Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910–1930 by Benjamin René Jordan (review)
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Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910–1930. By Benjamin René Jordan. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. xvi, 289. Paper, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-2765-6.)

Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910–1930 argues that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), in its first two decades of existence, focused on preparing white urban boys for "modern manhood," a role that required submission to hierarchy, corporate [End Page 455] loyalty, "modest self-control and a diligent work ethic," and scientific management—all skills that boys would need as future managers of a corporate-industrial society (p. 2). Benjamin René Jordan delivers well on his central thesis, complicating previous arguments that Scouting was centrally about primitive virility and martial aggression.

Jordan's thesis fits well with other landmarks in early-twentieth-century history, as the book contains a blend of discourses about Taylorism, compulsory education, the decline of the yeoman farmer mythos, and the rise of industrial citizenship. He utilizes BSA manuals, pamphlets, and drawings, as well as newspaper and popular magazine articles. The book makes fairly narrow and repetitive use of contemporary scholarship, however. David I. Macleod's Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920 (Madison, Wis., 1983) is referred to more than two dozen times in the first two chapters.

The book's grounding and scope could have been broadened in several ways. Sustained engagement with the National Parks movement—a contemporaneous movement whose goals were largely aligned with those of the BSA—would help. Like the BSA, National Parks were centrally about cultivating good American citizens and assuaging the anxieties of an industrializing nation. In Jordan's brief discussions of the BSA's difficulty managing "less evolved" younger boys, eugenics, and other evolution-laden rhetorics, he misses an opportunity to delve into definitions of manhood, citizenship, and race (p. 41). The author need not have incorporated these ideas into his thesis, but describing them in context would help buoy his argument and draw a finer point as to exactly what the BSA meant as a lived experience and identity for millions of American boys in the early twentieth century.

At times, the book's main terms falter in precision. Since Jordan makes the case that the BSA was most focused on teaching boys how to act within society—rather than teaching them particular skills of environmental aesthetics, conservation, or living in the wild—perhaps "urban outdoorsmanship" rather than "environment" would make for a more accurate phrase in the subtitle. To his credit, though, Jordan makes a strong and surprising case that nature experience was a secondary goal in early Scouting.

By the 1920s the BSA actively recruited boys of various ethnicities and religions. But more often than not, these troops were formed separately from already established groups. Of course, the BSA's most sustained question concerned the inclusion of African American boys. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, BSA texts "usually characterized African American males as backward. … [and] parodied African American manhood" (p. 198). African Americans in BSA publications were presented as lacking the traits that defined modern manhood. Within the ranks, black Boy Scouts were often segregated and also lacked access to campgrounds, swimming pools, and other basic Scouting needs. Although the BSA seemed proud of teaching "'race chivalry'" toward African Americans, Jordan does not call it out for what it was—the worst sort of hierarchical paternalism, endemic to most aspects of early-twentieth-century American life (p. 71). Likewise, in 1929 the BSA established Scout troops at several Native American boarding schools, in an attempt to "modernize Native [End Page 456] American boys in line with the boarding schools' curriculum and goals" (p. 216).

The final two pages of the book, then, give this reader pause. Jordan seems to absolve the BSA of all racist and paternalistic tendencies when he writes that "the organization has often evolved and adapted to include diverse peoples. … [and] its administrators did actively design policies to accommodate and welcome groups then on the margins of society" (p. 221). Yet...


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