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New Historiography

In the last third of the 20th century the men’s movement began with men seeking their place in the fabric of society.  Historians and scholars have striven to provide them with answers to some of their most pressing and often asked questions; what is manhood? Why is it important? How has masculinity changed throughout American history? And how can I use masculinity to prove my own manhood?  While there are many different answers to many of these questions, most historians come to the same basic conclusion, that masculinity is a socially constructed set of characteristics that must be displayed in order to gain approval, acceptance, and respect from others.  Scholars differ on the specific characteristics included in manliness and masculinity and how best to display them, but they all agree that there are rules to be followed and that these characteristics are not tied directly to the biological sex of an individual, but can be displayed by any person.  Scholars also agree that gender, that is to say masculinity and femininity, are socially constructed differently in every culture, including subcultures within a larger society, such as working-class people within the United States.  Understandings of gender also change throughout time and place.  A merchant in Boston in 1850 will not have the same understandings or identifications of gender as a farmer in Kentucky in 1890.  Gender is a fluctuating entity that can only be understood in specific instances and is often reimagined as time carries on and as geographic location changes.

More specifically about the time that I am studying, many scholars agree that the latter part of the Victorian Era brought about a violent change in men who sought masculinity through the Strenuous Life, in which men decided they would live without the many comforts that the Victorian Era had provided, and would instead move West to become frontiersmen, go back to the farm to prove their masculinity through outdoor activity, or find an alternative in the city, like sports and recreation at gyms, YMCAs, or clubs.[1]  The change from the Victorian Era to the Progressive Era is what many of my influential scholars focus on in their own works.  Each scholar attempts to show how the changes in social norms stimulated the new ideas of masculinity and gender in the new culture.  These are some of the major ideas that constitute common threads between these scholars of gender history and Men’s history more specifically, but the way that each scholar builds on predecessors is impressive, especially in such a short time.

These scholars share basic theory, but the details of each argument, and how they contribute to their predecessors is important for how I build my own project.  Many of these scholars have at least one major aspects of their argument and story in common, whether it is the time frame, the same class of people who share a cultural history or perhaps a leisure activity or basis in sports.  .  Kimmel uses Gorn’s work on sports to say, “as men felt their real sense of masculinity eroding, they turned to fantasies that embodied heroic physical action, reading novels of the Wild West and cheering the exploits of baseball and football players.’ If manhood could no longer be directly experienced, then perhaps it could be vicariously enjoyed by appropriating the symbols and props that signified earlier forms of power and excitement.”(Kimmel 81)  This is to say that Gorn used boxing as a means of living vicariously through the boxer, via fight promoting, betting and spectatorship so that you have a stake in the fight, and hailing from the same neighborhood as a fighter.  Bederman also builds on Gorn’s ideas of using boxing to show the uneasy balance that race, gender, and class played in the 19th century.  Even after Jack Johnson beat Jim Jeffries for the boxing title, white men used every means necessary to denigrate Johnson because of his skin color and the class he came from.  They went so far as to convict him of trumped up legal charges, and he fled the country, but upon his return he was sentenced to prison and lost everything he earned in the boxing ring; the money, the glory, and the honor and respect.  Gorn had a similar idea, but used nationalism between Britain and the US instead of the skin color of John Molineaux when he fought in Britain.

Kimmel and Putney also have some commonalities when Putney employs some of Kimmel’s theories and ideas.  Namely, the idea that both of these works are based on, that heightened senses of masculinity were based on fear; fears of effeminacy, fears or women in leadership positions, fear of non-Christians, fear of non-whites, fears of rearing sissy boys, fears of all that pointed to femininity and weakness among men.[2]  Both of these writers use 19th century male fears to show how they made these insecurities into strengths for themselves by issuing decrees and proscriptions about what it took to be an American man, and they changed the terms as necessary to ensure that it resonated with most white American men.  This general idea stretches past just Kimmel and Putney, but Bederman and Gorn do not state outright that their understandings of masculinity were based on fear.  With Gorn it is easy to see how pugilism could be based on overcoming the fear of the ring, and that only the brave and strong have what it really takes to win continually and pull themselves out of the poverty that is the working class.[3]

Mark Carnes work is not strictly related to any of the others in this historiography, except through the major themes that tie most every gender history and men’s history together, but his idea of secret, male only societies is reminiscent of the tavern scenes that so much of Gorn’s work is based on.  Gorn provides a vivid scene of dozens of men drinking and carrying on after their workday, and then gathering behind the tavern to witness the fight, and the only women allowed into these areas were barmaids and working girls.  Carnes focuses on the exclusivity of these male only areas to further show that men had to prove their manhood to other men, which resonates with Gorn, but also with Kimmel and Putney.  The fears of masculinity were that other men would make a person feel subordinate to them and they would be seen as effeminate.  This is another major theme that runs through most works I have read on masculinity.

Understanding gender is not easy, and the historians and related scholars of the late 20th century often agreed on only big picture ideas, but changed the details throughout the last three decades, as each began to focus on a slightly different time, space, people group, or a combination of all three.  Although the questions are basically the same, each scholar will find a different answer.  That is where my work comes in.  Few scholars have looked in-depth at the culture of collegiate athletics, especially those at rural area, state funded research institutions.  I will be able to ask many of the same theoretical questions that dozens of renowned scholars have asked before me, but I will find different answers because I am looking at a different culture in a different time and in a different space than those who have influenced my project so far.  Elliott J. Gorn urges historians forward by saying “if historians are to understand working-class people, they must look closely at their folklore and recreations, their pasttimes and sports, for it has been in leisure more than in politics or in labor that many men and women have found the deepest sense of meaning and wholeness.”[4]

[1] Gorn, Elliott J. The Manly Art,  Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization, Michael Kimmel Manhood in American, and Charles Putney Muscular Christianity.

[2] Kimmel, Michael Manhood in America, and Charles Putney Muscular Christianity.

[3] Gorn, Elliott.  Gorn, Elliott.  The Manly Art.

[4] Gorn, Elliott J.  The Manly Art.


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