- "A man is a fool who prefers poor California beef to human flesh": (Re)Definitions of Masculinity in Nineteenth-Century US Donner Party Literature
- Western American Literature
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 2009
- pp. 200-223
- View Citation
- Additional Information
"'A man is a fool who prefers poor California beef to human flesh': (Re)Definitions of Masculinity in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Donner Party Literature" discusses representations of two men, William Eddy and Lewis Keseberg, in 1840s Donner Party narratives, particularly in J. Quinn Thornton's Oregon and California in 1848 (1849). Eddy and Keseberg were members of the ill-fated group that spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. Thornton recorded his own Overland journey in Oregon and California, and relied on Eddy for information regarding the Donner Party's ordeal. Eddy and Keseberg survived the winter in part by resorting to cannibalism, yet Thornton describes the two men in vastly different manners: Eddy emerges as a sentimental, benevolent, and paternal leader, and Keseberg as a monster who preys on fellow emigrants and enjoys the taste of human flesh. I discuss Keseberg as the embodiment of "survivalist manhood," a masculine trope structured on the market ethos of individualism and competition but that simultaneously defies what it means to be a civilized and moral middle-to-upper class white man. In other words, Keseberg represents a new, terrifying type of Western manhood. Thornton is deeply troubled by the kinds of meanings Keseberg advertises to men considering a move to the West; thus, against Keseberg's aggressive textual persona, Eddy emerges as a model male figure, one who offers a kinder, gentler—and ultimately familiar—masculine option. I argue that this idealized portrait of Eddy reflects Thornton's attempt to (re)implement recognizable gender roles in a new geographic space that is still largely void of culturally-acceptable social structures.