Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. . – Reviews

Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. . – Reviews – book review

Kevin White

Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. By John F. Kasson (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. viii plus 256 pp.).

The historian John Kasson has over the past thirty years produced work that has always stunned and surprised. His 1978 Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century masterfully delineated the development of new codes of leisure and play a hundred years ago. Kasson’s 1991 work, Rudeness and Civility exposed the hypocrisies and ruses that pervaded the Victorian American urban middle classes. In every way, Kasson has been a pioneer, first of how the nuances of popular culture can shed light on historical change; and second of the use of deconstructionist and linguistic readings of historical texts. Now in Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man Kasson turns his attention to an area much covered by other scholars, the “masculinity crisis” of the Progressive era. He does this at a time when his methods have become the standard fare of historians. Can he still offer us freshness and originality?

Kasson provides us in his new book with certainly one of the most satisfying and compelling (and well-written) accounts of the early twentieth century cultural revolution. As all accounts of this great shift must do, Kasson begins with a discussion of the extraordinary Theodore Roosevelt with his oddball, yet decent advocacy of manic masculine activity as a counter to the rise of the constraints that technology and industrialisation wrought. But Kasson aims to go beyond Roosevelt by examining three hugely significant and influential cultural figures who, like the great President, tried to liberate the white male body from the inauthenticity of an urban, industrialised America by literally stripping it naked to its primitive form. Kasson offers us a collective biography of the bodybuilding pioneer Eugene Sandow (1867-1925), the escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) and the author of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) who, so Kasson claims, “in the guise of entertaining,–reasserted the primacy of the white male body against a host of challenges that might weaken, confine or tame it.” (p.8).

All three of Kasson’s mini-biographies add to our understanding of the changing meaning of manliness. The Prussian Eugene Sandow was particularly daring with his blatant commercialisation of the classical male form. Sandow manipulated an image of himself as both Hercules and Apollo that “both highlighted other men’s inadequacies and, together with the photographs, exercises, books and muscle developers he sold, offered another self-help restorative for lost manhood.” (p.50). This view of bodybuilding as therapy is nothing new, but Kasson suggests a further dimension to it: “Sandow represented not simply a male physical ideal but a white European male ideal”, who in 1901 was chosen for a statue of the “perfect type of European man.” (p.54). Kasson hence places the contemporary construction of American manhood in the context of the powerful discourse of Anglo-American/ white European racial superiority in a way reminiscent of Gail Bederman’s interpretation in “Manliness and Civilisation” (1994).

Kasson expands his thesis further with his biography of Harry Houdini who, literally, can be seen as escaping from Max Weber’s celebrated “iron cage” of bureaucratic modem life (p.170). Indeed he could be seen as attempting to restore the “magic” that Weber suggests has been lost with the decline of religion: “he affirmed the presence of magic within the body and spirit of the individual man” (p.154) by appealing “to nightmares of entrapment and dreams of triumphant release” (p.l54). Kasson brilliantly shows how Houdini illustrated the role of the prison as central in modem societies to the disciplining of the body by staging several dramatic prison escapes.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was clearly a different kind of man to Sandow or Houdini. A writer, not a fighter, he lamented in 1929 that “nothing interesting ever happened to me in my life–I never went to a fire that it was not already out before I arrived.” (p.160). Nevertheless, Tarzan, the creation of his imagination, as Kasson remarks “never died.” (p.220). Kasson is scathing about Tarzan: “what is more problematic in Burroughs’s story and in the works of many of his contemporaries is that this assertion of masculine wildness is often explicitly tied to whiteness.” (p.717). He chastises Burroughs for creating a character whose wildness was not used “in the service of democratic inclusiveness against systems of oppression” (p.212) (unlike Thoreau and Emerson) and in whose work “all men are not created equal.” (p.212). Tarzan “could be strengthened rather than degraded by the wild precisely because he holds the best of Western civilisation within him. Others less favoured by heredity, such as the African natives a nd atavistic crew members, in Burroughs eyes do not.” (p.212).

There is no question that Burroughs’s work is deeply embedded with the early twentieth century discourse of Anglo-Saxon/white racial superiority. Kasson illustrates this by citing a passage in which Tarzan murders an African, Kulonga, by hanging him from a tree and stabbing him to death and suggests that this reminds the reader of the lynchings in the American South. But Tarzan killed Kulonga because he had killed Tarzan’s foster mother, Kala. And, anyway, perhaps it is an analogy too far to damn Burroughs, a Northerner, with Southern racial attitudes of the time and their awful consequences.

Yet Kasson bores on. He draws out the “whiteness” of both Sandow and Houdini. He acknowledges that “they spoke powerfully to individual aspirations for palpable challenge and heroic achievement. They offered compelling dramas of bodily risk as a means of self-realization.” However, “their work easily fortified images of white male superiority that were used to dominate women, people of colour and less technologically advanced societies.” (p.223) The images of manliness and of “whiteness” they encouraged were exclusionary and therefore he concludes we should try to “conceive of transformations in which freedom, wholeness and heroism are available to all,” (p.223) as Kasson’s three protagonists markedly did not do.

Yet Kasson has failed to deal with the obvious point that Sandow from East Prussia and Houdini (a Jew whose family had emigrated from Hungary), however they were interpreted, were themselves outsiders in American society. Kasson, usually the scholarly innovator, has latched on to the currently fashionable discourse of “whiteness” as a force in history. Thus he has failed to notice that these showmen, however much they flaunted their white bodies, by challenging the “iron cage” of the machine and of genteel mores heralded a loosening up and a relaxation in American culture that opened up African American influences especially within popular culture. These were subsequently to help in the long march to freedom and civil rights for African Americans. Hence, while the early twentieth century discourse of whiteness and male superiority was at worst genocidal and, at best, paternalistic, it contained, as Kasson’s evidence suggests but does not make explicit, the roots of liberation.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

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