Of Beards and Men

December 14, 2015
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From Matthew Schneier’s review of Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair for the New York Times Book Review:

Oldstone-Moore, a lecturer in history at Wright State University (and, at least as recently as his faculty head shot, a beard-wearer), approaches facial hair as an index of the vertiginous roil of masculinity itself. “Whenever masculinity is redefined, facial hairstyles change to suit,” he writes. “The history of men is literally written on their faces.” In considering the subject, Oldstone-Moore is in good company. The Supreme Court, the Roman Catholic Church, Rousseau and Plutarch have all weighed in on the subject.

He is monomaniacal in his attentions, charting the course of human history in the reflection of a razor. Like Zelig, at any given moment in history, beards were (or, as suggestively, weren’t) there. ­Oldstone-Moore finds them (and their corollary, mustaches) everywhere: in ancient Sumer and ancient Rome; in the Bayeux Tapestry, the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Whitman; in the courts of Europe as well as its festering proletarian dens. (One of the book’s acknowledged shortcomings is the demographic limit of its ­focus, largely on Western Europe and the United States.)

Even in our current beard­ophile moment (­Oldstone- Moore notes in his introduction that Gillette’s sales are down), to single out facial hair for sustained, scholarly investigation is to invite charges of triviality. Such accusations are necessarily allayed by the beard-first myopia that allows Jesus Christ to be summarily described as “the most recognizable bearded man in Western civilization” or the sack of Rome in 1527 “another turning point in beard history.” It is probably an overstatement to suggest that, where Hitler and Stalin were concerned, “an analysis of mustaches might have alerted the Western allies to the real possibility of ­German-Soviet agreement.”

But perhaps this is to give the author too little credit. Oldstone-Moore is a sensitive observer, who dispenses ironies with a light hand; tonsorially enthralled as he may be, he also seems in on the joke.

To read more about Of Beards and Men, click here.

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