Lumbersexuality and Its Discontents
One hundred years ago, a crisis in urban masculinity created the lumberjack aesthetic. Now it's making a comeback.
The first one I met was at an inauguration party in 2009. I was in a cocktail dress. He was in jeans, work boots, and a flannel shirt. He had John Henry tattooed on his bicep. He was white. Somehow, at a fairly elegant affair, he had found a can of PBR. Since then they’ve multiplied. You can see them in coffee shops and bars and artisanal butchers. They don't exactly cut down trees, but they might try their hand at agriculture and woodworking, even if only in the form of window-box herb gardens.
In the last month, these bearded, manly men even earned themselves a pithy nickname: the lumbersexuals. GearJunkie coined the term only a few weeks ago, and since then Jezebel, Gawker, The Guardian and Time have jumped in to analyze their style. BuzzFeed even has a holiday gift guide for the lumbersexual in your life. (He would, apparently, like bourbon-flavored syrup and beard oil.)
The lumberjack seems like a startlingly apt symbol for hipsters to appropriate. On one level, it’s just a neat metaphor for gentrification: Lumberjacks were, after all, an ad-hoc army of Caucasians, invading regions they imagined to be empty, sucking up the local resources, and leaving vast, bland spaces in their wake. But there’s much more to the lumberjack symbol than another glib comment on urban white culture. This particular brand of bearded flannel-wearer is a modern take on the deeply-rooted historical image of Paul Bunyan, the ax-wielding but amiable giant, whose stomping grounds were the North Woods of the upper Midwest. Paul and his brethren emerged as icons in American pop culture a little over a century ago. What links the mythic lumberjack to his modern-day incarnations is a pervasive sense—in his time and ours—that masculinity is “in crisis.”
From slaveholders fearing rebellion to patriarchs threatened by suffragettes, much of the scholarship on American masculinity focuses on men in crisis. White men are often portrayed as continuously jittery, always teetering on the edge of losing their birthright. But there are moments when this anxiety reaches a fever pitch, when the media and cultural critics turn their attention sharply to the plight of men. One such moment was at the turn of the last century, during a period of rapid urbanization and stark economic inequality.
Americans are currently enduring another prolonged bout of unease, stretching back at least six years. Since the Great Recession began, there has been a general handwringing in the media about the state of men—even the End of Men. The economic downturn disproportionately affected men, and it is clearer than ever that the single-breadwinner family is finally dead. The "traditional" role of the man as the primary provider is now firmly out of reach for most Americans. Which is why it seems particularly apt that (mostly) white, young, urban, middle-class men have once again picked up a symbol invented in the early twentieth century by men very much like themselves, a symbol that has long been gathering dust.
The lumberjack looms large in the American imagination. He has decked out pavilions at world’s fairs, been built to giant scale as a highway attraction, and his best representative, Paul Bunyan, is often cited as our greatest folk hero. But for all his symbolic power, he is a fairly new invention. The lumberjack, as we know him, only came onto the scene as a symbol of American manhood a little over a century ago, at a moment when American men were in desperate need of a hero.
At the turn of the last century, middle-class white men were, everyone seemed to agree, in crisis. They were effete, anxious, tired, and depressed. Magazines and advice books worried that they had lost their vigor—the industrial economy and urban life demanded too much time inside, too much brain-work. Clerical jobs in dingy offices provided few opportunities for advancement to the ranks of the industrial elite, much less for feats of bravery and derring-do. Men trapped in cities began suffering from neurasthenia, a new disease that skyrocketed to almost epidemic status in the 1880s and 1890s. Neurasthenia was the overtaxing of the nervous system, a sort of male hysteria. Some wealthy and educated urban men suffered from what historian T. J. Jackson Lears called “cultural asphyxiation … a sense that bourgeois existence had become stifling and ‘unreal.’” While women were ordered to bed rest for hysteria, the cure for men seemed to be just the opposite: They had lost their vital force, and they needed it back by getting in touch with their primitive, masculine nature. To do so, they looked westward.
The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurathenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines, including this one.
In 1900, The Atlantic published a glowingly romantic portrait of the authentic and natural men of the Michigan lumber camps. In it, Rollin Lynde Hartt described scenes of “jovial hilarity” in the shanty, where the jacks recited songs with “a touch of primitive poetry.” The men danced and played games of rough masculinity—games that, essentially, consisted of beating the hell out of one another, but which seem, in the misty eyes of an urban, East-coast reporter to be harmless “rough jocularity.” The lumberjack, Hartt tells us with almost nauseating sentimentality, has a “brave and generous soul,” no doubt because “the open air breathes a spirit of chivalry.” The lumberjack “speaks of youth and ardor and strong life.” He was everything the effete, over-civilized, urban white man was not.
Describing their lives in town, Hartt created a vision of egalitarian men in touch with their primitive feelings, authentic to the core. They wore badges with their sweethearts’ names on their chest and talked without deference. “I like, too,” he wrote, “the bluff manner of men just raised from the ranks … My host sits, while I stand; half the guests in the hotel tuck their napkins round their throats, as though prepared for a shave or a shampoo.” Here there were no rituals of careful dining, no shows of class through six sets of cutlery. In many ways it reads like the mission statement on the website of a vertically integrated farm-to-table restaurant where everyone eats at communal tables, where drinks are served in mismatched jars, and where there is no pretense. Men are men once again.
Lumberjacks weren’t the only romantic heroes to emerge from the American West. The most famous piece of folklore to come out of the turn of the century’s preoccupation with manliness was the cowboy. Imitating him was the antidote for all the ills of the city; the strenuous life of muscular activity in the open air seemed to prevent neurasthenia. After all, working men weren’t falling victim to nervous bouts. When Teddy Roosevelt felt himself too weak, he journeyed west and bought a ranch. Shooting buffalo, riding horses, cleaning land: This was the stuff of real men. But it wasn’t just the cowboy who could work as a cure. Any contact with authentic work and real nature did the trick. Just look at Tarzan, who originally sprang to life full of primitive strength, tempered with innate (and, to his creator, innately white) moral sense, in the pages of a magazine in 1912. The message of these symbols was clear: Get out of the cities and into nature, and the white man would be more powerful than any of the forces threatening him. Even a weekend at a camp in the Adirondacks or a little woodworking would do the trick.
But the cowboy went fairly quickly from cure to costume. By the time that Calvin Coolidge was parading around in personalized white leather chaps, with “CAL” written in spangles down the side, he was no longer in touch with anything particularly authentic. While the cowboy has held cultural currency as a symbol of manliness—the Marlboro Man was no neurasthenic—we have picked him apart and exposed him as a myth. Westerns have been rewritten to include the loneliness, rough conditions, mud, and violence of the frontier. The Village People added a homosexual subtext, and Brokeback Mountain reinforced it. The image itself got complicated and messy. It’s impossible now to know exactly which form of cowboy a pair of boots is supposed to conjure up.
The lumberjack, meanwhile, endures. Perhaps it’s because the his image seems closer to reality—many jacks did, after all, wear plaid, and they definitely cut down trees—that we don’t feel a need to pick him apart. But the myth of the lumberjack is no more a portrait of working men than Coolidge was a cowboy.
The real lumberjacks who worked the North Woods of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin at the turn of the century lived a reality that held little appeal to the middle-class writers who invented their mythical image. What had once been an industry of small, family-owned lumber camps had begun to scale up to industrial levels, and the men who worked in these camps found themselves in the same position as many Gilded Age laborers: stuck at the bottom of a capitalist economy with little chance of advancement. They saved little money, blowing it on wild drinking binges in town, and existed day to day in an atmosphere of simmering violence. Men were killed by falling trees, log-jams, and fires (the deadliest fire in American history was not the one begun by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, but a forest fire that very same week that ripped across Wisconsin killing hundreds). The men themselves embraced violence and risk. They had little choice when getting by meant risking your life for $30 a month. As one disenchanted ex-jack put it, a lumberjack “might be excused for defending highway robbery or gambling as an honorable occupation, compared with the slavery of the lumber camp.”
While lumberjacks themselves often waxed nostalgic about their own lives, it was not because they found their labor itself particularly satisfying, or felt themselves to be more authentically in touch with the natural world. They were not part of the forest. If anything, they were terrified of it—and for good reason, when it took so many lives. A foreman’s wife noted in her diary that most lumberjacks “would scarce move away from their shadows, so frightened are they of the woods.” Their ballads, memoirs and diaries that chronicle lumberjack life spend little energy describing the natural world, except as a series of hazards. Instead, they reserved the bulk of their nostalgia for drinking, fighting, gambling and visiting prostitutes in town. The honest labor of cutting down trees, the healthful tonic of fresh air, and a well-muscled male body were middle-class romances.
Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that “authenticity” often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of “real” work. A bearded man on OkCupid once told me, upon learning what I study, that he’d always envied lumberjacks because they were so connected to their labor. It must be so immensely satisfying, he wrote, to take carbon and turn it into something of real use. I considered replying with one of my favorite lines from an old lumberjack ballad: “Every bone in his body was broken / And his flesh hung in tatters and strings.” Job satisfaction and the authentic nature of his occupation were not the primary preoccupations of a working lumberjack. Even that fawning Atlantic journalist eventually concluded that he “would rather see one than be one.”
Style is style. Beards and plaid may well just look good, and I hardly think that the man wearing both while coding on a MacBook Air in a coffee shop is really attempting to sell anyone on the idea that he’s an authentic ‘jack. But what middle-class urbanites are playing at is not the “true” workingman of the woods. The caulked boots and bold red sash around a lumberjack’s waist were symbols of reckless daring in a world with few opportunities, except those that often risked death. The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards—are perhaps closer to Coolidge in his chaps. They’re impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.