Masculinity and the Masculine Mystique in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Because literature has been a male-dominated field, many male writers have written about maleness. Such role development is apparent in American authors from the early nineteenth century onward. Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and their contemporaries created a male role model who was intended to be contrasted to European models. A key facet of the American ideal of masculinity is self-reliance. The lone frontiersman, woodsman, cowboy, successful businessman, detective, or seaman populates American fiction.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

During the American realism movement, which may be dated as occurring from 1865 to 1914, authors such as Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells explored a new concept of masculinity. In Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1894), Henry is an innocent farm boy who becomes a man because of his Civil War experiences. Henry’s bravery and cowardice are emphatically not mythic, as Natty Bumppo may be. Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) also show boys moving from innocence to experience. That movement is a highly moral one, and it reflects the hero’s coming to rely upon himself.

Such concern for morality and self-reliance as masculine typifies Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885); the hero joins wealth with morality. The same morality is pervasive in Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Masculinity requires, in these works, morality. The hero is upright and sober; he can depend upon himself for correct judgment.

Modern Period

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

American writers began a tough guy school of writing that continued the tradition of self-reliance while discarding much of the primness of the late nineteenth century model. Such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and John Steinbeck portrayed their heroes as strong, silent, and long-suffering. Often these heroes are beaten, physically and spiritually. They always rise above their situation by physical strength and self-reliance. After World War II, the fictional hero continued to be self-reliant in such manifestations as astronaut.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Callow, James T. Guide to American Literature from Its Beginnings Through Walt Whitman. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880’s. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.

Deakin, Motley, and Peter Lisca, eds. From Irving to Steinbeck: Studies of American Literature in Honor of Harry R. Warfel. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

Gross, Theodore L. The Heroic Ideal in American Literature. New York: Free Press, 1971.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.