- The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada
Juggling the ambiguities and contradictions, paradoxes and dichotomies of postwar masculinity is a difficult task. It requires imagination, depth of research, and perhaps the right selection of examples. Christopher Dummitt has, for all intents and purposes, succeeded in his attempt to classify and describe the culture of postwar masculinity in Canada and especially in Vancouver. A volume in UBC Press's Sexuality Studies Series, The Manly Modern is original in its presentation of postwar masculinity.
Working with Vancouver and its environs, Dummitt presents a selection of essays that gauge masculine endeavour and accomplishment around the rubric of the rational templates that were either [End Page 180] created in the aftermath of the Second World War or that rose to prominence amid the changes wrought during the same period. The focus is on the balance between these changes and the men who had to adjust and accommodate to them. The core of the challenge for men revolved around the increasing move toward a science- and technology-based calibration of society, where everything could be built and all could be done with a full-fledged rationalistic approach. Dummitt weaves these seemingly disparate threads together creatively throughout the essays, rarely losing sight of the notion of risk in general and risk-control specifically.
The emphasis on modernism, in all its varied manifestations, remains constant throughout the work, whether in a discussion of the building of the Second Narrows Bridge or the increasing prevalence of the car in and around Vancouver. The interplay between tradition and change is front and centre, as is the attempted balance between risk and rationality. The excellent essay on the British Columbia Mountaineering Club in particular explores these themes in a satisfying way.
Dummitt makes it quite clear that, regardless of class, white BC masculinity was enthralled by and fearful of change, but willing to embrace it as long as it offered a panacea for the drudgery of everyday life. Risk and all its manifestations became benchmarks. Mountain-climbing trips could be thrilling and offer a sense of adventure that was unparalleled, yet they had to be planned and undertaken with a level head. The excitement of driving and climbing is balanced in the book by essays on the courts and on the treatment of returning veterans. These two pieces offer a bracing taste of the complex realities, the unglamorous side of failed masculinity.
Dummitt is also keen to remind the reader that – despite the accoutrements of modernism, which came in the form of technology, rationalization, and extreme calibration of virtually everything – men still exercised their right to be men by using their bodies and, when appropriate, extensions of the body. This view became contradictory at times, notably with regard to industrialization and the move towards a machine base, as well as in times of readjustment brought on by changes in legislation or the economy. While trying to recast and rejuvenate traditional notions of manliness, men often ran up against obstacles, arbitrary and deliberate, that forced them to rethink their status or allowed for a regrouping along lines that were often at odds with what was occurring in the postwar period.
As power, authority, and wealth moved towards the middle and upper-middle classes, traditional forms of masculine endeavour and [End Page 181] accomplishment also moved from their roots in working-class arenas towards more polished and genteel variations. As Dummitt suggests repeatedly, the democratization of masculinity often involved reformatting it for a more modern and progressive age.
Although Dummitt justifies the relevance of Vancouver as a case study applicable to Canada as a whole, there are, no doubt, a number of problems with this approach. One is that, despite the outstanding introductory chapter that does deal with postwar masculinity on a truly national level, the examples employed throughout the book are unique to western Canada or specific to Vancouver. Many readers will have a hard time seeing their applicability to other parts of postwar Canada, with the possible exception of Ontario.
With numerous American, British, and other national works on...