The New Man and 20th Century Problems front cover

The New Man and 20th Century Problems front cover

by Newton Riddell
Published in 1909 by Riddell Publishing

Back in high school I had the misfortune of attending an assembly where we were forced to listen to lectures from a “motivational” speaker.  How anyone is supposed to be motivated by someone who couldn’t find a better job than speaking to disinterested high school students remains one of life’s persistent memories. I actually suffered through several of these ne’er-do-wells.  There are only two that stand out in my mind.

The first was the ex-con covered in some of the worst tattoos I’ve seen.  I remember that he tried to spice up his introduction with some bad slapstick comedy and then proceeded to tell us about how we should stay away from crime so we wouldn’t be like him. His message would have been more effective had he owned up to the fact that as a result of his life of crime he had to take a shitty job trying to motivate high school students – that prospect might have frightened me to stay on the straight and narrow.

The other that I recall was the Christian sort.  Because I went to a public high school, he had to keep his religious beliefs thinly veiled.  He praised the virtues of delayed gratification and he encouraged us to go the chastity route. He was on tour and pushing his book.  I actually thumbed through a copy of that tripe and discovered a poorly researched tome that fully embraced the teenage moral panics that were all the rage in the 80s: Satanism, heavy metal music, etc.  I recall very distinctly that he misidentified the title of a heavy metal song he claimed was directly responsible for several suicides.  Of course expecting a high degree of accuracy from the high school motivational speaker is a fool’s errand.

What does that have to do with Mr. Riddell and The New Man? Not much actually.  While I couldn’t find much information on Riddell, he apparently wrote several other books and was known in his time a temperance proponent.  His, apparently, self-published book makes frequent mention of his lectures.   How successful he was as a speaker, I don’t know.   But having read the book and Riddell’s philosophy, I imagine that any teenager forced to listen would have been as unimpressed as I was when I had to suffer through motivational speakers in high school.

Riddell lays out a philosophy for a “new man” who “shall combine in his nature the best elements of the types revealed in history – physical strength plus noble birth, plus commercial enterprise, plus intellectual power, plus Christ.”  It’s all a bit much to go into here and isn’t particularly interesting.

Just as I ready to give up on the book, I came across the racy disclaimer that kept me turning pages: “Parts I, II, III and IV deal with the problem of sex and are intended for private reading…” When Riddell says the “problem of sex” he isn’t kidding, he literally thinks that sex is an activity which must be avoided even within the confines of marriage.   He goes on at great lengths about how a man is perverting the sex act by thinking of his wife in a lustful way.

Riddell’s aversion to sexuality is so strong that I am left to wonder its source.  If his book is taken at face value, Riddell seems likely to be one of those rare men who cuts off his own penis in the pursuit of purity. Alternately it seems possible that his aversion to sex was a reaction to a severely repressed homosexuality.  While the latter seems more probable, the former seems much more entertaining.  Either way, you have to figure that any woman he married lived a life of frustration.

At any rate, Riddell’s preoccupation with sex as an act to be avoided was exceedingly humorous. I imagine many of his contemporaries found it just as comical.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to track down a copy of the book, reading it was worthwhile if only for its unintended humor.