What has happened to American masculinity?
For three generations the men of my family labored together as woodsmen, milling the dense forest lumber from Ohio to Florida. The picture above shows not only my family, but also the crosscut saw on the left. This was the tool of their long process of labor. They proudly stand by the felled tree holding the massive saw, like we might pose with a 10-point buck holding our rifle today. From my great-great grandfather on down to my grandfather, they all joined together in this humble ritual.
Robert Bly, author of Iron John (which should be on your reading list), writes, “The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through the ritual and effort—only through the ‘active intervention of the older men’… during the nineteenth century, grandfathers and uncles lived in the house, and older men mingled a great deal. Through hunting parties, in work that men did together in farms and cottages, and through local sports, older men spent much time with the younger men and brought knowledge of male spirit and soul to them.”
As I mentioned in my last article, we live in very different times. The ritualized process that was passed down from the older generation can easily be lost to progress, technology, classrooms, and cubicles. This has created a modern man living in an era where few take part in the ancient rituals of men.
A few years ago my father sent me this letter about the saw from the photo that seemed to explain it so well…
“As the years passed of course, your Great Grandpa and Grandpa Hood modernized the operations even more. A gasoline powered mill was purchased. Motorized chain saws replaced the cross cut saw. Tractors pulled the logs into the mill instead of horses. Fewer men were required to operate the mill compared to the steam engine mill of the past. It is surprising really how few years it took to completely change the operations of the mill and the human labor power it required. I guess that is why the crosscut saw means so much to us. It represents another era—a time when men had to labor together and in this case, on two opposite sides of a manually operated saw. Our forefathers held those handles as they worked to provide a living for their families.”
So as that process has been lost to the modern conveniences of the day … what has replaced it? This recent ad from J. Crew says it all…
In just a few generations we went from working in the woods with grandpa to having our toenails painted pink on Saturdays with mom. Quite an evolution of boyhood. This is the new modern America being fed to us from the news media and fashion.
Does our society value this masculine initiation process as valid anymore?
Take our last election…
America had the choice between a war veteran with years of experience in politics and a courageous story of being held prisoner in a foreign land (talk about building internal character), or a young and unproven, but charismatic candidate.
As Americans, we no longer put stock in the fact that character is cultivated through experiences and fire. It can’t be bought or manufactured, nor won by great speeches. It has to be earned. Bestowed upon us from the generations before us.
If twinkle toes up there were living 100 years ago, a Saturday as a 10-year-old boy would be spent walking barefoot, 4-inches deep in mud, bent down under Sally the cow squeezing for some morning milk. We’d be earning our way working beside our father, uncles, and grandfathers, and they’d be teaching us the ropes of day-to-day life. That “active intervention of older men” is what leads us to our own male identity. It’s a dying tradition that we need to both celebrate and hold on to.
The fraternity, if properly managed, respects this right of passage. I believe it was developed and designed by our founding fathers with this in mind. You don’t walk into the house and instantly become a brother. You have to earn it; fight for it; suffer through things to prove yourself. Pledgeship contains this much-needed part of the process we lack as a society today. But now, even our pledging process is under attack because the culture has no understanding of the value anymore. The media highlights the negative news stories and not those using the process to shape brotherhood and friendship between the great men that it produces.
I am not suggesting we all go chop down trees in the forests to reclaim lost values, but I do believe we need to obtain awareness of what the men before us went through to make us who we are. Let’s rebuild the legacy of passing down these great American traditions and continue to be part of the process, while inviting the next class of young men into those places as well.
By guest columnist Xan Hood, CEO/Founder Buffalo & Company