Monday, September 21, 2015

Travis McGee as Traditional Hero

Last week I posted John D MacDonald’s remarks, made after a reading of the paper "Travis McGee as Traditional Hero," at the first John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detection in November 1978. Written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, the paper opined that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. MacDonald eventually wrote a longer and more thought-out response which was published, not in the Journal of Popular Culture as originally intended, but in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. As before, the author provides lots of interesting details on the genesis of the series and its two main characters.

Though I have had a certain amount of exposure to the classics, I certainly did not try to adapt ancient patterns to my contemporary fellow. It just came out that way. And maybe, for those ancient tellers of tales, it just came out that way too. Maybe we are dealing with a Jungian concept of the symbols mankind must have in his fireside tales of heroism.

I will try to explain as honestly as I can, how the characteristics of the McGee stories, as underlined by Holtsmark, came to be.

During the first few books of the series, there was no Meyer. As I began to work ever harder to try to obviate the need for endless internal monologues on the part of McGee, I began to realize that there had to be some middle ground between achieving all exposition through show rather than tell, and achieving it through all tell. I invented Meyer out of fragments in the vast scrap basket in the back of my head, vowing that I would not have a clown on scene, nor would I have someone dependent upon McGee emotionally, financially or socially.

I worked with Meyer, throwing away paragraphs and pages and chapters until he finally emerged, nodding in hirsute satisfaction, little wise blue eyes gleaming with ironic amusement, amused at himself and at my efforts, proclaiming like the bottle genie that he had been there all along, waiting for someone to perform the magic spell of rubbing the right words together.

Holtsmark tells us that the classical hero is a loner. Be that as it may, it is also a neat solution to the problem of a diversity of plot and situation. If one is enmeshing a hero in but one adventure, then it would not matter were he encumbered by wife, kiddies, tax consultant, bowling team and his very own Siamese twin. But to lug the whole emotional-personal environment along into further events involves more arrangement and manipulation than all that baggage is worth. I added Meyer only because the problems of tugging him along into the ensuing dramas was an effort overbalanced by his usefulness in establishing atmosphere and physical detail through dialogue.

We can find analogies in the television theater. Gunsmoke depicted Marshall Dillon as the classic hero, tough, moral, laconic and fearsome. Even with his retinue --Kitty, Doc, Chester (long ago) etc.-- he was the loner, often roving far. There was always the hint that long ago he had been a more pure loner, unencumbered by town and badge, or by the hints of a liaison with Miss Kitty. There, in a kind of outdoor theater, the world was brought in as evil people, and presented to the classic hero through the words and actions of his retinue, begging violent solution.

That long-departed series The Fugitive is a purer example of the loner as hero, seeking his own absolution, smiting evil along the way.

Without attempting an impertinence, my guess is that those tellers of tales about "Odysseus, Herakles, Philoctetes, Ajax and scores of others" were solving plot problems by making their heroes loners. And when he is a loner, he must have standards of behavior variant from the norms of his culture, otherwise the evil he goes out to correct would have already been taken care of by society.

As to the next characteristic, that of the lack of information about McGee's early years, I must confess that here I was guided by instinct rather than guile. It just did not feel right to me to be specific about McGee's early years, family, education and so on. If I were forced to conjecture about my probable reasons for this reluctance, I would have to say that by giving him a specific background, I would have thus related him in time and space to a very small percentage of the populace. This way, he could have been brought up in your development, gone to your schools, served in your battalion, dated your sister-long before life sent him off at an ever-diverging angle from the rest of us. There are the hints of the war service, the brief pro ball episode as a tight end, death of a brother. If we do not know the specifics in detail, then we can fill in our own. I am careful to also keep the physical image just a bit blurred, so that except for dimension, you can fill in your own ideas of him.

Curiously enough, when Otto Penzler was compiling a collection of biographies of detective heroes written by their creators, I thought about it for a long time and then said I did not want to do it. I suspect he was somewhat miffed, but I feel my instincts were right. Too much depiction would corrode the magic.

The next characteristic, the strong erotic element shared with the ancient heroes, is once again related to making a plot compelling. The constant reader is going to know, subliminally, that no matter how grievously I endanger McGee, he will survive-at least until I do a book with black in the title. The reader does not know whether or not a person for whom McGee has formed a strong attachment will survive. When there is nothing to lose, there is no menace. McGee's emotional attachment must be to someone who can capture the reader's fancy as well as McGee's. The casual roll in the hay, though it would not in our age especially devalue the damsel, would not elevate her to the status of object of great value either.

The hero must always be deeply, emotionally, tragically involved, or the novel of suspense becomes merely a string of set scenes of a meaningless violence. If the hero's motivations in a story are trivial, interest sags. The kind of strong motivation depends on the structure of the series. I have forfeited the chance in the McGee structure to have him struggling to avoid imprisonment for life for something he didn't do, or to regain a lost reputation, or to save his blood relatives from disaster, or to recover his own courage, or to save his own soul. So it must always be a threat of ugly disaster for himself and for those he holds near and dear, close friends or lady loves. The element of sensuality must depend upon the mores of the culture in which the hero appears. In times gone by the same effect might have been attained by his having been given a fragile scarf to tie to his lance before going into combat.

The fifth aspect, which Holtsmark covers in some detail, is the necessity of having a monster handy, a Junior Allen or a Boone Waxwell or a Paul Dissat. Here we deal with one of my own beliefs, that there exists in the world a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists. It is an evil existing for the sake of itself, for the sake of the satisfactions of its own exercise. In our real world we have, for example, a two hundred and thirty pound teenager who roams the streets, mugging children for the pleasure of gouging out their eyes. For me it is less satisfying to say that this is the action of a sad, limited, tormented, unbalanced child than it is to see that this is a primordial blackness reaching up again through a dark and vulnerable soul, showing us all the horror that has always been with mankind, frustrating all rational analyses.

I admit to the primitive and superstitious aspects of my belief. But it does make it easier for me to depict a villainy that is without mercy or scruple, that grows strong through its own pursuit of evil, that is as heartstopping as the sudden breaking of the glass of the bedroom window a little before dawn. Blackness for its own sake is ever more difficult to deal with than quirks and neuroses.

This paper intrigued me and will continue to do so, while at the same time it has made me a little bit edgy. I do not want to give McGee the flavor of being contrived within a pattern laid down in pre-history. If he does work some subliminal magic in creating reader response, that is all to the good. But he has become a person. When I try to manipulate him, to take him outside his established patterns of thought and behavior, the book in process falls apart. In the past he has had no specific protest. He has just stood there. From now on, I suppose, he will shake his head and say, "John, that is not the way an ancient hero would act."


  1. This posting, along with that of last week, makes for some interesting reading, so thanks for publishing these remarks from JDM.

    I had only to read to your introductory line – "...McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens..." etc. – when I remembered McGee's inclusion in the Wold Newton family.

    If you or McGee fans are not familiar with the Wold Newton family, it is an invention of science fiction author Philip José Farmer, and includes other luminaries like Solomon Kane, Sam Spade, James Bond and Doc Savage. But the Wold Newton family also includes a healthy sampling of black sheep, too, like Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu. Farmer introduced this literary conceit in the early 70s and I expect JDM wouldn't have had anything kind to say about McGee's inclusion. But it's fun to chase down this rabbit hole for a bit and think of the family connections. More on the Wold Newton family can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere.