Know Hope, O Bearded Sons of Maine!
"It would be insufferable," the philosopher John Locke declared in 1704, "for a professor to have a reverend beard overturned by an upstart novelist."
I don't know what prompted this outburst. But speaking as a onetime upstart novelist, and now a bearded professor of sorts, I applaud Locke's use of "reverend" and his clear equation of beard-wearing as a mark of wisdom and maturity.
After twenty-one winters in Maine, during which time I have tried all sorts of things with my facial hair, I am throwing in the towel. I am letting my beard grow. Sometime around Thanksgiving, having given up on a Hollywood stubble, I quit trimming entirely. By Christmas I was just starting to look Santa Clausy. Today, as our predictable late-January cold snap stretches past Groundhog Day, I can hold my own with the venerable codgers up the road at the local convenience store and village hangout, a place notable for the predominance of pickup trucks among the winter-beaters out in the parking lot.
The bearded Mainer is no doubt a stereotype. But I think it's the kind of stereotype that reveals some underlying truth — in this case, a truth about the character of our state and of the kind of people who thrive here. A clean-shaven Paul Bunyan would look like a poser, an attorney-turned-weekend-rusticator. What are you compensating for with that axe, little fellow? But throw in the beard and he becomes a man you do not want to mess with.
A beard, in contemporary society — and I'm talking here about real beards, not vacation beards or soul patches or photo-shoot facial accessories — betoken a spirit of independence, a defiance of fashion, a turning of one's back on the whole culture of eternal youth that enthralls our brethren in places like Beantown or the Big Apple. In Maine, even gay men don't affect to be forever 21.
My chief anxiety, now that I've resolved to go the Full Ulysses, is that the bearded look will, against all reason and probability, become fashionable. Indeed there are early warning signs that this might be happening. Al Gore, who has a way of jumping in early to all kinds of things, may have inadvertently pioneered this trend a couple of years ago — prompting Chris Matthews to liken his new look to that of "a Bolshevik labor organizer." But the fashion, if it is indeed a fashion, has spread faster than iPad jokes. Actor John Hamm, an icon of traditional American masculinity who leads the cast of the best show on television, wowed comment-threaders of both sexes with his unabashed full-facial. Michael Stipe, dean of indie-rockers, has followed suit, along with Bruce Willis and Jason Bateman.
My favorite blogger, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic — a self-described "bear" himself — after issuing a beards-are-back proclamation nearly four years ago, has taken to celebrating "beard love" with almost embarrassing fulsomeness. He has lately offered pointers to simpatico sites around the web — which, as you surely feel in your bones by now, are varied and abundant. All About Beards is self-explanatory. Beard Review offers literate commentary and delves into such explored terrain as "Sunni Beards of Philadelphia." Dyers.org, purveyor of "softcore hobography," provides a helpful chart of 33 basic beard types, ranging from the Balbo to the Rap Industry Standard.
New-media gourmands will want to check out "The Longest Way 1.0," a time-lapse Vimeo record of one man's 4500-kilometer beard-growing odyssey across the vast land mass of Asia. And red-blooded patriots (I'm thinking of the pickup-drivers at the local convenience store) can take pride in the fact that Beard Team USA totally rocked the 2009 world championships.
Where is all this headed? Will I resist the growing temptation to lace my all-white whiskers with a judicious dose of Just For Men? I'll let you know by blackfly season.