A couple months ago, I found myself milling around outside a used bookstore (pushing a double stroller full of young’uns, naturally), and I picked up a book by Wallace Stegner.
I had never read any of his stuff, but had always meant to.
I forgot why I was supposed to read Stegner: maybe it was a recommendation from my parents or some professor years ago.
I knew that he often wrote stories against the backdrop of the hardscrabble, sometimes bleak American West, which is where my people are from–at least the last few generations of them.
I’m a sucker for these kinds of stories because it’s easy for me to empathize with the characters, since a lot of them remind me of my relatives, and some of the episodes are eerily similar to ones from my own family’s mythology.
Anyway, I read the book I picked up that day, called Recapitulation, and immediately wanted more. Turns out that book was a sequel of sorts, to a bigger book called Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Big Rock Candy Mountain is, in fact, an epic. It’s right up my alley.
It follows the interior lives of a handful of complicated characters–a mom, dad, and two sons–as they try to scratch out a living from the shrinking opportunities in the woods and prairies of the West, from North Dakota, to Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and finally Salt Lake City.
It’s geographically sprawling, but psychologically a bit claustrophobic.
Imagine if Virginia Woolf and Larry McMurtry (who was actually a student of Stegner’s, along with Ken Kesey, another great chronicler of manliness) collaborated on an action-packed meditation on family dynamics and the end of America’s adolescence.
These books are part of a segment of thecosmic lattice of coincidence which I find myself pondering a lot lately.
The nature of my pondering isn’t tortured or anything. In fact, I have the whole manliness business figured out. The interesting part is how the notion of manliness keeps popping up in what I’m reading (and to some extent, writing) lately. Here are some examples.
- I got my dad to write that Father’s Day post, in which he talks about growing up, mostly in northern Montana, as the son of a legendary tough guy. I’m still thinking about that post, and comparing myself to my male ancestors.
- I’ve been absorbed by these Stegner books, about a family whose patriarch is a legendary tough guy (also angry, proud, maybe cruel) in the same part of the country where my mom and dad grew up.
- Somehow I got lured into reading–and writing a 700-word comment on–a clumsy “satirical” post on a mostly forward-thinking blog called Good Men Project, in which the author connected manliness directly to testicles and physical prowess.
- Through another bunch of coincidences, I ended up clicking around on a website called “The Art of Manliness,” which I had never heard of despite its apparently being wildly popular.
There are more coincidences, but those are the main ones.
So the Stegner books and the stories of my grandpa had me thinking about how traditional notions of manliness (mostly fearlessness, physical strength, and endurance) were actually useful, even vital, in the old days, albeit not unproblematic.
Then I read the first blog post I mentioned above, which (“satirically”) lamented the disintegration of manliness in modern civilization, using the loss of testicles as its central metaphor.
In my comments on that post, among other gripes, I complained that the author assumed that his readers all agreed on the meaning of “manliness.”
If there is such a thing as “manliness,” I niggled, it must be defined in opposition to some other, less desirable state or constellation of characteristics. So, what is the opposite of manliness? Womanliness? Sissiness? Queerness?
I suggested that he provide us with an explanation (however tentative) of what it means to be “manly.”
A couple days later, I’m checking out my newly discovered The Art of Manliness, and in the FAQs, there’s a link to an essay in which Brett McKay, the husband in the husband-and-wife team who runs the website, explains what manliness means for the intents and purposes of their publication.
His essay is well-written, well-argued, and propped up with rich textual support from a broad range of sources.
I enjoyed reading it. And he answered some of the questions I had for the author of the post on Good Men Project, the jokey one about how balls+strength=manliness.
McKay provides a list of the essential manly virtues:
- Personal Responsibility
And he preemptively answers my next question by explaining that–yes–these are virtues that women should be striving for as well. But women and men approach these virtues in different ways, he says: for women, these virtues define “womanliness” (a term that no one ever uses, by the way, except as an insult directed toward men–but that’s another story), and for men they define manliness.
McKay argues that the opposite of manhood is not womanhood; but rather, childhood.*
I thought that was pretty good.
He recognizes the problem with placing a high value on manliness to the detriment of womanliness by setting both of those concepts on an equal footing in opposition to childhood. Fine.
But isn’t the more logical choice for the opposite of childhood adulthood?
“Both genders are capable of and should strive for virtuous, human excellence,” he says.
When a woman lives the virtues, that is womanliness; when a man lives the virtues, that is manliness.”
As long as we’re being careful to point out that we don’t value manliness over womanliness, why don’t we just go ahead and talk about those perfectly worthy traits he listed as the qualities of adultness (or “adulthood”–see footnote) instead?
Are the ways that people “live the virtues” easily categorized as “the male way” and “the female way”?
Doesn’t everyone who approaches these goals do so in their own way, regardless of their gender? And is there any point in distinguishing between male and female “adultness”?
It might seem like my beef here is a matter of semantics. After all, who cares whether we call it “manliness” or “adultness”? We’re just talking about trying to be good people, right?
And maybe trying to encourage man-children, adrift without the clear gender role definitions of yesteryear, to not be assholes.
As long as we’re telling ourselves that we aren’t giving “manliness” more value than “womanliness,” let’s do a little thought experiment:
Think about the phrase “good man” for a minute.
Done? Okay. Now think about the phrase “good woman.”
Chances are, you thought about some brave, able, possibly heroic figure for “good man.”
When you thought of “good woman,” though, did you think of a good helper, a sidekick, someone who was useful?
Like, somebody’s good woman?
I may be way off track with this, but that’s the sense in which I have usually heard that term used. “She’s a good woman–makes a good bloody Mary and keeps her mouth shut most of the time.”
The other thing that bugs me about The Art of Manliness, and other publications that try to promote gender pride in males, is the explicit and implicit nostalgia for the old days, when men knew what manliness meant, and used its tenets to guide their every move.
- The days when men made snap decisions with the utmost confidence, unlike today’s dithering wimp.
- The days when men steamrolled their way through barriers, taking big risks and shaking it off when they didn’t pay off.
- The days when men would never consider associating the words in McKay’s list of virtues with women. The days when men thought of themselves as a privileged class, fully entitled to the power they wielded.
So what’s the point of connecting those virtues to one gender or the other?
Is it not enough to celebrate toughness, or strength, or conviction, or the way those qualities manifest in a particular person, regardless of their gender?
To celebrate the peculiarities of the way men approach the goal of goodness is to say, “we do it better than those stupid girls” (or other non-manly types), it seems to me.
So the question I posed in my comment on the Good Men Project post is still unanswered: what’s the difference between a good man and a good person?
One of the things I love in Big Rock Candy Mountain is that none of the main characters is purely good or evil, but they’re all sympathetic. Even though Bo, the dad, is a right bastard, I’m really rooting for him.
He embraces all McKay’s values within the framework of his own personal morality, but also has a serious mean streak. And guess who represents those virtues even more than Bo?
His wife, who has her own flaws as well.
Just as I love hearing the stories about my grandpa constantly having to prove himself the toughest guy in the territory for most of his life, I get completely swept up in Bo’s episodes of reckless adventure and bashing his way through every problem he encounters.
But I think their toughness was a product of trying to achieve success in an unforgiving environment by using every advantage at their disposal.
I don’t think their defining qualities were quintessentially “male” except in the sense that they both had extraordinary physical strength, which was much more important for success in those days than it is today.
It’s a lot of fun to read about the old days, and think about how you would fare in the situations that characters like Bo and my grandpa faced; but realistically, I’m not nostalgic for the days when you would need to do the things they did to survive.
If civilization and comfort are causing the slow death of manliness, then I say we go ahead and pull the plug on the whole notion and put it out of its misery.
Be courageous, convicted, loyal, and all that stuff.
Be brash and self-confident if you think that makes you a better person.
But why would you give credit to your gender for the qualities that define you?
* I think his argument gets off track a bit here because he conflates “manhood” with “manliness,” “womanhood” with “womanliness,” etc.; but I’m not going to go into the crucial differences between “-hood” and “-ness” in this post that already seems like it will never come to a merciful end; I will instead also pretend that those terms are close enough in meaning that it’s not worth quibbling about.