Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America (review)
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Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America. By Richard Stott. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 376. $55.00 cloth)

Male fighting, drinking, gambling, and practical joking seem to many to be biologically rooted, but historians Howard Chudacoff, Timothy Gilfoyle, and others have explained them in terms of gender rather than sex, proposing social and cultural patterns and meanings behind men's seemingly pointless and spontaneous revelry. Richard Stott likewise detects in it "a pattern . . . perhaps even a meaning," labels it "jolly fellowship," and traces its cultural trajectory in the nineteenth-century United States (p. 48).

Jolly fellowship entered the century as a widely accepted tradition centered on such male spaces as taverns, militia musters, colleges, and artisanal workshops. Jollity was considered natural to men and practiced across all social ranks. Taverns were hubs of jollity and [End Page 96] political activity, and men of all political stripes participated. Indeed, jolly behavior, often brutally targeting nonwhites, drunks, and others deemed outsiders, may have been publicly tolerated because it enforced community boundaries.

Converging cultural shifts during the first half of the nineteenth century transformed jolly fellowship. Moral reform stigmatized it and generated a competing model of manhood based on self-restraint. Increasingly considered essential to economic success in a modernizing economy, respectability displaced the old jolly order, particularly among the emerging white middle class, and jolly behavior became "associated with the lower and working class" (p. 92). Yet jolly fellowship remained alluring for all men, and reform catalyzed its transformation into a coherent cultural entity; now assuming "important symbolic significance" as "an overt rejection of gentility," it could "be employed with cultural purpose" (pp. 102, 157). It became geographically localized in all-male or mostly male "redoubts" created by urbanization and western expansion—particularly New York's lower wards and gold-rush California. Later in the century, it persisted in Maine lumber towns, Pennsylvania oil towns, Kansas cattle towns, western mining towns, and Mississippi River steamboats. Energized by the movement of men between New York and California, the "articulation of disorderly locales East and West" lent "coherence to the emerging jolly sporting subculture" (p. 146).

Meanwhile, the growth of commercialized entertainment and print, radiating nationally from New York, "ensured the national significance of jolly themes" and facilitated their distillation into a counterculture (p. 283). Jollity thrived in antebellum southwestern tales, Crockett almanacs, popular theater, minstrel shows, prize fights, sensational newspapers, and, in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in dime novels, vaudeville acts, comic strips, and Hollywood films. It also defined a "sporting society" of "professional jolly fellows" (p. 228)—prize fighters, political gangleaders, and gamblers—who became national celebrities, supported Democrats against reform-minded Whigs, cruelly victimized and marginalized racial and ethnic others, and shared a "sense of their own separateness [End Page 97] from ordinary society" (p. 215). The consumers of jolly culture were "men who had learned to control their own behavior but still found disorderly conduct fascinating" and became accommodated to respectability through vicarious spectatorship (p. 158). Thus "[t]he cultural vitality of jolly fellowship was . . . preserved, even extended" despite the demise of actual jolly behavior and, by the end of the century, the "waning number of ostentatiously masculine settings" (pp. 186, 256).

Stott recognizes regional variations but emphasizes the interregional continuities of jollity. Building on Howard Chudacoff 's arguments for a commercial bachelor subculture, Timothy Gilfoyle's for an urban sporting counterculture, and both historians' dichotomy between middle-class morality and spirited resistance to it, he seeks to propose a coherent national nineteenth-century jolly culture. Such syntheses often risk oversimplification—witness Stott's suggestion of a Manichean "struggle between revelry and respectability" (p. 138)—but the strength and scope of his thesis will ultimately hinge on research into more specific, underexplored variations and nuances. Stott discusses African American jolly fellowship but emphasizes cross-racial similarities of behavior and whites' use of jollity to enforce racial lines while slighting the functions of jolly fellowship in defining African American manhood. Likewise, jolly women appear but with little analysis of their relationships with jolly men or of what jollity meant for their gender identities. The relation of jolly fellowship...