On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth

Article excerpt

On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. By Jay Mechling. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xxv + 323, acknowledgments, introduction, map, photographs, notes, index. $30.00 cloth, $19.00 paper)

In terms of his qualifications for writing a book on Boy Scout folklife, Jay Mechling is the participant-observer par excellence. He spent much of his youth as a Boy Scout in Florida and has continued to associate with the organization for much of his adult life. His field research is primarily based on his observations of a California troop's annual two-week summer camping trip, an event in which he participated approximately every other year for over twenty years. On My Honor is the story of one such camping trip. Isolated from the quotidian world of family, school, peers, and the national office for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the camping trip / initiation is the crux of an ongoing mentorship program carefully designed to help boys through what Mechling calls "the crisis of masculinity" and to have fun while doing so. He purposefully frames the narrative as a rite of passage for himself, the troop leaders, and the boys.

Scouting has activities all year around, but Mechling does not address the yearly cycle of events. The entire Scouting experience (which may continue from adolescence well into adulthood) is distilled into this one camping trip. Each day is literally a different chapter in the book. The camping trip that Mechling describes is a patchwork of several such trips, an imaginary narrative setting (with an imaginary Boy Scout troop, "Troop 49") into which he inserts composite characters made from thousands of personal encounters with actual men and boys. Discretion concerning his collaborators' identities in the community is appropriate, especially since the most important character-"Pete," the troop leader, based on a real person-says things and allows certain activities that, if made public, could cause problems for a real troop in the real world. Pete, for example, occasionally uses foul language, permits alcohol for his adult staff, and lets the Senior boys keep pornographic material.

The narrative frame is crammed with custom, foodways, taboo, teaching methods, and anecdotes. When Mechling addresses an event of particular interest to him as a scholar, he suspends the narrative and goes into historical and theoretical detail on related subjects. There is a concise description of the origins of the Boy Scouts and a brilliant critical analysis of the Scout Handbook as it has morphed over the years. …