Tracing American Masculinity
Since the early establishment of America as a nation, it managed to maintain its position in the world as a super power. The land of the braves was founded upon certain qualities that made it gain a reputation as the land of the dreams. This notion accompanied the flourishing period in the American history, when the Industrial Revolution was a direct factor in turning the faith of the Americans.
From the independence to the nineteenth century, the concept of the self-made man was the mark of the new optimized man; the man who have potentials of leadership, control and authenticity. However, this man struggled with many socio-cultural factors that caused his disillusion and frustration by the early twenty century; the war was the main influential factor that reversed many concepts which caused a change in the American norms of life.
Literature was the medium to raise conflicts. Literary men saw themselves primarily concerned with the change that they wrote and documented the historical trauma on pieces of art. Themes of war, death, wealth, sufferance, pain, sex and masculinity were the subject of literature. Homosexual characters, soldiers, emasculated men and strong furious women were portrayed along the narratives. Accordingly, this chapter tends to link the history of the American man with the literature that embodies his sexual and masculine characteristics starting from the early settlement of the colonies in the New World.
The very notion of manhood has largely changed by time, by the needs and by the perceptions of that particular idea of what is to be a man. In order to investigate the meaning of manhood in America, it is recommended to follow the change occurred along the shaping of the targeted civilization; this goes back to the socio-historical background that shapes the individual’s understanding of the different concepts surrounding him.
In his book entitled Manhood in America: A Cultural History, Kimmel (1996) claims that the universe of men was stratified by those ideals which characterized masculinity in America. The Genteel Patriarch appeared first; their Christianity and living for God shaped their understanding of their existence, so they had been men of God, and on this idea they founded Jamestown in 1607(Kimmel, 2006). However, by the coming of the Heroic Artisan to the South, establishing the first colony of Virginia town in the early 1600’s, they struggled in the wilderness (VanSpanckeren, 2007). Oppressed by the planters’ morals and dominance, their faith in God and their loyalty were questioned; the notion of man of God was no longer valid; Planters needed a change to cope with the new life conditions in order to create a revolutionary man, one of leadership (Kimmel, 2006).
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison were perhaps the best-known models for the Genteel Patriarch. For them, manhood had the characteristics of the classical European definition of man; a dignified aristocrat, a man with an upper-class code of honor and a character of exquisite tastes and refined sensibilities (Ibid).
The Southern man had an inner masculine quality that was his inward strength which shaped his status as a man (Ibid, 2006). He represented the idol gentleman, a man of chivalric manners and good breeding; a man of good social position; a man of wealth and leisure. As Flora &MacKethan (2001) make it clear in The Companion to Southern Literature, such gentlemen followed the style of their homeland England, holding the manners and the qualities of the European men such as courtesy, fortitude and justice. The Southern notion of masculinity, as Gros (2010) quotes, represented a “powerful statement about the ruling class’s claims to legitimacy and authority” (p.3).
Ironically, as a consequence of the Civil War, the new south had to reconstruct its definition of manhood, the notion of the southern planter and the chevalier had to be reconstructed. Kimmel (1997) states the following:
Being a man meant also not being a boy. A man was independent, self- controlled, and responsible; a boy was dependent, irresponsible, and lacked control. And language reflected these ideas. The term manhood was synonymous with “adulthood.” Just as black slaves were “boys,” the white colonists felt enslaved by the English father, infantilized, and thus emasculated (p.18)
Kimmel uses the term ‘the English father’ referring to the origins of the colonist, as a European man who kept the principals of his home land. The heroic artisan kept his original identity.
The new revolutionary man, the Genteel Patriarch of the North, proved himself as a man; the notion of the self-made man was taking place. However, the Southern planter was trying to find a way to make his own model of the self-made man; a hegemonic form of masculinity was needed (Friend, 2010).
Between 1774 and 1848, for the newly born nation to achieve freedom and democracy, America created its own unique hero, the self-made man, modeled after actual historical figures (Kimmel, 2012). They are self-disciplined, individualistic men who did successfully sacrifice themselves for the development of the country (Ibid). Their moral fortitude and way of life are recorded in the form of nonfiction novels, biographies and autobiographies, such as Benjamin Franklin’sAutobiography (1791) and John Marshall’sThe Life of George Washington (1859). Regardless whether it is self-fashioning or not, the contributions by the nation’s founding fathers are soon tobecome mythologized as the national and individual goals are always the United States of America. Further, Leverenz (1989) in Manhood and the American Renaissance devotes a whole chapter noting that the self-made man and the heroic patrician had a clash for dominance. The two fierce qualities of the old planter and the new self-reliance man were one of control, not over women, but rather, over the other men for sovereignty (Kimmel, 2006).
As the emergence of the new self-made man, America was changing. There were the industrialization, the urbanization, the capitalism and especially the notion of the self and the existence (Kimmel, 2012). In order to cope with the new mode of life, Americans had to break traditions and conventional modes of form which imitate the potentiality of man paving the way for a new understanding of the self and the one’s potentialities in this modern life (Ibid, 2017). Thereby, America created a new quality of man, a quality which had mental issues, disorder and illness. The means of man of the pre-modernism era were vanishing (Ibid, 2006).
The new man goal of life was an illusion caused his self-destruction, whether for money, love or a social position. In their book, Masculinity Reconstructed, Levant &Kopecky (1995) emphasize on the change and identifies those new traits as “sensitive man ideals, dependent, sensitive and compassionate” (p.17). The existence of those traits is due to the living conditions which were getting much better than the past what made the responsibility of man less important and less demanded. Brett (2014) argues that the easiest life conditions were the less was the emphasis on manhood.
The American Revolution(1775-1783) finished by the first independence from the colonial power in the American territories, and this triumph was considered as the first step toward a great destiny (VanSpanckeren, 2007). In addition to the remarkable political writings, there were other works of note which marked the beginning of the American literature (Ibid).
By the end of World War One, The USA became the supreme hegemonic power (Kimmel, 2006). In order to maintain its supremacy, it turned its attention from arts to the new modern life. Accordingly, literary men felt estranged with the new mode of life, their writings were no more appreciated and had less appeal than used to be (Monk, 2008). Thereby, characters persona changed as the change of the different notions of life, existence and manhood. Modernism, the new mode, offered a new way of understanding the world, since many people came to be disillusioned by the previous trends (VanSpanckeren, 2007). By extending the relationship between artists and the representation of reality, modernism implied a break with the past artistic conventions which created a literature of crisis and dislocation, desperately trying to shape the new world (Ibid).
In their book entitled Modernism 1890-1930, Bradbury &McFarlane (1976) describe modernism as:
an art of a rapidly modernizing world, a world of rapid industrial development, advanced technology, urbanization, secularization and mass forms of social life”, but also” the art of a world which many traditional certainties had departed, and a certain sort of Victorian confidence not only in the onward progress of mankind but in the very solidity and visibility of reality itself has evaporated (p.57).
They believe that modernism shifted the old lifestyle of the Victorian era, where the rapidly changing world caused a remarkable change concerning the reality itself.
Malcolm Cowley, in his memoir Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s, describes the nature of American life between the wars as “joyless and colorless, universally standardized, tawdry, uncreative, given over to the worship of wealth and machinery” (Quoted in Hollander, 2009, p.93). The beginning of the twentieth century changed life’s old conception of hope and joy, pride and glory, love and passion. It was a whole new setting that the literary men felt committed to investigate.
The Lost Generation Group is a group of American literary figures who lived in Paris between 1920 and 1930 in order to find sources and meanings for their writings (Monk, 2008). The first use of the term ‘Lost Generation’ was pointed to Hemingway by Gertrude Stein; she said to him, that he is all a lost generation (Ibid). Talking literary, the term was associated to those who were born by the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Those people were influenced by the World War One trauma they witnessed, and they reflected this influence on their writings (Ibid)
A new genre thus appeared taking the place of the old traditional dimensions of man and life of the Victorian literary style of heroism and challenge (Ibid). Living in France gave those writers an outsider’s view of the land of the free which they had not had before; they were able to criticize and evaluate the new life differently, the case where Gertrude Stein explains “That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separated from themselves, it is not real but it is really there” (Quoted in Winnett, 2012, p.206)
In this group, we find many known figures like Thomas Sterns Eliot with his poem Four Quartets, Gertrude Stein the writer of Tender Buttons, F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway with his novel The Old Man and The Sea, John Dos Passos, the author of TheU.S.A. Trilogy.
The new literature, ‘Modernism’, re-shaped the role of the heroic characters of the Victorian era; from a high-status persona to powerless figures who would never win their battles in the narratives, a sense of lost and disillusion was accompanied by the rush of the 20th Century industrialization (Monk, 2008). Consequently, the modernist American writers of the new era were interested in exposing themes of sexuality, desire, masculinity, confusion, ambiguity, anxiety, insanity, sufferance and gender in their writings especially as the result of capitalist materialism and war (Domotor, 2012). For instance, J. Gatsby never gains the love of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, while the heroic figures in Hemingway’s narratives are having complexities with the other sex, a sense of sufferance and dependency.
The style of literature produced was new, which was reflected in many writings. Writers broke the old patterns by disrupting traditional syntax and form of the text in order to present events and themes in a new fresh way (Monk, 2008). Highlighting the psychological reality and presenting the inward qualities of the character, the literary man incorporated multiple tools like the use of many narrative voices in order to portray the different angles of life (Domotor, 2012). Also, modernists tended to use the stream of consciousness, the non- sequential narration, the use of fragmentation, juxtaposition, symbols, allusions, metaphor, substitution, imagery and the open or ambiguous endings to enrich the narratives.
Using those devices, modernist writers’ themes tackled how the modern life alienated the individual for his nature as human and that the past forms of power are decayed emphasizing on the will of the individual in his society (Monk, 2008). Art and the artist were the main issues treated, wherein art is deemed refuge and salvation for individuals dreading reality, and the artist embodies heroism and sensation. Language, though seemed simply constructed, holds a complex deep meaning.
VanSpanckeren (2007), in her revised book entitled Outline of American Literature, argues that writers like Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were known as the spokesmen for their generation. Fitzgerald, for instance, painted the fatal glamour of the generation, portraying his characters as devastated dreamers seeking the pleasure of life, capturing the glittering, desperate life of the 1920s. On the other hand, Hemingway wrote of war and death triggering the issue of manhood and masculinity.
The characters were portrayed as tough, but disappointed soldiers and athletes who were most of the time scarred which mirrors the trauma of the war he participated in, not the case of Fitzgerald. W. Harrison Faulkner also brought the old days about the rise of a self- made plantation owner and his tragic fall (Monk, 2008). Faulkner used different techniques and devices like the narrative chronology and narrative voices in a rich baroque style structured by remarkably long sentences (VanSpanckeren, 2007).
The twentieth century men were shaped and mulled along the history since the early settlement in the New World till the foundation of America as a nation. However, their identity changed yet with the different socio-cultural factors; the wars, the industrialization, the urbanization etc. The war led to the reconstruction process of the American citizen; it caused psychological issues to the individuals in addition to the financial ones; sexuality and masculinity were in crisis.
Accordingly, literary men saw themselves confronting the new changes, especially after the Victorian era. They had to use alternative ways to share their concerns and thoughts. Each one found his own way to address the reality; for instance, Fitzgerald was interested in the disillusion and the fragmented reality, while Hemingway investigated the nature of masculinity and sexuality through his narratives.
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