Saturday, February 20, 2016


The cover is an old black and white amateur photo of two boys with their tent.  I’d never heard of “boyology” so I ordered the 2004 book called “Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale.”  by Kenneth B. Kidd.  (That last name doesn’t appear to be a pseudonym, apt as it is.)  Then I went to Amazon to see what other “boyology” books there might be.  What I found was a lot of books like “A Teen Girl’s Crash Course in All Things Boy.”  How to catch boys and make them do what you want them to do.   AAAAIUUUUURRRGH.  RUN!

This serious boy book turns out to be literary theory, quite safe, fascinating, and relevant even for me, who grew up with two younger brothers.  Because they were boy scouts (cubs),  I sat through endless Webelos ceremonies for dens and packs.  My revenge was to intercept their subscription to “Boy’s Life” and read it before they did.  Kidd is talking about similar books about and for boys in the last century:  what they were like, what the writers were responding to in the culture, and the idea of “boy work,” which I thought was about work for boys but turns out to be doing work meant to help shape boys, like being a scout master or running camps.

Reading this book is rather like confronting a cloud of energetic sperm, lashing their tails as they plunge into ever-renewed ideas.  (Culture as ovum?)  After a discussion of feral children -- human babies raised entirely or in part by animals, which leads into mythology and books like “Mowgli”  -- Kidd organizes his remarks into five chapters, plus a final set of remarks called “Reinventing the Boy Problem.”  He manages to get sense out of the ideas about the man/tadpoles by grouping them according to cultural frames, in the sequence of ideas through the twentieth century.

These are the chapters.  I'm coming from a personal point of view.

From the movie "War Horse"

1.  FARMING FOR BOYS.  When I was working as education coordinator for Multnomah County Animal Control and trying to write a training guide, I found a small gentle book suggesting the best way to raise a worthy and competent man was to give the boy a horse to raise.  The qualities needed to support, guide, outwit, and train a horse, this author suggested, would be called out, then rewarded by attachment and growth.  Here in Valier this is still valid.  4-H and County Agent programs operate on this premise, though the animal might be a steer or rabbit or sheep.  These days girls do it, too.

Tom and Huck

2.  BAD BOYS AND MEN OF CULTURE.  As it turns out, when I was growing up, our bookshelves included my parents’ and grandparents’ books.  This category includes “Tom Sawyer”, “Penrod", and “Two Little Savages”.  I loved those books and still have them.  But I read them naively. The insights in this chapter are easily recognized by myself, all the way from “lighting out for the territory” to the struggle with racism — though my experience is more with Blackfeet than blacks, and entangled with the Prairie Clearances more than the Civil War.  Still, it appears that bad boys share some feelings with old women.  

Given where I am, I see the boys’ resistance to small town culture which can be a repressive economics of reputation and business, despite the cultural yearning for the frontier, or at least the homestead farm.  Today that might mean going to Alaska or “going organic”.  This chapter gets tangled up with Leslie Fiedler, University of Montana bad-boy lit critic who sold his house to the Unitarians in hopes that would offend the conventional.  “Montana Gothic” was devised in the basement, but nice people just looked away.  They had a hard time with Huck Finn, too, and Fiedler knew why.

Charles Eastman

3.  WOLF BOYS, STREET RATS, AND THE VANISHING SIOUX.   Evolution and progressive views of life get entangled with each other.  Boy workers and child savers must deal with the shift from the wilderness of the wide open spaces to the wilderness of the tenement and ghetto created by industrialization and immigration.  There’s an echo of the wolf boy — but in accounts of street rats according to Dickens and Horatio Alger they find ways to become educated and cultured.  Prosperous enough for small town bourgeois to admire.  

Even Charles Eastman, Sioux Indian and self-made white man, shows how to leave wolf life to become the man capable of understanding and appreciating opera.  But in all the scrambling around and changing, many fathers left their families.  We forget how fragile the family was when women died in childbirth, many babies died in their first year, and men’s jobs were hard labor to the point of burdening and killing them young.  Child-saving institutions like orphanages and boy work, like camps and Boy Scouts, took up support and guidance.

The issues that persisted were those that crave a bright line between animals and people, and assurance that things are getting better in spite of World War.

Father Flanagan

4.  FATHER FLANAGAN’S BOYS TOWN   Though it is organized around the archetypal “Boys’ Town”, this chapter deals mostly with the advent of juvenile courts and the problem of immigration.  In the end it appears to be a reinstatement of the nuclear family or an imitation of it (little group houses with “parents”)— this time supervised — and a return to conventional conservatism so marked that Newt Gingrich kept trying to make everyone see the movie.  

When first established, these strategies ignored  homosexuality and religions that were not from the Holy Land.  The problems of pedophilia just hadn’t raised their shaggy heads but there was a chill on the backs of necks.  It was assumed that middle-class white Protestants were the norm, even if the founder were Catholic.  When Kidd inquired about the more exotic cases (drugs, gays, foreigners, dark boys), he was stone-walled.  The only actual kid in this book was their guide at Boys Town, which the boy represented as something like a prestige college, what any small town culture would approve.

5.  FROM FREUD’S WOLF MAN TO TEEN WOLF.  This wild chapter takes a leap, with Freud as a badge of authorization, into the queer, the other, the mythological, and the dream-like.  Freud had the Rat Man and the Wolf Man, which (surprise) both turned out to be about money and sex.  But neither patient was a boy.  They were men who had internalized a certain imagery they acquired as boys, those of the chimera (half-wolf, half-vampire, half-merman, half-machine).  They can easily be justified as the subconscious of the nation.  

REINVENTING THE BOY PROBLEM , the final chapter, asks whether the terms of the inquiry have changed.  He says,  "There is no information in these books about how to live below the poverty line, or how to survive racism or homophobia or job de-skilling. . . Put simply, most of the new boyologists deny these real problems in favor of the generic boy crisis, a crisis of self-esteem and gender oppression."  Few dare whisper "psychopath."

Kidd dares to name authors:  Kellerman, Gabarino.  The latter says, "Recognizing the humanity of troubled boys does not mean ignoring or rationalizing their lethal behavior."  School shootings, gang banging.  But the writers can't resist the biological, neurological theories, which bring us back to human evolution with animal as a matrix.  We may have to rethink families as more than fertility-based, and sexuality as a continuum rather than a binary.  And the health system must be more than a sink drain.  (Kidd didn't say that -- I did.)

Not until the very last paragraphs does Kidd admit he found "boyology" abusive and crippling -- personally.  He is persuasive.

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