These two writers, both of whom seem to have the very best of intentions, want to believe -- and therefore want us to believe -- that the fundamental nature of the American male is changing. Although Gloria Emerson acknowledges that "the old definition of masculinity still persists," she and Elizabeth Mooney clearly are convinced that it is in the process of revision, that men increasingly exhibit characteristics traditionally regarded as feminine. This they see as a good thing.
Perhaps it is, but neither Emerson nor Mooney has managed to make a good book out of it. Emerson's is the more accomplished of the two; she is an experienced reporter who knows how to get people to talk, and there are a few patches of interesting talk in "Some American Men." But neither writer ever really manages to get her book much beyond the boundaries of her own immediate concerns and experiences, so each book is far more limited and self-regarding than its author would have us believe.
The first problem is that both writers deal almost exclusively with middle-class, white, professional men, many of them of the yuppie persuasion. Emerson does visit some unemployed and/or underemployed blue-collar workers in Ohio -- it's the best part of her book -- but this is just about the only acknowledgment in either book that not all men are the same as those with whom the authors are well acquainted. The result is that both books take narrow surveys and attempt to draw larger morals from them than they can support.
Yes, it is true that if you draw a sample of men in certain neighborhoods of Princeton, Cambridge, New York and Washington -- these being the authors' principal territories -- you are likely to find men who are less inclined toward machismo and more inclined toward "feeling" and "caring." They may be less likely than men elsewhere to be imprisoned by those masculine traits defined by Emerson as a need for physical risk, a fear of humiliation, an obsession with work, an inability to express deep emotions; talk to enough of these men and you will believe, as Mooney does, that "machismo is disappearing in the middle class."
Both authors devoutly wish this to be true. Emerson, though she repeatedly tells us how sympathetic she is with men, writes scathingly about manifestations of the "old" masculinity. Over and again she writes about what she sees as men's fear of humiliation. "Sometimes men are moved to make threats," she writes, "to promise a terrible commotion will take place, a regrettable scene, when they do not wish to fight at all or are unable. To be peaceful, in unbearable circumstances, is a concession too dangerous to make. Others are watching." This we are meant to read as commiserative, but it is actually contemptuous; against the fearful and hostile male Emerson posits the peaceful female, leaving no doubt as to where virtue lies.
Mooney, in her own way, does the same. At one point she tells us that "it is somewhere written that among men emotional leaning is bad form," a sweeping if preposterous generalization that echoes repeatedly in "Men and Marriage." With approval she quotes a young woman who says, "I think men are very confused about their role today. They feel under pressure." Mooney's book is crammed with amateur pop psychology such as this, much of it in fact coming from the mouths of psychologists -- in whose mumbo jumbo she places inordinate confidence. Like the producers of television programs, she seems to believe that if a psychologist or psychiatrist says it, then it can only be right.
What is especially irritating about Mooney's book is that her research, such as it is, consists almost entirely of chatting up the shrinks and long soul sessions with her friends. "Men and Marriage" treats the matters promised in its title only glancingly at best; instead it rattles on interminably, with no particular rhyme or reason, from a chat with one friend over tea to another with another friend over wine to yet another with yet another friend over coffee. It isn't so much a book as a diary, populated by a great many people whose self-absorption -- especially among the younger ones -- borders on the breathtaking.
That both books are the work of women seems to me largely incidental to their mediocrity; women often see men more clearly than men do themselves, and their insights are often penetrating. The problem, rather, is that neither book displays any measurable amount of original thought or research. Both authors merely sat down with a few friends and acquaintances, listened to them talk, and made the mistake of assuming that there were universal implications in what they heard. But it was really only chatter, and of interest solely to those most immediately involved.