The Magazine

Boys 'n' the Hood

Manhood, that is, and why it's elusive.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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Men to Boys

The Making of
Modern Immaturity

by Gary Cross

Columbia, 328 pp., $29.50

The Dionysiac crowd on the Mall last winter was probably not prepared to hear their new president exhort the "young nation" to "set aside childish things."

This inaugural message troubled my ears for two reasons: the clumsy invocation of apostolic authority--St. Paul was the one who said "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things"--and the presumptive maturity of a young leader instructing his countrymen to grow up when his political grooming was limited to 20 years of catechesis under the pastorate of a black supremacist, two look-at-me! memoirs penned before the age of 50, and a rock star keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

If Barack Obama does not strike you as a paragon of maturity, neither are his predecessors George W. Bush, whose "Bring it on!" challenge to Islamic militants conjures the scene of a playground standoff, and Bill Clinton, whose sexual escapades become more intelligible with the admission, "I was born at 16 and I'll always feel I'm 16." So are we a childish nation? Or to ask the question that vexes women in nightclubs and church singles groups alike, "Where have all the men gone?"

Gary Cross, a historian at Penn State and brooding sexagenarian, explores an answer to this question in Men to Boys, which is part history, part psychoanalysis, and part confession. Limiting his survey to "the experience of the white middle-class American male," he traces how

Three generations of men have challenged the genteel ideal of manhood. Over time, they have abandoned traditional markers of male maturity and embraced perpetual adolescence, and, because commercial culture reinforces both trends, today the youngest generation has little experience with or taste for alternatives (genteel or
otherwise).

The subject here--the "boy-man"--will not likely be the reader because Narcissus only wants to behold a flattering reflection in the pool, and what Cross casts back is disfiguring. Cultural historians will appreciate the copiously researched, subtly argued, and lucidly written account of modern immaturity, but for this thirtysomething reviewer, there was a feeling of mortification, insofar as all the cheerless statistics and salient observations about arrested development induce shame over residual boyishness. Mortification, as medieval ascetics would say, can be its own form of maturation. Thus, Men to Boys serves as a needed hair shirt for the regressive adult.

A note on method. Cross emphatically tells the reader that he is not making an essentialist argument about maturity. For those who are not privy to the esoteric debates of the academy, essentialism--according to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy--draws "an objective distinction between an object's essential and accidental properties, which is not simply a reflection of how we choose to describe the object. An essential property of an object is one that it possesses in every possible world in which it exists." Social constructionism, the opposite viewpoint, contends that an object has no essential properties. What qualifies as "maturity" for a 21st-century American hipster would not qualify for a 19th-century English gentleman.

Because a transhistorical definition of male maturity would be impossible to formulate, we can better understand why Cross advances a modest cultural argument: There has been a conspicuous delay and decline in the model of manhood that prevailed after World War II, specifically permanent employment, marriage, childbearing, respect for elders, civic engagement, regular church attendance, refined taste, and formal protocol.

Rejecting Victorian patriarchy, "the culture of the boy-men today is less a life stage than a lifestyle, less a transition from childhood to adulthood than a choice to live like a teen 'forever.' " The method of his study would be more forceful if augmented with ethical and theological arguments, because our concern should not end with the way man is but proceed to the way he ought to be.