categories: Cocktail Hour
Did I post this already? I’m not sure….let me know (Bill?)…..my brain has turned to mush. Anyway, it first appeared a few years ago in the Boston Globe:
We have grown used to the power of advertising to strip words of their meaning, beauty, and power. But of all the words that have been denuded in the long history of that insidious industry, none may have been so completely and thoroughly gutted as “gusto.”
Celebrated in 1816 by the essayist William Hazlitt as one of the highest qualities of art, it remains in most of our minds thanks to an almost extinct brand of beer called Schlitz. “Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object,” wrote Hazlitt. Memorable words, but how can they compare with these: “You only go around once in life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get!”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines gusto as “individual or particular liking, relish, or fondness” and “keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action; zest.” Closer to Hazlitt’s is the third meaning: “Style in which a work is executed; artistic style.” But Hazlitt, a great imaginative thinker who spent his life wearing ill-fitting journalist’s clothes, saw it as much more than that. Gusto was the artistic ability to re-create life in paintings and words so that it felt like more than a re-creation, so that it felt alive on the page and canvas. Titian, for instance, painted the flesh on a human arm so that “the blood circulates here and there, and blue veins just appear.” By contrast Vandyke’s flesh color, “though it has great truth and purity, wants gusto….It is a smooth surface, not a warm, moving mass. It is painted without passion, with indifference.” Without gusto.
Hazlitt’s definition seems to straddle both the final artistic result, the work itself, and the attitude and feelings of the artist during creation. He likes the lusty, imaginative, blood-filled, and abhors the dainty, cultivated, and stiff. He cheers on Shakespeare, Rabelais, Michelangelo and jeers at landscape painters like Claude and Rubens (except for his Fauns and Satyrs, which “have gusto”). Synesthesia is the spilling over of the senses that occurs in some works of art, and to Hazlitt there is almost always an implied synesthesia to works with gusto: we smell colors and taste sounds. Finally, and less happily, there is something sexist in his definition, a sexism endemic to the time and to the time’s literary discourse. Works with gusto are manly and full of vigor, “hard and masculine.” Works without gusto are “effeminate.”
Despite Hazlitt’s championing, the word never really caught on. Maybe even in Hazlitt’s time folks recognized something slightly goofy and overdone about the way it sounded. Lou Grant said famously to Mary Richards “I hate spunk” and gusto is spunky. Even Keats, a contemporary who believed that Hazlitt was “one of the great spirits of the age” and whose own odes were influenced by Hazlitt’s thinking on the imagination, recoiled slightly at the word. According to Keats’ biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, though Keats originally picked up the word from Hazlitt, he preferred “intensity,” since gusto suggests “a briskness of bounce of spirit he does not have in mind.” Which gets nicely at the problem. While the word intensity is sharp, its “t”s and “i”s jutting out like sticks from a nest, the word gusto is undeniably round and unforgivably bouncy. Still, if it did not quite attain the heights Hazlitt hoped for, gusto remained in general use. It was a fine, functional word, a word that might have bumbled pleasantly along, a thesaurus word, the kind of word you might use only occasionally these days to describe, say, Charles Barkley. But this was not gusto’s fate.
Enter the Schlitz Brewing Company. Founded in the 1800s, by 1952 Schlitz was the world’s largest brewer of beer, producing, according to the company history, a then record 6.35 millions barrels in a single year. For years the huge Midwestern brewers had had trouble fighting down insurrections from local breweries, which made fresher stuff, but it was the introduction of a single radical innovation, the can, that allowed beer to be shipped cheaply and that finally crushed the hopes of the local microbrweweries. Advertising was another weapon of the international breweries and Schlitz was one of the best at wielding this weapon. Though there were occasional failures, like 1957’s ill-fated “Schlitzerland” campaign in which the company pushed a Bavarian village theme, complete with clog-wearing waitresses, it was Schlitz, not Budweiser, that was the undisputed king of the beer world. In 1895 Schlitz introduced one of the most famous slogans in advertising history: “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” But not content to merely taint a town with their advertising, they would turn their attention, almost seventy years later, to Hazlitt’s favorite word.
The first use of the word occurred in 1963 and was fairly innocuous: inscribed on serving trays, below the familiar brand name with its elaborate S and slashing tail of a Z, was the sentence “real gusto in a great light beer.” But the ‘60s were the beginning of the great TV age of beer advertising and soon gusto was everywhere. “Grab for all the gusto you can get” was pounded into the national psyche. It was gusto-mania. Both the word’s heyday (never had it been projected so widely) and its downfall (who could ever use it seriously again?)
By 1967 Schlitz had moved on to a new, soon-to-be famous jingle: “There’s just one Schlitz, yeah, yeah, nothing else comes near/When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.” The old phrase– “real gusto in a real, light beer”– was tacked on to the end of the song, but the truth was that the gusto days were over. Soon after Schlitz itself fall fell from glory. In 1967 the brewery adopted something called ABF, accelerated batch fermentation, which allowed them to brew more beer more quickly and which soon enough would be adopted by all other giant breweries. But it turned out that the Schlitz faithful didn’t like the change in taste and, again according to the Schlitz history, “the rumor was the beer was still ‘green,’ not properly aged.” Some suggested the new beer lacked gusto. Worse, “it appeared to the public that Schlitz was cutting on quality in order to increase profits.”
But while Schlitz fell into ruin, and while the “gusto” campaign ended almost forty years ago, the damage to the word was done. Advertising slogans have long half-lifes and can still be heard echoing decades after their campaigns die. Their may be some isolated sorts who are able to stick “gusto” into a sentence without thinking beer, but certainly no one who was born before 1960. At least, Hazlitt might have consoled himself, the word had not been effeminized. Quite the opposite in fact. By being so associated with a popular cheap beer, it had become “manly” and “hearty” to the point of caricature, and would forever be associated with a bunch of simian sports fans hoisting metal cans and singing heartily as if the watching of sports on TV were life’s greatest possible attainment.
But I, for one, haven’t given up hope on gusto. As an essayist, I feel attached to it both because of Hazlitt’s attachment and because I feel it is a quality lacking in today’s essays, which seem tame to me compared to Hazlitt himself writing on, say, the pleasures of hating. And as a son, I feel attached because growing up my late-father was passionately loyal to his brand of beer: Schlitz. I can still see the maroon word Schlitz slashing at a jaunty angle across the greyish cans and can remember the clicking noise followed by the slight tearing when he opened the then “new” pull tabs. My own first sips of beer came from cans of Schlitz before I was a teenager when I went on ocean fishing trips with my father and his buddies. Hydration was not a big priority in those days, no sodas or water on board, and if the child was thirsty and warm beer was the only thing to sip then so be it. (My father and his fellow Schlitz drinkers were relative environmentalists since they filled their empty cans with seawater and sunk them to the sea floor unlike most of the boaters who just left them floating on the ocean’s surface.) Perhaps my single strangest Schlitz moment came when I moved back to my hometown of Worcester at the age of thirty. On my first walk exploring the neighborhood I discovered a liquor store a hundred yards down the road. And there, on the sign in front of the store, was nothing but a ten foot tall photo of a can of Schlitz.
My father is ten years dead now, however, and I have moved out from under Schlitz’s shadow. My hopes are that the word gusto can do the same. It may not rise to Hazlittian glory, but maybe enough time has passed for it to at least become de-Schlitzified. Of course the first step is stripping away the remnant sexism: enthusiasm and passion are not strictly “masculine” qualities. Harder to strip away is the goofiness, but with work that can be done too. I believe it is a word worth saving since it gets at something, in Hazlitt’s sense, that often seems missing in contemporary art: sheer passion, intensity, willingness to risk. Too often our essays are merely fact-filled and “accurate.” We want what Emerson wrote of Montaigne’s sentences: “If you cut them they will bleed.” In short, we want gusto.