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American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era.

Changes in concepts of manhood are not new. The author argues that a revolution in the meaning of masculinity has occurred twice over the past 200 years.

In colonial America, he says, communal manhood -- emphasizing social bonds and a man's place at the head of the household -- dominated men's lives. But at the dawn of the nineteenth century, a new "self-made manhood" emerged. It stressed competition and integrating men's identity to the workplace.

A second revolution occurred in the twentieth century manifesting itself as "passionate manhood," based on aggression, combativeness, and sexual desire exposed. That upheaval in society may have run its course; the women's movement, coincidentially, waged with a renewed assertiveness for equality, exposed problems for men in a male-dominated society.

Professor Rotundo, a teacher of history, analyzes the moral and psychological paradoxes of becoming a man while the natural bonds between mothers and sons (as well as fathers and sons) are violated by the forces generated by mistaken concepts of manhood.

In researching the book, Rotundo declares that he was surprised to discover how seriously the matter of gender divides society -- as much as the clashes generated by race, religion, class and ethnic background. The life opportunities of people on one side of the schism are distinctly different from those of people on the other side.

Seeking clues to the fundamental nature of manhood, the author became convinced that true manhood is a human invention ... that people have invented elaborate stories about what it means to be male and female. "Each culture," he insists, "constructs its own version of what men are -- and ought to be."

The first of these phases, communal manhood, developed in the densely woven social world of colonial New England," Rotundo writes. "There a man's identity was inseparable from the duties he owed to his community.

He fulfilled himself through public usefullness more than through his economic success and the social status of the family in which he was born. It gave him a place in the community more than his economic achievements. Wife and children were also established with a social identity.

A man who failed in an enterprise created shame and embarrassment because the community's adhesiveness was strengthened by neighbors and kinsmen who were his clients, creditors, and close observers. An entire family became stigmatized also by the failure of sons. (Compare this attitude to the public's patience today, when a president's son allegedly becomes entwined in morally questionable behavior in business.)

"People understood manhood not only in terms of social setting but also in terms of its contrast with womanhood," the author discovered. "The fundamental belief about men and women before 1800 was that men were superior. In particular, men were seen as the more virtuous sex." They were credited with greater reason, which enabled them to moderate ambition, defiance, and envy more effectively. It was also believed to set the stage for many forms of inequality between the sexes.

By the late eighteenth century and through the decades of the nineteenth century, the communal form of manhood made way to self-made manhood, Rotundo notes. It emerged as a part of changes stirred by the birth of republican government, the spread of a market economy and the growth of the middle class.

In this new world, a man took his identity and his social status from his own achievements ... men fulfilled themselves through personal success in business and the professions. The concept of virtue in public service declined.

In the new era of individualism, manhood was rated by a man's ability to achieve dominance in his work and in society. In a climate of relentless ambition, others had to esteem women to be useful in protecting the bonds of society. Women's moral sense was considered stronger than that of men. Women were now viewed as the source of virtue. But women also continued to seek their social identities from those of their husband, and were expected to shape male character in both husband and children.

"The most dramatic change by the end of the 18th century, was in the positive value put on male passions," the author reports. Ambition and competitiveness were now admired; tenderness became a cause for scorn.

Another source of shock to the modern male may have been the change from "man as head of the household" to a social order envolving where women serve as the head of a family and in many cases producing or adopting children without benefit of a father. The Puritans, the author notes, shaped New England's institutions and customs based on their religious beliefs. Their God was a man, and when He created humanity, He made a man first and then made woman as his helpmate.

"When the men of early New England explained their superiority ... they spoke of their greater strength of body and mind ... In a world where all but a few people lived by the work of their hands, men's physical strength seemed to qualify them better than women to support the household," the author explains. The Puritan rationale. Since men were credited with greater strength of mind, they seemed more fit than women to make wise decisions. To head a household, for all intents and purposes, was to be a man."

The book is masterful in its presentation of historical content and the author's ability to delineate the changing course of man's conception of himself and his duty toward his family and community. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, and the further advent of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, males had little difficulty in dealing with their role as dominant males. Seldom were they challenged by the opposite sex.

But the new century brought with it forces that shook the support structure of male dominance -- so much so that a frenzy set in, more than ever men began to equate manhood with physical strength, endurance, and the unbridled aggressiveness of primitive man. Portents of the coming "macho male," were appearing on the horizon.

The book is a treasure for anyone who desires to understand the transformation of the American male and how his well-being is crucially connected with true concepts of manhood.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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