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Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing Up in the 50s

by Jonathan Holden

Book review Copyright © 1998 by Paul Shaner


Jonathan Holden, Guns and Boyhood in America : A Memoir of Growing Up in the 50s (U of Mich Press, 1997). Order on-line


Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing Up in the 50s
by Jonathan Holden
Order on-line

Jonathan Holden is a poet. He was born in 1941, one year older than I am, so we share much of the same cultural background, other than that he grew up in rural New Jersey and I in the North Seattle area. His father was a physical chemist and his mother a housewife.

The book is interspersed with poetry, the author’s and others, and while I don’t usually like or understand poetry, I really liked his selections. He choose them to carry the story and make points in the language of poetry. The book is as readable as a mystery. It deals with the process of growing up as a boy, with a boy’s preoccupations: airplanes, guns, nuclear war, sports, fighting, sex and girls, relationship with his distant father, smoking, cruising with friends. He had an additional issue, of learning how to act like what his times told him a man should be because his twin brother grew up to be gay. His brother acted just however he wanted to act, without regard to the male code and the author was strongly associated with him because they looked alike. But this is presented only as an additional stress, not as the defining issue in his life.

One pleasure was the positive tone of the book. In these PC times, one does not often find typical male values presented in an accepting manner. Holden does not apologize for himself, merely presents what he did, how he learned and some thoughts about it. He places his life in the context of the larger culture. For instance, in talking about high school football and teenage striving to be noticed, he makes these statements: (P. 84-5) "Whether you’re an adult driving a Corvette, an adolescent lighting a Camel cigarette, or a little boy wearing a Batman costume on Halloween, you’re using style deliberately to make a statement. The costume, the mask may vary, but the statement is always the same: I am not being left out....By the time you’re a junior or senior in high school, the terror of being left out can be almost pathological.. ..Saturday night was like an approaching final exam....The test question: Are you being left out? Is there some big party to which everybody else has been invited except you?...In high school, the test of whether you’re being left out or not is sexual Being desired like a piece of merchandise is a test out your market value in the world....James Wright’s little poem, "Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio," all about this. It presents high-school football as a ritual reflecting not only the exploitation of boys by football, but the exploitation of [everybody.]

In the Shreve high football stadium,

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonville,

And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,

And the ruptured nightwatchman of Wheeling Steel,

Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.

Their women cluck like starved pullets,

Dying for love.


Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October,

and gallop terribly at each other’s bodies.

Are you desirable? Does the world desire you? Same question. Anything to stem the anxiety that you somehow might be missing out. What you might be missing out on is never clear. [It] is only partly sexual ache. It’s deeper....a need to be where the action be with the species-a member of the human species."

As a family counselor, I am always interested in what makes people as they are. I compare this book to Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, both of which are about girls growing up.


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