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Beards and Masculinity in American Literature

We are living in the era of pogonomania. Put simply, beards are everywhere. Should we regard such flocculence as just a few hairs on the face? Or do beards mean something more? Dr. Peter Ferry, Associate Professor of English Literature at UiS, addresses these questions in his latest book: Beards and Masculinity in American Literature (Routledge 2020).

Bearded man holding book looking straight into the camera Dr. Peter Ferry and his new book

Beards and Masculinity in American Literature is the first study of the symbolic power of the beard in American writing. Focusing on the heavyweights of the canon, led by Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman, Dr. Ferry’s book covers the best beards over the entire breadth of the American literary tradition.

- The main drive of the project is to celebrate the beard. I noticed that many of the great writers in the American tradition not only had great beards, but, more interestingly, they also engaged with beards in their writing. And more often than not in complex ways, explains Dr. Ferry. 

Ernest Hemingway is often the first American writer that springs to mind when we think of the beard: “Hemingway is always put forward as our bearded patriarch. Famous for his Papa beard, Hemingway is still lauded as a marker of the ideal man. But Hemingway, we might argue, had issues with this masculine persona, and these issues appear to manifest in how he used the beard and the act of shaving as tropes in his fiction.”

Dr. Ferry has written and published Beards and Masculinity in American Literature over the course of his time at UiS. Teaching American Literature and Culture at BA level, as well as literary theory and literature at MA level, Dr. Ferry feels that teaching and engagement with students plays a huge part in research: “Students come to texts with fresh eyes. They come with questions and critical readings that force you to either defend your own reading of a text or writer, or they help you see texts in a new light. This is why teaching and research go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”

Beginning with a historical overview of the changing attitudes towards the beard in American society and culture, Beards and Masculinity in American Literature offers chapters focused on the barber and the barbershop in American writing, “the need for a shave" in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction, Whitman’s beard as a sanctuary for poets reaching out to the bearded bard, and the contemporary re-engagement with the beard as a symbol of Otherness in post-9/11 fiction.

Dr. Ferry is working on his next book which will continue his beard research: “While Beards and Masculinity… is a celebration of the beard in works from the American canon, there is the need to move on to look at beard and facial hair in lesser appreciated but equally copious counter-narratives, be it bearded ladies in American history or the flocculently challenged villains in the comic book genre. In other words, there is so much hirsuteness out there that we need to keep challenging, especially when thinking about ideas of gender and masculinity and the beard.”

Dr. Ferry will be holding a launch for Beards and Masculinity in American Literature this semester. Details will be announced very soon.