The fact remains that all the great literary rows you read about were between bearded men, whiskered men, critics who looked like bursting horsehair sofas, and novelists who had forgotten to shave for years. The Edinburgh reviewers were beavers to a man. The connection between whiskers and caustic criticism is not hard to see.
There is probably nothing which so soothes a man and puts him in a frame of mind to see only good in everything as a nice, clean shave. He feels his smooth, pink cheeks, and the milk of human kindness begins to gurgle within him. What a day! he says, as he looks out of the window. What a kipper! he says as he starts his breakfast. And, if he is a literary critic, What a book! he feels as he takes up the latest ghastly effort of some author who ought to be selling coals instead of writing novels.
But let a man omit to shave, even for a single day, and mark the result. He feels hot and scrubby. Within twelve hours his outlook has become jaundiced and captious. If his interests lie in the direction of politics, he goes out and throws a bomb at someone. If he is an employer of labour, he starts a lockout. If he is a critic, he sits down to write his criticism with the determination that by the time he has finished reading it the author will know he has been in a fight.
You have only to look about you to appreciate the truth of this. All whiskered things are testy and short-tempered—pumas, wild cats, Bernard Shaw, and—in the mating season—shrimps. Would Ben Jonson have knifed a man on account of some literary disagreement if he had not been bearded to the eyebrows? Can you imagine a nation of spruce, clean-shaven Bolsheviks, smelling of bay rum?
There is only one thing to be done. We must go back to whiskers. And there must be no half-measures.
It is not enough for a critic to have a beard like Frank Swinnerton’s, which, though technically a beard, is not bushy enough to sour the natural kindliness of his disposition. We must have the old Assyrian stuff, the sort of beards Hebrew prophets wore—great, cascading, spade-shaped things such as the great Victorians grew—whether under glass or not has never been ascertained.
— P.G. Wodehouse, “Back to Whiskers,” Week-end Wodehouse
The clean-shaven Patrick Kurp can attest to the truth of this, given his boundless indulgence of potboilers, bodice-rippers, and emotive poetry. On the other hand, though, consider the prevalence of beards among today’s young hipsters, a demographic typically unacquainted with either combative ferocity or literary taste. Has cultural evolution decoupled the beard from its traditional representation of masculinity? Did facial hair serve to camouflage, as it were, the real marker of manliness to which we should have been paying attention? Grip strength has been in alarming decline in recent decades. You can bet the old critics of whom Wodehouse spoke all had, in addition to their majestic plumage, a firm, bone-splintering handshake. Today’s bearded youths prefer fist bumps and half-hearted lean-hugs; their feeble hands need only enough strength to keep their omnipresent phones from clattering to the floor. Is it any wonder most of the online literary sites wallow in touchy-feely solipsism? What is best in life? To crush your rival’s metacarpals, to savage his self-published memoir, and to hear the lamentations of his Twitter feed. We’ve fallen far from the old ways.