This Christmas we got a lovely gift under the tree from my sister that was especially appropriate for our family, and which we really liked. It was a gift set on the “Art of Manliness” with two books and a set of coasters in a self-described “classic cigar box.” One book was an etiquette and advice manual updating 19th and early 20th century counsel for the 21st century man dispensing “classic skills and manners,” and the other was a collection of readings described as Manvotionals, clustered around “the seven manly virtues” (in case you’re keeping track, those are: manliness – which, I have to say, seems a little redundant, plus courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline and honor). My teen sons have already devoured both books and the collection’s appeal is undeniable – the books come pre-scuffed in that new-but-looks-old-book way that is so popular these days, abundantly illustrated with graphic elements and engravings that look borrowed from Gilded Age business periodicals and 1920s Arrow collar ads.
Then we started noticing that some of the advice sounded strangely familiar. And one son remembered that his counselor at BYU sports camp last year had used some of the manvotionals for their evening devotionals in Helaman Halls. Another son Googled the authors and found the husband and wife team of Brett and Kate McKay in Tulsa – Mormon sure enough. They have built a substantial web, book and online shopping industry around their concept of “manliness” that blends retro charm with squeaky-clean family values, succeeding in monetizing—and making infinitely hipper—the kind of advice lit that Mormons imbibe as a matter of course. This is, it must be said, pure marketing genius. But it’s also worth reflecting on just what is being remembered and recovered, and to muse on why, in this particular historical moment, those aspects of the past seem so attractive. The Art of Manliness taps into a deep vein of nostalgia in Anglo-American culture today that includes Downton Abbey, Hipstamatic, Etsy, Retronaut, reenactors and vintage-look clothing purveyors like Gentleman’s Emporium, and steampunk. Mormons have their own subcultural version, from trek to replica Book of Mormons to the purposeful vintage distressing in the print edition of Daughters in My Kingdom. The McKays seem to be hitting a sweet spot for that most holy grail demographic of 18-34 year old college-educated men located somewhere between Men’s Health, Wired, Cabelas, and the Sundance catalog. Also, who knew there was a manly version of Pinterest, called Gentlemint? Now I do.
However, these books also invoke a long tradition of Christian self-help in American didactic literature, from Benjamin Franklin (who is liberally quoted throughout), to Horatio Alger to Moody, Sunday, and Dale Carnegie. They particularly draw upon the generation of “muscular Christianity” at the turn of the twentieth century, which fought national emasculation and Christian feminization with a bracing regimen of boxing, rough riding, and military imperialism, exemplified by TR’s “Strenuous Life.” And, incidentally, the Art of Manliness nestles comfortably within the tradition of savvy twentieth-century Mormon consultants mirroring back to Americans of a certain gender, class and color their best Weberian selves – virtuous planners, doers, raisers of the noble generation, etcetera (I’m thinking here not only of Covey, but also of the Eyres). The etiquette book appends a list of 100 Books Every Man Should Read and it’s a pretty darn good list.
What gets remembered, reconstituted, and re-framed as “timeless” (as if values floated free of their historical contexts) is what I find so endlessly fascinating about cultural productions like the Art of Manliness. The etiquette book comes with a glossary of colorful 19th-century terms that deserve revival (“chucklehead,” “grumbletonian,” and “sockdologer,” just to name a few), sounding like the slang of Jerome K. Jerome‘s hilarious Oxfordites. They provide a misty look backward at a world of vigorous masculinity, affectionately calling up the age of fine haberdashery, straight razors employed alongside badger-bristle lather brushes, leather baseball gloves, fountain pens, and Model Ts. But both books explicitly scoff at the failures of “our cultural experiment with gender neutrality.” Manvotionals explains it like this (note the Great Apostasy narrative and mission-tract tone):
For centuries, being a man meant living a life of virtue and excellence. But then, through time, the art of manliness was lost. Now, after decades of excess and aimless drift, men are looking for something to help them live an authentic, manly life — a primer that can give their life real direction and purpose. This book holds the answers.
If I encountered any of those sentences in an exam essay, my red pen would be itching to scrawl “where’s your evidence?” in the margin. Although it might at first seem that they are shoring up the gender divide, the McKays are careful to point out that they position “manhood” not as the opposite of “womanhood” but as the opposite of “childhood.” Still, let’s not forget that world seen in rosy retrospect was one where black men were lynched in open daylight, where precious few women could vote, immigrants and unskilled workers toiled in hellholes of unregulated industrial capitalism, and where the US assumed the “white man’s burden” in places like the Philippines to brutally subdue the nationalist impulse of those whom McKinley called “our little brown brothers.” And each of these, of course, rested upon a particular conception of white manliness — which today’s young readers are encouraged to emulate.
Don’t get me wrong. My experience in public college classrooms makes it abundantly clear that many young people are morally adrift and some have very little notion how to become polite, considerate adults. Anything that would help produce fewer men who are misogynists, thugs and jerks is a great thing (just as I applaud any cultural messaging that would result in fewer women bimbos and bratz). And to be fair, the McKays have sanitized Edwardian manliness by removing its nastier racist and sexist bits. I doubt any advice manual for the smart set in the 1910s instructed its readers how to diaper a baby, or how to perform the “man hug,” as these do. There’s a classy, sensitive streak being promoted that I recognize and love in the best men I know, Mormon or not. I just wanted to call attention to history’s uses here, and wonder what our gentle readers think of this intriguing reinvention of last century’s manliness as an obviously profitable 21st century lifestyle industry. I bet you have thoughts on this as both an expression of our particular cultural moment, and as a Mormon phenomenon. I’d love to hear ’em.