David Frum October 20th, 1997 at 12:00 am
On his first day of nursery school, my son was understandably nervous. Who knew what might be waiting for him there? So he decided he wanted to take along a little precaution: a small blue Power Ranger doll. Bad move on his part — our nursery school absolutely forbids all “violent” toys.
It’s not at all clear what the school thought it was accomplishing by this rule (other than to give him his first taste of injustice — even at 3, he noticed that the girls in his class were permitted to bring along whatever small plastic figurines
they liked). The little boys we know don’t play together any less aggressively when permitted only blocks than they do when given access to the entire G. I. Joe arsenal. Boys are boys: There are good ones and bad ones, rough ones and gentle ones, and plastic objects don’t affect their character much one way or another.
But then, to many adults nowadays, the phrase “boys will be boys” is a challenge: an invitation to test the outer limits of social engineering. This is not a good time to be a boy. Courts are ordering girls admitted to Boy Scout troops and hockey teams. The schools view boys suspiciously as potential sexual harassers. Tests on which they do well are being gender- normed, while the tests on which they do not are being left alone. And lurking in the shadows are the omnipresent psychologists, impatient to pump them full of Ritalin. It must sometimes seem to the American boy that the whole world is hostile to him, that every authority in his life wants him to be dainty and docile, that nobody will permit him to escape the supervision of women and find out who he is and what he’s made of.
They won’t permit it even in imagination. My son is a little older now, and I spend a good many of my lunch hours in local book stores searching for books he might like. The classics are always there, of course. But as one looks through the racks of new books, one is overwhelmed by how hostile grownup society seems to be to its sons.
It’s not that grownup society is hostile to boyishness as such. On the contrary, grownups eagerly encourage risk-taking and adventuring — provided only that it’s done by girls. There’s no shortage of books for young readers about wars and western exploration, about mountain-climbing and bravery during floods and hurricanes. But the protagonists of these books are usually 10-year-old girls. Pick up a catalogue of the children’s books published in the past two or three years. You’ll find Seeing Red, the story of an intrepid Cornish girl who saves her village from Napoleonic invasion, and The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, about a young girl’s adventures in the California Gold Rush. There is Grace the Pirate, Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmond, Civil War Spy, and the Daughters of Liberty series, which tells bold stories of girlish derring-do during the Revolution.
Stories for boys are no longer permitted to be so exciting. Here is a publisher’s blurb for a book about a boy who courageously “defies teasing to remain enrolled in ballet class.” Here’s another about “Lame teenager Shem” who “finds manhood in the Michigan wilderness with the help of an old Indian woman.” And a third: “Doing volunteer work at
Santa Barbara’s Sidewalk’s End, a day-care facility for children of the homeless, Ben witnesses an instance of physical abuse and — for the best of reasons — decides to take matters into his own hands.”
Indeed, one of the things most striking about the books for boys being published today is that before being allowed to have adventures, male characters must be transformed into something else: giant mechanical insects, as in one popular series, or androgynous androids, like the Power Rangers. And of course, boys must always have girls with them, doing everything they do — indeed, almost always doing it better. You hear many complaints that boys today don’t seem interested in reading. Who can blame them?
It didn’t use to be this way. Not so long ago, as these things go, the boy’s adventure story was a genre as lively as the detective story or the romance novel is now. The musty old library of my rattletrap Toronto school had a great cache of these books stowed away toward the back: enduring classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, but also more perishable works in which characters not much older than the intended reader defied death on Arctic explorations and chased cattle rustlers on the Western plains, unearthed ancient treasures in Mesopotamia and crouched behind the rocks on the Northwest Frontier as the bullets of the ghazis’ rifles went pocka-pocka-pocka into the dust. The most lurid of them were all written by the same man: the prodigiously productive Victorian writer G. A. Henty.
Even at the time, I recognized that Henty’s books weren’t exactly great literature. The hero was a stick figure, always 16, always plucky, and always encountering the same types of minor characters: the treacherous sneaky boy, the grownup unaccountably hostile to him, the kindhearted great man of history who always makes an appearance, and so on. Even the titles were formulaic: With Clive in India, With Wolfe in Canada, and so on. And always lurking in the background was a literary treatment of the exotic locale that was patronizing at best and appallingly racist at worst. None of that made Henty’s battle scenes any less gripping, his summary of the history any less clear, his depiction of teenage bravery any less inspiring. I read every one of them my school possessed, and as many more as I could find in the
catalogue of the main city library. And 20 years later, I found myself haunting used book stores, searching (without success) for copies of Henty to put in my son’s bookcase.
Then, in one morning’s mail, there arrived at THE WEEKLY STANDARD a curious flyer. Somebody in Florida had started a company to republish these “lost classics” of the boy’s literature of the last century. One of the first to be published was Henty’s Civil War novel, With Lee in Virginia. I telephoned the number on the flyer and got through to the company’s owner, George O’Neill, a part-time businessman, part-time sculptor, and full-time collector of antique adventure books for children. Soon afterward, a parcel with the Lost Classics Book Company’s first nine titles arrived on my doorstep: two reading primers and two history primers from the 1890s, and five novels.
In some ways, these books make reassuring reading for the worried modern parent. As cloying and didactic as modern books for children are, those of the 19th century could be every bit as bad. In Oliver Optic’s 1866 story “Hope and Have,” naughty Fanny Grant steals money and runs away from home. She reaches New York and learns humility by spending her money to save a poor woman from being foreclosed and then watching the woman’s too-pure-to-live daughter die of one of those mysterious 19th-century literary diseases that spread themselves over three tear-soaked chapters. But before she departs this vale of tears, the dying girl leaves behind a note, asking Fanny’s relatives “Please to forgive Fanny, for the sake of her dying friend.” Fanny of course promptly becomes just as good as can be. This is the sort of yuckiness that explains why American and British writers spent the next 75 years in the grip of the condition somebody has called Horror Victorianus.
But if the Victorians hectored and lectured girls, they let the minds of boys run a great deal freer. Reading Henty again — as well as two Revolutionary War novels by the prolific Edward Stratemeyer (who, under one of his many pseudonyms, also created the Hardy Boys series) — one is plunged into an era utterly unlike our own. This is a world in which instead of being caring, gentle, and open with their feelings, boys are encouraged to be brave, inventive, and uncomplaining.
Of all these attributes, it is the emphasis on bravery that is the most astonishing to us now. Stratemeyer’s Minute Boys of Lexington ends with Our Hero, 16-year-old Roger Morse, chained up in a cabin loaded with gunpowder, to which the British Redcoats and their evil Tory sympathizers have lit a slow match. Will he somehow snuff it out? The seconds tick away desperately . . . and of course at the last moment, he does. Roger Morse at least sometimes feels pangs of fear. Henty’s characters never do. They are shot at, cut with swords, have their ribs broken by shrapnel, and remain as undaunted and plucky as ever. It’s utterly unlife-like, of course, even comical. And yet there’s something valuable about it even so — and especially valuable now.
Courage, the Greeks believed, is the chief of all virtues, because without it the other virtues are all
useless. We now, in late-20th-century North America, still pay lip service to the value of courage. But the truth is, when we talk about it to boys, we often do so in the most off-putting possible contexts: Think of that boy who found the courage to remain enrolled in ballet. Very commendable, unquestionably — but not very likely to be a convincing exemplar of manliness to many 8-year-olds.
In our eagerness to direct boys toward pacific amusements, though, we forget that — whatever we say about it – boys live and always will live in a world of terrifying brutality. A friend of mine who attended a British boarding school said that from his earliest days there, he realized that he could never tell his parents the truth about what it was like: They would find it too frightening. Think of your own childhood. When your parents asked what happened that day at school, did you ever dare really tell them? What would they do about it — except make a shrieky fuss that would only antagonize the bullies who lurk in every playground worse than ever?
Violence is very real to boys, and they need codes by which to understand and regulate it. Books that describe boys who are ready to fight, who aren’t afraid of fighting, but who never strike first and always fight fair guide boys in ways that the ”anti-violence” curriculums now being taught in every public school never will. The contemporary grownup world has a bad habit of lumping together all boyish physical conflict and play as “violence” and trying to suppress it all — as if playing space pirates in the schoolyard were the first step on the slippery slope toward gang membership and drive-by shootings. The old adventure stories, for all their ridiculousness, linked ideals of gentleness and fairness in their readers’ young minds to equally powerful ideals of heroism and manliness. We, by refusing to admit that the two ideals can have anything to do with each other, end by telling our boys that they must choose between being a milquetoast and a thug.
Every year, more than 2 million boys are born in the United States. The job of civilizing them is not an easy one, and, by all indications, American society is succeeding at it much less well than it did 70 or a hundred years ago. Radio stations, television, and the culture of the streets bombard them with images of manhood drawn from the most bestial parts of our nature. The schools and the publishing companies attempt to counteract these vicious images with a counter-image so prissy that one wonders how a boy with even half the normal red corpuscle count can possibly stand it. Which is how America has come to be a society in which half of American men abandon their wives, while the other half stand in football stadiums crying, hugging, and vowing to Keep Promises.
I don’t know whether, in this post-literate society, even the very best books can do much to counteract our failure to find a compelling definition of manliness for our sons. And even if books mattered as much as they once did, it would still be doubtful how much good they could do in a society so fanatically committed to androgyny that its military trains its elite units to stop their ears to the screams of tortured women, and every video arcade offers boys the opportunity, for just 50 cents, to kick a lady martial artist to death electronically.
Still, for whatever good they can do, the old books are there: Horatio Hornblower and Tom Sawyer, The Black Arrow and Ivanhoe, Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers. Thanks to an enterprising Floridian, you can bulk the reading experience of your children out with writers of the second tier, like Henty and Stratemeyer. Henty’s snobbery and racism may be hard to take; Stratemeyer’s books may be too visibly cranked out on the assembly line. But they serve to remind us that there is very little wrong, and very much that is right, with letting boys be boys.
Originally published in The Weekly Standard