Monday, August 04, 2008

The Last of the Big Beards: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

There are many reasons to mourn the passing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today in Moscow, but I think the most important one might be that he was the last living author who could carry off the big, grizzly, ponderous, “don’t mess with me” beard.

He could go toe-to-toe with Tolstoy in this department, something no great American author can even attempt. Philip Roth donning a big ass beard? No. Jonathon Franzen? Maybe a goatee. Michael Chabon? Does he shave?

We’ve got a beard crisis in world literature, and I’m disturbed by it. I grew up with authors like Solzhenitsyn, whose beard basically meant that he wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone, least of all a totalitarian regime, no matter if they sent him to Siberia. Again, would Jonathon Franzen do this?

I’m less worried about the death of the novel or the rise of video games than I am that today’s youth will grow up without such a role model. When they think of big beards, they’ll think of reruns of ZZ Top videos on VH1, and think big beards are a niche domain of rock n’ roll.

Big beards, however, have been a vital part of literary history. Walt Whitman. William Wordsworth. George Bernhard Shaw. Ernest Hemingway.

So, today I mourn Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his beard and all that it represented. Maybe someday I’ll read him.

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