Men in loincloths and the crisis of modernity! What’s a turn-of-the-century boy to do?
Kasson (Rudeness and Civility, 2000) maintains that there was a metamorphosis of masculinity in the dawning years of the 20th century in America. By examining the lives of vaudeville star and bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, escape artist extraordinaire Erich Weiss (alias Harry Houdini), and Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kasson argues that masculinity faced a turning point due to the upheavals of modernity. In response to these cultural changes, the symbol of the white male body became, paradoxically, the symbol both of modernity itself and of the resistance to the modern age. The author’s argument, however, fails to support such a profound and complex thesis. In his three main chapters (“Who Is the Perfect Man? Eugen Sandow and a New Standard for America,” “The Manly Art of Escape: The Metamorphoses of Ehrich Weiss,” and “ ‘Still a Wild Beast at Heart’: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Dream of ‘Tarzan’ ”), Kasson interprets these men as bellwethers of their time and place, exemplars of a particular vision of the virile white male body that assuaged anxieties about the changing world. A healthy sampling of photographs and illustrations do support the author’s interpretations and provide a vibrant picture of the changing image of masculinity—but, alas, two men who paraded around in loincloths and one who wrote about an ape-man offer precious little evidence for the foundation of an argument. Couple the paucity of subjects with a tendency to digress into biographies of these remarkable characters and that fascinating thesis gets lost in the shuffle.
A broader array of semi-clad men—and a sharper focus—would have done Kasson and the reader a world of good. (80 b&w photos and illustrations)