ON MY HONOR: Boys Scouts and the Making of American Youth.
By Jay Mechling. Univ. of Chicago Press. 323 pp. $30
enthusiasm, well into the last century, for apparent crucifixions and the simulated amputation of noses? The Hunger Artist of Kafka’s famous story had, as Jay reveals, many real-life counterparts.
Perhaps, though, taste has changed less than we might suppose. In a postindustrial society, we gawk not at physical exhibitionism but at frontier science and televised selfrevelation. Just as Jay celebrates the Bonassus and the Bold Grimace Spaniard, perhaps some future connoisseur will revel in Dolly the Sheep and The Jerry Springer Show.
STANDING UP TO THE ROCK.
By T. Louise Freeman-Toole. Univ. of Nebraska Press. 213 pp. $26
"In our wedding vows," writes Freeman-Toole, a freelance writer and sixth-generation Californian, "my husband and I pledged to live together in a ‘green and peaceful place.’ " A few years into the marriage, Silicon Valley’s sprawl drove them from Santa Cruz. They ended up in an agricultural region called the Palouse, along the Idaho-Washington border. "It was like being able to take our children back to the time we had grown up in—a safer, slower, and kindlier world." Alternately engaging, lovely, frustrating, dense, and thoughtful, Standing Up to the Rock recounts this change of worlds.
But not without a good many side trips. Freeman-Toole tells of her ancestors and of her strong emotional response to rugged landscapes. She includes a heroine’s journey and a feminist awakening, a tutorial in cattle ranching, and a population of eccentric and fascinating characters, many of whom deserve entire books unto themselves. Some of these tales reach fruition better than others. Occasionally, a character appears with a sketchy introduction, disappears, and pops up again later with biographical back story, as in a screenplay. Freeman-Toole’s poetic prose is more than enough to engage the reader without such gimmickry.
The author redeems herself in the last chapter, which is positively elegiac. She quotes her friend Liz Burns, a rancher (and one of those who surely merits her own biography): "Stop thinking in the abstract about the environment, the economy, politics. Start seeing individual porch lights. Care about these animals, these native plants, these people, this perfect place." The admonition made me wonder about those perfect places within us all, and why, when we find them, we are often compelled to leave. It made me contemplate the central theme of this rich book: what it really means to be home.
ON MY HONOR:
Boy Scouts and the Making of
By Jay Mechling. Univ. of Chicago Press. 323 pp. $30
At the start of On My Honor, Mechling promises to steer a middle course between the right, which sees the Boy Scouts as the solution to America’s "character" problem, and the left, which sees them as part of the problem. He calls both of these views skewed, but it is soon clear that he deems the right-wing view considerably more skewed. A former Eagle Scout who is now a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, Mechling asserts his bona fides by citing his "progressive male guilt" over the "militarism," "sexism," "homophobia," and "disrespect for real Indians" of his own scouting days. Little has changed, he reports: The similarities between scout camp of the late 1950s and scout camp of the late 1990s are "too many to celebrate a victory of ‘progressive’ masculinity over Cold War masculinity."
A curious idea, this distinction between "progressive" and "Cold War" masculinity. What he means by the latter is a harder, more macho masculinity, which he discredits as (among other things) a mere contingency of the Cold War. He himself advocates a softer, more tender masculinity, and even tries to claim some of its social-science
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theorists, including William Pollack and Nancy Chodorow, as latter-day versions of the two men whose ideas were basic to the founding of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), G. Stanley Hall and Ernest Thompson Seton. Mechling discerns a "strong resemblance" between the masculinity theories of the 1890s and those of the 1990s— evidence, in his view, that the two decades "responded in similar ways to a perceived crisis in masculinity."
But didn’t the alleged crisis of the 1890s lead to the cultivation of a distinctive and traditional version of masculinity, while the theorists a century later seek to break it down? That objection disappears once we understand those old-timers and their marked "sexual ambiguities." In Mechling’s view, "the founders of the BSA were ‘role models’ for an androgynous masculinity not dissimilar from the new masculinities that emerged in response to parallel social and economic pressures on masculinity in the 1990s."
The villains of the book are today’s professional Scouts and bureaucrats at BSA headquarters who vigorously oppose the admission of atheists, girls, and homosexuals. These men seek to foster "a narrow, inflexible, exclusively heterosexual definition of masculinity" because of their own "powerful anxiety about masculinity." The particular troop of California scouts that Mechling has chosen for his study is meant to show us, by contrast, how progressive scouts can be.
Progressive and yet pragmatic. When the scoutmaster decides against holding a joint campfire with nearby Girl Scouts, Mechling approves. "You know how the boys act around girls," the scoutmaster tells him. "They show off, get silly, get really out of control." How, I wonder, would that basic fact of life be altered by the utopian masculinity that Mechling proposes?
CHURCHILL: A Biography.
By Roy Jenkins. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1002 pp. $40
Winston Churchill had three contemporaries who he felt may, just may, have been up to his own standard as a world leader: David Lloyd George, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. Each of the three has attracted many biographers, but few have been able to get behind the mask. Churchill’s biographers do not have that problem. His psyche is exhaustingly documented in his own prodigious writings, Martin Gilbert’s official biography of eight thick volumes, and countless other biographies.
Do we need another Churchill book? Jenkins answers by setting forth his unique qualifications. He has written well-received biographies of H. H. Asquith and William E. Gladstone. He has had wide parliamentary and ministerial experience. He served both as home secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, just as Churchill did. Both he and Churchill knew what it was like to wait for the call that didn’t come, though Churchill’s ultimately did come. Jenkins could have used in his defense Lord Chesterfield’s words upon retiring: "I have been behind the scenes, both of pleasure and business. I have seen all the coarse pulleys and dirty ropes, which exhibit and move all
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