HIST 4077: American Popular Culture
24 February, 2005
Masculinity and Modernism
The period in which Eugen Sandow, Harry Houdini and Edgar Rice Burroughs lived was one of change. Americans were loosing hold on the beloved Victorian lifestyle and the defining characteristics of masculinity of that time. In Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man, John F. Kasson shows us the nude white male body as a symbol of self-attained power in this changing society. Kasson makes a compelling argument with these three - all exemplified self-attained power with their displays of manliness and restored hope to Americans faced with the confinements of industrialization and tiresome "desk jobs". These three men's bodies serve as icons of every man's own potential of success despite the end of the Victorian era and constant physical exercise.
Kasson builds his argument on a number of changes that occurred during the turn of the century, all of which can be traced to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution brought work into cities thus reducing the amount of manual labor the average American performed. Some Americans sought other outlets for such as sports, but most men were left feeling emasculated. Industry also attracted a new wave of immigration and created a change in gender roles in America.
Kasson adds a considerable amount of credit to his argument with the biographies of the three. Houdini worked in a necktie factory as a child (Kasson 85). Tarzan lived among apes. Sandow was "less strong" as a boy (Kasson 30). "All these men emphasized how, by dint of determination and method, they had transformed themselves from puny boys to men of strength, confidence, and command (Kasson 32)." Kasson's triumvirate exhibited the peek of strength, confidence, and command unclothed. Not only that, they were able to men the dream of their own success through determination. The non-fictional two of the three, Anglo-ized their names add lied about height. Kasson uses this to reveal the American standard the icons created and the standard they had to live up to.
Kasson repeatedly stated that Sandow obtained his power in ways accessible to all men independent of social merits. However, Kasson included many times Sandow's gentlemanly behavior. This seals Sandow into Kasson's argument as a transitional figure from Victorian age to Industrial. Sandow dressed and acted refined then transformed into the perfect man by disrobing. As with the other two maintaining a balance between old school values and new world prowess was crucial.
The point I feel gives the strongest support to Kasson's argument is the element of Escape. Houdini, the best example of escaping, and his naked body during escapes from "escape proof" prisons served as an icon of white male command over his captivity (Kasson 110). Kasson remarks: "his challenges to and defeats of the authorities' most strenuous efforts to hold him prisoner constitute a one-man revolution (Kasson 115)." Houdini gave men trapped in bleak jobs and desperate situations hope of escaping. Houdini used his body as an instrument of escape and stressed not supernatural explanation of success but his own human command of body to unlock boxes, chains, straightjackets, and jail cells.
At the same time, citizens flocked to Coney Island to escape rules of society. Coney Island was a haven from society where inhibitions relaxed. Swimmers found relaxation in simple pleasers in the beach despite the complex world they lived in. Parks such as Dream Land offered escapes in more ways by taking park goers on fantasy and thrill rides. Sandow also performed his own escape the rules that bound society. Eugen Sandow emerged from a crowd on October 29, 1889. He transformed "from late Victorian man-about-town to modern Hercules" (Kasson 36). Lastly, Tarzan similarly let readers, and Burroughs, escape the "punishing regimen" that constituted work in the 20th century. Burroughs created for readers a character who first escapes from role of "strange white ape" to king of the jungle (Kasson 203). Tarzan then moves on to escape the jungle. Houdini, Tarzan, and Sandow escaped proudly and shirtless from their respective metaphoric cages and gave rise to the notion of a white male body equating to power.
Another important aspect of Kasson's argument is the clear definition of masculinity these three possess among a breed of wimpy men. Kasson strategically includes details about Henry Dixey and Julian Eltinge to emphasize how the gender lines began to blur in this era. In the play Adonis, which Dixey played lead, "if at the end of the play anyone in the audience were asked who best portrayed the perfect man, the answer would undoubtedly have been Henry Dixey (Kasson 27)." Julian Eltinge, on the other hand, mastered the art of being a woman so well he gave advice to women, performed dressed as a woman, and "sang of the gender reversals caused by modern feminism (Kasson 95)." The magazine, System, which Burroughs worked for, rewrote rules of modern masculinity. "System proposed a hierarchy of masculine worth and ability that emerged from competition (Kasson 170)."
Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes as story of human ability versus nature but Tarzan became an image associated with virility and power. In the pages of Burroughs’ tales Tarzan restored the white male to an ideal lost in the industrial age. Burroughs sought an end to his tedious work as did many of his readers. Burroughs found his escape in his imagination. Similarly to the fantasy of Dream Land Tarzan offered readers a self-fantasy where they could be the unrivaled king of the jungle. Sandow too offered a chance to become master of strength. Patrons of Sandow and Houdini were looking for a spectacle of mans feats in a modern world. Fans of Sandow sought his mastery of strength and physical resemblance of a gladiator. Houdini’s followers found in him command over modern obstacles and transformation from victimized to victor. All three men instilled a hope of overcoming weakness. In short Kasson’s three were the solution to the wimpy man.
The final aspect of Kasson’s argument is emphasis on whiteness and male only empowerment. If these three men were alive today their message might mean something a little different. Kasson includes details of female counterparts to each man but also shows how each woman was less successful and defeated. Lurline held considerable power over Sandow both with a horse whip and with damaging information about his past. Lurline cast Sandow into role of con artist and beggar (Kasson 48). More importantly publicly horse whipping Sandow brought into question the superiority of all men. If the perfect man could be beaten like an animal there could be little hope for any other man. Sandow returned order by settling the matter of Lurline privately. Houdini challenged the medium Margery in a battle of the sexes. Again we see another female overturning the masculine order. In Houdini’s case, he out right triumphs by exposing Margery’s trickery (Kasson 146). Houdini had less at stake but nevertheless exhibits his power over Margery. Even the literary arena was a gender battle ground. Kasson’s mention of the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her book Herland come into play as an opponent for Burroughs and Tarzan of the Apes (Kasson 213). In a sense, Gilman’s novel is a rebuttal to Tarzan. Herland attempts to argue that the pure female tribe is a utopian society. However, it is clear Gilman’s work is less popular than Tarzan for a number of reasons and so Herland is defeated by the everlasting notion of manly power belonging to men only.
The most striking feature of this time was value of social equality rather than gender or race equality. Whenever looking back at the industrial revolution it is important to note how different classes were able to unify and how other forms of equality were culturally nonexistent. With a wide range of ethnicity and social status sometimes the only thing Americans had in common were vaudeville shows, Coney Island, Baseball, and the admiration of these three men. Kasson has clearly shown how these three men used their white male bodies in ways that no dark skinned person or woman could have.
In closing, I find Kasson’s argument of the nude white male body as a symbol of self-attained power during the turn of the century very persuasive. He cited examples of how each met all requirements: state of undress, ethnicity, power, control, strength, command, and masculinity in one of the most variable periods in American history. Kasson shows each man’s determination as the source of success thus giving every modern-day man the hope of similar success.
Kasson, John F. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.