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Mano a mano, and nuance wins

2 books explore brains and brawn of modern males

Manliness
By Harvey C. Mansfield
Yale University , 289 pp., $27.50

Where Men Hide
By James B. Twitchell; photographs by Ken Ross
Columbia University , 248 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Back when men were men, women were women, and that was that, calling someone a ``manly man" was a compliment rather than an invitation to smirk, and men-only bastions (``retreats" sounds so unmanly) were accepted, not dissected. It was normal, even healthy, for a manly man, or an average guy, to go to the hunting cabin, the fraternal lodge, the barbershop.

That those days have passed has elicited differing responses from James B. Twitchell and Harvey C. Mansfield. Each man is a university professor, a veteran of life as a man (Twitchell was born in 1943, Mansfield in 1932). But in their books they have taken very different approaches to modern manhood -- one an aggressive, superintellectual lament, the other a balanced, humanizing explication.

``Manliness" is based on Mansfield's opinion that we live in an increasingly ``gender-neutral society," a creation of feminists and the weak-willed men who have allowed this to occur. Manliness, he believes, would help rescue us from this state, which is characterized by, among other things, feminism's legacy of women becoming more like men.

His argument requires accepting first that we live in a gender-neutral society, and second that that is not a good thing. He is more successful at arguing the former than the latter, as his summaries, analyses , and interpretations are variously supported on the page, left unsupported, or relegated to the book's endnotes. Mansfield is an academic writing academically. But the more he relies on philosophers and fictional characters, the more he seems detached from our daily lives.

The book's credibility is not helped by unsupported statements ranging from the vaguely truthful (``War is hell but men like it") to the mostly goofy (``Women still rather like housework, changing diapers, and manly men") to the outrageous (``To resist rape a woman needs more than martial arts and more than the police; she needs a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment "). Overall, his argument is alternately or simultaneously elaborate, clever, dubious, precise, baffling, thought-provoking, absurd, tortuous , and torturous.

The author seems aware of his abstract and political approach when he writes that ``this is not a . . . self-help book" and that when ``partisans are extreme, they are often more illuminating than the more sensible middle, and right now we are trying to illuminate." Late in the book, it's almost as if he is trying to establish a partial escape clause when he writes that the ``modes of conveying one's opinion do not matter as much as the opinions themselves." But what if the mode separates people from the opinions? Manliness as an idea makes me want to understand more; ``Manliness" as a book made me want to escape from it.

In ``Where Men Hide," Twitchell knows how to reveal men's hiding places, where they came from, and what they mean. His book is no sentimental celebration of the boxing ring, the recliner chair, strip clubs , and 12 other ``redoubts," as he calls them, and no political treatise.

Instead, Twitchell describes, informs, explains, analyzes , and enlightens, seemingly in pursuit of once-hidden, now-recognizable truths.

The accompanying black-and-white photographs by Ken Ross are stark and lonesome, uninhabited by even a solitary human being. Twitchell humanizes and illuminates those dark places. He notes the near-death of some of these men's places but does not call for their revival

While the places vary in how well they have survived what Twitchell calls ``the quickly shifting construction of gender," what remains relatively constant is why men value these places: as ways not simply to escape women or to be alone, but more interestingly as sites for ``rituals of initiation" (such as a boy's first haircut), and as places where men can try to connect to other men. To Twitchell, these places often provide the reason men need to be with each other (playing a baseball game, hunting deer, getting a haircut), with the ostensible motive giving way to that less nameable goal, intimacy, and ``men feeling at ease with other men."

In some ways, Twitchell and Mansfield write about the same issues, including gender roles and manliness (a term that Twitchell also uses, as he does ``manly man"). Both writers consider differences between men and women; one writer makes much more sense.

This likely makes Twitchell a less manly author than Mansfield, who wrote as if he expected the reader to find his or her way to him. Twitchell goes to the reader, assuredly mixing first-person accounts with material about men's places both expected and unexpected .

In Twitchell's book I can see myself and men I know; in Mansfield's book I rarely saw them, me, or recognizable women. Perhaps this is partly because I and the men I know are not ``manly men." It certainly is because in ``Manliness" it is difficult to recognize human beings.

David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at dmaloof@earthlink.net.

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