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  • Camp Life:The Queer History of "Manhood" in the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1937
  • Colin R. Johnson (bio)

For Ira Freeman, district chaplain for western Pennsylvania, the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 represented far more than a new deal; it represented the dawn of a new era in the history of American manhood. In his mind, and the minds of many others like him, it was the American spirit that had withered and cracked and blown away on arid winds during the years leading up to the Great Depression. And it was this Civilian Conservation Corps—this corps for the conservation of civilians—that would seed and water the fertile soil of youth, and once again bring forth from the reluctant earth a generation of Americans with the brute strength and manly resolve to remake the nation from nothing. "I humbly prophesy that the conservation of these three hundred thousand lads will save future historians from the painful task of admitting that the American knighthood that flowered in 1776 withered until it became lounging sissyhood in 1933," he asserted in that same year.1 As we shall see, however, Freeman was at least partially mistaken.

Between 1933 and 1942 hundreds of thousands of young men left the modest homes in which they had been raised and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. Almost from its inception, the young men who enrolled in President Roosevelt's Emergency Relief Work program used their time in the homoso-cial world of the CCC to negotiate the meanings of masculinity and American manhood. While many enrollees did avail themselves of the opportunities that the CCC provided to acquire the discipline, job training, and self-confidence [End Page 19] that Freeman believed would set them firmly on the path toward middle-class masculinity, others experimented freely with the conventions of gender by donning women's clothing to perform for their fellow enrollees around the evening campfire, or in the outlandish drag shows that constituted a popular genre of camp theatrical. Men who felt less comfortable impersonating women turned to group sport, bodybuilding, and the physical culture movement in an effort to invest their bodies with the appearance of power and an aura of manliness and health. But even these ostensibly "manly" pastimes became part of the surprisingly homoerotic discourse of gendered and sexualized artifice through which CCC enrollees nationwide amused themselves during months spent in isolated rural encampments. Certain aspects of this discourse bore the unmistakable mark of garden-variety misogyny and narcissistic machismo. But in other ways it listed dramatically—indeed, often melodramatically—in the direction of a campy knowingness about the queer implications of homosociality that was an important part of many male same-sex milieus during the twentieth century (two obvious examples would be the YMCA and the U.S. military during WWII), but which has only recently come to be recognized as a significant point of intersection between the very particular social history of gay male life in the United States and the history of masculinity and sexuality more generally.2 Indeed, in the liminal space of the CCC camp, there can be little doubt that a generation of young men played fast and loose with the conventional meaning of "normal" manhood.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was officially created by Executive Order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 5, 1933. Less than two weeks later, enrollees were en route to the site of the first camp in Luray, Virginia. More than 250,000 American men entered the Corps during the first six months, the vast majority within sixty days of Roosevelt having signed the organization into existence. On June 1, 1933, daily enrollment peaked when selection agents working throughout the country managed to forward 13,843 men to reconditioning camps in a single day.3 In both human and geographic terms, the scale of the operation was staggering. Indeed, with the exception of the twentieth century's two world wars, no national operation has brought more American men under the immediate sway of federal authority more swiftly than the CCC.4

The efficiency with which new enrollees, or "peavies,"5 were processed and deployed can be...