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Be a man, my son (1930s style)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 10, 2012 02:50 PM

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Men, it’s said, are having a hard time of it lately: troubled in the labor market, underperforming in school, uprooted in society with no clear identity as either breadwinners or homemakers.

But apparently male identity was clearer a few generations ago. That’s the upshot of “What the Young Man Should Know,” a thoroughly fantastic article from the March 1933 issue of Harper’s, recently reposted on the blog The Art of Manliness.

The writer, Robert Littell, begins with a view of his seven-year-old son climbing a tree, and explains he’d like the young boy to learn how to swim, handle firearms, speak in public, cook, typewrite, ride a horse, drive a car, dance, drink, and speak at least one foreign language well.

Littell discusses these skills in turn:

Not only should our young man be able to dive courageously and neatly, but he should be able also to revive those less skillful than himself by rolling them on a barrel and pumping their helpless arms.


I should insist that he be able to manage a gun so as to injure no one but the target. He must not be the kind of duffer who makes bystanders nervous.

Littell’s self-assurance is striking; his view of manliness is not simple but it is confident. In fact, he admits of having only three fears for his son: “that he will join the Army, enter the Church, or become horsey.”

What mothers and fathers wouldn’t give to be able to say the same today.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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