August 26, 2009

Department of Beards: John Steinbeck's Peacock Beard

On the famous mug of American author John Steinbeck we usually picture a thin private-eye mustache. But I've been reading his later non-fiction Travels with Charley, & in a section where he is describing his camping costume ("utilitarian if a bit bizarre"), he has a fine paragraph in praise of beard:

My face has not ignored the passage of time, but recorded it with scars, lines, furrows, & erosions. I wear a beard & mustache but shave my cheeks; said beard, having a dark skunk stripe up the middle & white edges, commemorates certain relatives. I cultivate this beard not for the usual given reasons of skin trouble or pain of shaving, nor for the secret purpose of covering a weak chin, but as pure unblushing decoration, much as a peacock finds pleasure in his tail. And finally, in our time a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus.

It's a little hard to find photos of Steinbeck's beard. For such a public figure, why is it so hard to find pictures of his bearded phase - is the anti-beard establishment deliberately repressing them? Here's one of Steinbeck lurking behind his son, John Steinbeck IV, a journalist in Vietnam, meeting President Johnson:

Charley is also a fine hairy man. We think of manly Steinbeck, roughing it around the continental United States with his camper & his dog, an American archetype. But Charley is not only a poodle, but a large black French Poodle born & raised in France. (His nationality especially shows in his skill with romance.) With his peacock beard & his French poodle, there's a nice redefinition of American masculinity.

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