New Men: Manliness in Early America (review)
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New Men: Manliness in Early America. Edited by Thomas A. Foster. (New York: New York University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 281. $24.00 paper)

In her insightful “Afterword,” Toby Ditz highlights the impressive variety of masculinities that existed in colonial and revolutionary America, the military context that framed most of those masculinities, and the ways in which the various militarized masculinities structured the terms of women’s subordination. My list of highlights would be similar. That said, the scholars brought together in this fine collection present additional noteworthy findings.

First, the competition over the meaning of manhood was often an historically fruitless effort. For example, in his study of Jamestown, John Gilbert McCurdy demonstrates that the well-born saw military service as a means of maintaining their inherited status as notable men whereas lesser-born colonists saw the military as an opportunity to achieve and demonstrate their manhood and improve their social status. However, the contest between ascription and achievement may have made little or no difference, especially to the Virginia Company that sponsored the Jamestown settlers. Neither the rich nor the aspiring colonists succeeded in generating profits for the company’s investors or stability for the new settlers. Similarly, Natalie Zacek shows that West Indian planters represented both civil versions of masculinity that were consistent with British notions of gentility and undisciplined, brutal versions of masculinity that threatened constant violence and social chaos. Finally, Carolyn Eastman explores the two-sided lives of pirates, both their subversive willingness to ignore rules and endanger civil society, and their often-admired transgressive sexual behavior and crude ethic of rough equality. In each instance, [End Page 101] conflicting aspects of manhood may have competed with each other, but they did not necessarily play a prominent part in determining the outcome of historical events.

Second, conflicting variations notwithstanding, different masculinities often spotlighted similarities between ostensibly different groups of men. Thus, Tyler Boulware points out that both Indian and British men relied on the language of masculinity to reinforce their identities as manly warriors and criticize the effeminacy of their opponents. Trevor Burnard shows that joint claims to patriarchal privilege (and even sex with the same women) linked white men and black men in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Janet Moore Lindman suggests that military chaplains strove to reconcile the tensions and contradictions between the violence implicit in war and the pacifism and piety of religion to enable soldiers and evangelicals to function together in wartime. Apparently, the different meanings of manhood that helped to define particular male populations did not prevent men from fraternizing, fighting, and governing one another cooperatively.

Finally, the masculinities found in early America did help to structure gender relations and hierarchies but only in haphazard and unsystematic ways. For example, Thomas Foster explains that for John Adams and other founders, virtue and chastity were primarily considered feminine traits. But those traits were also embraced by many self-proclaimed, masculine men in the new Republic. Kathleen Brown reveals that enslaved men, although deprived of manly rights to own property and head families, relied on developing and using their bodies to define and achieve manhood. This simultaneously united them with white slaveholders (who relied on their bodies to produce children) and alienated them from white society (for fear of their acts of physical violence and rebellion). Like bachelors, pirates, and other quasi-subversive males, enslaved men who exhibited bodily vigor and vitality were often admired for their ability to live beyond the boundaries of gentility and well-tempered manhood.

New Men: Manliness in Early America is a marvelous book not only because it explores the variations in masculinity, militarism in masculinities, and masculinities that defined the subordination [End Page 102] of women. It is also a contribution to the literature on American manhood because it is filled with small surprises that add depth and meaning to the role that gender played in early America. From the function of men’s voluntary associations dissected by Jessica Choppin Roney to the Indian dreams and spiritual communities analyzed by Susan Abram, New Men brings to life the many ways by which gender shaped early American relationships, interracial encounters, and political authority...