Category Archives: manhood

158: Carolyn de la Pena’s The Body Electric

In The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American, Carolyn de la Pena examines the relationship between bodies and machines in American from the 1850s to the 1950s.  Using novels, cartoons, trade mags, health fraud investigation records, newspapers, manuals, and other primary sources, de la Pena recovers a wide range of technologies and devices designed to restore the body to its natural state.  In doing so she shows how industrialization led not just to a reorganization and mechanization of production and society, but to a technologically-mediated experience of the body as well.

The Body Electric is divided into three general sections: Dudley Sarget and Gustav Zander’s weight-lifting machines and training programs designed to “balance” the body through uniform muscle development and “unblock” energy trapped within; technologies like electric belts, vibration devices, and magnetic collars (mostly from 1880 to 1930) that supposedly injected energy into the body to increase its reserve force; and radium (radioactive) waters that were taken as tonics and in baths to flood the body with heat and energy, mostly from 1902 to 1940.  Throughout, de la Pena examines the relationship between these technologies and gender (increasing male strength; electrically stimulating male sexuality; curing neurasthenia), class (upper classes went to gyms; middle classes bought a wide range of technologies; working classes bought radium dispensers), and race (a Dr. Pancoast at UPenn treated African Americans by applying x-rays for up to 15 minutes at a time “allegedly” to turn their skin white.)   She also shows how these treatments were often supported with the language of science: the laws of Thermodynamics; offsetting entropy; electric transfer; energy.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this book is that much of this “better living through technology” discourse held on until the atomic bomb, and some of it, like using physical fitness to cure neurasthenia, lives on in only slightly modified language today.

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85: Neil Foley’s The White Scourge

Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture uses whiteness studies as a model for investigating intraethnic divisions and the interactions between race, class, and gender in central Texas cotton culture between 1820 and the early 1940s, when the industry moved from small family farms run by white tenant families and white, Mexican, and black sharecroppers, to agribusiness dominated by nonwhite workers.  Foley pulls his title from a book that characterized poor white cotton farmers as the scourge of the south, but he argues that “the scourge of the South and the nation was not cotton or poor whites but whiteness itself – whiteness not simply as the pinnacle of ethnoracial status but as the complex social and economic matrix wherein racial power and privilege were shared, not always equally, by those who were able to construct identities as Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, Caucasians, or simply whites.”

The book complicates both black/white and South/West geographical and cultural binaries.  Central Texas was southern in its reliance on cotton farming and the sharecropping system, but Mexican sharecroppers and the arid lands to the west and south complicated Southern racial binaries and culture. White cotton farmers experimented with Mexican labor soon after the Texas Revolution; by 1910 white supremacists were calling Mexicans the “second color menace” and trying to prevent them from becoming culturally white.  At the same time, poor whites were being constructed as the “white scourge” because they occupied the same economic class as Mexican and black sharecroppers; their manliness and whiteness were threatened by their inability to become yeoman farmers.  The creation of industrial “factories in the field” in the 1920s, which combined technology and deskilled Mexican and black labor and thus further displaced white sharecroppers, further detached poor whites from the agrarian ideal of white yeoman farmer.  In the 1930s, landlords and owners of these factory farms took advantage of New Deal loopholes and evicted white sharecroppers from their lands, replacing them with cheaper non-white labor.  This last step in the process is dramatized in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where the “fall from agrarian whiteness and yeoman manhood” are linked to losing farmlands.

Foley thus shows how poor whites, Mexicans, and blacks complicated whiteness in central Texas.  With the shift from small family farms run by whites, blacks, and Mexicans to white-owned factory farms that exploited Mexican labor, poor whites became detached from their land and the economic independence that came with it.  Here, whiteness fractured along class lines and become more of a matrix than a monolith.

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.