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Real Men Don't Define Themselves

From colonial times, the changing nature of what it means to be a man in the US

Manhood in America: A Cultural History

By Michael Kimmel

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Free Press

544 pp., $30

Fathers and Children: In Literature and Art

Edited by Charles Sullivan

Harry N. Abrams

160 pp., $29.95

Long before the advent of modern feminism, American men were struggling to figure out who they were. Although the "sons of liberty" had won a war to establish their country's independence, the new American man seemed far more worried about proving his manhood than his fathers before him had.

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This, certainly, is the impression one receives from Michael Kimmel's "Manhood in America," a diverting study of what might be called the "Masculine Mystique" from the early days of the republic to current times.

Manhood meant many different things, as Professor Kimmel illustrates with examples drawn from history, literature, and popular culture. To colonists asserting their independence from the mother country, it was a claim to the state of adulthood, of being able to govern oneself: Being a man meant not being a boy.

From a slightly different perspective, as citizens of the new republic redefined it, manliness also had to do with the worthiness of the unvarnished "common man," in contrast to the supposed effeteness of the old-style aristocrat.

Before long, manliness also became associated with the frontier: Living in the wilderness was manly; preferring polite society was sissy stuff. Ironically, manhood came to have less and less to do with appealing to women. The "man's man" was more interested in impressing other men.

Behind this was the democratic ideal of America as a land where each man could prove his worth. But the reality, as Kimmel demonstrates, was fraught with pitfalls and contradictions. By the early 19th century, manhood had become a cult, and the need to act in a way that others would regard as manly had begun taking its toll on American males.

Visiting the young nation in 1831, the ever-astute Alexis de Tocqueville pityingly observed: "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests - in one word, so anti-poetic - as the life of a man in the United States." American men, having severed old connections and quit their traditional trades, were under tremendous pressures.

Life in the new world was extremely unstable, as opportunities beckoned, old ties were abandoned, and fortunes made and lost. More hard liquor was consumed during the first three decades of the 19th century than at any other time in the nation's history.

In this climate of economic adventurism, Kimmel points out, one's fellow men were all potential rivals, and the need to prove one's manhood a never-ending test.

Kimmel perceives three major strategies by which beleaguered men sought to affirm their masculinity. Some sought refuge in "exclusion," denying the privileges of "manhood" to women, slaves, native Americans, and later immigrant groups, variously deemed too childish, effeminate - or even too lascivious! - to be "real men."

Another option was flight: The frontier, obviously, offered men the chance to flee women, children, and civilization. The third option, "self-control," included everything from the earliest self-help manuals to comic book ads promising to turn 98-pound weaklings into muscle-bound hunks.

Much of the territory covered in this book is well-trodden ground, but well worth a second look. It is indeed hard to overemphasize the degree to which gender differences in the 19th century were exaggerated, as men were pushed into the harshly competitive, amoral realm of commerce and industry, and women left as guardian angels of all the kinder, gentler virtues to be cultivated only in the haven of the home.

Kimmel notes a further irony: Husbands demanded wives who were dainty and proper, then spent much of their married lives complaining how stifling they found domesticity.

No wonder, then, that pioneering feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) proclaimed themselves "humanists" rather than "feminists," for clearly both men and women needed to be freed from the burdens of gender stereotypes.

As Kimmel demonstrates, these stereotypes were often as arbitrary as they were meaningless. A magazine article of 1918 advised expectant parents: "The ... rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Although Kimmel's arguments and prose style sometimes lack polish, his head and heart are generally in the right place. He concludes with the hope that men will free themselves from the no-win game of trying to out-macho one another and cultivate instead the more solid virtues of courage and self-reliance, along with the slighted "feminine" virtues of compassion and sensitivity.

As his book shows, the national obsession with gender has caused too many Americans of both sexes to spend far too much time worrying about being "masculine" or "feminine" enough, and too little time considering whether they are honest, intelligent, and decent enough.

It may be a hopeful sign that fatherhood is returning to the national agenda. The vast range of emotions and experience associated with this state is the subject of "Father and Children: In Literature and Art," an eclectic, rather quirky, anthology of poems, paintings, photos, and brief prose excerpts, edited by Charles Sullivan, himself a poet, grandfather, and academic.

In recognition of the fact that fatherhood has meant different things to different people, Sullivan aims to show in his selections not only the rewarding moments, but also the specters of failure, inadequacy, frustration, and oppression.

Thus, we have Susy Clemens's sweet tribute to her father, Mark Twain, but also Sylvia Plath's angry "Daddy"; Mary Cassatt's tender portrait of father and son, but also Ralph Goings's painting of a blowsy bathing beauty being escorted by what seems to be a storm trooper.

Some of the selections bear only a tangential relation to the announced theme.

Others are slightly bizarre, and still others fall entirely flat. And as interesting as many of the remaining poems and pictures are, one cannot help feeling that a much more satisfying book might have been assembled to do justice to this topic.

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