American Manhood

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Among the topics covered in Rotundo’s brilliant study are the relationship of the individual to the community; male intimacy; men’s attitudes toward women; the nature of love, sex, courtship, and marriage; attitudes toward homosexuality; and the range of twentieth century outlets for “male” passions.

Rotundo begins with a discussion of gender, aligning himself with scholars who believe that sex refers to the biological division between male and female, whereas gender refers to the cultural meanings attached to sexual difference. Rotundo argues that manhood is a social invention that changes over time. He defines his approach under the rubric of “cultural construction,” in the tradition of Michel Foucault’s wellknown HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, and in contrast to Robert Bly’s IRON JOHN, which posits universal archetypes of male and female psychology.

In constructing the American male, Rotundo deftly tracks his subject through several culturally determined phases. We move from the communal manhood of Colonial New England, when a man’s identity centered on his duties to the community, through the selfmade manhood of the early nineteenth century, when the essence of a man’s identity centered on his role at work, to the passionate manhood of the late nineteenth century, when men turned to the self and emphasized socially acceptable forms of play and leisure. In the twentieth century the self has also been emphasized, but increasing importance has been given to self-realization, the unfolding of the individual’s unique potential.

Rotundo concludes with a discussion of the ideals of twentieth century manhood, which include the “team player,” the “essential hero,” the “pleasure seeker,” and the “spiritual warrior.” Even if one does not agree with his approach, Rotundo has broken new ground in his thoroughly researched and lucid work. Through it any reader can better understand the historical roots of American manhood and discover the harmful effects of sexism and of rigid conformity to cultural types of male identity.