Sometime back in December I realized I was growing a beard. I’d set aside shaving for a few weeks, in part as a time-saving measure, in part because I was walking an extra twenty minutes in the cold each morning: in sympathy with NYU’s striking graduate students, including my three teaching assistants, I had relocated one of my classes to a radical theater space on the outer edge of the West Village, so as not to cross picket lines. My winter-whipped face needed a break.

I had other reasons too. More than ever since moving here, my life this year has synched up with my seaport surroundings. The neighborhood bar I frequent is often filled with what our group of regulars refers to fondly as “the boat people”: the crew of the South Street Seaport Museum’s historic schooner, the Pioneer, whose conga-line bar-singing antics I’ve mentioned here before. Their beards started creeping in with the cold. One new volunteer sailor even transformed himself in a matter of weeks from a two-tone, Vespa-riding ska kid, skinny tie and all, into the very image of Herman Melville:

Herman Melville, by Joseph Eaton, 1870

For others on the Pioneer’s crew, the winter growth seemed more natural, rhythmic, seasonal. And sexy, too, at least according to Stephanie, whose judgment certainly carried some weight.

I’d already noticed, last fall, that loads of my students were sporting what I think of as East Side “indie beards”: their first assertions of natural manhood, ironically inspired, perhaps, by a wave of fey freak-folksters like Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, or perhaps by reigning psych heroes like My Morning Jacket. I myself favored Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the maritime-inflected godfather of all little bearded indie lads.

I made the connection between the indie beards and a particular brand of indie vocals one day last semester in my American Lit lecture. We were discussing the Quaker settlement scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which showcases a model of female domestic governance, and one student wanted to know why Harriet Beecher Stowe refers to the ineffectual Quaker husband’s shaving as “anti-patriarchal.” Well, I explained, beards are a natural masculine inheritance. They outwardly signify gender difference, and for Stowe to have her model husband willingly scrape away his patriarchal birthright signified his submission to what people like Stowe called “female influence.” Somehow this led to a tangent on indie rock: I noted the abundance of groups, lots of them from California (e.g., Grandaddy, or even Nikki’s band, Silversun Pickups, whom I’d just seen at CMJ) but also East Coasters (like my friend Nicole’s band, The Comas): bands fronted by male vocalists who counter their androgynous vocals with an abundance of facial hair, as if to reassert their questioned masculinity.

Whatever the psychological sources of the psych-pop facial hair trend, the connection led me, in the coming weeks, to read my own burgeoning beard as a nod toward a youth culture I feel more and more removed from by age. In spite of the fact that a senior colleague in my department declared that my new look lent me “gravitas,” at some level I knew it was a stab at staying young. At least one student made the same connection early this semester. “How old are you?” she asked in our first seminar meeting, the implication being that I looked younger than she expected a professor in a college honors seminar to look. The untrimmed beard, together with my record-store-clerk glasses, seemed to be dead giveaways at my attempt to stave off age and obsolescence. Perhaps this lost-youth factor accounts for a teaching-related first this semester, when I had occasion to tell a student that no, it’s not okay to reach out in the middle of a conversation and feel my beard. I don’t care if it looks inviting and soft.

My shrink thinks the beard has less to do with age anxieties than an unconscious desire to reclaim my Western American roots. “Every week you look more and more like a pioneer migrant to the Rocky Mountains,” he tells me. I suppose he’s right, at least about the looks, although when I was growing up the only beards in my small Arizona town belonged to folks from the hippie communes scattered outside the city limits. Nonetheless, here’s what the ancestor who settled my hometown in the 1870s looked like:

John and Lois Hunt

And his father before him:

Jefferson Hunt

The patriarchal authority figures of my childhood had long stopped wearing beards, and from the late-1960s on viewed facial hair of any sort with suspicion, a sure sign of intellectual and political dissent. This was the context for the first beards I grew — the summer before I turned 19 and again in my early 20s — in angry response to a high school and then a university that had dress and grooming codes prohibiting facial hair. In grad school, flushed with the freedom the secular academy afforded, I sported a goatee for a while, my hair pulled back in a ponytail that ran to the middle of my back. (Give me a break, it was the mid-’90s!) At some point, though, in spite of a professor’s approving comment that I had cultivated the look of a Marxist intellectual, my students convinced me that the look had prematurely aged me — I was all of 25 — and so I chopped my hair off and got rid of that god-awful goatee.

The first thing I noticed when I stopped shaving this time around was the substantial amount of grey and white coming through on my chin. This was also the first thing I noticed when I poked around online to find the ancestral photos, above. It looks like I may have shocking shocks of white chin-hair on my horizon.

It’s certainly possible to read my forefathers’ facial foliage as a sign of their own cultural dissent, though they seemed to have been staging a patriarchal retrenchment in the face of the liberalizing, feminizing Protestantism endorsed by people like Stowe and her fictional Quaker heroes and heroines. I have stronger sympathy for Melville’s cast of bearded rag-tags in his little-read novel White-Jacket (1850), a sort of warm-up drill for Moby-Dick. Melville wrote White-Jacket in the late-1840s, just as my ancestors were heading West in wagon trains. Near the end of the novel, which ostensibly aimed to expose the tyrannical authority at play in the American navy, Melville spends nearly three chapters on what he calls “The Great Massacre of the Beards.” The capricious Captain Claret has ordered the sailors on his American man-o-war to shave their “homeward bounders,” the beards they’ve been cultivating for months:

Such an array of beards! spade-shaped, hammer-shaped, dagger-shaped, triangular, square, peaked, round, hemispherical, and forked. But chief among them all, was old Ushant’s, the ancient Captain of the Forecastle. Of a Gothic venerableness, it fell upon his breast like a continual iron-gray storm.

Old Ushant, in the end, refuses to shave his beard, an act of civil disobedience inspired by a real-life transcendentalist visionary named Joseph Palmer, who, like Melville himself, preferred to keep a beard even when the larger culture favored clean shaves. Palmer was attacked on one occasion by four of his fellow townsmen who were determined to hold him down and shave his beard. He fought them off, but was arrested for disturbing the peace. Here’s what his grave looks like, marking him as a hero for all who wear their politics on their sleeves — er, faces:

Joseph Palmer's grave, Leominster, Mass.

I thought about old Joseph Palmer the other day when a few family and friends started showing signs of conspiracy against my beard. First, my daughter Molly hid my cell phone from me last weekend, intending to demand, as ransom, that I shave. The catch: she forgot she had hidden it, even before she made her demand. It was missing for almost a week when it miraculously appeared in her secret hiding place, a padlocked Adidas box where she keeps her cash. She sheepishly produced it, just minutes before I called for a replacement. I told her again she’d have to live with the beard, at least until summer started. “Well duh,” she said. “I’m already living with it.”

Then Jason, down at the bar, suggested that he and some of the regulars were planning to hold me down and at least shear the bushiness under the chin. He reached out and grabbed the part he was talking about, gave it a tug. (His girlfriend, Nicole, followed his lead, but rather than pulling gave me an affectionate scratch and scruff.) Thing is, fellows, I’m standing with Ushant and his boys:

And that our man-of-war’s-men were right in desiring to perpetuate their beards, as martial appurtenances, must seem very plain, when it is considered that, as the beard is the token of manhood, so, in some shape or other, has it ever been held the true badge of a warrior. Bonaparte’s grenadiers were stout whiskerandoes; and perhaps, in a charge, those fierce whiskers of theirs did as much to appall the foe as the sheen of their bayonets. Most all fighting creatures sport either whiskers or beards; it seems a law of Dame Nature. Witness the boar, the tiger, the cougar, man, the leopard, the ram, the cat—all warriors, and all whiskerandoes. Whereas, the peace-loving tribes have mostly enameled chins.

With prose like that on my side, protected by guardian angel ancestors, how I could I do anything else? Frickin bartender better be ready for a fight. Same goes for the kid.

12 responses to “Bearded”

  1. I noticed the photo change and the pronounced hairiness. Stick to your guns! It suits you well. And whatever happened to that tattoo idea involving Ben Franklin in his coonskin cap?

  2. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Up with beards! I visited a friend this weekend who has recently grown a (white/gray inflected) beard and he looked great. I’ve always wanted to grow a great big long one a la Melville, a beard I could heft and pat contemplatively with my hand a good 6-10 inches from face, about level with chest, but I’m afraid I just don’t have the patience or the gumption. Call me emasculated, call me what you will, but I loves my lovin’, and I wouldn’t get no lovin’ with a beard like that. Regular (uncoerced) sexual activity, too, is a defining part of masculinity, for me anyway.

    Also, I couldn’t really concentrate on your settler ancestor’s beard because I was staring at the beauty by his side. Wow.

    (Jeremy’s friend) Tim

  3. Missy says:

    Ditto what Tim said. She’s gorgeous–such haunting eyes.

  4. celia says:

    When I first saw your picture on this site, my mind automatically thought you looked much like a Rabbi. On the other hand, Nathan’s beard makes me think of a scandinavian sailor. Very funny story about Molly.

  5. JaneAnne says:

    As some of you know, I’m a big fan of the beard. Except for a brief period not long after we were married (when he shaved it for a beard-growing contest, which he naturally won), David’s had a beard since shortly after we started dating. We’ve never seriously contemplated having him grow it out, however. It is thick and red (white on the chin corners now) and wiry and curly, and I think the end result would be altogether too Yosemite Sam for my or his or anyone else’s liking. But I do occasionally think and wonder–just about every time I see our kitty-corner neighbor, hippie turned electrical engineer, whose beard is blond-gray and approaching a foot in length.

    I like the pic, Bryan. With the glasses you look a little like Paul Giamatti only less doughy and with better bone structure.

  6. barmaid says:

    if you’re looking for a fight, well…i’ll serve you a drink!

  7. WW says:

    So as I was reading your post, a Jenny Lewis song was playing on the radio. The song is called “The Charging Sky,” but I think of it as “All In,” which is the attitude Jenny urges one to take toward life. At the end of the song she sings about how “my dad starts growing Bob Dylan’s beard,” as his way of staying all in, which is also maybe something Neil Young should consider, as a way to smack down Dylan once and for all.

    Anyway, all I know is that Dad started growing hair on his chin when the hair atop his head stopped growing – just like your pal Joe Palmer. Look at the shine on his noggin! For some folks (not you), a beard is proof you still got it – it’s just not where it used to be. Perhaps those whiskers are the badges of warriors fighting the aging process, badges that happen to be more visible than night cream and exfoliation.

  8. Gary Smith says:

    Oh Bearded One,
    Do you have a photo of your beard posted anywhere? Maybe Anna and Molly should take care of it next time you nap ( I could see Molly doing it anyway…)
    From your slightly bearded brother in law…

  9. Thanks for comments.

    Lane: I still am thinking about that tattoo, but I’m also thinking about Whitman’s engraved portrait from the title page of the 1855 Leaves of Grass.

    Tim: Hey. Up indeed. I haven’t had any problems gettin’ lovin’, but I’m built in to a good situation. Bonnie Billy always seems to do well with the ladies too, fwiw.

    Missy: I’d like to think I inherited her skin tone if nothing else. Her parents were amazing sailors — even her mom sailed to the islands — but alas, her father is clean shaven in the photos I found. Both her parents have terrific memoirs published.

    Celia: I agree that Nathan looks like a Scandanavian sailor. He has Danish ancestry. Maybe I inherited the German Jewish side of things, though at some point old Rabbi Wasserman must have become a member of the United Brethren in Indiana, as far as I can tell.

    barmaid: you’re on!

    WW (wonder woman?): Thanks for the reassurance that the beard’s not compensatory. I have seen my hairline recede slightly, but luckily there’s still a lot left up top.

    Gary my bro-in-law: There’s a picture from a month or two ago up on the “about” page. I tried to get a friend to email one he took last week, but he hasn’t sent it yet.

    Thanks again, folks. bw

  10. nikki. says:

    thanks for the sspu shout-out. we’re on a west coast tour right now. . .just leaving seattle. i’m trying to grow a beard but the effort has been fruitless thus far. hope all is well in nyc.

  11. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    The NY Times has now picked up on what you and your bearded brethren are laying down. Observe:


  12. Mark says:

    I found a great t-shirt for the beard obsessed…