- Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America
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? [End Page 794]
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 modern 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.154). Kasson brilliantly shows how Houdini illustrated the role of the prison as central in modern 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...