Andrew Meschter is an Ivy Style reader who has just released a book on gentlemanly deportment for young men entitled “As Iron Sharpens Iron: An Adventure In Building Gentlemanly Character.” It began three years ago when, as Meschter puts it, “Two prep-school headmasters asked me to write a book about gentlemanly character for young men in the ‘knucklehead’ age range of 17-23.” Ivy Style caught up with the author to find out more about the book, his background, and his hope for the future of American gentlemen. — CC
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IS: How did this book come about?
AM: A few years ago two prep-school headmasters asked me to write a book about gentlemanly character for young guys in high school and college. They approached me because they each read this other book I wrote about the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, a Pennsylvania Army National Guard unit in which the members donate their drill pay in a tradition of gentlemanly service that dates back the unit’s founding in 1774. That book had a lot to say about Old Philadelphia and its gentleman ethos inherited from the days when Philly still belonged to the British Empire. This ethos had a funny combination of selfless service, thrift, and duty to others, combined with raucous behavior, cavalier style, and hatred of pretension. That quirky combo of high culture and down-to-earth humility summed up this idea of being a gentleman—not just on the outside with clothes and manners, but on the inside, with character.
IS: What direction did they give you?
AM: They gave me no direction whatsoever. And I had no idea how to approach this new book. After three years of scratching my head, an editor in Colorado suggested I frame it as a personal memoir about how I learned about the gentlemanly idea as a kid growing up near Philadelphia, with subsequent experiences as a student in England, and then as a soldier on Army deployments in Iraq and Egypt, not to mention some romantic boy-girl mishaps along the way.
IS: What is the gist of your message for young “knuckleheads” at this point in time?
AM: It revolves around Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If…,” which is sort of a laundry list of traits to be a well balanced guy who can hold his own in any situation: “If you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch, If all men count with you, but none too much…” My book combines personal trial and error stories with academic knowledge I acquired as a graduate student in England about how the idea of the gentleman goes way back to the ancient Greeks, Israelites, medieval knights, American Founding Fathers, and British “public schools” (boarding schools) in the 19th century, on through the “preppy virtues” taught at American prep schools in the 20th century.
The main theme is a thing called “leveling upward,” coined by E. Digby Baltzell, the Philadelphian who also coined the term “WASP” back in the 1960s. It’s the idea that the best way to create equality among people is to inspire everyone to high standards, to “level upward” instead of trying to force people down to low common standards, or leveling downward. The phrase “As Iron Sharpens Iron” implies that people can only grow when they have healthy conflict with each other. A gentleman can disagree with people and still be friendly, a crucial trait these days when even blogs about clothing can get political. Ultimately, we can sum it up this way: “A gentleman seeks to be as strong and cultivated as possible while always putting others above himself—while doing so with style.”
IS: What advice do you give in the clothing chapter?
The clothing chapter is my favorite. After all, clothing often inspires guys to act like gentlemen. When you dress like a gent, you want to act the part. Your magnificent essay about the rise and fall of the Ivy League Look really inspired me because it added a sense of history to clothing. Just as soldiers wear uniforms for morale and cohesion, so do gentleman. A gentleman’s uniform is much more playful than a soldier’s, but it tends to adhere to collective standards passed down over the generations. In America, the Ivy League Look is the backbone of that uniform. If you see how uniforms develop, they tend to get more casual over time. Yesterday’s casual wear becomes tomorrow’s formalwear (such as tailcoats and business suits). But the spirit is always the same. Gentlemen always favor simple, proven, high-quality clothes that are well tailored. My interest in this hit me as a kid one day when I noticed how cool my dad’s Brooks Brothers pinpoint oxford shirts looked. They had this special sheen and drape that I inherently knew was special, even as a 16-year-old.
Anyway, Britain has been the leader in this aesthetic since the age of Beau Brummel, and we have our own version of it through Brooks Brothers and Ben Silver and J Press. Ralph Lauren has been great with spicing it all up and keeping it relevant. (If you get too conservative, you might as well be Amish.) In Philadelphia, Ivy Style tends to be way more casual than it is in New York and DC, especially day wear, but we have much more formal clothing for evening events. Philly is probably like Vienna or Charleston with its evening wear formality—lots of occasions to wear white tie (tails) and black tie.
The cool thing about the American gentleman’s uniform is that it is oddly egalitarian. Sure, it’s aristocratic and therefore elitist, but it’s an open elite. Anyone who wants to associate with American gentility is welcome to start dressing like a gentleman. Traditional clothing is so accessible, it’s so well made you can always buy things on eBay for a steal. And it’s all so simple. The basics never change. You get a pair of chinos and an oxford shirt from Brooks, keep a blazer handy with a necktie in the pocket and you can basically go anywhere. More than once I’ve worn such a rig while climbing onto the roof of a building on a late-night bet.
IS: What has the feedback like so far?
AM: Feedback so far has been very pleasant! Which is nice, because I agonized over how to make the book fun, informative, and breezy for my target audience of prep-school boys and college students.
IS: Did the project leave you more or less optimistic about the future of gentlemanly character?
AM: The project made me extremely optimistic about the idea of gentlemanly character, because the concept is so timeless. It appeals to deep yearnings in human nature. Who doesn’t want to live in a place where people use their talents to become their best selves, to serve others, and to look pretty good while pulling it off?