Can a book teach you how to be a man?
I knew, I reasoned, how to be a man. I had been one for quite some time—about a quarter-century, give or take. I tied ties, mixed drinks, held doors, said "please" and "thank you" when the situation warranted. I watched Mad Men for extra credit. Case closed—right?
Right—until I stumbled on Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, the Pulitzer winner's forthcoming book of essays. The title says it all; could I be, unwittingly, a neophyte? And suddenly everywhere I looked, a manly peanut gallery offered its advice. By the register at J.Crew, on a seasonal cardigan errand, I noticed a stockpile of slim paperbacks that promised to make a man of me. The self-help section at Barnes & Noble—a wrong turn on the way to Wine/Wino Interest—offered masculinity … for Dummies, for Idiots, and for Women (by straight men, by gay men, even by other women). I sat down with a library's worth of guidebooks on the fickle subject of manhood and its laws. My very foundations rocked. Were my tie knots the right tie knots? Were my drinks the right drinks—properly shaken, or was it stirred?
The manhood movement lacks the single clarion voice of an Emily Post or Miss Manners. There is no Mr. Manners. But is there a single, reliable guide—the sort for occasional, surreptitious reference checks?
The canon of how-to's is large; comprehensiveness is impossible. I aimed, instead, for a representative sampling across genres. I selected a guidebook you might find in your mechanic's garage and one you might find in your dermatologist's office; one from the place you buy your ties and one from the place your father buys his; and, for good measure, a historic, 18th-century source. I scored each manual out of a possible 20 points.
Relevance (five points)
Advice that can't be followed is hardly advice at all. Could the guidance of these sages be put into some useful practice? Were specifics offered, and examples shown? A good guide should be wide-ranging, clear, and feasible.
Charm (five points)
Sure, a few good pointers help, but—as the saying goes—it's all in the delivery. Did the guide make its case forcefully and persuasively but with an eye to my reading pleasure?
Manliness (10 points)
Which brings us to a crucial question: What is this piece of work, man, anyway? A semantic confusion asserts itself. On the one hand, your garden-variety fop is a man; on the other, so's John Wayne. The guides suggest that manhood comprises (at least) two types: gentlemanliness (a deft touch with silverware, laundry starch) and yeomanliness (a way with the weed wacker, a Boy Scout badge in knots). So I've split this category into two, awarding up to five points for advice a gent might find useful and five for instructions aimed at a more rugged sort.
Letters of Lord Chesterfield I began, if not quite at the beginning, then at a cornerstone: the collected letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield's letters, published after his death in 1775, outline his worldview to Philip Stanhope, his beloved, harangued, and illegitimate son. Chesterfield wants only what's best for his offspring—that is, that he become exactly like his old man. His manner is not exactly soft. He's pushy, condescending, and harsh, and his son probably found him less charming than you will—which figures, as you don't actually have to deal with him and his demands for constant improvements and reports. ("I have Arguses, with an hundred eyes each, who will watch you narrowly, and relate to me faithfully," he warns.) Reading the letters, you will treasure your own father and thank the stars that you were not born an out-of-wedlock Stanhope.
Debate on the merit of Chesterfield's wisdom began early. The letters, best-sellers though they were, are today less famous than Samuel Johnson's low estimation of them—they teach, he opined, "the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master." Adultery, cynicism, and lying are all cardinal virtues, and well-said trumps truly-said nine times out of 10. "Nature has hardly formed a woman ugly enough to be insensible to flattery upon her person," Chesterfield instructs in one of many passages on the fairer sex. Here is a man who never told his wife, yes, she looked fat in that.
There's a hint of Polonius about his long-winded advice, especially when he recommends brevity: "Talk often, but never long. … To have frequent recourse to narrative betrays great want of imagination." And Chesterfield's lessons are more on the order of diplomacy and (occasional) chivalry than skills or talents. For a goal-oriented man of the 21st century, that can be frustratingly abstract. The letters won't teach you how to press your trousers or comb your hair, or what a gentleman should drink. These are tasks better suited to chambermaids and wenches, butlers and barmen.
But there is, sprinkled throughout, some positive advice. Be spirited but not giddy; enjoy pleasure but not too much. An overly pious disposition won't serve you too well, especially around the ladies. Will all of this be helpful to the modern man? In broad outline, sure; in specific, probably not. The author, for his part, felt—with an embedded compliment to himself—that there was "too much Latin in them" for general use. Any modern edition will gloss your lordship's Latin, but unless a royal appointment to the bedchamber opens up, good luck finding an opportunity to apply the maxims herein.
What a Man Should Know by Max Blagg, illustrated by Hugo Guinness The Chesterfieldian spirit lives on in a What a Man Should Know, a compendium recently published by J.Crew, the national retail chain, which has of late devoted itself to the pursuit of high-born airs. (Formerly a mall brand for cut-rate khakis, J.Crew has spent the past years opening Mad Men-ish outposts for the discerning gent, where vintage bric-a-brac and blue-blood totems like Alden shoes and Mackintosh slickers sit beside cargo shorts.)
The J.Crew man, like young Stanhope, is to know his lords from his commons—or, the modern equivalent, his bullshot from his slingshot. (The one's a Bloody Mary variant; the other, Bart Simpson's weapon of choice.) He not only wears the blue blazer, he knows its origin, and he has liberal arts bona fides: "A man should be familiar with some of the films of Fellini and Antonioni." And now that we're safely in the 21st century, he doesn't need to be well-born, just well-groomed and well-outfitted—most likely in (hint, hint) J.Crew.
Blagg and Guinness' guide is, to take its own word for it, Volume 1 of untold future volumes. Good thing, that—while this first attempt suggests many things a man should know, it's far less concerned with how a man might come to know them. Instructions are presented generally: "A man should know how to properly fold a newspaper (broadsheet, not tabloid)" and even be able "to fashion it into a weapon on the lines of the 'Millwall Brick' favored by certain English soccer hooligans." A trip to your local pub may provide some pointers on this; What a Man Should Know does not. Likewise precept No. 41: "A man without a maid should know how to make his bed correctly." Further than that, no aid is offered, except that this correct bed-making really ought to happen soon. Sorry to keep you waiting—I blush a deep, wearable Nantucket red at the lapse. But are you going to tell me how?
Matthew Schneier is a writer, editor, and gentleman in New York.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.