‘Every Inch a King’: Some Books About Manhood

In my home library are several books about manhood. All of them share one attribute: they begin by pointing out our culture’s antipathy to the concepts of “manhood” and “manliness.”

In the first pages of “Manliness,” for instance, Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield recounts this incident:

‘Recently I had a call from the alumnus magazine at the university where I work, asking me to comment on a former professor of mine now being honored. Responding too quickly, I said: ‘What impressed all of us about him was his manliness.’ There was silence at the other end of the line, and finally the female voice said: ‘Could you think of another word?”

“Manliness” was published in 2006. Since then, our attempt to become a gender-neutral society, to erase the boundaries between male and female, has gone from a jog to a sprint. Many in our society find manhood and manliness antiquated and therefore irrelevant; others mock those concepts; still others claim they’re offensive.

Believing that we’re on the wrong path in this pursuit, the authors of these books all push for a return to masculine ideals and virtues. Using sources old and new, they seek to show us that to become manly in both virtue and conduct was once a natural goal for men, a pursuit of the good, a search for the higher path.

Let’s take a look at some of these books.

Timeless Virtues

In his 785-page “What is a Man? 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue,” Waller Newell offers readers scores of selections on topics such as “The Man of Valor,” “The American Hero,” “Boys Into Men,” and “Rebellion and Despair.” Packed into this impressive volume with its reflections on manhood from ancient and modern authors are poetry, fragments of philosophy, selections from literature, and essays.

It’s also a “dipper book,” meaning I don’t read “What Is A Man?” from cover to cover but instead dip into it wherever my fingers and eyes may take me. On my latest visit, for instance, I read the “We Few, We Happy Few” speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V;” Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman’s bitter musings on the Jonesboro schoolyard shootings; and an excerpt from Raymond Carver’s short story about a father and son, “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes.”

Another Dipper

Like “What Is a Man?” William Bennett’s 546-page “The Book Of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood” is a compilation of selections by writers ancient and modern. Here, for example, are Douglas MacArthur’s “A Father’s Prayer,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s letter to his daughter, the Navy SEAL Creed, and a profile of 1993 Unabomber victim David Gelernter, several of whose books I have read and admired. Bennett also includes figures from the world of sports and Americans whose names may be unfamiliar to us but whose deeds brought them honor.

Of particular concern to Bennett are today’s young men who seem lost and without a moral compass. In his introduction, Bennett writes that “a mere hundred years ago, man couldn’t afford to dawdle in limbo between adolescence and manhood; manhood was thrust upon him for survival. Today, more opportunity lies at his feet than ever before. Yet with this increased opportunity comes increased confusion, and the response on the part of some men has not been encouraging.”

Bennett’s observations made me think of my grandfather, who a century or more ago left school at 13 to go to work after his father died. I also thought of my father, who by the age of 20 was serving as an infantry sergeant in Italy fighting the Germans and who after the war finished college on a fast track program, entered medical school, and became a physician. I see young men making these same advances today, tackling the challenges life throws at them, but I’ve also known others who are, as Bennett says, “irresponsible, unmotivated, unchivalrous, selfish, lazy.”

To assign blame to these young men for such flaws is easy. But as some of the pieces in “The Book of Man” and “What Is a Man?” note, we can also point an accusatory finger at our culture: the excesses of the media, failures in our educational system, the decline of the family, the replacement of the role of fatherhood by welfare programs, the general denigration across our culture of marriage and fatherhood.

The Art of Manliness

Husband and wife team Brett and Kate McKay operate the popular website “The Art of Manliness,” where they offer both inspiration for men and practical advice on everything from finances to fishing.

They have also co-written several books, including “The Art of Manliness—Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues.” Like Newell and Bennett, they have collected treasures from past books about manhood in this anthology—poems, speeches, literature—with an abundance of resources coming from the 19th and early 20th centuries and a large number of illustrations from that same period.

My favorite quote in “Manvotionals” is from Epictetus, “If you see anyone wail and complain, call him a slave, though he be clad in purple.”

What About Women?

One struggle today for both men and women is that we have come to believe we must gender-blend the sexes, eradicating all differences even when they are natural or beneficial.

The McKays offer a happier take on these differences, writing, “Women and men strive for the same virtues, but often attain them and express them in different ways. The virtues will be lived and manifested differently in the lives of sisters, mothers, and wives than in brothers, husbands, and fathers. … Two different musical instruments, playing the exact same notes, will produce two different sounds. … Neither instrument is better than the other; in the hands of the diligent and the dedicated, each instrument plays music that fills the spirit and adds beauty to the world.”

At the end of “Manliness,” Harvey Mansfield echoes this sentiment: “Women should be free to enter on careers but not compelled—yet they should also be expected to be women. And men should be expected, not merely free, to be manly. A free society cannot survive if we are so free that nothing is expected of us.”

Striving for Excellence

All of these books urge males young and old to pursue “arête,” or excellence, to practice the virtues and so attain those marks of manhood such as strength, honor, wisdom, and courage. The advice sounds simple, and for some people these stories, poems, and adages will ring falsely, sounding too high-minded or too old-fashioned for our 21st-century world. They forget that these marks of manhood have existed for thousands of years, that they were forged to help us become better human beings.

Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts congressman most famous for being caned by Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the Senate floor before the Civil War, once offered a thought that might sum up all these writings: “Have an ambition to be remembered, not as a great lawyer, doctor, merchant, scientist, manufacturer, or scholar, but as a great man, every inch a king.”

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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Jeff Minick
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