October 13, 2011

A Man's Life, On Manhood

Graphing Manliness

Everywhere you look, people are talking about men and manliness. Hanna Rosin argues that it’s “The End of Men,” Kay Hymowitz wonders “Where Have the Good Men Gone? and William Bennett knows “Why Men Are in Trouble.” Network television has gotten into the act with three man-centric and predictably dopey shows: “Man Up!” “How to Be a Gentleman,” and “Last Man Standing.” The question of the future of men and manhood seems to be at the forefront of many minds.

As we’ve talked about before, men have always worried about their manliness. But it isn’t true that they have always worried the same amount at every time in history.

Google Books has this awesome Ngram Viewer into which you can search for any word or phrase, and it will spit out a graph showing the prevalence of that word amongst the books in its library over time. Here’s what you get when you put in “manhood” and “manliness.”

See the graph on Google

I found this graph really fascinating, and I hope you all do too. I intend for the post to be a jumping off point for discussion of your theories on the rise and fall of our culture’s discussion of manhood. But first I’ll offer up a possible interpretation.

The number of books mentioning manhood begins to precipitously rise during the 1820s, and then begins to tumble around the turn of the 20th century. These dates also roughly parallel the timeline of the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created great change not only in technology and the economy, but in the way people lived. Especially how men worked. Families moved from farms in the country to live in the city and take jobs in quickly proliferating factories. In 1800, 3 out of 4 American males worked full-time in agriculture. By 1900, 2/3 of them were employed in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Not only were farmers affected, craftsmen were dealt a blow as well. After apprenticing for years to learn a trade that required deep knowledge, unique skills, and a steady hand, craftsmen found themselves replaced by machines which could do their hard-learned job in a fraction of the time.

For men who had felt their manliness defined by the owning of land or the membership in a guild, this was a wrenching change. What would being a man mean in the absence of the nobility of working with one’s hands and the dignity of true independence and self-reliance? Could a man still be a man while pulling the lever at a factory or sitting at a desk in an office?

Fast forward a hundred years and we find ourselves in the midst of another industrial revolution of sorts. Again technology–this time computers–is changing the way we live and work. Ironically, while the shift to men working in factories had society concerned for their manhood in the 19th century, today those manufacturing jobs are often used as the symbol of manly work–their disappearance linked to a crisis in manliness. The information age has made more and more jobs feel less and less tangible. At least the men in factories did something with their hands…can men still be men if they’re only using their fingertips? Today society wrings its hands about that question.

So how did our Industrial Revolution forefathers solve their “crisis” in masculinity?

By moving away from defining manliness by a man’s job, and re-rooting it in virtue and excellence.  We say “re-rooting,” because defining manhood this way was not new; it was the definition also espoused by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the books written around the turn of the century, books with titles like Stepping Stones to Manhood and The Making of Manhood, authors argued that being a man came down to character. A man was industrious and frugal, responsible and trustworthy, courageous and bold. This definition of manhood could be striven for by any man, no matter what sphere of life he found himself in. Whether he was tilling the land or working the assembly line or sitting in an office, he could live with honor. And so men adapted, and the crisis of manhood dissipated.

But men have slipped back into defining themselves by their work. As the graph shows, as the information age heats up in the 2000’s, so does talk about manhood. The Ngram Viewer only goes until 2008, but if it went further, we’d certainly see an additional rise in the last few years. But most of this talk only discusses the problem and rarely offers a solution. If a remedy is offered, it’s usually some variation on telling men they need to get married, get a job, and stop playing video games. Such steps may help to a degree, but a man can still be a man and be single, out of work, and marvel of marvels, able to play video games in moderation. What is needed is a definition of manhood that is timeless, one that applies to men in any situation in life. How about virtue and excellence, character and competence? If we have come full circle in a century, perhaps what is needed is not to reinvent the wheel but to find what worked for our ancestors, whether a working man in the 1800s or a philosopher like Aristotle. Obviously, that’s what we try to do on our site and especially in our new book, Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues, which has many selections from the books on manhood written around the turn of the century.

Anyway, so that’s my theory (with a little rhapsodizing thrown in as well). What is your interpretation of the general rise and fall of discourse about manliness (and the little peaks and valleys too)? You may also find it interesting to examine the graphs when the search results are refined by British English and American English:

American English Books

See the graph on Google

British English Books

See the graph on Google

A few thoughts on these:

  • On the American graph, you can see a spike in the 1960s during the counterculture movement, rise of feminism, and the resulting debate about gender roles.
  • The British graph peaks earlier than the American one. Because the Industrial Revolution started earlier there? Something else?
  • The British graph also has an interesting manhood rebound around 1915. Any Brits care to wager the reason? WWI perhaps?
  • “Manliness” has never been as popular a word as “manhood.” But I certainly prefer it!

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