Masculine Style: What Cowboy Masculinity Tells Us About Our Material Selves

by | January 9, 2014
filed under Pop Culture

Cover of Daniel Worden's Masculine Style: The American West and Literary Modernismby Jonathan Alexandratos

A quick search on a particular, massive online bookselling site yields numerous texts that discuss cowboy masculinity. Some do it by examining the “high art” of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, etc. Others use “low art” – John Wayne films, dime novels – as their starting point.

Daniel Worden’s Masculine Style: The American West and Literary Modernism, however, uses both. In a brief-but-pertinent 178 pages (excluding his bibliography and index), Worden summons, more-or-less chronologically, T. Roosevelt, Nat Love, Cather, Hemingway and Steinbeck, as well as Anthony Comstock, Edward S. Ellis, and Edward L. Wheeler (all dime Western novelists) to support his claim that masculinity, in Western (meaning, here “of the American West”) modernist literature, is a performance, not a biological assignment. To Worden, a character’s ability to participate in the culture of masculinity relies on how well he can wear its costume and conform to its established traditions.

“Masculinity is not a thing but a history,” begins Masculine Style. With this opening statement, Worden is able to do two things: (1) show that masculinity is not a tangible, static “thing” but a role that one acts, and that (2) this view is supported by various historical mile markers, starting in the late 1800s and going through the Cold War.

Along the way, Worden takes readers through descriptions (and excerpts) from supporting texts, and also era-specific illustrations of dime novel cowboys. These pictures of hide-clad, coon-skin-capped, bearded men show quite succinctly the costuming of masculinity. At times, Worden also uses theorists, mainly Judith Butler, to give his thesis further backing or provide an antithesis with which he can wrestle.

Vanity Fair Hemingway paper doll pattern, from 1934

1934 Hemingway paper dolls, via the Vanity Fair website

Chapter 5, entitled “A Discipline of Sentiments: Masculinity in Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon” is the most broad (though the entire book is accessible). It covers representations of masculinity in not just Death in the Afternoon (The Sun Also Rises gets a nod, as it should), but also the general portrait of masculinity Hemingway himself imposed upon his society.

Most strikingly, Worden uses the 1934 Vanity Fair cut-out Hemingway dolls (paper dolls of Hemingway readers could dress in a variety of costumes such as “Neanderthal” animal skins, Army uniforms, etc.) to show the range and limits of acceptable masculinities.

With each chapter gracefully flowing into the next, one becomes almost defamiliarized from masculinity. In my experience, I was left wondering about the value/accuracy/need for the term “masculinity” at all.

Worden seems to stop short of tearing down the word “masculinity” itself, and that is somewhat disappointing. In so doing, Worden could have addressed more issues of transsexuality, a spectrum in which factors like language and costuming take on entirely different meanings (and cause entirely different problems) than when studying traditional masculinity and/or femininity.

However, this would require a longer work, and probably a work that branches outside of the literary modernism of the American West – and that’s a different project than Worden’s quite focused effort. Thus, the above is not to point out a deficiency in Worden, but to laud Masculine Style for sparking these questions.

Worden’s text is by no means a comprehensive look at masculinity in literature, or even literature of the American West, but it never tries to be. Masculine Style zeroes in on modernist literature (the late 19th Century – early 20th Century) considering both “high” and “low” texts, and uses select examples to show why traditional masculinity is more performance than nature. At this, Worden succeeds tremendously.

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