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Masculine Style: The American West and Literary Modernism by Daniel Worden (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 360-361 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0057

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The opening argument in Daniel Worden’s Masculine Style asserts, “the unconventional masculinity developed in the dime novel provides a model for modernism’s project of remaking both literary form and art’s relationship to the social world” (19). This provocative and ambitious claim seeks to first connect (as signaled by the book’s subtitle) nineteenth-century representations of frontier masculinity with literary modernism’s representations. Second, drawing on poststructuralist gender and queer theories, it challenges our tendency to read literary western masculinity as monolithically embodying patriarchy, heteronormativity, and imperialism. Instead, Worden argues, many nineteenth-century writers use frontier masculinity to “protest against the dominant, a way of channeling power into … unconventional publics and subjects,” presenting masculinity as based in performativity, stylization, and affect rather than being characteristic of male bodies (3). Covering a diverse group of American writers (including Edward S. Ellis, Edward Wheeler, Nat Love, Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Jack Schaefer), Worden’s attempts to link nineteenth-century literary Westerns’ formulations of masculinity to modernist formations is a tall order, and his highly suggestive study certainly delivers, even if not always definitively.

Chapter 1 begins with an analysis of dime-novel Westerns’ “openended narrative form,” developed, Worden notes, in response to needing recurrent male heroes who must remain “undomesticated, alive and without children” in order to plausibly appear in sequels (20). While some critics may read the untethering of masculinity from the domestic negatively, as symptomatic, for example, of patriarchal attempts to keep the West free from the influence of femininity and civilization, Worden finds signs of modernist experimental narrative form as well as resistance to dominant constructions of masculinity that “critique … genteel and sentimental marriage plots” through “their emphasis on heroic masculinity unhinged from the demands of heterosexual coupling and reproduction” (20–21). Western masculine performatives receive further elaboration in chapter 2, wherein Worden demonstrates how Nat Love’s Life and Adventures (1907) and Theodore Roosevelt’s An Autobiography (1913) and The Rough Riders (1899) harness western masculinity “to unify Americans through democratic, egalitarian feeling” and “to endorse democratic mobility” (37, 54). In chapter 3, Worden extends this analysis of western masculinity’s recasting of sociocultural norms by examining Wister’s The Virginian (1902), which, he argues, “synthesizes the unruly masculinities of the dime novel and the Western memoir” in order to “reimagine subjectivity and social life” along nonnormative lines (58).

The remaining chapters examine various works by Cather, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. In Worden’s view, nineteenth-century models of performative frontier masculinity inform the productive forms of “fe male masculinity” in Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) (chapter 4). Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932) (chapter 5) demonstrates the novelist’s “attempts to transform masculinity into a style that foregoes social norms entirely by becoming an aesthetic object” (107). Acknowledging that Hemingway’s novel “is not set in the American West but in Europe,” Worden nevertheless contends that its representations of stylized masculinity are “bound to the traditions” of literary Westerns (108). Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) (chapter 6) represents, in Worden’s view, a culmination of the tradition. Frontier masculinity’s performative and stylized possibilities are used to form a model of “activist masculinity” (embodied by Tom Joad), enabling “the production of public feeling and the destruction of traditional modes of kinship that limit familial belonging to the fruits of heteronormative reproduction” that ensures the Joad family’s and the dispossessed, migratory collective’s survival through resistance to “state and corporate power” (130, 135). The book concludes with exploring the post–World War II turn from the highly stylized, non-normative masculine performances typified by nineteenth-century and modernist works to a new model of frontier masculinity characterized by Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949). Here Worden demonstrates how western masculinity is essentially domesticated to serve the nuclear family and Cold War politics, which in turn “exclude masculinities that do not participate within its rigid structures of national—and familial belonging” (143).

Worden richly deserves the Western Literature Association’s 2012 Thomas J. Lyon Book Award. His readings of the sociocultural transformative power of “cowboy masculinity” are insightful, convincing, even revelatory. Yet his...

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