Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 664-667
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The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture. By Howard P. Chudacoff. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. 352. $55.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).
With the recent proliferation of works directed at men as gendered beings, a full-length historical study of the bachelor is certainly called for. Now Professor Howard Chudacoff of Brown University has given us one. Employing an impressive amount of evidence from primary research, he charts the rise in the number of unmarried men in the United States during the period from 1880 through 1930. Using census data for seven large American cities, including Baltimore and Boston, he finds the average age of a man at marriage to have been 26.1 in 1890 compared with 22.8 in 1960. A majority of unmarried men continued to live with family members, as they had in earlier generations; among single men in Boston in 1880, for example, 60 percent lived in a nuclear-family household. However, increasing numbers subsisted on their own, either delaying marriages or remaining life-long bachelors. As Chudacoff explains in some detail, to meet the needs of this novel population a number of institutions such as "surrogate families" developed, among them boarding houses and "bachelor apartments." In short, for men who chose not to marry, cultural spaces opened up that were not available earlier.
In addition to its core study of valuable data on the increasingly common option of remaining single, this book ostensibly provides an overview of bachelor culture in American society. But here the work runs into some interpretive problems. In colorful discussions of the saloon, the club, and such hugely popular publications as the National Police Gazette, Chudacoff portrays sites that attracted men; however, many of these men were husbands, not bachelors. Seventy-five percent of men's club members in New York, for example, were married. Similarly, in chapters on new housing patterns and other masculine institutions and associations, Chudacoff examines a culture in which bachelors were likely to have been a minority presence. Although, as he rightly points out, citing the work of Kathy Peiss, David [End Page 664] Nasaw, and others, the late nineteenth century did see a rise in the number of social activities open to both young men and women, nonetheless, daily life remained largely gender segregated. Consequently, distinctions between "male culture" and "bachelor culture" are important to make if we are to appreciate fully the gender politics of the time.
Inevitably, the broad sweep of Chudacoff's study creates distortions. Despite his stated intention of considering social class, the author fails to provide any sense of how the figure of the bachelor varied at different levels in society. At a working-class saloon and an elite men's club one would no doubt find radically different manifestations of male culture; yet in an effort to portray a unified male (or bachelor) subculture, Chudacoff does not make these important distinctions. For instance, the male subculture described in one of the only two lesbian and gay history books footnoted—Douglass Shand-Tucci's Boston Bohemia (1995)—was centered on institutions and aesthetic values of high society that can in no way be reconciled with the rough-and-tumble male culture presented in Chudacoff's narrative. 1 One can only wonder how upper-class male experiences differed from those of working men, for this work does not tell us.
In the chapters on the larger culture's interactions with the bachelor, Chudacoff portrays a male culture centered on the saloon, the pool hall, sporting events, and heroes such as boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Relying heavily on sociological constructs and the work of historian E. Anthony Rotundo, Chudacoff sees bachelor culture as simply a transition from childhood to adulthood. "The act of marriage brought the male over the threshold into true adult manhood where he entered a world in which mutuality and responsibility to wife and family supposedly took priority over loyalty to peers." 2 Again following...