restricted access Introduction: New Men: Feminist Histories of Manliness in Early British America

From: New Men

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|  1 Introduction New Men: Feminist Histories of Manliness in Early British America Thomas A. Foster What, then, is the American, this new man? —J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, 17821 In 1782, when J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur published his description of American society and wrestled with what it meant to be an American, he articulated a question that many were asking: “What, then, is the American, this new man?” For every generation that followed, the question has resonated. New Men takes up Crevecoeur’s question and applies it to early America using the insights of gender history. It approaches the history of masculinity as a feminist project in that it signals the gendered subjectivity of men and highlights the social and cultural construction of that subject position, especially with regard to power relations.2 While scholarship on women in early America has demonstrated the centrality of gender to understandings of womanhood, men, long at the center of historical studies, have only relatively recently been examined as gendered subjects. New Men examines masculinity in British America from European settlement through the Revolutionary era. It argues that understandings of manliness significantly shaped the founding and development of early America. Historians have shown that in early America successful manhood rested on the establishment of a household, the securing of a calling or career, and the self-control over one’s masculine comportment.3 Within this broad framework, the essays in this volume examine how the conditions of early America affected those norms and ideals of masculinity and linked them to ever-changing regional and nascent American identities. The essays here collectively address the variety of standards and ideals of manliness in early America and highlight the breadth of differences among them. •  •  • 2  |  Thomas A. Foster It has become increasingly popular for mainstream media to report on the latest scientific finding about “male” and “female” brains. Evolutionary biologists and other scientists garner widespread attention for postulating genetic and biological explanations for generalized social differences observed in male and female behavior. Gender, or the social expression of and meanings given to biological difference between men and women, is recognized as an important aspect of society and history, but not all disciplines agree on the origins of gender difference. Virtually all historians of gender approach differences between male and female historical subjects as the product not of evolutionary brain chemistry, but rather with the theoretical position that gender is socially constructed.4 Following the French theorist Michel Foucault, most scholars approach gender as a social and cultural construction. Joan Scott, drawing from Foucault, explained that gender is “knowledge about sexual difference”—understandings that get “produced in complex ways” and that are not limited “only to ideas but to institutions and structures, everyday practices as well as specialized rituals.”5 The earliest major histories of American masculinity employed this theoretical framework, as do the most recent. Anthony Rotundo, in his study of nineteenth-century Northern manhood, argued that “manliness is a human invention . . . learned, used, reinforced, and reshaped by individuals in the course of life.”6 Similarly, Michael Kimmel, in his study of modern American manliness, approached gender as “the sets of cultural meanings and prescriptions that each culture attaches to one’s biological sex.”7 All the essays in New Men follow this theoretical underpinning and focus on how society and culture develop understandings of masculinity that are in turn frequently naturalized—or culturally defined or masqueraded as if from nature, not culture.8 Although books on masculinity in colonial America are relatively few and quite recent, a larger selection of articles and book chapters has expanded our understanding of masculinity in the colonial context with a cross-Atlantic perspective. But the essays on manliness in early America are largely scattered and serve the purposes and intellectual pursuits of a range of fields, including histories of slavery, sexuality, Native America, and cross-cultural and cross-border histories of early America, among others. As Toby Ditz cautions , a growing body of literature on masculinity runs the “risk of occluding women and downplaying men’s power over women,” and creates the “danger of restoring men—however particularised, differentiated and socially constructed —to the centre of our historical narrative.”9 Introduction  |  3 One of the reasons that the work has been able to recenter men is that much of it has been easily integrated in a variety of fields whose primary concern is not with gender studies. This is in part because of the traditional focus on...