I just recently finished a biography of the life of Jedediah Smith, one of the most famous American explorers, pathfinders, and mountain men. Smith was the first person of European descent to reach California approaching it from the east. Though he died in his early 30s, his life is one of the most exciting stories of American history.
Smith’s world was one of discovery, excitement, potential, diversity, survival, beauty, and terror. Jedediah Smith personifies what it means to be an independent traditional American man. He brought Yankee ingenuity and a Protestant work ethic to lands in which it was never known. The grace of God, along with a hearty determination to survive and knack for knowing when trouble was about to ensue kept him alive. Smith was an honorable Christian man though he had his own share of flaws. He was human. He was American.
One of the most famous stories about Smith involves a battle between him and a grizzly bear. The grizzly bear took off part of his scalp with it’s claws. Smith instructed one of his men to sew his scalp back on including a mangled ear. Without a complaint, Smith immediately jumped on a horse when the stitching was complete and road for miles. He possessed that noble quality once referred to as true grit. In his interactions with indigenous people, Smith was very fair minded, constantly offering gifts to stave off trouble and encourage trade. His descriptions of many varied groups of native Americans are fascinating. Every tribe was very different, and treated him and his men differently. Ultimately, Smith lost his life to Comanches he was trying to make peace with. But this was after many close calls with hostile tribes that he survived. Smith had much to overcome and contend with in the fur trade. Through deserts with no water, mountains with no warmth, and wildernesses with no food, he kept going. Stubborn persistence and optimistic leadership made Smith into the legend he is now.
As I read Barton H. Barbour’s book on Smith, I thought about our own time. It goes without saying that American masculinity is anything but revered—g a clear and unshakable course are not in step with today’s template for a soft and passive male. Jedediah Smith is no longer a hero to hardly anyone in my generation, but neither are Lewis and Clark or Charles Limberg or Teddy Roosevelt. Superheroes are in vogue, but they do not possess the traditional traits of American masculinity. Captain America is perhaps the closest we come, but even he lacks the leadership skills one would hope to find in someone who bears his title. And in a traditional sense, he tends to be the passive one even in his romantic interests. Furthermore, he is not real. Jedediah Smith is. And I wonder whether that is the issue. Reality. Do we as a culture view men in the way they ought to be, or are we attempting to remake them in the image of something they were never intended to be.
Perhaps having an unclear direction is not always a sign of humility. It can also be a sign of cowardice. Perhaps as the Jedediah Smiths of the world have decreased the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have increased. If a man is designed to possess within himself a dream for what could be, a drive for how to get there, and a destination to be proud of, the culture we currently live in does not know how to channel this passion.
One key ingredient for the formation of the traditional American man, and indeed the ideal Western man, was a meaningful destination. When a man knew it was possible for him to take pride in something that lasted, such as people and place, he spent his God given energies on worthwhile endeavors. The bonds of matrimony and duty to God and country set honorable boundaries that directed masculinity. Men were awarded with admiration for raising families and enduring hardship for a greater cause. Most men, if they were not married were preparing to be someday. True fulfillment was found outside of selfish ambition.
Today what we have is a situation in which selfish ambition reigns supreme. There is nothing outside of self to validate masculine existence. Society does not reward selfless endurance. Being a protector and provider for females is seen as degrading since it insinuates that females are somehow incomplete or lacking in some area. But the result is that males lack completeness. They still have desire and drive, but no destination.
In this vacuum in which we live, men have made their own destination based upon primitive hormonal inclinations. There is nothing of lasting value, therefore they will settle for something cheap that temporarily gives the illusion of fulfillment. There is far too much risk in exerting oneself to fight for something one would only be criticized for supporting anyway. If you wonder why the military is hurting for recruits and it seems like just about every politician is corrupt this is your answer. It is far easier and more rewarding to channel dreams and drive into fantasy than it is reality. Video games, Where there is no physical risk, have taken the place of outdoorsman activities. Taking risks and making mistakes in the real world in order to build character for a future destination is not important because there is no destination.
The irony of our current situation is this: Harvey Weinstein with his multimillion dollar house and tuxedo is the barbarian. Jedediah Smith with his wool blanket and buckskin jacket is the civilized man. Smith’s rewards were just over the next peak where their may exist trouble, but there also existed the satisfaction of blazing a trail for others and seeing the world in its virgin form as the Creator made it. Harvey Weinstein’s rewards were not rewards at all. He had the pleasure of titillating his body in relationships that were not real where no one could approve except those of his buddies with whom he joked. His life has been a joke. Unfortunately, he is not alone. Men have become jokes. Have you watched any sitcoms lately?
Recently, many in our culture have sought to expose and shame men for channeling their energies into inappropriate sexual exploits, but I would like to ask this question, “Where should they be channeling their energy?” They are not respected as husbands, fathers, providers, or leaders. When men are left without a destination, dreams will only be shaped by drive, and drive will only be shaped by hormones. My hope for my children is that they will look to men like Jedediah Smith to blaze the trail of their lives. That they will see the importance of transcendent meaning in masculinity. That they will embrace real heroes who actually existed, and exemplify hard work, self-sacrifice and purpose. I want them to pursue real accomplishment, not cheap sexual conquest. Perhaps one day men will realize they have been cheated out of their own identity. Perhaps on that day the American mountain man will reemerge.