Or, why the story of the American ‘beard movement’ matters

Taken as a whole, Groomed for Power offers a portrait of American manhood as derivative, even ‘accidental.’ Manhood, in other words, emerges from the pages of this project, not as a self-portrait but rather as a palimpsest: the accumulated residue of other people’s labor and ideas. The facial hair fad, Groomed for Power argues, was the evidence of absence: the unforeseen consequence of white supremacy and American economic nationalism, as elites placed cultural and legal barriers between the people and things that made shaving possible. The ideology of the beard, meanwhile, emerged not through a feat of self-fashioning, but rather from a position of defensiveness and derivation. Made necessary by a motley community of patent hair product advertisers – and the feminization of facial hair that their ads entailed – the pro-beard polemic was made possible by the work of women’s fashion writers. In the final analysis, then, the bearded manhood that emerged from the antebellum period was roughly akin to economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous comments on the origins of modern capitalism. The capitalist order, Schumpeter wrote, “rests on props made of extra-capitalist material.” Derived from ingredients that were neither white, American, nor male, white American manhood might, with justice, be characterized similarly.

Why does this story matter? First, because, in the realms of both scholarship and public life more broadly, manhood – and the manhood of white elites, in particular – continues to enjoy an unearned reputation for primacy and originality. Although a shrinking number of Americans would openly articulate ideas about women as the ‘second sex,’ about African-Americans as an ‘imitative people,’ or about members of the working class as ‘inarticulate,’ the residue of these ideas lingers in a public discourse that rarely, if ever, asks white men to articulate their indebtedness or obligation to anyone else. Groomed for Power challenges this idea at the most fundamental level: suggesting that the identities and even the physical persons of the white male elite were not of their own making.

Second and similarly, the project takes a novel approach to decentering the white male subject in American historical narratives. Previous efforts in this vein, including those of feminist historians, labor historians, and historians of race and slavery, have concentrated on demonstrating the role of subaltern peoples in constituting canonical institutions, ideologies, or structures of power. Perhaps the most obvious of these is capitalism. By turns, scholars have highlighted the role of everyone from women and working class white men to free and enslaved African Americans in contributing to the emergence of this institution. But other institutions and ideologies – including democracy, antislavery, and Manifest Destiny – have been subjected to similar critiques. The present study builds on the perspective of these works, but nevertheless pursues a different strategy, focusing on the white male body in an effort to demonstrate its contingency upon subalterns’ physical and cultural labor. The body itself, I believe, is in many ways a more fruitful location for this kind of analysis than abstract institutions and ideologies. Possessed of a concreteness that the latter subjects lack, the body offers an extraordinarily potent site for demonstrating elites’ indebtedness to the physical and cultural labor of subaltern communities.