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The Sorrow and the Self-Pity
High Imperial Aesthetics in midcentury America
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Just before President’s Day 1941, media magnate Henry Robinson Luce celebrated America’s democratic tradition by doing some vanity publishing. In Life, one of his own magazines, he ran an extremely long, densely worded, self-authored editorial titled “The American Century,” which called on the country to forego the isolationism of the 1930s, enter the war in Europe, and embrace its destiny as a world power. Americans must, Luce argued,

accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit. . . . It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people and for the people.

Good businessman that he was, Luce thought that part of the way to achieve this lay in publishing—his own publishing, in fact. If Americans were to bring democracy to the world, they needed to have the world brought to them in return. With Life, as well as with Fortune and Time, he built a media empire out of bringing America’s empire to those at home in easily digestible, attractive bites—news briefs, full-page photographs, and personal interest stories, all printed on deluxe paper. “Internationalism for the people” meant taking your morning coffee with reports on famine in China and vacation spots in the Pacific Northwest (May 13, 1946), or learning about the “many races” of Hawai`i (June 22, 1942) from the comfort of your living room.

The prominence of Luce’s publications—in the 1940s, 21 percent of the U.S. reading population flipped through Life each week—was part of a flourishing in post-World War II American culture of a “High Imperial Aesthetic.” This was a style that turned foreign policy into a language for everyday life, depoliticizing the spread of American empire and obscuring much of its violence, and suggesting that ordinary Americans could reap the fruits of global engagement without much discomfort or challenge. Finding expression in the middlebrow culture of the 1950s and 1960s—Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Review, Life, Broadway musicals, popular fiction—the imperial style also left its mark on highbrow art forms like photography and literary fiction.

The hope was to bring all the world to Americans, since Americans seemed to be bringing themselves to all the world.

The urge toward cosmopolitanism was a direct effect of the rise of the United States to world power: Americans were, it seemed, everywhere! At the close of World War II, the United States was the undisputed world power, the only major force left standing and with a booming wartime economy. The troops could have come home after the war, but instead they stayed on and built permanent bases, and were periodically replenished by new crops of American boys. The American project spread itself around the world through military occupation (West Germany, South Korea, Japan), war (Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), and an archipelago of military bases that stretched from Micronesia to the Philippines to Puerto Rico. To complement this military success, a host of government-sponsored programs—Fulbright Fellowships, state-sponsored arts tours, Area Studies departments, federal grants for literary translation—were founded, many of them still in existence today and promoting an ethos of worldly “exchange.” The hope was to bring all the world to Americans, since Americans seemed to be bringing themselves to all the world.

This was one of the few moments in American life when government policy was mirrored by a positive popular style, rather than, as in the 1930s or 1960s, darkly refracted through a dissident culture more vibrant and appealing. Another way of putting this is that not many citizens opposed American foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s, and so the High Imperial Aesthetic thrived precisely because it did not have to compete with serious dissent. This was made possible, in part, by an insistence that the United States was spreading democracy rather than colonizing, which meant leaving behind the adamantly imperial jingoism of the earlier century for the more subtle propaganda of liberal cosmopolitanism. High Imperial Aesthetics emerged as a way to gloss over the dissonance between what was said and what was done—but also, to manage these tensions.

Accordingly, its practitioners were various. Some, like middlebrow author James Michener, are easy to make fun of. Others, like military historian Roy Appleman, feel as outmoded as a steno pad. Others still, like the writer James Salter or photographer David Douglas Duncan, were artists of the highest caliber. What they shared was a tendency to conflate their own experience with certain values—war, masculinity, duty, democracy—that they believed to be universal. What this often came to sound like on the page was an obsession with Americans’ own place in history, an existentialism perfectly attuned to the American Century. But let us meet a few of them, on their own terms and in their own style, in order to bring their glory and their lie into view.

The Historian

The historian had thick, dark eyebrows and maintained his military-style buzz cut into retirement. He was born in 1904 in Columbus, Ohio, where he lived in a rented house on Mohawk Street with his parents and his younger siblings. The neighborhood was a modest one, full of tradespeople: the historian’s father was a carpenter, and his neighbors were laborers, painters, coach repairmen, cellarmen, butchers, woodworkers, shoe store clerks. His parents, and his parents’ parents, had been born in Ohio. His family seemed to be what he might have called “real American stock”: descending from farmers, one uncle became an attorney at law, and one grandfather had been drafted to fight in the Civil War on the Union side. The historian had blue eyes, and his name was Roy.

Roy Appleman was very bright. He attended Yale Law School but switched to Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree in History. Upon graduation, he accepted a job as a staff historian for the National Parks Service, married a librarian, and settled into a regional government history post in Richmond, Virginia. He seems to have been a competent and respected historian, publishing at least one article early in his career, a study of private timber barons in the public lands of the West. His writing was fluid and clear if not remarkable: in 1939, he was the kind of historian that maybe only other historians could appreciate.

But it was outside the academy and in public service that Roy’s writing voice finally blossomed in the hothouse of midcentury American patriotism. Here is part of the introduction to his edited collection of Abraham Lincoln’s writings, published in 1942 by the Government Printing Office:

The Lincoln story is ever fresh. It springs eternal from the deep current of human tribute that wells up to do homage to man’s achievement in the realm of the moral and spiritual. That is why the obscure birth of a boy in a rude frontier log cabin was destined to unfold a chronicle that has become a heritage for the ages. So it is that the massive seated figure enshrined in the white temple in the Nation’s Capital looks down silently but movingly upon the pilgrims who come to feel the atmosphere of man’s true greatness.

We are all, Roy tells us, pilgrims at the Nation’s Capital, enshrined within a history made newly accessible—through volumes like this one!—to the ordinary man.

Roy’s newfound style was part of an institutional shift in how U.S. history was produced, the fruit of several decades worth of professionalization in academic history departments, as well as the federal government’s focus on U.S. history as a priority of post-Civil War nation building. The idea was that ordinary men could, and should, interest themselves in the story of the nation and the world. There have been moments when history is wrested away from scholars and its potential opens up for ordinary people; this was not one of them. Roy’s history-telling was not a reflective exploration into what can’t quite be known, but history in a functional mode: here is the story of civilization, and we are its apex, pilgrims all.

They clung so desperately to war and duty, women and the erotic, to time and history, because they sensed that there might be nothing else.

Roy got more opportunities to develop this style when he went to war. He registered for the draft in 1942 at the age of thirty-seven, far too old and perhaps too stocky for regular combat service. Assigned a post as a combat historian in the Pacific theater and charged with producing official monograph studies for the Army’s new Center of Military History, he served with the Tenth Army on Okinawa and with the X Corps and XXIV Corps in Korea, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. With three other military historians, Roy coauthored the 553-page Okinawa: The Last Battle, published in 1948 as part of the larger seventy-nine-volume series “United States Army in World War II” produced by the Center for Military History and known to fans as the “green books” for their distinctive binding. If you have ever had the opportunity to see the entire series on the library shelf, or picked one up and opened it, you will know that they feel like the U.S. military itself: overwhelming in scale, obtuse, technocratic, long, self-important, insular, somewhat violent toward the reader, and extremely boring. We can tell the 1948 volume is cowritten because there is none of Roy’s signature effusion or patriotic flights of description.

But when it came to his next single-authored assignment, the first military history of the Korean War, Roy took care to go far beyond the technical. He wanted his book to be art, and though the text described only the first six months of the war, Roy spent nine years compiling oral histories from soldiers as part of his research. A conscientious historian, he felt duty-bound to let the reader know that he was not “objective” as people sometimes believe historians ought to be: “Throughout, the writer’s sympathies have been with the troops who fought the battles at close range . . . who tried to do their duty as United States soldiers even though they were fighting for a cause they did not understand, and in a country to whose culture and interests they were strangers.”

More than this, though, Roy sought to make the Korean War—the “forgotten war,” Americans called it even as it was being fought—part of a world-historic epic of unbroken warfare, a continuation of the natural way of things rather than a specific conflict emerging from the United States’ and USSR’s refusal to allow Koreans to direct their own independence from Japan. And so the book, titled South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, starts not with the partition of the Korean peninsula in 1945, nor with the American military occupation of South Korea from 1945–1948, nor with the border skirmishes that led to the June 1950 outbreak of the war. Rather, it starts here:

Every now and then in the history of mankind, events of surpassing importance take place in little-known areas of the earth. . . . In this ancient land of high mountains and sparkling streams the United Nations fought its first war.

Each of the book’s thirty-nine chapters has an epigraph, variously sourced from Machiavelli, Vegetius, Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu, Cyrus the Great, Frederick the Great, Ulysses S. Grant, Leo Tolstoy, Douglas MacArthur, the Duke of Wellington, and Homer. And it is in this context that Roy’s authorial empathy curdles into something else. When, in a moment of weird transcendental metalepsis, he says of the soldiers, “He tried to be there with them,” it comes across as a bid to place the author, reader, and subject on the same plane with the history he was telling.

On the same plane with history: this is a classic move of High Imperial Aesthetics. At a moment when Americans found themselves, militarily and economically speaking, in the world more than ever before, history became a way to place themselves within its sweep. The past was what gave America its bright future, and the lineage of its people was that of the Western world’s knowledge. This is history as a flat and unending space where nothing changes, and things stay as they are. Here in the fields of Korea fight Napoleon’s armies, and Achilles’s, and Grant’s, alongside the U.S. Eighth Army, alongside Roy Appleman, alongside you and me.

The Photographer

The photographer was strikingly handsome, with dark hair and thick eyebrows and competent hands. Born in the heartland in 1916, he lived a life that matched his all-American good looks: he became an Eagle Scout, a National Geographic photographer, an officer in the Marine Corps, an expat living in Southern France. Gregory Peck would have played him in the movie version of his life; he was a character out of a Hemingway novel.

David Douglas Duncan did not, or would not, or could not see the humanity of Koreans.

David Douglas Duncan—DDD as he signed his prints and cables, Dave to friends—joined the U.S. Marine Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was sent to the Pacific, where, as a lieutenant and combat photographer, he shot his way through the Battle of Okinawa and photographed General MacArthur’s reaction the day Japan surrendered. Life’s chief photographer was so impressed that Dave was hired to join the magazine’s roster, alongside a list of midcentury photojournalist celebrities: Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Hank Walker, Robert Capa. Dave delighted in being sent all over the world: he photographed Pablo Picasso and “Stone Age Men” in Fiji; the end of the British Raj and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. He always wrote his own book copy, went to war with only the essentials, and was, by his own admission, a photographer of men.

Dave was most in his element, however, when alongside his beloved Marines, whom he depicted in three American wars. Assigned to cover the months-old Korean War in late summer 1950, he joined the most forward unit of the First Marine Brigade for thirty-six hours as they attempted to hold a perimeter around the southeastern city of Pusan (now Busan). Stirred, he cabled back a grander idea to the Life office, which the editors printed in full next to his seven-page photo essay:

EYEM GOING BACK THIS TIME TRYING TO GIVE YOU STORY WHICH IS TIMELESS NAMELESS DATELESS WORDLESS STORY WHICH SAYS VERY SIMPLY QUIETLY “THIS IS WAR.”

In 1951, DDD published this story in book form as This is War! A Photo-Narrative in Three Parts. “I wanted to show what war did to a man,” he writes in one of the short essays that accompany each collection of photographs. “I wanted to show something of the agony, the suffering, the terrible confusion, the heroism which is everyday currency among those men who actually pull the triggers of rifles aimed at other men known as ‘the enemy.’ I wanted to tell a story of war, as war has always been for men through the ages. Only their weapons, the terrain, the causes have changed.” He wanted to draw the viewer into war in the same way Roy wanted to draw them into history: “You are the Main Character!” And his photographs try hard to make us feel that we, too, are there, among the suffering and terrible confusion.

It must be admitted that DDD’s photographs are extraordinary—immediate and lived, grainy with swirling dirt and blurry with movement, beautifully composed. War had not been shown to the American public like this before. His Marines are photographed in tears, in shock, frozen in the winter snow outside the Changjin Reservoir, scraping a tin can for the last frozen bean. They are shown, in cinematic succession, throwing a grenade from a field of soya bean plants, marching across hillsides strewn with the dead bodies of North Koreans. They are dirty, exhausted, unshaven. His pictures feel honest because they are.

“War is in the eyes,” Dave said again and again. His photojournalism helped make this a wartime truth and then a wartime cliché—the thousand-yard stare, the darkly hollowed and haunted eyes of the American soldier. Vulnerable and unguarded, these men’s eyes beseech the viewer more than a half-century on. However, there are very few portraits of the many others involved in the war—the Chinese prisoners of war Dave photographed during the winter retreat from Changjin are sullen “types,” eyes tightly shut against the cold wind. South Korean troops fighting with the U.S. Army are shown in clusters, as are Korean civilians, photographed in Seoul stretching their hands out to welcome the Americans. Korean women appear only as mothers, distraught and chasing their children, or injured, posed with their babies like the Piéta, eyes turned away in sublime suffering.

The limited field of DDD’s vision is evident in his depiction of the (first) recapture of Seoul, which involved heavy bombing and ground fighting in the dense neighborhoods of the city center. Typically, he photographed from the point of view of the Marines: from their redoubt in the hills, watching the bombs explode—thrown against barricades in the firefight for the graceful old Seoul train station—with hands on hips looking out over the hanok houses now controlled by Americans in the valley below. And yet much more was happening. British war correspondent Reginald Thomas, who was also present at this battle, saw something else:

It was strangely quiet. The people eyed us with a curious impassivity—almost a “knowing look,” or it may have been a kind of austere cynicism—as we walked as nonchalantly as possible through the maze of hovels and hillocks, uncertain how to meet all these eyes, whether with smiles, which seemed out of place, or with grave greeting. It was difficult to ignore these people we had come to save; but it was equally difficult to do otherwise. For the saving had taken on a bitter and terrible flavor.

Dave did not, or would not, or could not see the humanity of Koreans. This matters because his sensibility shaped the American public’s perception of that war. Nearly a quarter of the American population read Life each week, and they came to it for war photographs, which were more popular, a 1951 Newsweek poll found, than images of sports, crime, or beauty queens. While other photographers—among them, Bourke-White and Mydans—shot the war for Life with an attention to the Korean experience, it’s DDD’s photos of U.S. Marines that dominated the magazine’s coverage. And they have also dominated American memorials of the war since, from postage stamps and museum exhibits to monuments, including the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A middling and uninspired mélange of fountains, etchings, and sculpture, the memorial’s most strange and haunting portion is a group of larger-than-life statues, a platoon of soldiers wearing winter weather gear, placed in a triangle of juniper scrub. The statues are inspired by DDD’s photographs of the retreat from the Changjin Reservoir: exhausted men, trudging through a wasteland, forever marching, seeing nothing.

A mushroom cloud explodes with fire in the background as a 1950s-era man attempts to cut it down with garden shears.
© Ben Giles

The Novelist

The novelist was either a foundling or a bastard, raised by a loving single mother who nonetheless had to send him back and forth from the poorhouse when times were hard. Born in 1907, he grew up as a country boy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and because he was very clever, he went to college, then to graduate school, and then he became a teacher of education and a textbook editor. In October 1942, two days before being forced to report to the draft board, he joined the Navy and served throughout the Pacific theater, tasked with making superfluous “tours of inspection” in the islands of the South Pacific and writing an equally superfluous history of the Navy’s wartime campaigns.

By their own design, these men positioned themselves alone at the top of the world.

By the age of forty, two years out of the military, he had grown into a quietly unattractive man, prematurely balding with a puffy, pale face, a beak of a nose, kind eyes, and a weak chin. By his own account, he “was not at age forty what you would call an all-time winner.” He had no more than $800 saved, no writing skill to speak of “other than academic jargon,” and his first marriage was on the rocks. This was the year, 1947, that he published his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He went on to write over forty more, many of them global bestsellers. He wrote religiously from seven-thirty in the morning to one in the afternoon; he never married a woman who would threaten his intelligence; and people called him Jim.

It is James Michener of whom we’re speaking, of course, the great middlebrow novelist whose books still grace the shelves of rented vacation homes, used bookstores, and grandparents’ libraries. Like many authors who work at the level of competency rather than genius, his oeuvre signals not artistic maturation but sheer output: everything his writing will ever be is there from the get-go. Tales of the South Pacific begins in this way:

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like, and first thing you know I’m telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars! . . .

The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute. “Alla same big fella bird!” he used to shout, ecstatically, until one day we took him up and shoved him out. Ever afterward he walked in silence among the black men, a soul apart, like one who had discovered things best hidden from humanity.

This is an extremely self-conscious piece of prose. The genre is lush travel writing: endless ocean, gracefully swaying coconut palms, sweating jungles, spectacular racial “types.” There is something compelling, though, about this passage, for the narrator admits to being wholly unable to tell how it was. There is a promise, here, for the postcard imagery and racial exoticism to be revealed as a crutch, a device through which a truer way of telling might break through. If Jim had asked why his narrator couldn’t tell “how it was,” this might have been a book that truly did deserve a prize, for it would have revealed a writer who wrote through his insecurities to grapple with their source. Instead, the narrator closes this opening salvo with an elegiac patriotism that would have been familiar to Roy Appleman:

They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.

Americans loved the book. It was soon adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific, which emphasized the interracial love stories in several of the book’s tales. It was an immediate hit on Broadway, won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a clutch of Tony Awards in the same year, and was read as a “bold” and “remarkable” “statement on racial tolerance” by critics. When it was adapted into a film in 1958, just following the Little Rock schooling integration crisis in 1957, it was read unequivocally as a positive affirmation of racial integration, underlined by the fact that the main character, nurse Nellie Forbush, hailed from “Little Rock, A-R-K.” Telling about the South Pacific, it turns out, was just telling about America! Jim was onto something.

Jim was a lifelong humanist, a liberal, a Democratic Party man, and in his novels he often tried to impart his worldview. Part of his job, as he saw it, was to teach Americans to embrace Asia and its people, a necessity if America was to lead the modern world. “If America was committed to the retention of bases in the Pacific, then many Americans would have to live in that region, and living there would not be as bad if silly preconceptions were not allowed to prejudice first judgements,” he wrote years later. Or, as Admiral Kester puts it in Tales of the South Pacific: “We can do what we damned well want to. But it’s always wisest to exercise your power with judgement. Either you do what the local people want to do, or you jolly them into wanting to do what you’ve got to do anyway.”

Jim’s favorite way to dramatize cultural exchange was also the American soldier’s favorite way to practice said exchange, which was to jolly Asian women into sex. This was, as scholars Christina Klein and Naoko Shibusawa have meticulously documented, foreign policy staged as sentimental exchange. As Shibusawa argues, during the occupation period, Japan was depicted in American culture as feminine and childlike, a “geisha ally” in need of sexual and political guidance from the stronger, wiser United States.

Jim’s genius was in catching the imperial zeitgeist of the moment, though he usually mistook ideology for truth. Accordingly, his Pacific novels—Tales from the South Pacific, Sayonara, Hawaii—involve romances between white American men and Asian women, set against backward-looking American racism. (Never, though, was it Asian men with white American women.) Take, Sayonara, his 1953 novel of American flying ace Lloyd Gruver, who, while stationed in Kobe, Japan, during the Korean War falls in love with the beautiful Japanese dancer Hana-ogi. A Romeo and Juliet story plays out, beset by hatred on both sides. Hana-ogi tells Lloyd she has deep anti-American prejudice, for her father was killed by U.S. air strikes during World War II, after which her impoverished family sold her off to a geisha house. It is only Lloyd’s love that can help her overcome her prejudice: in the screenplay adapted from the novel, Hana-ogi says to Lloyd, “I am not allowed to love. But I will love you if that is your desire.”

In the end, the most marked characteristic of Jim’s writing is the sameness of it. Reading his short story collections about American men in the South Pacific is equivalent in tone, voice, manner, and viewpoint to reading his nonfiction Asian travel writing. What readers came to expect from Jim—in his over forty books surveying Poland, the Chesapeake, Hawai`i, Alaska, Hungary, the Caribbean, South Africa, 1968, and even outer space—was not a multiplicity of viewpoints and voices, but rather, the consistency of his own. That is, he became an expert at making all the world sound like him: a studious and intellectually voracious white American man, chauvinist and somewhat insecure, middle-aged at the dawn of the American Century.

The Pilot

James (not Jim) was a pilot with the heart of a poet, an assimilated Jew from New Jersey drawn to glamor, adventure, and women. His family was comfortable, his high school elite, his training West Point. A career officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the U.S. Air Force), he flew over a hundred combat missions and faced Russian MiGs during the Korean War—“a single, daring act”—coming out, thrillingly, on top: “I finished with one destroyed and one damaged, which I would sometimes, among the unknowing, elevate to a probable, never more; to do that would be soiling the very thing fought for.” He published his first novel in his early thirties under the pseudonym James Salter, dropping the ethnic Horowitz. A tale about ace pilots in the Korean War, the film rights to The Hunters promptly sold (Robert Mitchum starred, cleft chin and heartbreak eyes), and James left the Army behind for a writing career.

James never progressed beyond the young pilot’s erotic cocktail of thrill, conquest, and myth-making—instead, he made of it a literary style.

But James was never able to leave war behind, not really. He never progressed beyond the young pilot’s erotic cocktail of thrill, conquest, and myth-making—instead, he made of it a literary style. What James notes of his protagonist Cleve in The Hunters is true of himself: “There was no returning. He had crossed to the war, and a great sense of excitement was on him.” His sentences arrive like dispatches, full of feeling yet too taciturn to say more, nouns aching with implied meaning—Hemingway’s old trick. Man to man, James asked the reader to come with him into that most rarefied of worlds, the cockpit of the fighter jet: “Come now,” he’d say, “and let us go risk our lives unnecessarily. For if they have got any value at all it is this that they have got none.”

The erotic charge of his writing comes not from women but rather from the desire for his own sensations of war. Here is a passage from his war memoir, Burning the Days:

It was not duty, it was desire. Duty would not search with such avidity in the waning light, coming down to the river one last time, the earth already in darkness that was rising slowly, like a tide, the heavens being the last to go. A strange high sound begins in the earphones: gun-laying radar. Along the river a final time. Near its mouth the darkened earth begins to light up, first in one place and then another, like a city come to life. Soon the entire ground is flashing. They are firing at us far below. Black shellbursts, silent, appear around us, some showing an unexpected red core.

This isn’t war as patriotic duty but as transcendent experience, one that can be shared only by other men. Though there are many women in James’s novels—many, many women, getting fucked in every way conceivable except by looking them in the eyes, as critic Vivian Gornick has noted—his poetry is not extended to them but reserved for himself, forever the pilot flying high, desiring more and more, leaving the climaxes of bombs in his wake.

James would later describe the writer as a kind of frotteur, rubbing up against words to find their “electric potential.” If writing was frottage, war was the woman against whom to rub, “whispering an invitation: Meet me.” And James met her time and again, for he was always aching for action:

When the weather was bad, as it was that spring, we did not fly. In the long days of rain there was restlessness and a kind of melancholy. The hours passed slowly; the hand-wound phonograph playing “China Night,” singsong and shrill. Remembering the girls at Miyoshi’s (officers only, pilots and artillerymen from every part of the war), the firecrackers bursting at the feet of hostesses in vast neon nightclubs. . . . Thinking of it all and waiting for the weather to change, to pull onto the runway again and, in the rush of noise with its chilling central shriek, tremble to go.

What we see in James’s war writing is the extreme sensitivity of a finely tuned instrument, a writer with a beautiful sense of cadence and the knack for taking you (especially if you are a woman, or a fighter jet) exactly where he wants you to go. But this is an instrument whose much-lauded control of language—call it “darkly romantic” or “erotic” or “French” as admiring critics have done—is built on a kind of blindness, an inability to see anyone but himself. “As a pilot,” he once said, “you’re nobility from the very beginning,” and this sense of entitlement marks all his work. This is not erotics but finely wrought romance: The American soldier in Asia! Didn’t he burn the days—wasn’t he always trembling to thrust upward into the wild blue yonder.

The End

In The Bridges of Toko-Ri, his novel about the struggles of a Navy flying ace in the Korean War, Jim Michener uses a strategic mountain bridge as a symbol of one’s duty—as a man, as a soldier, as an American. “Dead ahead they lay, bold and blunt and ugly. Tortured and convoluted, they twisted up at the two fleeting jets, the terrible mountains of Korea. They were the mountains of pain, the hills of death.” This was war as existential condition, the glimmering threat of battles to be had out west that resonates so deeply in the American male psyche, and whose promise of regeneration through violence, as historian Richard Slotkin has put it, is at the core of American culture.

Looking at American culture over the past decades, you can begin to find a trail of lost white boys leaking out from the Vietnam War’s wreckage of American mythmaking.

The High Imperial Aestheticians registered that promise and shouldered it as a precious burden; what they wanted the rest of us to know is the value and meaning of it, to hear and appreciate the mystic chords of memory that can be struck when they face these bridges head on. The burden began to exhaust them, though, even at the moment when it seemed so beautifully and nobly shouldered, and we know this because they were writing—and overwriting—with great fervor, desperate to fix it down so it could be shared. Their burden of knowledge about this most inglorious burden of empire has a hint of the melancholic; they clung so desperately to war and duty, women and the erotic, time and history, because they sensed that there might be nothing else. By their own design, these men positioned themselves alone at the top of the world, unable to reckon with the consequences of their superiority. This is a way of knowing and refusing to know, seeing and refusing to see.

It is worth noting that the descendants of these men are with us still, stylistically speaking. If, today, the High Imperial Aesthetic is largely recognizable as melodrama—think Saving Private Ryan, or American Sniper—what registers most, now, is its loss. The cultural script that once cast these men as universal actors—that had enough space even for James the assimilated Jew and Jim the poor-born bastard, that held their experience as inalienable truth—no longer holds.

Looking at American culture over the past decades, you can begin to find a trail of lost white boys leaking out from the Vietnam War’s wreckage of American mythmaking, many of them inward-looking and seemingly disconnected from foreign policy but harmed by the loss of imperial universalism all the same. It’s a continuum that stretches from the cottage industry of Jungian-influenced self-help books on manliness and the cult of Jordan Peterson to the violent nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. The left, too, has its own version: take, for example, Robert Bly’s Iron John or the academic vogue in the 1990s for “masculinity studies.”

Beyond the lost boys, there are serious writers who have done much to define the shape of the absence they have been bequeathed, who understand themselves as wholly counterposed to its earlier politics of race and manhood but are still working in its shadow. If, as all writers do, they work within their own limitations, they are acutely aware of them: Tim O’Brien, Phil Klay, perhaps Dave Eggers. What has not emerged as yet is a style to replace the High Imperial Aesthetic.

What will come next is anyone’s guess; certainly it seems reasonable to think that the aesthetic of the neofascist right will soon bleed into high culture. But there is also the possibility that here, in these twilight days of American power, the heirs of these men might finally choose to join the rest of us and find meaning in doing so. That is, they might—and America might—abandon the need for a High Imperial Aesthetic altogether.