Wussification – Passing Fad, or Permanent Trend?
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)