- Nature's Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West by Monica Rico
Monica Rico's entertaining exploration of the creation of upper-class masculinity on the Gilded Age American frontier takes a deceivingly simple approach to its topic. Each of the book's five chapters focuses on a single wealthy man who retreated to the frontier in an attempt to ground his hegemonic claims to leadership in "transnational spaces of leisure and desire" (17). Together they helped create a transatlantic community of biggame hunters. Three of these men were British. Sir William Drummond Stewart, Moreton Frewen, and the Earl of Dunraven all headed west to the U.S. frontier. Two Americans, Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt, headed east: to London and Africa, respectively. All met with surprises en route, and although the reality of the frontier almost always failed to live up to fantasy, each man returned home with a strengthened sense of entitlement. The book unfolds as a series of entertaining anecdotes, but by bridging two healthy fields of scholarship—that on Gilded Age masculinity (as practiced by Kristin Hoganson and Gail Bederman) and studies of the West in popular culture (as exemplified by Richard Slotkin, Louis [End Page 553] Warren, and Joy Kasson)—Rico has managed to create something distinctive and new.
Rico is hardly the first scholar to explore the misadventures of the "remittance man," the British counterexample to the cowboy who hoped to grow rich ranching but ended up dependent on remittances from home. The American West was thronged with "British younger sons, family black sheep, and miscellaneous wellborn young men at loose ends" (48), and their likes littered the popular fiction of the era. Nor is Rico the first to explore the British view of the American West.
But the author, who was trained as a British historian, does more here than offer a historiographical update to Robert Athearn's Westward the Briton (1953). Combining a cultural studies approach to the discursive power of language and concern with the limitations of the nation-state that marks her as a transnational and transatlantic scholar, Rico argues persuasively that British and American men jointly created a western masculinity "detached from any specific place and developed into a template for hegemonic masculinity on any frontier, in any space where civilization grappled with recalcitrant colonial subjects" (163). She also does a wonderful job illustrating the different ways in which British and American men experienced the American frontier. For upper-class men in the United States, triumph over American Indians was central to the performance of hegemonic masculinity, but for British big-game hunters, freed from the ordeal of imperial rule, it was beside the point. Rico writes beautifully. It is easy to get caught up in the adventures and misadventures of these aristocrats and their frontier fantasies.
Rico's gender analysis draws heavily from the insights of R. W. Connell, and her theorization of gender enlivens discussions of stories and characters that are, in some cases, quite familiar. One might imagine that there was little new to say about either Theodore Roosevelt or Buffalo Bill Cody, but even stale stories gain freshness in Rico's skilled hands. Few are unaware that Theodore Roosevelt struggled to prove his manhood on the U.S. frontier, or went on an epic big-game killing spree in Africa. But Rico's chapter on Roosevelt brilliantly shifts focus from the famous Rough Rider to his brother, Elliott, a self-proclaimed "idle character" (188) who also traveled widely, gun in hand, in an attempt to prove his worth as a man. Elliott (Eleanor Roosevelt's father) was decidedly less successful than his more famous older brother. He died at age thirty-four after an attempted suicide, and his example may well have served as the model for Theodore Roosevelt's vision of U.S. masculine degeneracy and race suicide.
Rico makes the convincing argument that the American frontier was appealing precisely because it offered British men certain freedoms [End Page 554...