Dictionary. (Sample entry: Pray, verb: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.) After the death of his wife, Bierce’s already pessimistic view of human nature darkened to outright misanthropy.

In 1914, the septuagenarian sent a short letter to his niece saying he was headed to Mexico to join Poncho Villa’s revolutionary army, adding, If you hear of my being stood up against a stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!

And then... Nobody’s sure. Bierce was never heard from again. Most historians assume he got the death he went looking for, either at the hands of federal troops or Villa’s own revolutionaries. Other theories suggest the whole Mexican thing was a ruse, that Bierce actually checked himself into a mental hospital or simply committed suicide. There’s even sketchy accounts of an old hermit, claiming to be Bierce, living in Ciudad Ju├írez years after his disappearance.

Whatever the truth is, that question mark trailing his death date is about the most hardcore epitaph possible.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

What’s Shakespeare’s most famous line? The one that everybody knows, even if they’ve never even read one of his plays? How about, But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Compare that to a line from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written several years earlier, when Barnabas sees Abigail on a balcony above him: But stay, what star shines yonder in the east? The lodestar of my life.

So let’s get this out of the way first: When Shakespeare is ripping you off, you’re a damn good writer.

But Marlowe was more than a good writer. Just how much more, nobody really knows.

When long, unexplained absences were going to keep him from graduating, Queen Elizabeth sent a letter to the administrators of Cambridge University, telling them to let Marlowe graduate or else. There’s no clear reason why the queen would pull strings for a shoemaker’s son, but it’s likely Marlowe was a spy, reporting on plots against the throne by French Catholics.

Even after becoming a prodigy of Elizabethan England’s flowering theater scene, Marlowe continued to move through its underworld of criminals and spies, which was flowering just as fast. That would be a full plate for most people, but the man who wrote Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus kept grasping for more. When he was 28, Marlowe was arrested in the Netherlands for attempting to forge money. He got out of that scrape just to be arrested again the next year when anti-royalist tracts were found in his London apartment.

Right before he stood trial as a traitor to the crown, Marlowe was stabbed to death in a bar fight. This time Queen Elizabeth, who’d helped Marlowe graduate a decade earlier, pardoned his killer.

There’s still plenty of unanswered questions about what happened that night, but documents discovered in the 20th century prove the three men Marlowe was drinking with were all involved in espionage too, suggesting Marlowe was assassinated.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Thoreau turned slacking into a higher calling. He spent most of his life bumming around Concord, glorious neck beard flapping in the breeze, spouting things like Read not the sign of the times; read the signs of eternity, Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in, and generally convincing people he was a nice enough guy, just nuttier than squirrel poop.

Their opinion didn’t change much after Thoreau decided he wanted to go to jail. A lifelong abolitionist, Thoreau stopped paying his taxes, refusing to support a government that supported slavery. When the tax collectors came to get the money, Thoreau declared Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for any man is also in prison, and quietly headed off to jail with them.

But wait, you say. Thoreau was a pacifist. He wouldn’t hurt a potato beetle. (Literally. When gardening, he picked the pests off his plants by hand and carried them out to the woods.) He’s not hardcore!

But there are many roads to hardcore-dom, my friends. Thoreau took a rather meandering path, but he got there.

Think about it: You go to prison, it’s your first night, and you’re curious about what your new cell-mates did to wind up there. The first guy says he’s in for armed robbery, another says double homicide. Then, one guy looks up at you with a serene smile and says, “Oh, I’m here voluntarily.”

Now seriously, which one of them are you never turning your back on?

Xenophon (c. 431-355 BC)

Xenophon was a student of Socrates. And since Socrates himself never wrote anything down, it was left to his students, chiefly Plato and Xenophon, to record his teachings.

He was also a mercenary. In 401 BC, he went to Persia and joined Cyrus the Younger in his war against his brother, the Emperor Artaxerxes II. Cyrus was eventually killed in battle. Then Artaxerxes summoned the generals of the Greek army to a peace conference and had them beheaded, leaving the Greeks leaderless, thousands of miles from home, and stranded in enemy territory.

They elected new leaders, Xenophon among them, and made their way to the Black Sea, having to fight every step of the way. Xenophon’s account of their journey was (very) loosely adapted for the big screen in the cult classic The Warriors. So the man who wrote The Apology, one of the pillars of Western thought, also gave the world the Baseball Furies.

They just don't come any more hardcore than that.

(Cross-posted on Kris' blog.)


Chelsea said...

Loved this. Thanks for all the info - I learned a lot I didn't know!

Kristopher said...

Thanks, Chelsea. Glad you liked it.

Gurldoggie said...

Jean Genet was born to a prostitute and an unknown father. At 15 he was sent to a Penal Colony for 3 years, then joined the Foreign Legion from which he was discharged as a homosexual, and spent years as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe. After ten convictions he received a death sentence in 1949, which was only repealed because Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso petitioned the French government. All of his books were written while in prison.

Nelson Algren grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and wrote his first stories while working at a gas station. He got caught stealing a typewriter to write his first novel and got sent to jail for 6 months. A drug addict and small time crook, he later ran away with Simone DeBeauvoir to Latin America.

At 6 years old James Ellroy ("Demon Dog of American crime fiction") compulsively watched his prostitute mom having sex. He came home from school one day to find her murdered on the kitchen floor. He spent his adolescence researching her murder and his entire adult life writing about it.

Thoreau as an example of a hardcore writer? Piss off. This list is total rubbish.

Gurldoggie said...

You're right. Please pardon the rudeness. Reading the list, I should have realized that there was little tolerance for a "hardcore" attitude around here. Please substitute this closing line instead:

Thoreau as an example of a hardcore writer? That's just silly!

Colleen said...

We stepped on each other gurldoggie and my original comment, which I was correcting for a misspelled word, got deleted. (Or rather I had to delete the stupid thing to fix the word.)

Here's the deal. We are certainly okay with anyone's opinions and fine with differing opinions. I just think it is overkill to refer to a list of literary authors as "total rubbish" and that is why I got ticked off.

Honestly there is little way to compare Thoreau and Ellroy - they are completely and utterly different in all ways imaginable. But that doesn't mean that Kris is a fool for seeing Thoreau's courage - it just means that he was "hardcore" on a different scale.

By all means feel free to come back and offer suggestions/comments on anything posted at Guys Lit Wire. Just don't pounce on someone so quickly for having an opinion different from your own.

Thanks for offering the altered final line.

Kristopher said...

Um... Thanks for sticking up for me Colleen, but I actually agree with gurldoggie. Adding Thoreau was kind of ridiculous.

Thing is, the whole list is ridiculous. The whole idea of ranking authors by their “hardcore-ness” is ridiculous, absurd, and not worth half the vitrol we’re wasting on it.

Some people might not have gotten that the whole thing was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. This is probably because I have a miserable sense of humor. Seriously. My girlfriend and I have developed a complex set of hand-signals so she can let me know when to laugh at parties.

But surely, these same people would admit that, if my jokes about Hemmingway’s lush beard and Xenophon creating the Baseball Furies fell flat, any jokes I tried to make about a kid finding his murdered mother’s body would have been even worse. (Comeing home from school one day, little Jimmy Elroy got totally punk’d when...)

So how about we all just chill the hell out and save our indignant rage for neo-nazis, brain cancer, and things that actually matter?

Colleen said...

I don't know Kris, someone who is willing to to jail to protest inhumanity against his fellow man is a pretty impressive person in my book.

I think Thoreau was awesome.

david elzey said...

How did we get to a place where "hardcore" is defined by drugs, crime, and self-destructive, generally aggressive behavior? Is that really the only way to measure what is or isn't hardcore?

Colleen said...

Exactly, Dave.

NYCentrist said...

This is a fun idea, I let it carry me away a bit over at my blog.

Robishairycheez said...

i love how marquis de sade is nowhere to be found
he was too hardcore i think