A Hysterical Account
By Nicholas S. Racheotes | Illustrations by Rinn Garlanger
What a history it has enjoyed: recommended by Holy Scripture, banned by a Russian czar, dignifying a man, degrading a woman, both idolized and feared by children, signifying that a professional sports team is in the play-offs, marking generations of protests, and adorning military heroes. Oh, I could go on, but by now you’ve guessed—it’s the human beard.
If you doubt me and don’t have a rabbi handy, check Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” Then, there was Peter the Great of Russia, who wanted his courtiers to be clean shaven as a sign of how modern and European they were. This decree, rumor has it, will be rescinded by the current leadership of Russia.
Is it a sign of how superficial we’ve become that we believe facial hair endows a scientist or a scholar of the humanities with additional powers of insight? Likewise, what should we make of those generations past who spent their pennies to see the bearded lady in the circus? Many of us as children loved running our fingers through Santa’s fake whiskers as we asked for presents that would drive our parents into near bankruptcy. Some of us, like Mark Twain’s characters, probably shrank down in our seats for fear that the steel-gray-bearded elder, when visiting our Sunday school class, would ask us an impossible question.
On the weirder side, those baseball and hockey players with ear-to-ear plumage deceive us into thinking that their squad will win the series or hoist the Stanley Cup even though both teams are equally furry. I don’t dare leave out the Beats and Hipsters of the 1950s, who wished to ban the bomb, played coffeehouse bongos, wrote avant-garde poetry, and dug progressive jazz. Thereafter came the 1960s, when beards wagged against the war in Vietnam, in favor of civil rights, and to the music of the Woodstock generation and degeneration.
If it hadn’t been for that little girl who, legend attests, told Honest Abe Lincoln that he would look really good in a beard, we might be seeing his chin on the five-dollar bill.
If it hadn’t been for that little girl who, legend attests, told Honest Abe Lincoln that he would look really good in a beard, we might be seeing his chin on the five-dollar bill. Would we be able to tell the difference between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee if not for their facial hair? How would we distinguish between Gene Autry’s partner, Gabby Hayes, and Mel Brooks’s mush-mouthed Gabby Johnson? And I don’t even want to get into Peter, Paul, and Mary.
We’ve had the passages of life marked from the era of beardless youth through the russet foliage of manhood to that of grizzled old age. As for me, I come from the land of Gillette, so my jawline stays in plain sight—and I do mean plain.
Now, mustaches are another story, but they have no place here.
— V —
Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.