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Between profits and primitivism: Rehabilitating white middle-class manhood in America, 1880–1917

Athena Beth Devlin, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Between Profits and Primitivism: Rehabilitating White Middle-Class Manhood in America, 1880–1917 uses primary sources in literature and the social sciences to locate and analyze changing discourses, images, and scientific representations of middle-class manhood and masculinity. The first chapter examines the construction of a specific white, middle-class male body. I argue that despite the attention-grabbing muscle men of the period, the middle-class sought a particular type of body, one that emphasized symmetry over swelling muscles and efficiency over superfluous beauty. Through their exercise manuals, I examine the ways physical educators sought to make a science out of streamlining “flabby businessmen.” My second chapter focuses on two works of fiction by Theodore Dreiser, The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). Through my reading of these often overlooked novels, I investigate men's dependence on the new consumer culture. I link this dependence to financial trusts and new market economies which incorporated men of finance into dependent combinations that relied heavily on image. Chapter three explores the role of gender in the construction of the subconscious. I look at the ways hysterical symptomology influenced the construction of the subconscious, as well as contemporary understandings of mystical or supernatural experience in the work of William James and his circle. I argue that James adopted many hysteric symptoms in his characterization of the unconscious in order to “locate” a primitive essence within white intellectual men. My last chapter examines how turn-of-the-century supernatural fiction was influenced by new psychological theories—especially the idea that the unconscious housed a more primitive self Using the stories of Henry James, Jack London and William Dean Howells, I argue that the supernatural experience becomes a place for white educated men to have strenuous, often senorially intense experiences, and to be irrational subjects. My work illustrates the ways in which the massive cultural and social transitions between 1880 and 1917 de-naturalized definitions of manhood and created a national conversation that self-consciously fashioned gender. What I find most intriguing is how often this conversation constructed men as problematic and in need of some physical, mental, or supernatural reconstruction.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|American history|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Devlin, Athena Beth, "Between profits and primitivism: Rehabilitating white middle-class manhood in America, 1880–1917" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3027191.