This is the time of year to turn our thoughts to noble sentiments and inspiring stories. William Bennett, who has established something of a cottage industry in uplift, has a new book out that celebrates and explicates all that is bracing, wholesome, affecting and necessary about men and manliness.
That such a book is required, it must be acknowledged, is not good news about our cultural health. Bennett introduces "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood" with tidings of joy.
"In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today, that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.
"In 1970, 80 percent of 25 to 29-year-old men were married and in 2007 only 40 percent were.
"In American colleges, for every two men who graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree, three women receive a B.A. Women now dominate 13 of the 15 job categories expected to grow the most in the coming decade."
Many men no longer seem to know -- because our society is confused -- what it means to be a good man or a "mensch," the Yiddish word that conveys reliability, honesty and a big heart. The code of the gentleman -- particularly where women are concerned -- has long since been declared obsolete, if not a thought crime.
This collection attempts a corrective, offering examples and exemplars of manliness from antiquity to the present. Through poems, letters (such affecting letters!), profiles, news accounts and testaments of various kinds, "The Book of Man" presents men in the spectrum of life's arenas: at war, at work, at play, "in the polis" or public life, with women and children, and in prayer and reflection. Along the way, the question "What does it mean to be a good man?" is beautifully illuminated.
James Freeman Clarke, an American theologian and essayist, limned the distinctions about manhood in his essay "True and False Manliness." His essay is a particularly interesting glimpse of the 19th century ideal, since 20th century feminism has worked so hard to persuade us that the "patriarchy" taught men to be tyrants and emotional stiffs.
Clarke's essay says an ideal man's character should possess "truth, courage, conscience, freedom, energy, self-possession, self-control. But it does not exclude gentleness, tenderness, compassion, modesty. A man is not less manly, but more so, because he is gentle. ... The manly spirit shows itself in enterprise, the love of meeting difficulties and overcoming them -- the resolution, which will not yield . . ."
A false notion of manliness leads boys astray. All boys wish to be manly, but they often try to become so by copying the vices of men rather than their virtues.
The 19th century had no monopoly on manliness, however. One of the most enriching portraits in "The Book of Man" is that of David Gelernter, the computer scientist, professor, artist and social critic who was badly wounded by the Unabomber. This excerpt from a magazine profile focuses not on Gelernter's scientific achievements (he has many computer breakthroughs to his credit), or his personal courage in overcoming his injuries from the letter bomb (it nearly killed him). Rather, it stresses his role as a husband and father. Gelernter and his wife, in a countercultural act, are raising their sons to be chivalrous gentlemen. A man's role with respect to women, Gelernter argues, "is to protect, to help, to support, and to cherish -- as opposed to consume. We are a consumer society and the number one consumption is that of women.
"Women," he continues, "have an urge to nurture and cherish children; men don't have that, but they can substitute an urge to nurture and cherish women. Men need to turn their sexual interest into something that goes deeper, emotionally and spiritually."
Boys have always needed guidance about what it means to be manly. But ours is an age when men are shirking fatherhood in alarming numbers. One of every 4 American children under the age of 18 now lives without his father, a tripling of the rate since 1960. Men can be lectured and cajoled into meeting their responsibilities, but it's also clarifying to hear from Teddy Roosevelt (a man's man if ever there was one): "It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful businessman ... or farmer, or a successful lawyer, or doctor, or a writer, or a president, or a ranchman ... or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison."