a review of Kim Townsend's Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others

In a late essay, William James wrote that ''a philosophy is the expression of a man's intimate character,'' and James's character contained multitudes. His first biographer, Ralph Barton Perry, concluded that James was both neurasthenic and energetic, both the ''tough-minded accepter of facts'' and the ''tender-minded respecter of principles'' that James had posited as opposing types. James's most interesting occasional essays preserve this doubleness. In one he implores his readers to develop a ''well-trained and vigorous body,'' but only that they might be better at relaxing. In another he argues that a strong will is the source of all personal energy but admits that for some men ''sprees and excesses of almost any kind are medicinal.'' In the last decade or so of his life he championed the rigor and strenuousness of his rough-riding former pupil Theodore Roosevelt and argued that this country needed, in one of his more disconcerting phrases, a ''moral equivalent of war.'' We should abhor war itself, but we should find ways to ''continue the manliness to which the military mind clings.'' But he also slammed Roosevelt for his ''gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves.''

It is perhaps inevitable that James's manly, tough statements would be put through the academic gender mill, as Kim Townsend does in ''Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others,'' a history of the talk about masculinity at Harvard in the late 19th century. And I suppose it's bravery of a sort, in this day and age, to admire, however begrudgingly, notions of ''manliness,'' especially when it is not the latter-day, sensitive-men's-movement variety but the real thing: the big-stick-wielding, big-game-hunting rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt and his ilk. If Roosevelt left us a fairly crude version of the masculine ideal with enormous personal and social costs, Mr. Townsend argues, the invocation of the ideal by William James is nonetheless inspiring. Even Gertrude Stein in her time at Harvard was drawn to the ''wonderful vitality'' of James in all his ideal virility. James is the hero of this book because he best articulated the strenuous ideal and most clearly saw its negative repercussions in the boisterous imperialism then perpetrating massacres in the Philippines. He is ''inspiring,'' Mr. Townsend writes, ''in his awareness of the limitations of the very standard he so impressively met.''

Mr. Townsend, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Amherst College, sets out to show that Harvard was central to the emerging ideal of masculinity, and for those unfamiliar with the history of the university's most illustrious years, ''Manhood at Harvard'' is a good introduction to the politics and personalities, the ideas and pieties of its faculty and some of its more famous students. Harvard's president, Charles W. Eliot, and his astounding faculty strongly espoused manliness throughout the late 19th century. James Russell Lowell, in a verse that rivals Neil Armstrong's moon-landing oration, wrote ''Yea, Manhood hath a wider span / And larger privilege of life than man.'' At the center of the masculinist ballyhoo was Dudley A. Sargent, who ran the gymnasium for 40 years, and in his many speeches and essays claimed that athletics not only brought ''bodily health and beauty,'' but instilled the manly virtues of ''energy, strength, courage, alertness, persistency, stamina and endurance.'' And that's not all, Sargent said; physical training could also neutralize the ''great mental and moral disturbances which sometimes threaten the stability of a government.'' Even such famous wimps as Barrett Wendell, a professor of English, applauded the new regime of strenuous physicality. Wendell, whose high voice was likened to whinnying, was known to crawl up to bed on hands and knees barking like a dog. ''His force spent itself in foam,'' was the summation of George Santayana, his friend in the philosophy department, and Wendell himself claimed to be ''morbidly self-conscious and pettily ill-tempered.'' Hating physical exercise, and by his own assessment lacking ''robustness of temper,'' he nonetheless actively campaigned for strenuousness and ''muscularity'' among the students, and in his literary criticism decried the ''little lasting potence'' of American writers, finding them ''emasculate.'' The philosopher Josiah Royce, also far from the athletic ideal with his enormous skull, his short, chubby body and his ''infantile look like that of an ugly baby,'' strongly supported Sargent and wrote of the moral heroism inherent in athletics. The strength of ''Manhood at Harvard'' lies in its collection of such brief biographies and anecdotes about these and lesser-known Harvardites as they rushed to embrace an ethic steamrolling over them.

In the last decade or so, historians have been reconstructing the development of a manly ideal in the 19th century and its continued impact on the way we live now. As the United States entered the 19th century, periwigs and tights still adorned the gentleman, and aristocratic ideals still dominated the way men and women in the upper classes understood themselves as men and women. But already sounding very much like the turn-of-the-century Harvard faculty, Jean Jacques Rousseau, when asked in 1750 what was needed of a heroic man, answered, ''Manliness!'' And by the time the rough-hewn populist soldier Andrew Jackson defeated the aristocratic John Quincy Adams for the Presidency in 1828, things in the United States had clearly undergone an important shift. As the dominance of a small patrician class gave way to the industrial and mercantile system, new roles for men emerged -- the entrepreneur, the manager, the professional, the financier and the like -- creating among other things new anxieties about male identity. As several critics and historians have now pointed out, it was precisely such new models of manhood, and insecurities about it, that animated the work of Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Whitman and the other major authors of the generation just before William James and his colleagues. After the Civil War, battle lines were more clearly drawn between the remnants of a patrician class decrying the end of civilization and portions of a middle class bewailing the feminization of American culture. The Harvard faculty belatedly joined the winning side, castigating its own feminization and cheerleading for the new entreprenurial and managerial ideals in the language of strength and virility.

Mr. Townsend largely ignores this scholarship, claiming instead that the manly ideal was born after the Civil War because previous generations were more concerned with their relationship to God: ''They did not linger over the question of what constituted their earthly existences as men.'' The ideal ''died down'' around 1909 or 1910, Mr. Townsend writes, because then ''there were more important things to talk about,'' which would have come as a surprise to Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Townsend places Harvard and its faculty, rather than social and economic change, at the center of his explanation. ''Harvard's rise to prominence both helped cause and accompanied the emergence of a particular kind of manly individual a century ago,'' he writes, ''and insofar as we are at present concerned about who and what is a man -- and thus, ineluctably, who and what is a woman -- we have much to learn from the men in this book.'' This last phrase is perhaps true, but when he claims that the Harvard faculty was ''the first to raise these questions'' he has the cart pulling great herds of horses. Mr. Townsend's top-down view of intellectual history -- a question is asked at Harvard, they construct an ideal in response, it then permeates the culture for good or ill -- is exactly the opposite of the kind of bottom-up history championed by the feminist historians, social historians and cultural-studies scholars that paved the way for a book like this.

And if one were going to pick a single man as the Delphic source of American manliness, it most certainly would not be William James, but Roosevelt, who truly had the ear of the country. Roosevelt, though he worked to ''make a body'' from an early age, adopted his most extreme, militaristic, masculine persona only after graduating from Harvard, and after losing an election to the New York State Assembly in which, because of his Harvard-bred dandyism, he was ridiculed as a ''Jane Dandy'' and an ''Oscar Wilde.''

James's friend William Dean Howells suggested a more likely source for the manly ideal in his novels about the new money -- the middle-class, self-made businessmen like Silas Lapham are always more manly and place greater emphasis on manliness than the effete, Harvard-educated Boston Brahmins they encounter. But the dime novel made the argument before Howells, and the Davy Crockett almanacs were contrasting the manliness of the low-born against the feminized gentleman in the 1830's.

So what did all the belated Harvard talk about manhood accomplish? Just as the change from a curriculum based on Greek and Latin to one based on electives helped Harvard graduates integrate into the new entrepreneurial and corporate economy, so did the talk of manliness. It helped them adapt to a new world being run by Silas Laphams. As James, the champion and detractor of the ideal of manliness, would insist, ''There is nothing absolutely ideal: ideals are relative to the lives that entertain them.'' This, at least and in part, ''Manhood at Harvard'' has admirably demonstrated. Undeterred by his own argument, Mr. Townsend sketches a wonderfully full picture of James struggling with the available ways of talking about manhood and reveling in the contradictions he saw more clearly than most.

by Tom Lutz

Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others.
by Kim Townsend.
Illustrated. 318 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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