On the contemplation of male facial hair

So, it is November, or Movember for certain sections of the population who are currently growing facial hair in aid of research into men’s health, specifically prostate and testicular cancers.

Now, I have never had a particular interest in this charitable movement, bar the occasional friend e-mailing with an amusing picture and a request for donations (my husband has always refused to get involved on the grounds of the need to retain his dignity in front of his students), but the conjunction of this fund-raiser with the inevitable historical reflections that accompany Remembrance Day on 11th November always strikes me as poignant.

One trope that quietly haunted my research into masculinity and the First World War is that of facial hair as a signifier of masculinity.  I wrote in my monograph about men’s insistence on shaving even in the most difficult of circumstances, in order to retain their sense of humanity in the hell of the trenches, but I never really explored further.  Yet I as I think about moustaches, I cannot help thinking about the references made to men growing facial hair in order to appear more mature when they came to enlist, in both memoirs and fiction.  And I wonder how many officers grew moustaches specifically to give themselves a sense of authority, an authority associated with mature masculinity, over the (often older) men that they were leading.

The link between male facial hair and maturity seems to me to have been particularly strong at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of course, the biological link transcends historical periods, but literary references and cultural artefacts relating to facial hair and shaving as a symbol of maturity seem particularly prominent in this period.  And certainly if you look at collections such as the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War, from which Private Johnston’s photograph (above) comes, the number of young men sporting moustaches is notable. The image is a poignant one, of young men striving to attain a maturity of image that they would never achieve in life.

How does this link with Movember?  I’m not entirely sure.  The fundraisers of the movement are, in with their growth, flaunting the life-affirming nature of the ability to grow old enough to grow facial hair in the face of ill-health.  The link may be especially powerful in relation to testicular cancer, with its cultural implications of impotence; less so in relation to prostate cancer, which is far more common in older men who have already achieved maturity.  For the young moustache growers of 1914-18, the threat of death and mutilation was far more immediate and threatening to their sense of both maturity and masculinity, making their facial hair even more complex in its significance.  I am sure there is a paper in all of this (and perhaps someone has already written it.  I remember listening to a fabulous paper on masculinity and nineteenth-century beards at a conference several years ago.)  In the meantime, I remain unable to look at all these young men with their newly-sprouted declarations of charitable intent without a small pang of pity for their youth and, dare I say it, innocence.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

Age and Class

I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.

Class:
‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)

Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century.  It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently.  I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.

Age:
And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.

And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Amanda Vickery on … Men

I have been listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme on iPlayer for the past few weeks and more or less enjoying it.  The premise is that the historian Amanda Vickery examines six archetypes of masculinity, the knight, the gentleman, the lover, the sailor, the explorer and the suits, through a combination of historical experts and readings from primary sources.  This past week, the explorer, was especially fun for me as it included contributions from Max Jones, my former PhD supervisor, and John Tosh, with whom I have worked.

In general, the programme works well, although the conclusion at the end of episode two, that men defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women was something of a ‘duh’ moment for me, although that is me talking as an historian of masculinty.  There are, however, some bigger problems with I am having with the programme.  The first of these is the association of each archetype with a particular period in history: the knight with the middle ages, the gentleman with the Renaissance, the lover with the eighteenth century, the sailor with the early nineteenth century, the explorer with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the suit with the mid-twentieth century.  Archetype does, of course, refer to the prototype, the original pattern on which all subsequent types are based, so examining the period of emergence is what the programme sets out to do.  But surely to understand the significance of any one archetype to our current view of masculinity we need to see how the pattern developed over time?  In other words we should probably think about the reimagining of the knight and courtly love in the nineteenth century to grasp the full significance of the twelfth century model to our ideas about masculinity and its cultural significance.

My second gripe is about the archetypes chosen for discussion.  All of them are archetypes of public masculinity, with the possible exception of the lover, the discussion of which included the most fabulous diary of a Manchester wigmaker who noted down every time (and position) he had sex with his wives (there were four in total).  Given the argument that men have, over time, defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women, it seems odd not to have looked at what those other types of masculinity might be.  Especially in light of John Tosh’s contribution this past week, where he argues that the explorer was a form of escape from the domestic, why have we not heard about the archetype of the husband and father or patriarch?  For that matter, after the knight and the sailor, where are the scholar, the craftsman or engineer, the administrator?  Above all, if you are going to discuss the lover as a masculine archetype that is defined against woman, why is there nothing on the householder, the ultimate archetype of mature masculinity that separates the man from the boy throughout modern history? As far as I can see, the archetypes have been chosen to illustrate the thesis that men define themselves primarily within all-male hierarchies, a reasonable argument but definitely not the whole story.  So, here is to the return of an interesting series with an expanded cast of men (and their others) in the future.