Review – Bederman, “Manliness and Civilization”

Gail Bederman, “Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Race and Gender in the United States, 1880-1917” (1996) – This is a good work of history that makes good points, but like some other recent(ish) historical works — thinking Herf’s “Reactionary Modernism” here — suffers somewhat from its own success, read twenty-five years after its release. It has somewhat an inversion of Herf’s problem: his book’s title became almost a cliche, but the arguments within it are varied enough to reach beyond the cliche. Bederman’s work constitutes a substantial pick-blow in the excavation of the sheer weirdness of the white world between 1870 and the outbreak of WWI. None of her phrases or ideas became cliches, and “Manliness and Civilization” still represents vital work, but the text itself tends towards a repetitive thesis-heavy show-and-tell. It probably doesn’t help that Bederman was publishing a decade or so after Herf, which is to say, a decade further into academia’s slide into caution and irrelevance. This was probably Bederman’s dissertation and those are generally cautious and schematic.

Wow! I’m making “Manliness and Civilization” sound bad, and also not saying what it’s about. It’s not bad! It’s good. And it’s about the extended freakout around race and gender that overtook the white bourgeoisie throughout the world in the last third of the nineteenth century, and running into the early twentieth. White men were in decline, people started thinking. They were under siege, supposedly, from the “lower races,” the lower classes, women, and most of all, their own comfort and prosperity. No more could manliness be understood as the sort of relatively sober-sided dispensation of responsibility. No, it had to get aggressive. It had to get primal! It had to rebuke femininity and softness and be outwardly aggressive. In many ways, we live with the masculinity we inherited from this period- it probably helps that mass culture as we know it came about during its high tide. The specifics fade in and out, or soft pedaled and hard-sold depending on circumstances, but the core is still there.

The great thought-worlds of the bourgeoisie draw strength from interactivity and choice-opportunities. I wouldn’t call the big bourgeois freakout “great” as in “good” but it was “great” as in “important and generative.” There was no one set way to participate in the freakout, to combine and recombine the elements. With education and platform, you could do what you wanted with them. Bederman discusses how four important cultural figures played with the central lineaments of the freakout.

Black journalist Ida B. Wells used racialized ideas of civilization to combat lynching. How can white men claim to have a monopoly on civilization (as they now did- earlier variants of civilization-thought were usually also racist but more involved) when they did such notably uncivilized things to black people? Psychologist Stanley Hall got in trouble for telling Chicago schoolteachers they had to let their boy children act like “savages,” on the basis of some needlessly complicated bullshit about how boys act out the racial past of their various races, and if they don’t, they get “neurasthenia” i.e. sad, soft, and potentially gay? Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of high school classic “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was apparently a racist psycho who thought that she had to stay unmarried so she could focus on uplifting the race, and that the problem with sexism is that it didn’t let women like her advance the white race? And of course, there’s Teddy Roosevelt, who LARPed his idea of white manhood all the way from a sickly boyhood to a belligerent presidency.

These are all interesting and compelling stories. This would probably get a higher rating if Bederman allowed their stories to breathe a little more away from the schemas she cautiously laid out in the introduction (which is mainly about boxer Jack Johnson, who became an obsessive focus for many of these questions- could have used more on him, his case is fascinating). Race, gender, and ideas of “civilization,” the three frames and by god each section will laboriously bring in all three, cite the relevant authorities, tie in with earlier examples, and then say that all that was said, no matter what it does to the flow of the book. Class gets wedged in there with the slightly panicked air of someone who forgot to add the bay leaf to the roast (can you tell this a feeling I have experienced, because I have?). And I’m like… just let loose, Professor Bederman! I believe in you! Hell, I’m probably a victim of having thought too much (and I bet too loosely- I am no expert on the period) about this freakout. If I had read it back during comps when I was supposed to… still. A good and important book! ****

Review – Bederman, “Manliness and Civilization”

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