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Secret Rituals and Manhood in Victorian America by Mark C. Carnes


Thesis:  “This book argues that fraternal ritual provided solace and psychological guidance during young men’s troubled passage to manhood in Victorian America.  Women’s historians have shown that gender distinctions pervaded nearly all aspects of life; thus manhood entailed the acquisition of a wide range of roles and statuses.  Fraternal rituals accordingly took on many different levels of gender meanings and significance.” Pg 14

Argument:  Mark Carnes argues that men in Victorian America lacked an established social hierarchy, so “independent and feeble” citizens sought strength and acceptance through association.  Fraternal organizations provided men with just that opportunity.  Carnes also says that “nearly all the orders were exclusively masculine institutions, and their rituals were closely linked to issues of gender.  Farmers, industrial workers, and veterans practiced the rituals, not because they aspired to the way of life of the urban middle classes, but because they shared with them similar concerns about gender.”(14) Those concerns boil down to personal fears of becoming or being perceived as effeminate by a man’s peers, so they sought associations that would alleviate the feminization, and add to their masculinity.

Chapter 1:  This chapter discusses the initiation rites and rituals as they were understood by those who lived them.  The actions taken during initiation sought to accept only the brave and courageous men, and leave out those who could not handle the initiation rites.  This was the first step toward building one’s masculinity among his peers.  It also says that organizations sought to efface the most visible expressions of self in order to promote the wealth and health of the group.  The whole was more important than the individual.

Chapter 2:  This chapter discusses the words that were used during rituals, from the prayers and hymns, to the chants and rites read.  The words were important because they were the preachings and sermons of the lodge.  The words have a background in religion, especially the Christian religion, but they had deeper meanings for the lodges because of the inherent symbolism that only lodge members could fully understand.  The words were important because the sermons were what the men heard in the lodge and helped them grow as men.  Even the words of the initiation rites were important, building on the first chapter, Carnes tells readers that when a Knight of Pythias was asked what right granted him admission, he answered “by that of being a brave man.”  Bravery and courage, like strength and prowess, were key to the initiate and the referral of him as a man and a member of that society.

Chapter 3:  Many men believed they were able to find some religious salvation by being initiated into lodges and conferring higher degrees, but many evangelical Christians saw this as an abomination to the salvation rituals of Christianity.  Many higher officials of the lodges agreed that the tensions between churches and lodges were rooted in the differing religious sensibilities of women and men.  Men sought the comfort and company of other men in the lodges and societies because they felt that they were being taught religion by men, instead of the sissified religion of the greater population, usually with female leaders.

Chapter 4:  This chapter discusses the lack of traditional father figures in the homes of 19th century boys, and that being the reason that many found comfort and a strong male leader in the lodges, especially those like the Red Men.  Father figures were lost to long commutes to the city, a lack of teaching one’s sons because a father worked in a factory instead of at home, and the generally shortened time that fathers were at home.  They sought father figures from the elders and leaders of the lodges instead.

Chapter 5:  This chapter hardly aligns with the others, but brings up some new points and deeper understandings of gender and secret societies.  Carnes agrees that gender is a fluctuating being that can be observed and acted out by any person.  He also says that Freemasons Royal Secret was most important, and must be kept secret lest it precipitate major scandal.  “Few Victorian men could have admitted to themselves the truth of the Royal Secret—that they, too, were of a double nature: a unity of assertion and nurturance, of aggression and conscience, and of male and female.”(150)


Much of this book will not prove nearly as useful to me as it did to Clifford Putney, who led me to this book, but Carnes theories of gender construction and gender relationships will prove quite useful in my cultural history of the masculinity surrounding Virginia Tech Football, and the student body.



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