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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 18, 1932
Date of Death:January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:Beverly Farms, MA
Education:A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England
Read an Excerpt
THE AMERICAN MAN: WHAT OF HIM?
(An Editorial Left Out of Life’s Special 35¢ Issue: “The American Woman”)
EVER SINCE the history-dimmed day when Christopher Columbus, a Genoese male, turned his three ships (Niña, Pinta, Santa María) toward the United States, men have also played a significant part in the development of our nation. Lord Baltimore, who founded the colony of Maryland for Roman Catholics driven by political persecution from Europe’s centuries-old shores, was a man. So was Wyatt Earp, who brought Anglo-Saxon common law into a vast area then in the grip of a potpourri of retributive justice, “vigilantism,” and the ancient Code Napoléon. Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth Chief Executive, was male. The list could be extended indefinitely.
Things were not always easy for the American Man. He came here in his water-weathered ships and did not find broad thruways, “cloud-capped towers,” and a ready-made Free Way of LIFE. No, what he found confronting him in this fabled New Land was, principally, trees. Virgin, deciduous, hundreds of feet taller than he, the trees of the Colonization left their scars on his mental makeup in the form of the high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and divorce that distinguish him from the men of Continental Europe or Australasia. While his brethren of the Old World were dandling perfumed coquettes on their silk-garbed knees, he was forging inward, across the Appalachians to the Great Prairie, where his woods-tested faith, tempered in the forge of Valley Forge and honed on the heights of Montcalm’s Quebec, took on a new austerity and became Evangelical Methodism. The Chevaliers of France didn’t give him pause, nor the wetbacks of Mexico. But he did not emerge on the spray-moistened cliffs of California the same man who sailed from Southampton, Brussels, or Rügen. As Robert Frost says, in his quietly affirmative lines:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.…
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
What is it that distinguishes the American Man from his counterparts in other climes; what is it that makes him so special? He is religious. He is quietly affirmative. He is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. He carries his burdens lightly, his blessings responsibly. Unlike the Oriental mandarin, he shaves his upper lip. Nor does he let his fingernails grow. Unlike the men of England, he does not wear gloves. Generally, he is taller than the men of nations (e.g., Nepal, Switzerland) where the average height is, compared to ours, laughable. All over the world, coolies and fakirs are picking themselves up out of the age-old mire and asking, “How can we become like Yanqui men?” Our State Department, cleansed of intellectual southpaws, works night and day on the answer.
The American Man has his faults, too. He loves speed. Is speed, in every case, desirable, per se? The editors, no strangers to speed themselves, wonder, for “the race is not [always] to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” The American Man tends to swagger—understandably. He enjoys bowling. He spends more money on bowling each year than the entire income of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg since the Hapsburgs. Our critics in India, perhaps with justice, lift their eyebrows at this. But he is big, big—a big man—and he does things in a big way. He smokes too much and laughs too hard. The popcorn alone that he devours every year would outweigh Mont Blanc. He has more insidious shortcomings, too, but space limitations preclude our listing them.
He can look back over a hundred and eighty years of steady betterment with forward-looking pride. Today, men are active in every walk of LIFE. Politics: Several of our ablest senators are male, and men like John Foster Dulles, Charles Wilson, and Dwight David Eisenhower figure prominently in Washington’s innermost councils. Religion: Reinhold Niebuhr has just this year delivered a sermon. Industry: Men are infiltrating the top levels of management, and already dominate such diverse fields as structural engineering, anthracite development, track and field events, and fire control. The Arts:
Individual men like Herman Wouk and Archibald MacLeish have authored works in every way comparable to the best of Willa Cather or Mary Roberts Rinehart, the Queen of American Mystery Fiction.
The American Man can be proud of his sex. In the home, though still docile, he cunningly gets his way. In the community, he is a model for all young boys, as to what manhood means. In the state, he pays income tax or sales tax, depending. In the nation, he makes up only slightly less than half the population. Perhaps most importantly, he has solved the millennia-old riddle of the sage:
What is Man, that Thou art mindful of him?
ANYWHERE IS WHERE YOU HANG YOUR HAT
MAY 18, 19—
DEAR MR. SMITH:
“Howdy.” Guess you think this is peculiar, my writing you this letter when we live in adjacent postal zones, with only the Everyman General Merchandise Store and the All Souls’ Non-Denominational Church and the width of State Street separating us. But what with no mail coming in to Anywhere from the outside (except in December for Santa Claus), John Postmaster, our postmaster, is grateful for whatever jobs we can give him.
Well, the point is (1) to welcome you to Anywhere, the only town in the U.S.A. located on both the Continental Divide and the Mason-Dixon Line, and (2) to get acquainted, which is only natural, since between the Joneses and the Smiths most of the local population is accounted for, and we better make the best of it, or there won’t be no peace for anyone. (joke).
We think of ourselves in these parts as pretty average American. There’s one industry on the east side, Acme Mfg., owned by A. Employer, and some foreign element work there, but by and large the fertile prairie all around keeps us white Protestants going. Since we aren’t located in any state, we’re pretty dependent on federal aid, and as a result the school is poor and the streets full of potholes and like the District of Columbia we can’t vote in national elections, but when you average it out each family has an income of $5,520 and 1.3 children, so we can’t kick. My own guess is you’ll like it fine here. The “Life” photographers come around pretty often so it isn’t as dull as it could be.
Well I’ve just about filled two sides of my medium-wt. stationery, so I’d better say what I have to say, which is, “Come over sometime and let’s get acquainted.” All of the houses on Main St. are numbered 25, or 1, or 77, or something memorable, so my address won’t help you much, but mine is the big rambling house with the shady old elm out in front and the white picket fence.
Best & again “welcome”
Ralph C. Jones
(Of the ensuing correspondence only the letters received by Smith, a shy, methodical man forever making small bundles of his private papers, have been preserved. We may presume that Smith’s replies were, like his person, colorless.)
MAY 30, 19—
Rcd. yr. letter and enjoyed same v. much. That was quite a misadventure you had. I should have specified, I guess, that mine was the big rambling house with the old elm and picket fence and the porch swing out front. The people you blundered in on, to hear it from the neighbors, were the Does. Nice folks, pretty typical of what you’ll meet around here, when you’re better accepted. John does “clerical work” for Acme, and his wife Mary used to sell linen goods for the Ajax Dept. Store when she married him. She was far along in her 20s when that luckily happened. He’s a conscientious citizen, always filling out income tax forms and money orders and loan applications to show others how it’s done. They go to about a movie a week and have dinner out once a month. You probably noticed another woman, bony and slow-moving like John, with the throaty Doe laugh. That was his sister Miss Jane J. Being a spinster doesn’t seem to bother her much, I mean very much. She teaches third grade and has Social Security No. 000-00-0000. They let her stay in two tiny rooms over in the west wing.
Depending on how long you made your welcome last, you probably noticed when the two Does get to laughing throatily together Mary looks a little anxious, her eyes shuttling from one to another and her teeth nibbling her lower lip. We always thought that maybe if Mary did something different with her mouth, but I guess the truth is her face is one of those clean wide-browed ones that all along the line—childhood, adolescence, young womanhood, and now what they call for politeness maturity—just miss being pretty. Most of us have known little Mary ever since her first Sunday school dress. Her maiden name was Smith, like yours. Maybe she’s a relation. In which case you’ll probably be as concerned as the rest of us with her happiness. Not to imply it doesn’t suit her to a “T,” to have John’s fond sister Jane living with them.
Well at any rate you’d know best since you’ve been in the house most recently. John is all right without being the friendliest. Let’s you and I meet sometime and talk it out. Since you don’t know your way around yet, I suggest some place in downtown Anywhere.
See you then,