Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3 (002) 574-576
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Creating the Modern Man:
American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950
Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950. By Tom Pendergast. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000. Pp. x + 289. $34.95 (cloth).
In Creating the Modern Man, Tom Pendergast has performed a valuable service by tracing the ways in which consumer culture in general, and [End Page 574] American men's magazines in particular, shaped the meanings of masculinity over a crucial fifty-year period that began at the start of the twentieth century. This period is aptly chosen because it is in concert with the rise of mass consumer culture. At the turn of the century, certain Victorian values held sway for what it meant to be a proper man, including an emphasis on integrity, a sense of duty, and the character-building qualities of hard work. As consumer capitalism took hold, however, the emphases shifted to personality, a sense of fashion, and the realization of selfhood.
The five decades upon which Pendergast focuses effectively encapsulate his argument that modern masculine identity can best be understood as in dynamic interaction with consumerism. His accent on the energizing force of consumer culture situates his analysis in contrast not only with critics who see mass culture as uniformly manipulative but also with those who give it credit for liberation from Victorian constraints. Pendergast offers a nuanced and empirically rich account that shows how men of this period were neither totally duped by mass culture nor exclusively liberated by its break from previous forms of repression. In his view, male readers and contributors to magazines were the agents of modern masculinity as well as the recipients of commodified ideals dealt out from advertisers.
Magazines have been a means of entry into the study of culture for some time, but previous investigations have not dealt adequately with their implications for structuring masculinity. Pendergast's study helps rectify that omission. Even more notable is the way that Pendergast fills the gap in terms of magazines specifically targeted for African American men. His account focuses on magazines like Colored American, Crisis, Opportunity, and Ebony to indicate an important relationship between an emerging African American readership and the newly established view of the self-made man that was initially the purview of white men. The argument for agency is reinforced in this respect because it shows how African American editors and writers actively sought to redefine values for men in their community, particularly middle-class men, by embracing consumerist values. As Pendergast points out, the "readiness, indeed the zeal with which Ebony embraced modern masculinity makes it hard to view the forces that created modern masculinity as pernicious" (p. 15). To a certain extent, consumerism aided the sense of citizenship for which the earlier magazines for African Americans had striven.
Well-documented discussions of class differences between magazines aimed for middle-class men (Esquire, for instance) and those targeted to working-class men (True and Argosy) also demonstrate the range of presentations of masculinity that emerged over the first half of the twentieth century. While True shared with Esquire a consumerist orientation, it also played up a rugged Marlboro-man notion of masculinity very much [End Page 575] in contrast to the urbane depictions characteristic of Esquire. Even within the market for a working-class audience, differences were significant. Argosy provided a critique of True's misogynistic approach. Rather than building a wider audience on that score, however, Argosy was unable to attract advertisers. Pendergast speculates that its failure was in not being sufficiently consumerist in its depictions, concentrating instead on issues of practicality.
It does not follow from Pendergast's insistence on the open process of cultural meaning making that he applauds the commodification of values associated with the modern man. He is astute on the relationships between misogyny and depictions of men that establish virility as dominance over women. Nor does he endorse the commercialism of corporate capitalism. He...