73: John Kasson’s Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man

In Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man, John Kasson argues that “manliness” is always under construction, but manliness at the turn of the century was particularly so.  In response to the emergence of corporate capitalism, the changing nature of work, urbanization, and the New Woman, three men, Eugen Sandow, Houdini, and Tarzan, helped create something called the “Revitalized Man.”  A “model of wholeness and strength,” Revitalized Man transcended the social and political upheaval of the period and united people across classes and genders to celebrate common ideals of masculinity.

Kasson’s is not the first history of manliness at the turn of the century; his choice of a strongman, an escape artist, and a fictional character as subjects intentionally shifts the focus off of Teddy Roosevelt and politics and into an emergent mass spectacle culture.  And because studies of mass culture at this time usually focus on representations of the female body, his choice to study male bodies is disruptive as well.  In different ways, all three figures show how “modernity was understood in terms of the body and how the white male body became a powerful symbol by which to dramatize modernity’s impact and how to resist it.”  They also show how masculinity at this time was closely related to ideas (and anxieties) about racial and sexual dominance.

Each of Kasson’s three subjects takes a very different approach to Revitalized Man.  Sandow, considered the father of modern bodybuilding and a pioneer of physical culture, got his start as a living statue in vaudeville shows, where he posed as a nude Greek statue and shifted position to show off his perfectly defined muscles.  Sandow’s version of masculinity redefined standards for male strength and beauty for a culture anxious about emasculation.  Houdini, the great escape artist, stripped and had himself chained up, submerged in water, suspended – and always escaped as if by magic; in an age of technological rationalization, connecting the naked male body with magical powers helped reaffirm male strength and ingenuity.  And Tarzan, a character invented by frustrated businessman Edgar Rice Burroughs, escaped into the jungle just like Houdini escaped from the “manacles of modern society;” his primitive survivalism and physical prowess helped ease anxieties about modern emasculation as well – even as his survival depended on modern printing technologies.  Notably, all three subjects were white, and their whiteness was integrated into the Revitalized Man as a way of dealing with fears around immigration and anxieties about disempowerment.

My only concerns with this book are its tight focus on pop culture, which limits ties to other social processes, and its insistent attention to whiteness at the expense of other masculinities.  Otherwise, it’s wonderfully well-organized and a well-illustrated, clear companion to fellow Buehle advisee Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization.

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