Come and Take It

"You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas."

Wussification – Passing Fad, or Permanent Trend?

Photos of Sydney Lea and Jack London

Authors Sydney Lea and Jack London (left to right)

They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. OK, here goes. I read. A lot. People occasionally inquire as to my favorite book or author. That’s hardly a fair question. It’s like asking an alcoholic to name their favorite beverage. There’s only one answer: Who cares, as long as it contains alcohol? Or, in my case, some reasonable facsimile of literary content.

My beloved is a delightfully complicated creature of multitudinous interests, but I suppose if you forced her to choose a label, she’d call herself a poet. Her literary tastes are (how to put it?) somewhat more refined than mine. Occasionally she runs across something she thinks might strike my fancy, and tosses it my way. Most of her bycatch is excellent, and drops down my voracious maw with nary a hiccup. But every now and then she’ll pass me something I just can’t digest. Case in point: Sydney Lea’s A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife.

On the surface A North Country Life looks like just the ticket for an outdoorsman like me. And indeed, it does contain some delightful hunting and fishing anecdotes. I’d probably enjoy wetting a line with Mr. Lea, as long as we restricted our conversation to fishing and hunting. But lamentably, A North Country Life is interspersed with enough angst-ridden, conflicted, emotional drivel as to make a man fervently desire to pluck his own eyeballs out.

I made it as far as the chapter, “Turned Around,” in which Mr. Lea relates the tale of getting his sorry derriere lost in the woods while on a deer hunt at age eighteen. Now, most outdoorsmen manage to get lost on occasion, and sometimes even spend an unplanned night in the brush. Really, unless the weather’s ugly and you’re poorly prepared (in which case you have no business being out in the first place), it’s not a big deal. Unless, of course, you are Mr. Sydney Lea. In which case you feel an irresistible urge to moon over lost love, become consumed by loneliness and self recrimination, and overwhelmed by that grand adventure most of us just call living. To wit, “And yet again, it’s the dream of coherence that keeps me from the nihilist’s despair. Round and round I go.”

Yowsa. Somebody, please, pour me a strong one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never been lost for more than three days at any one time. (And in my defense, in that instance it took me two days to figure out I was lost.) This was at age twenty; I was working as a junior field geologist for a mining outfit in the basin and range country of northern Nevada. I drove out to a new field location at night, a remote valley northwest of sleepy Eureka. After two days in the field taking magnetometer readings I attempted to triangulate my position via compass bearings on surrounding peaks, to no avail. The topography portrayed in the USGS quad maps I carried in my truck bore no resemblance to my current locale. I had missed a turn in the dark on the ride out. Oops.

I took appropriate steps (lots of extra compass bearings) to ensure my work would not be wasted. I then proceeded to bag a rabbit with my .22, and enjoyed a tasty repast of barbecued cottontail, ranch style beans and a warm bottle of Mickey’s Big Mouth fine malt liquor. (I was underage; what did I know from beer?) Then I snuggled up in my bedroll and contentedly drifted off to sleep under the gazillion stars of the Nevada high desert night sky – nothing beats nodding off in God’s very own vaulted cathedral. In the morning I rolled out of the sack, fried up some bacon, warmed up some camp coffee, grilled a couple of cherry Pop-Tarts, and then proceeded to get my sorry derriere un-lost. And somehow, amazingly, managed to do so without experiencing an existential emotional crisis.

Now, if Mr. Lea’s wussified picture of manhood were singular, that would be one thing. But it’s not. Nope, based on my own observation, it appears to be only the latest specimen of a particular literary genre. I first encountered this genre some years ago, in Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’ (which could just as easily have been entitled All Over but the Whinin’.) I call this genre Tales of the Wussified Modern American Male. Apparently, in the publishing world, the view of the American male as an emotionally distraught, undisciplined, weak, powerless victim tossed about by the vicissitudes of existence has become the norm. Indeed, the wussified American male has become a staple of the modern sitcom. Hmm.

I read The Call of the Wild when I was ten or so, and consumed everything in print by Jack London by the time I was sixteen. My ideal of manhood was largely informed by my mother’s tales of the youthful exploits of my own father, stories that dovetailed perfectly with the tales of Jack London. The stories of my dad’s adventures, and exposure to authors like London, drove me to seek out rough jobs in the mining camps. I wanted to learn how to be a man like my dad; I figured that method would prove expedient. (And I suppose it did.)

In a  case of perhaps unintended, but undeniably delicious irony, Lea compares his damp one night stay in the woods to that of Jack London’s doomed protagonist in To Build a Fire. Trust me, nothing could be further from the vision of manhood conveyed by Jack London than that presented by Sydney Lea. The obvious questions have to be asked: How in blue blazes did we get from Jack London to Rick Bragg and Sydney Lea in just shy of 100 years? How did the standard issue American male get so dang wussified? And, are we doomed to stay wussified?

The answers, I think, are not all that mysterious. Jack London lived at a peculiar cusp in American history. The last frontiers were tapped out; London caught the last gold rush. The age of the rugged, self-reliant American frontiersmen had drawn to a close, and the era of the soul crushing uniformity of the mass production industrial factory worker was dawning. The societal forces that produced the American Revolution were on the wane; the societal forces that gave rise to communism and socialism were waxing. Indeed, despite his fiercely independent nature, London became a staunch advocate of socialism precisely because of the horrific working conditions he observed in the Klondike and the canneries of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. London’s prose looked backward, to a simpler, freer time.

Our own culture is the product of 100 years of mass industrialization, and the socialist policies intended to counteract the industrial behemoth. Today’s authors, like London, also look back. But not to a time of rugged individualism. Rather, they look back to a world where the common man, far from conquering his environment and bending it to his will, is instead bent to conform to forces beyond his control. Whether hostile or benign, private sector or public sector, these societal forces are ineluctable. Wussification is the inevitable result. And so we end up with Obama and the nanny state, the Life of Julia writ large, with Big Brother-style big government a constant, cradle-to-grave companion.

Yet we, too, live on the cusp of historic change. Industrial mass production is now the realm of robots. Information technologists like myself are, in effect, skilled artisans. I bear more in common with Paul Revere than I do the 1950’s factory worker. The chief difference between Revere and I is that while his medium was silver, mine is electrons. Artisanry is making a comeback not just in the world of information management, but in all areas of endeavor. We are entering an age of mass customization. Readily affordable CNC machinery and 3D printing make high precision manufacturing methods available to just about anyone. The Internet and cloud computing make self authoring a reality for everybody. (WordPress is only the first wave.) Online education will soon make a quality education available to anybody who wants it. The possibilities of our immediate future are boundless.

In the world just around the corner, the individual will enjoy better tools to author his or her own life than at any previous time in history. The societal forces that this change will unleash bear far more in common with the world of the Framers than that of the last century. The most important elements of the Framers’ worldview will become ascendant. Individualism will be celebrated. Independence will be aspired to. Individual and economic freedom will rise again. The cloying trappings of the nanny state will fall away like the cobwebs of a bad dream. The statist stalwarts of modern liberalism, at some level, grok this. It’s why they are so desperately reactionary. Their time is over, and despite momentary upticks like the Obama phenomenon, they know it. Let them look back. The rest of us will look forward.

And in the meantime, a friendly word of advice for mssrs. Bragg, Lea, and all their ilk:  That great big, scary, wonderful, marvelous Creation out there? It really doesn’t give a rat’s rear end for your tender little feelings. So get over yourself. Deal with it. Buck up. Endeavor to persevere. Develop a little intestinal fortitude. Rub some dirt on it, and get back out there! Or, as my inimitable pastor would put it, “Gird up now thy loins like a man!” (Job 38:3)

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18 thoughts on “Wussification – Passing Fad, or Permanent Trend?

  1. captsternn on said:

    Interesting entry. I remember being a Boy Scout and camping out a lot, including sleeping in the sleeping bag under the stars on the top of a large hill. City dwellers have no idea of, as you put it, “God’s very own vaulted cathedral”. My lady and I are staying out in the country on her birthday weekend. I think it will be dark enough out there to take in all those stars again, though we will have a cabin to sleep in. But being in the Boy Scouts and also going on hunting trips with my dad showed me how to appreciate nature and many survival skills that I could probably put to use if I found myself in a bind.

    Intereting that you bring up the word “grok”. I am just now reading that book. Once I read a lot of Heinlein’s works, but got away from it due to his atheist views among other things. Still a good author and so far a really interesting book. Right now I am back to reading Asimov a lot of the time, both his fiction and non-fiction, but nowhere near the reader that I was before the internet came along. But without the internet I doubt I would have started studying the constitution in depth as I have over the past 15 or more years.

    Hope more people start reading your blog. Kind of hard to just come here and generally agree with you. No back and forth. But while it is easy to leave a comment, it is difficult to sign up and especially to get the avatar working.

  2. Cap, I love Heinlein and Asimov, too, especially their juveniles. “Farmer in the Sky” and the “Lucky Starr” (Asimov writing as Paul French) books were among my favorites as a boy. I have always found Heinlein’s social commentary intriguing, though flawed. (Tutta and I had quite the interesting discussion regarding the political philosophy behind “Starship Troopers,” and its ultimate flaws.) And really, could anyone top the Seldon Plan for central planning? I’m pretty sure we’ll eventually find out Obama’s campaign achieved victory via primitive psychohistory skills. 😉

    • captsternn on said:

      I must admit that I do not have the depth and knowledge in the philisophy of you or Tutt, nor the finesse. Most of my reading has been in science fiction and the sort. I guess that is why I am much more blunt and stubborn. I understand the basic ideas and intent from studying things like the constitution and inalienable rights. There is a line from the Bruce Willis move “The Siege” that probably fits me, the broadsword vs the scapel. I tend to be the broadsword. Tutt is more like the scapel. You are something between the two.

      Glad to see you back on the Chron, especially under the opinion pages. Too bad the Chron did such a great job of destroying our little community, but we can work at bringing it back.

  3. captsternn on said:

    in philisophy as you and Tutt

    I should do more proof reading. D’oh!

  4. Tuttabella on said:

    On the first day of Christmas I gave my true love Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, since he is a sci-fi lover. I confess I have no interest in that genre, but that particular book was recommended by an acquaintance. My beloved is reading it now and claims to be enjoying it. I hope that’s the case.

  5. Tutta, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is indeed a classic. (I reference it obliquely in my About page.) Although I must say, Heinlein is hardly a partridge in a pear tree…

    I got into science fiction as a kid, reading all the classic pulps just as fast as I could get my grubby little paws on them. I still have a penchant for vintage science fiction and fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are the two from that era best known today, but there were many others from that time whose work is every bit as enjoyable.

    As an adult, I enjoy science fiction for two reasons. First, science fiction let’s us address gnarly social and spiritual issues with all the baggage of our actual situation stripped away. Second, we are, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a deeply technological species. It’s always fun to speculate on where our technology might take us.

    With respect to social issue science fiction, I suspect you might enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin, particularly “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” both of which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Not a bad place to dip in your toe, if you are feeling adventurous.

    • captsternn on said:

      TThor, funny you should mention The Dispossessed since my lady also gave me that book for Christmas. I very nearly put it away in the first couple of chapters, but I stuck with it. Glad I did.

  6. Tuttabella on said:

    Ironically, it was “The Left Hand of Darkness” which first got my attention, but when I read up on it, I decided it was best to start with the first book, in terms of plot, and that was “The Dispossessed.” It bears mentioning that these 2 books were written by a woman, despite the belief that we ladies don’t have that science fiction edge.

    Tthor, even though you are a guy, you definitely have your “poetic” side, which is plain to see on the Chron and on this blog, but I would not call you a wuss.

  7. Tuttabella on said:

    We all seem to be on the same wavelength. I’m an aspiring Thoreau myself. I rather enjoyed the post-hurricane conditions after Ike. I’m very low-tech and a bit of a hermit. As long as I have a transistor radio to listen to NPR, a shelf of books, pencil and paper, and adequate lighting, I am happy.

  8. Tuttabella, there are a ton of *great* female science fiction authors (living and dead). To name just a few I enjoy, besides Le Guin: Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon), Madeleine L’Engle , Marion Zimmer Bradley, Connie Willis, Maureen McHugh, Kate Wilhelm, Nancy Kress, Jo Walton, Pat Cadigan, Octavia Butler, Kage Baker, Margaret Atwood, Sherri Tepper, N. K. Jemisin… Gee, that’s about it…

    Actually, I can’t tolerate wussified men. This is probably a serious personality deficiency. (Note this has little to do with sexual preference; I’ve known a couple of gay men who are decidedly un-wussified.) I’ve come to realize that my father was something of an anachronism; there were relatively few like him even in his generation. I suppose I’m a bit anachronistic, myself. Heck, Owl probably thinks I’m a troglodyte. Then again, as I posit above, everything that’s old will be new again…

  9. Tuttabella on said:

    A real man is a man who is confident enough to be himself, who doesn’t care what the fad or trend is, who’s resilient enough to withstand societal forces.

    If he is the strong, silent type, so be it. If he is sensitive, more power to him.

  10. HoustonTraveler on said:

    Well…I didn’t have to set my hair on fire.

    I guess I’m left with more confusion than anything else. Having not read Lea or Bragg, I’m not sure what picture of modern American manhood they are presenting, and from the above, I’m not sure what an unwussified man is for Thor.

    What exactly is the “so dang wussified” American male? Can American females also be wussified? What is a “real man”? Can women be “real men” or do they have be “real” or “fake” women? So many questions.

    I am, however, moderately sure no one should base their picture of either gender from American sitcoms.

    I change a whole lot of diapers. I feed a lot of bottles. I rock babies to sleep, and I get up in the middle of the night to put pacifiers back in mouths. I know the babies’ pediatricians and cardiologists by their first and last names, and the doctors and nurses recognize my face.

    I know my way around a kitchen pretty well. I make very simple “boy food” but I cook more often than does my wife (even if she is the better cook). I do the vast majority of grocery shopping for the family. It has been at least a couple of decades since I’ve killed anything that I ate.

    I do my own laundry, know what will and won’t shrink, and am not befuddled by household appliances.

    I have walked around a silent Walden Pond in the fall and discussed whether we were living lives of quiet desperation (emotionally distraught over vicissitudes of existence?). I’ve stared out at the underwater vastness of an ocean and realized I was not bending the sea to my will (powerless victim?). Mornings in the cold Sierra Nevadas leave me humbled (weak?) rather than filling me with notions of conquering the environment.

    Without a good definition of what a “real man” is for you, I’m not sure if I am wussified or not. Fortunately, I’m not going to lose sleep over whether you can tolerate me since you cannot, “tolerate wussified men”.

    In terms of whether liberalism is falling away, I guess I would argue that social liberalism is unlikely to go away. Gays will be able to marry and adopt. Women are going to gain more power economically and politically, and a woman’s right to choose is unlikely to go away (well, it may go away temporarily and then come back stronger).

    I managed to live without too much involvement from the “nanny state” (and I’d love a definition of that), as do most people I know. I guess curly lightbulbs and low-flow toilets might be nannies for me, but I’m surviving just fine.

    I assume poor people are “victims” of this nanny state, and maybe the pendulum will swing away from some of the policies of the last 40 years, but if that does happen, I hope that the powers that be mix in a little compassion as that bandaid is getting pulled off.

    • Well, HT, I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to read Bragg and Lea. I enjoy some of Lea’s poetry, although I can’t claim to be a judge of such things. Concerning wussification, you know it when you see it. As for your domestic skill set, we pretty much share the same quals – I’m sorry, none of that rates you as wussified. If you really want to be a wuss, you’ll have to try harder. Do a few more laps around Walden Pond, and try to get *really* twisted off cogitating on “lives of quiet desperation,” and you’ll be closer. If you can get to the point where you are totally emotionally dysfunctional, and manage to develop a substance dependency at the same time, you’ll just about be there. Not quite Bragg or Lea class, but close.

      I agree with you that “social liberalism” is not going away, nor *should* it. If you bother to study Locke (whom I try to follow), you’ll discover a very libertarian view of personal freedom and human interaction, with one key exception. Libertarians don’t recognize a higher authority, and instead give primacy to contracts freely entered into by individuals. Locke is very similar, but he recognizes that we are subject to a higher authority (“being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker”), and therefore should not enter into contracts that result in the abuse of any party (since that would be, in effect, contributing to the unwarranted damage of the Creator’s property). Thus, as everyone is “bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.” In general, more freedom is better than less freedom, but there are some limits. If people want to sell each other heroin, that’s find and dandy with a true libertarian, but not a Lockean. See? Easy peasy.

      With respect to the “right to choose,” I view the left’s support of the same an accident of history. The compassionate left is supposed to be all about protecting and empowering the powerless – and who are more powerless and more in need of protection than the unborn? However, the left’s support for women’s rights kind of paints them into a corner. If you are already concentrating on empowering powerless women, it’s kind of tough to empower the unborn, too, at the same time. My guess is that as the social advances of women are consolidated to the point where the left must find a new cause célèbre, we might see a shake up in the current arrangement of issue positioning.

  11. Tuttabella on said:

    Tthor: I think it’s the romantic, the poet in you, who so admires this idealized version of real manhood that you describe. I detect a streak of self-consciousness on your part. You’re from out of state, aren’t you? I think you are more Texan than we Texans are, kind of like newly converted Catholics are sometimes said to be more Catholic than the pope. And speaking of . . . as of 1pm today CST . . . NON HABEMUS PAPAM 😦

  12. Tutta, I’m a native Arizonan. Growing up, I used to think of Texans as *easterners*. My views on the primacy of the individual and the general uselessness of the federal government are pretty much a product of the environment in which I was raised. Sadly, over the course of my life Arizona has been pretty much thoroughly californicated, so I am somewhat a man without a country. Unchecked immigration from the left coast did far more damage to Arizona’s unique southwestern culture than immigration from the south ever did. Texas is culturally closer to the Arizona of my youth than the Arizona of today.

    I hope I’ve not projected a picture of “real manhood,” but rather a picture of real *personhood*. Either sex may aspire to individual freedom, independence and self determination. Men and women alike are wussified by letting others do their ‘determinating’ for them. Author your own life; don’t let somebody else author it for you.

    Self-conscious? Perhaps. Although I submit there’s a difference between introspection in moderation and maudlin self scrutinization per Sydney Lea. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but neither is the life dissected to the exclusion of actually living.

  13. Tuttabella on said:

    Tthor: In light of the words of Locke, the belief in God, your awe over falling asleep under “God’s cathedral” — are we not all — men and women — all of us reduced to mere wusses compared to the greatness of the Creator?

  14. Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth!

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