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Manhood in America: A Cultural History.

Rightfully contending that we have thousands of books about men in history but very few about men as men, Michael Kimmel draws on a host of secondary and primary sources to offer a thoughtful, provocative, interpretive history of American manhood from the early nineteenth century until the mid-1990s. In prose that is wonderfully readable and often witty, he explores changes in the definition of masculinity over time and how men have struggled, since at least the early 1800s, to prove their manhood to women but especially to other men. Along the way, he offers astute observations on everything from nativism to "sissies" to "wildmen."

The crux of his argument is quite straightforward. In the early nineteenth century, three visions of manhood competed for cultural dominance: the Genteel Patriarch, the Heroic Artisan, and the Self-Made Man. It comes as no surprise that the Self-Made Man eventually triumphs, and the remainder of the book is a meditation on the Self-Made Man and his, and the culture's, discontents. In Kimmel's judgment, much of the story of American manhood is the struggle to live up to the cultural standards of self-made manhood, to prove to other men that one is truly manly. To this end, men have repeatedly employed three strategies, sometimes simultaneously. First, men have sought control over their own bodies and their own lives. This emphasis on self-controlled individualism is, Kimmel argues, a powerful component of American manhood. Second, men have defined themselves by excluding others from the orbit of true manhood. Thus, the Self-Made Man was a white man, who cast his ideal image against a screen of undesirable blacks, Native-Americans, immigrants, and sissies. Third, if all else failed men escaped: they went to where they could be "real" men or where they could pretend to be real men, to the West or to television Westerns.

The book contends that these responses have been at work for the last two centuries, that men have met recurrent challenges to their masculinity - challenges posed by a disappearing frontier, changing working environments, burgeoning bureaucracies, political impotence, working and voting women - by employing one or all of these strategies. Thus, in Kimmel's judgment, American manhood has been unsettled since the early 1800s, a proving ground that forever leaves most men feeling dissatisfied and unsteady: hence, a recurrent need and desire to prove oneself, to reshape the body in order to master the self, to denigrate blacks, Jews, Indians, and others as unmanly, to flee to the natural world of Natty Bumppo or Dances with Wolves.

All of this makes for wonderful reading, and Kimmel has read widely. His nicely paced narrative suggests that today's tensions about masculinity have deep roots, that there is in American culture an ongoing tension among the ideal of the Self-Made Man, men's inability to live up to that ideal, and visions of manhood that challenge that ideal. What we have then, is a history of masculinity and a history of masculinities, although for Kimmel the history of the latter, as he concedes, is only meant to shed light on the former. It will be left to others to explore in depth the history of working-class manhood, black, Hispanic and Native-American manhood, and gay manhood.

Kimmel's assumption that masculinity is persistently in crisis, that manhood is a relentless proving ground that makes losers of most men, pays rich dividends, but it is not without problems as a mode of analysis. While it enables him to analyze a dazzling array of topics through the lens of masculinity - Andrew Jackson, the Gold Rush, Moby Dick, Ragged Dick, Social Darwinism, The Wizard of Oz, the Arts and Craft Movement, shell shock, Frederic Remington, fraternal organizations, Muscular Christianity, Superman, gangster movies, film noir, Joseph McCarthy, Charles Atlas, Playboy, Students for a Democratic Society, JFK, LBJ, Reagan and Rambo, Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, and George Bush to name a few - and to make trenchant observations about the instability of masculinity, there are drawbacks to this approach. By emphasizing such instability, there is the risk of overstating the fragility and incoherence of masculinity in American life, thereby making it difficult to understand patriarchy as a cultural system. If men are this confused and unsure of themselves, one might ask, then why has women's struggle for equality been so difficult, why has patriarchy been so resilient, and why have so few men posed feminist alternatives to the Self-Made Man ideal?

Kimmel's assumption that the history of masculinity is a story of cultural debate, of an ideal always in doubt, leads to another important question. While Charles Ives, Norman Mailer, or Bruce Springsteen for that matter may directly or obliquely ponder the meaning of masculinity and wrestle with its inner demons, what about the ideology of everyday men, of husbands and fathers who worked in factories, mines, and offices? What was their conception of masculinity? While Kimmel poses partial answers to this question, his focus is clearly on the cultural debate about masculinity. It will be left to other researchers to probe the meaning of masculinity to common men, men who went off to work everyday to support their families and spent what time they could with their wives and children. With these men, we may find less doubt about the meaning of manhood than Kimmel suggests and more certainty about what men's relationships should be to their wives, children, and communities.

Clearly, the study of the history of masculinity is in its early stages. It will be for other historians to explore at closer range and with more attention to the lives of common men the questions Kimmel so trenchantly poses in this fine, ambitious book. For all those interested in the history of American masculinity, this book should be the starting point. The scope is vast, the observations are astute, and the author's wide reading and good judgment are evident on every page.

Robert L. Griswold University of Oklahoma
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Griswold, Robert L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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