The image of the Sporting Gentleman has remained firmly embedded in the human psyche for eons. While it is unlikely that this universal figure of genteel virility was with us in our salad days of hunting and gathering (though certain members of the tribe may have acquired a reputation for style when handling the flint-tipped spear), it has remained doggedly so since the very moment when, in the wake of some daring deed, a masculine posture was struck that passably balanced the accepted condition of raw animalism with an unfamiliar quality that would much later come to be identified as good form. In that instant, feminine sensibilities were charmed, male vanity was stoked, and the ideal of the Sporting Gentleman was born.
Even an abbreviated catalog of the historical mischief brought on by the appeal of this narcissistic archetype could fill volumes more amply than, for example, Kaiser Wilhelm filled the flamboyant uniforms in which he liked to preen. Consider what the state of Catholic and Protestant relations in France might have been had Henry II not, in the vainglorious throes of a joust (in which he rode a horse named Unfortunate and wore the colors of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers), skewered his skull on his opponent’s lance, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his wife, Catherine de Médicis, whom 19th-century historian Jules Michelet described as a “maggot which came out of Italy’s tomb.” Or meditate on the eternal political permutations had Alexander Hamilton’s pride permitted him to decline Aaron Burr’s invitation that morning in 1804 to cross the river from New York to Weehawken, where their feud was settled by a ball of lead; or on the loss to the canon of popular misperceptions about America and Americans (if not necessarily to literature) had Ernest Hemingway stuck to newspaper writing and neglected the important work of codifying in monosyllabic prose his stern formula for manhood. While such exercises make entertaining diversions on, say, long flights or during stints in the dentist’s chair, they merely confirm the pervasive allure of the Sporting Gentleman across the expanse of centuries without revealing much about who he is.
This is an appropriate subject to ponder during these summer months, when so many of us give vent to a pent-up reservoir of testosterone, engaging in vigorous and manly regimens that might range from rock climbing to bow hunting to running with the bulls in Pamplona. For the Sporting Gentleman’s attraction lies first and foremost in his being the model specimen of (as the philosophers like to phrase it) the Active Man. He does things—and does them bravely, insouciantly. He is never brutish in these actions, which he executes with a soupçon of style and, often, with a knowing twinkle and fitting gesture. And his ineluctable magnetism is furthered by his ability to reconcile all of this well-choreographed commotion with the more sedentary inclinations of the philosophers’ other favorite, the Thinking Man. For though he does not do it constantly, the Sporting Gentleman—by masterfully winning a game of chess or punctuating a pregnant pause with a well-chosen line from Shakespeare or Homer—demonstrates at proper intervals that he can think. He has just enough breeding to tie a bow tie, ride in a hunt, and mix a flawless martini, but not so much that these cultural flourishes can’t be tempered by occasional drunken antics in the company of other Sporting Gentlemen or the telling of a tasteless joke—assuming that it is delivered with suitable élan.
The difficulty with the Sporting Gentleman (whose genus contains innumerable species, including the English Country Gentleman, the International Playboy, the Renaissance Man, and so on) is that he does not exist except in romantically inclined novels written for women of a certain age, the inventions of Ian Fleming, and, as already noted, the fiction of Hemingway. The latter has been especially efficient in carrying on the mischief of this myth, infecting generations of readers with the notion that the ideal of the Sporting Gentleman should be, if not attained, approximated. The cobbled streets of Pamplona, the bars of Key West, and the savannas of Africa continue to accommodate a steady train of ersatz Hemingway heroes intent upon their epiphanic moment when the stampede is dodged, the punch is perfectly thrown, or the elephant is shot. And if the effect on civilization, in these cases, is confined to a broken leg, a black eye, or a photograph at close quarters, we can at least hope that a female admirer was at hand.