One of the greatest -- and goofiest -- things about being an active participant in the sexual skirmishes of the '80s and '90s was all those snappy acronyms you got to kick around. I can remember trying to be a SNAG (sensitive new age guy) until that wasn't cool anymore; chasing LUGs (lesbians until graduation) who wouldn't have me; finally snagging some snogging and worrying about AIDS; then marrying and fighting the DINS (double income, no sex) curse. Sexual life, in bed or out, could whack the snot right out of your ego; small wonder we clung to those little pop-psychotic labels and tried to fit them all together like Leggo pieces. That way, when the game was over, you could stash the whole mess in your closet -- or right there under the bed.
Michael Kimmel, the author of "Manhood in America: A Cultural History," a well-received new survey of masculinity from Paul Revere to Bob Packwood, isn't himself a SNAG, exactly. But he's the most visible and prolific example of a new breed I'll call SNAAGs -- Sensitive New Age Academic Guys. SNAAGS write big, warm, huggy-bear books that cloak themselves in the rigorous, almost ascetic armor of academia; there's a whole lotta footnoting going on. "Manhood in America" is a prototypical SNAAG expedition, a self-help book for men (and women) who wouldn't be caught dead peeking out from behind a self-help book.
Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, isn't a new strategist in the gender wars. He's made a career out of climbing inside the male psyche and sounding for echoes, in books that include "Men's Lives" and "The Politics of Manhood." But it's as an anthologist that Kimmel has really left his mark. His collection "Men Confront Pornography" (1990) is full of funny, disruptive and deeply-felt pieces from such disparate writers as rock critic Robert Christgau and novelist Phillip Weiss.
Reading "Manhood in America," you quickly zero in on the quality that makes Kimmel a shrewd anthologist; he's a facilitator, adept at posing flurries of questions for group discussion. "What kind of man would populate this new nation?" he asks, somewhat grandly, early in his new book. "What vision of manhood would be promoted?" By the end he's worked himself up to doozies like, "So where can men go to feel like men?" (A cigar store?) Guys, guys, he always seems to be saying, while passing around the decaf, can't we all just get along?
Well. . . sure. But the problem is that Kimmel's abundant gifts as a facilitator blunt whatever vigor he has as a polemicist or historian. Painfully short on wit, irony and sharp feeling, "Manhood in America" is a bland rehash of middle-of-the-road history and opinion. Which is a shame, because with John Gray's frantically awful "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" lingering on bestseller lists for nearly three years, we've never been more in need of honest, incisive writing about gender differences. Haven't read Gray? I (gulp) have. His advice to women -- ur, Venusians -- includes observations like: "Never go into a man's cave or you will be burned by the dragon!" Yikes. Give Gray some credit, though: He brings out the Barney Rubble in a guy.
Kimmel is a rung or two up the evolutionary ladder. His thesis, put simply, is that "the current malaise among men has a long history" -- that is, we've always had our insecurities, and conversely, our testosterone-fueled debacles (the KKK, gay-bashing, O.J. Simpson, Tailhook) -- and that the way men are responding to their fears today "bears a startling resemblance to men's responses over the course of American history." Kimmel suggests that because American men, unlike their British counterparts, aren't born into a defined caste system, masculinity here "carries the constant burdens of proof;" fear of being seen as a wussy somehow calcified into a lifestyle. And when proof is required, he writes men have resorted to three primary responses -- efforts at "self-control, reactive exclusion, and escape" -- the "dominant themes of American manhood for the last two centuries."
Kimmel bolsters his argument with an avalanche of pop culture factoids, from the rise of John Wayne (real name: Marion Morrison) to Hugh Hefner's finger-snapping bachelor-pad manifesto to Michael Douglas' career as a pin-up boy for "the besieged middle-class white male." Telling anecdotes abound, too, such as the way President William Henry Harrison, who campaigned as a war hero in 1840, refused to wear a topcoat to his inauguration -- which took place on one of the coldest days on record in Washington -- "lest he appear weak and unmanly." Harrison paid machismo's ultimate price, catching pneumonia and dying a month later.
"Manhood in America" is best read as a collection of this kind of stray anecdote; whenever Kimmel strains for Big Themes, the book deflates into platitudes that are the rhetorical equivalent of saying, in effect, "Talk amongst yourselves." He chronically opts for the middle ground. That often means a discomfiting focus on white middle-class males. Thornier and less thesis-fitting issues -- i.e. those surrounding black men, gays, and class divides -- are dealt with only glancingly, and many larger defining moments in American history (both world wars, to name two) are left almost completely on the sidelines.
Worse, Kimmel's prose has a wan quality that gives you That Sinking Feeling right from the start. By the close of the book, when he begins to desperately rummage around for some kind of response to all the questions he's tossed out, he's started to sound like Bill Clinton addressing the guys in the Renaissance Weekend tree fort: "We need a definition of masculinity for a new century, a definition that is more about the character of men's hearts and souls than about the size of their biceps or their wallets. A definition that is capable of embracing differences. . ." And the fog machine rolls on.
As it happens, Kimmel's flatness brings up the biggest problem (for me, anyway) with self-books, whether they're written by he-men, SNAGs, or SNAAGs: It's hard to take advice from someone who, well, just can't write worth a damn. Kimmel clearly has a few valid things to say here about the "current confusion and malaise" plaguing men; I just can't bear to hear him say them. When he writes, "I'd prefer more Ironing Johns than Iron Johns," he's right, of course. But am I still allowed to feel like jumping off a cliff?
"Manhood in America" leaves you feeling more stranded and alone than you did when you started it. What's needed, as the millennium wheels into view, are some sharper, livelier, un-SNAAGed voices. (When we're offered someone like computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura -- the churlish and conceited co-author of "Takedown," currently being heralded as a nonconformist because he never takes off his sandals or his Oakley sunglasses -- as a contemporary hero, we're in trouble.) Humorless books like "Manhood in America" somehow seem to advance the problem. What the overly earnest Kimmel doesn't understand is that, if American men are going to make any progress at all, they're going to (finally) have to have their wits about them.