Crying men are here again

Let’s start the new year with something positive. Crying. (I am not being sarcastic.)

A young man weeps in grief by the death bed of a young woman. Engraving by Joseph Brown after James Baker (1846). Held by the Wellcome Library, no. 17312i.

Over the past years, TV shows seem to have shown an increasing number of crying men. The Great British Bake Off; interviews with ex-servicemen; sitcoms like Big Bang Theory; the hugely popular Farmer Wants a Wife programmes across the world: they regularly feature men who let it all out.

This development is not to everyone’s liking, as this interview with Mary Berry suggests, but it remains a fact: crying on TV is pretty acceptable nowadays – yes, desirable in some shows – even for men.

Over the past century or so, however, such public show of emotion has hardly been possible for people of the male gender. North-western Europeans, at least, were living under a strict emotional macho regime under which men were not supposed to show their weaknesses: stiff upper lip and all that.

This has not always been the case. In earlier centuries, crying was much more acceptable for men.

Plate 2 from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Chapter VII: ‘Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair’ (London, 1872). Photos by Duchenne and Rejlander. Held by the Wellcome Library.

Take for instance the 1782 novel Sara Burgerhart, famous for being the first literary novel in the Dutch language. It was written by Elizabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken in response to Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form (Pamela, Clarissa). Sara Burgerhart was popular straight away and went through three editions within five years. Even though Wolff and Deken professed to resist the sentimental fashion of their days, their novel carries the traces of it.

Rhijnvis Feith’s novel Julia (1783) was ‘even’ more sentimental than Sara Burgerhart.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Sara Burgerhart’s guardian, the middle-aged bachelor Abraham Blankaart, shows himself to be a sensitive man from the very beginning. Returning a letter to Sara Burgerhart’s landlady, a widow who has told him the tragic story of her life, he writes:

Would you believe, Madam, that your letter cost me perhaps as many as four tears? Yet it’s the truth. [Again, no sarcasm involved here!]

Sara Burgerhart’s noble love interest, writing to his own brother, also calls himself ‘a sensitive man’. And the third valiant man in the novel (which really is all about a Lovelace-type deceiver) is described by his sister as someone who would ‘dissolve in happy tears’ just from hearing about his sister’s engagement.

The same public approval of male sobs can be gathered from the even greater popularity of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura, which has gone through countless editions since first appearing in the Netherlands in 1839. For the seventh edition, of 1871, Beets wrote a new preface. It was directed at one of his best friends, the friend to which the book had been dedicated from the start. Just before the new edition came out, this friend had passed away. In his preface, Beets sketches the scene of the funeral. His own ‘lonely heart’ filled with sentiment, Beets recounts how even his friend’s trusty carriage driver had

thick tears rolling into [his] sideburns.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, lithography (1882). Image from the Vincent van Gogh Gallery.

So we are talking actual tears, streaming down bearded cheeks. In these popular texts, crying was a sign of civilisation; sentiment the mark of a good man. A decent man showed that he was capable of feeling for his fellow creatures.

In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, ideals of masculinity shifted. In that age of nationalism and militarism, each man instead had to demonstrate he was up to the task of defending his nation. If you were a good soldier, you were a good man.

Although I am necessarily simplifying things here, it looks like there has been a genuine going back and forth in this region’s history of emotions: from an approval of a sentimental masculinity around 1800, to emotional rigidity around 1900, and perhaps, now, back to an appreciation of the more vulnerable emotions of men. Crying is permitted again.

N.B. Nicolaas Beets himself felt that his century saw the dawn of a new emotional regime for men. In his essay on grave memorials he deplores the ‘cold’ macho rhetoric of forerunners like Byron, quoting from his ‘Euthanasia’:

WHEN Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevell’d hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a fear.


But vain the wish—for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And woman’s tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.


  • Wolff and Deken, History van mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, with an introduction by L. Knappert (Amsterdam, 1919), pages 60, 63, 135.
  • Hildebrand/Beets, Camera Obscura (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1982), pages 297, 313.
  • Poetry of Byron, ed. Matthew Arnold (London, 1881).

The forefathers of our populists

Populist politicians are nothing new. And I am not talking about the 1930s. Populists have existed since the beginning of representative democracy, if not longer. This was brought home to me once more as I was reading a story from the nineteenth century.

The story is from the book Familie en kennissen, ‘family and acquaintances’. It was written by one of the few historical Dutch authors who are still read in schools today: Piet Paaltjens. Piet Paaltjens is famous for his ironic verse. But under a different name, the same author – a vicar in everyday life – also wrote sentimental tales in the accessible style of Hans Christian Andersen. His name: François HaverSchmidt. His stories have long been out of print, so I was happy some years ago to stumble on a second-hand copy.

This story, that shows so presagiously the workings of populism, is about two men who share the same house: a cobbler, who lives in the basement; and the owner, a man of independent means who dabbles in poetry. He lets the basement to the cobbler, and occupies the rest of the house himself. He is known throughout country to be a ‘great man’.

Illustration by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht for the third edition (1893). http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/have010fami01_01_0004.php

In 1893, the story was illustrated by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is primarily great for his great inheritance and his great political acumen. After a period of liberal hospitality and generosity towards established leaders of the national Church, he lands in a powerful ecclesiastic position. Next on his list is parliament.

First and foremost, [the great man] was great in his popularity. He was friendliness personified towards all. He not only lifted his hat for every unknown lady with a sweet face, but he even shook hands with all kinds of ordinary folk, stroked the children on the street under the chin – sometimes by accident also their nannies – and greeted the wharf loafers and layabouts by name. ‘They are people too,’ the great man used to say, ‘and we are all children of the same big family.’

On the day he is elected as a member of parliament,

several grocers put out their flags; he had stolen their hearts by making familiar conversation with them on their doorsteps. One of them had even had the text ‘the man of the people’ pasted on his banner in gold paper letters.

Yet men of the people are often better at telling the people what to think, than at listening to the people.

Not long after, one man from the ‘people’, a small cobbler […], was in The Hague, where he had a petition to make […] in the interest of his sister’s children, and on that occasion, [near parliament,] he met the representative of the people, who was in the company of several distinguished gentlemen. At first, he thought that the gentleman looked him sharply in the face, but he must have been mistaken, for one moment later the gentleman passed him at an inch’s distance, engaged in busy conversation and without even the slightest greeting.

It does not become clear in the story what political programme the great man adheres to, but it does not matter much either. His voters do not choose him on the basis of his ideas – they do not choose him on the basis of the way he proposes to solve their problems – but because they believe he embodies ‘the people’. His political programme can be very flexible therefore. And once he is elected, he no longer needs to acknowledge individual members of the people, or attempt to solve their problems.

Cover of the edition digitised by the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/

Quotations are from ‘Een groot man en een goed man’, on p. 14 of the third edition of Familie en kennissen (Schiedam, 1894)

Images are from the edition available in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.