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Books: Hair Apparent

4 minute read

BEARDS (310 pp.)—Reginald Reynolds —Doubleday ($3).

Where are the beards of yesteryear—the “Spade,” the “Tile,” the “Uncle Sam,” the “Van Dyke,” the “Piccadilly Weeper,” the “Cathedral?” Where is the like of Huguenot Admiral de Coligny’s beard, which served as a pincushion for the admiral’s toothpicks? Where is the beaver of iyth Century Bishop Camus of Bellai—a growth so formidable that he used to split it up, as an aid to memory, into the necessary sections and subsections of his sermons? And where is the beard of Austrian Burgomaster Hans Steininger—the one in which he caught his toe, tripped and broke his neck? (It is on display, as a matter of fact, in the Braunau museum; length: 8 ft. 9 in.)

Britain’s Reginald Reynolds, a “confirmed serendipitist” (discoverer of unexpected treasures) and the author of a learned, witty study of sewage-disposal problems (Cleanliness and Godliness, TIME, May 6, 1946), is no nostalgic yearner for the boskier days of old. In Beards he stands aloof (and beardless), a lollipop in one cheek and his tongue in the other, and lets the pro-and anti-beard factions fight it out.

Don’t Fence Me In. Foes of the beard have been sniping at it for thousands of years, heaping it with vulgarity and ridicule. When, says Reynolds, mustachioed Czar Peter the Great rebuked a Western ambassador for being effeminately clean-shaven, the envoy pertly retorted: “Had my royal master measured wisdom by the beard, he would have sent a goat.” Peter, who had a marked tendency to kowtow before degenerate Western ways, was so impressed by this remark that he levied a tax on all Russian beards.

The beard has also been under fire as “a hindrance to spitting and a disturbance to elocution,” a symbol of animal lust and corruption, an impediment to gas masks, an affront to pure womanhood. Detractors of the beard might even argue that the shaven jowl is invaluable in time of war: e.g., the Saxons might have won the Battle of Hastings if they had not panicked at sight of the clean-shaven Norman army. (They concluded that it consisted entirely of “Presbyteros”—which is Latin for “priests,” Author Reynolds hastily explains, “not Presbyterians—a fantasy far more terrifying.”)

Within a Budding Grove. All these arguments are plausible enough, but they cannot hold soup when the pro-beards come into action. Beavered Irishmen, for example, have always insisted that a beard is much handier and more absorbent than a table napkin (Author Reynolds concedes that his source for this is an English historian). Similarly, the 19th Century French Romantics demonstrated beyond doubt that by growing a broad enough beard a man could wear the same shirt collar for months on end. Moreover, as one authority has estimated, a bearded man could learn seven languages in the time spent not shaving.

In their heyday beards were valued for keeping women in their place, preventing chest colds and “clergyman’s throat’ for “[sucking] out the abundant and gross humors of the cheeks,” for concealing weak chins, and for training, “like well-bred wall plants.” Their combings made an excellent stuffing for cushions. When not being wagged, beards could be carried in a velvet bag (as was one 16th Century dandy’s), or their ends were wrapped around a smart walking cane or twined in & out of the waist belt. At night, of course, the beard could serve as an extra blanket or could be screwed into a portable press for an overnight permanent. In short, as bearded Burl Ives remarks on the jacket of Beards: “Every man should try one. They grow on you.”

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