“Manvotionals” and (Gentle)manly Nostalgia

By January 16, 2013

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.

Article filed under Cultural History Gender Memory Popular Culture Race


  1. Fascinating, Tona. I’ve visited artofmanliness.com a dozen or so times over the last few years, whenever links to various articles on the site have been shared by friends and family on facebook, twitter, etc. I had no idea the folks behind it were Mormon, though reading a bit more now, it seems somewhat obvious. Thanks for this thoughtful and fun take, including especially your able historicization of it all.

    Comment by Christopher — January 16, 2013 @ 10:50 am

  2. I came across artofmanliness a few years ago and totally fell in love with it. It was such a great response to the cultural vacuum surrounding manhood, I thought; the women’s movement seemed to be more prominent and vocal, articulating goals and aims encouraging women to be bolder, more proactive, confident, ambitious, etc etc. Younger men seemed much more adrift– not sure how to situate themselves in a new dynamic. I appreciated how the authors were providing models for men that had nothing to do with comparisons (unlike early 20th century versions, as you explain): their definition of “manliness” explains that ” men and women share many of the same virtues, but often attain and express them in different ways. The metaphor we used was that of two different musical instruments, playing the exact same notes, but producing two different sounds ? each which adds rich music to the world.” I’m a huge fan of integral (as opposed to fractional) gender complementarity, and was doubly delighted when I discovered they were Mormons capable of producing such a refreshing application of Mormonism’s budding “distinctive” but adamantly “equal” gender model (from the likes of the Hafens, Elder Perry, Pres. Hinckley, and some others)– but with an awesomely hip kind of spin.

    As for your other question about the appropriateness of selectively reinventing the past; in short, I’m all about it. There’s a place for giving the real deal (school, hopefully) and there’s place for celebrating the good the past can offer, and discreetly, perhaps, improving upon it with the experience acquired since. It at least mitigates the modern propensity towards cynicism, our version of Whiggish tendencies, and the Western lack of ancestral or filial appreciation. (I’m hugely generalizing, I know). It creates a sense of continuity that I love to find in history, which is a great way to combat the atomistic tendencies of modern society.

    Comment by Rachael — January 16, 2013 @ 11:36 am

  3. Thank you for posting this, which made me think of another cultural artifact which has by now been almost forgotten: ?Man of Steel and Velvet,? the 1972 book by LDS dentist Aubrey P. Andelin. Aubrey is of course the husband of Helen Andelin, author of ?Fascinating Womanhood? and ?The Fascinating Girl.? Whereas ?The Art of Manliness? seems to use manliness as an excuse to describe adult virtues, the Andelins? work is a clear reaction to what they perceived as the confusion of gender roles. ?Throughout our society we find men who are weak, spoiled, pampered, spineless for the most part, lacking moral, physical, or mental strength or all three,? Dr. Andelin laments in his 316-page tome. And yes?his first name was Aubrey : )

    Hugo Olaiz

    Comment by Hugo Olaiz — January 16, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  4. Wow, Hugo. “Man of Steel and Velvet” sounds like a Harlequin title.

    Rachael – you’d think the world wouldn’t need additional enhancements for men, but then again, there’s that whole narrative in K-12 education that boys are the ones who have the trouble finding their way. Your suggestion that there’s equality (ironically, perhaps) inherent in a site that’s only about MEN is fascinating and I think I agree with your observation that this may indeed reflect a more progressive Mormon gender ideology (whether intentional or not). Unlike the esteemed Mr. Andelin.

    Comment by Tona H — January 16, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  5. Huzzah! I loved this Tona. A friend and I have been following the Art of Manliness for a long while now (relatively) and I think you nailed it. It’s funny that Teddy is a focal point because this same friend is a huge devotee of TR, having read most of his works and works about him. There probably exists a need, subconscious or otherwise, for “manly” examples on the church’s efforts to continually invent the roles we play as men. You see this in the evolving masculinity of paintings of Christ and Joseph Smith within Mormomism.

    Anyhow, thanks for writing this.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — January 16, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  6. I agree that most of the “world” doesn’t need additional enhancements for men, but I think in the US, there is increasing evidence that boys might be getting the short end of the stick (particularly in K-12 education, as you point out); but my larger point was that there isn’t as clear a model for them as there seems to be for women, nowadays. I think it’s uniquely important for Mormon men, who need a definition of manhood that does not rely on hierarchy, rank, or status, but in fact, on the opposite– humility, respect, compassion, etc.–but not in the feminized package religion can often deliver it in (which I think Tod is alluding to). Instead, it’s a universal package of virtue, as they explain here. Both men and women should acquire it– but in a refreshingly simple formula, they say that “when a woman lives the virtues, that is womanliness; when a man lives the virtues, that is manliness.” So I think there are plenty of “equality” sentiments peppered in many of the posts–often not as explicitly–but they are there, from what I have read. I’ll take it where I can find it 🙂

    Comment by Rachael — January 16, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  7. Interesting, Tona. Your analysis reminded me of Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization. She argues that the “muscular Christianity” that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century was a response to the sense that a certain type of white manhood was at risk. Her analysis of the Jack Johnson boxing match and lynching cases is breathtaking. I wonder to what extent her analysis might be useful here. During the recent election cycle, I was reminded of her work when conservative pundits began talking about the loss of a white, middle class America. I wonder if the recent turn towards manliness is indicative of a fear among white, middle class Americans that they are being threatened and are at sea.

    Comment by Amanda — January 16, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  8. I saw this tonight and totally thought of this post:


    Comment by EmJen — January 16, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

  9. Great post. Rest assured this wasn’t my whole takeaway from this post, but I didn’t know about Gentlemint. I am heading over there right now.

    Comment by Saskia — January 17, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  10. I love that there’s a step-by-step on how to perform a “man hug.”

    I have the same hesitation when people talk longingly of olden times, gentlemanly behavior, womanliness etc. Maybe we need to be willing to put the nastier things aside (like you’ve described) and take from it what we can. Part of the difficulty of social movements is that pendulums tend to swing wildly from one extreme to the other before they come to rest safely in the middle. If you get what I’m saying.

    Comment by Sarah Dunster — January 21, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  11. […] MHA Odds and Ends,BHodges: MHA Odds and Ends,BHodges: MHA Odds and Ends,Sarah Dunster: "Manvotionals" and (Gentle)manly NostalgiaChristopher: Southwestern States Mission: BirthdaysAmy T: Southwestern States Mission: […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: Peach Cobbler, For Men by Men: Or, When Reed Smoot Makes Dessert — January 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

  12. Very nice. I like they way you pulled apart some of the gloss of the Manliness project, but left the charm and value intact in the end.

    I was made aware of their work by reading my BYU alumni magazine where they were mentioned last year. I thought it was an intriguing combo: a Mormon couple who uses both historical and current cultural trends to promote manliness and certain virtues, and makes it appealing to a broad American audience in both digital and book form.

    Your sons are some of the greatest up-and-coming men I know so I thought they’d at least get a kick out of it.

    Comment by Maren — February 4, 2013 @ 10:30 pm


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