Willa Brown published a piece in the Atlantic yesterday on “lumbersexuality” and a crisis of masculinity. By lumbersexuality, Brown means the logger fetish a certain subset of bearded hipster men have for the fashion and work life of an imagined, romanticized logger. Brown compares this desire for an authentic and highly gendered work experience to the famed crisis of masculinity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led men like Theodore Roosevelt to embrace war, boxing, football, the Boy Scouts, hunting, and other manly pursuits that changed the nation in pretty dramatic ways due to those men’s ability to enact their desires in law and popular culture.
Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that “authenticity” often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of “real” work. A bearded man on OkCupid once told me, upon learning what I study, that he’d always envied lumberjacks because they were so connected to their labor. It must be so immensely satisfying, he wrote, to take carbon and turn it into something of real use. I considered replying with one of my favorite lines from an old lumberjack ballad: “Every bone in his body was broken / And his flesh hung in tatters and strings.” Job satisfaction and the authentic nature of his occupation were not the primary preoccupations of a working lumberjack. Even that fawning Atlantic journalist eventually concluded that he “would rather see one than be one.”
Style is style. Beards and plaid may well just look good, and I hardly think that the man wearing both while coding on a MacBook Air in a coffee shop is really attempting to sell anyone on the idea that he’s an authentic ‘jack. But what middle-class urbanites are playing at is not the “true” workingman of the woods. The caulked boots and bold red sash around a lumberjack’s waist were symbols of reckless daring in a world with few opportunities, except those that often risked death. The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards—are perhaps closer to Coolidge in his chaps. They’re impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.
I don’t know. Is a bunch of bearded hipsters dressing like loggers really a crisis of masculinity? Are these guys really worried about a suppressed manhood that needs to come out? I’m skeptical. I agree with Brown that this is a middle-class romanticizing of working-class culture but I don’t think it’s that comparable to the Progressive Era. I think it’s really more about a broader desire for individualized authenticity among a larger group of people under the age of 35 or so that revolves around working with your hands, semi-opting out of the traditional work norms, and seeing the products of your work. It seems to me that this phenomenon is more closely related with women and the knitting craze and having backyard chickens than TR-style masculinity assertion. After all, do you feel like young hipster men today are really worried about what it means to be a man? Is that a big part of their conversation? I don’t see it in the public realm.
If Americans are looking to hard work as a masculine preoccupation they wish to watch or emulate, I think it is far more concentrated in working and middle-class Americans watching shows like Ice Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and Swamp Loggers. Here are “authentic” working-class people doing the sort of jobs in nature that have long defined a significant portion of working-class labor in the United States. In these shows, nature itself isn’t romanticized nor a middle-class longing for authenticity so much as a desire to be able to make a living through hard work in a society with a shortage of good paying jobs for working people and a semi-official disdain for blue-collar labor. Watching Swamp Loggers and wishing one might be a swamp logger perhaps therefore becomes as much about sticking it to the snobs who are looking down on my life as a semi-employed electrician or plumber as it is about any desires about the work itself. Maybe.
Moreover, it seems to me that the crisis of masculinity, something historians claim for basically every period in American history, is getting really played out as a way to structure the past or the present. Such a claim is strongest in the Progressive Era because Roosevelt and others were talking about it so openly. But even here, this is about upper-class masculinity. That may well conflict with working-class masculinity but the latter is never in crisis within the public discourse and usually not within the historical conversation either. I’m not sure we can call the hipster class privileged in the same way that we could about elites in the past, but certainly these are largely highly educated people articulating very specific desires here in ways that perhaps working class people don’t have the cultural capital to do. But like with our lumbersexuals, I’m not sure that a lot of what historians talk about as a crisis of masculinity, outside of those Progressive Era upper class men, really is one. Here I think it’s a very different phenomena and I think that’s largely true in the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era as well (James Dean’s father wearing an apron in Rebel Without a Cause notwithstanding)
Still, if people really do want to be lumbersexuals, might I suggest something about the impact of sex and logging life among early twentieth-century loggers? A crisis of masculinity or not, this is all about having an authentic experience, defined of course by the person having the experience. Now as we know, I have been declared an expert on loggers’ sexuality by some of America’s finest intellectuals, such as Robert Stacy McCain. So let me share a story. This is the first paragraph of Chapter 1 from my logging manuscript:
In 1917, a new logger came into an Oregon timber camp. His new boss assigned him to a typical bunkhouse, crowded with eighty other worker in bunks. Those eighty men shared one sink and one towel. Unfortunately for his bunkmates, this new worker had untreated gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe his infected body. In the wet mountains the towel never dried and the gonorrhea culture stayed alive. Not knowing of their new coworker’s disease, the men continued to use the towel. Soon, an outbreak of gonorrhea set in the workers’ eyes.
This was reported by a Red Cross doctor investigating conditions in the timber camps that led to so many loggers becoming Wobblies and going on strike. The combination of loggers purchasing the services of prostitutes because they were too mobile to marry and unsanitary conditions led to this horrifying and disgusting outbreak of eye clap. So if lumbersexuals really want an authentic experience of early 20th century logging, I have lots of suggestions on how to do so.