- Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment by Benjamin René Jordan
Benjamin René Jordan's book opens with a striking cartoon from a 1926 Boy Scouts of America (BSA) publication. An ax and a typewriter, each grinning widely, are shaking hands. "I like your type," the ax assures the typewriter. "You have a good head, keen too," the typewriter tells the ax. The amicable meeting between typewriter and ax lies at the center of Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America, which uses the BSA as a lens for scrutinizing mainstream American masculinity during the 1910s and 1920s. In promoting the union of ax and typewriter—the merging of bureaucratic corporatism with a structured [End Page 644] engagement with the outdoors—the BSA articulated and spread a new masculine norm. The Scouts, Jordan argues, successfully updated Victorian manhood, equipping young men with the skills and character virtues necessary for an urban, corporate-industrial society. During an era of widespread nativism, the BSA provided a venue through which white working-class and non-Protestant immigrants could achieve the dominant masculine ideal. Ultimately, though, the ax and the typewriter would not be on equal footing. While the BSA incorporated select elements of an older male ideal, the ax, and the rural boys who wielded it, would be pushed to the margins of an organization increasingly infatuated with hierarchy, scientific efficiency, and corporate loyalty.
Jordan is not the only recent scholar to use Scouting as a window into larger national and international trends. Mischa Honeck has examined the Boy Scouts' role in constructing and maintaining empire, while Marcia Chatelain and Jennifer Helgren have mined the records of the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls to explore issues of race, femininity, and Cold War foreign relations.1 Although Scouting has been the subject of numerous articles and monographs, however, Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America covers new terrain in using the BSA to map the contours of early-twentieth-century masculinity.
Mainstream American manhood, many scholars argue, was in a state of crisis at the turn of the twentieth century. Rapid urbanization, the disappearance of the frontier, and the decline of small, independent farms and workshops spelled the end of the traditional path to male autonomy. Young men coming of age during this time entered a workforce transformed by the principles of scientific management and by increased bureaucratization and corporatization. These changes, coupled with bids for greater power by women and racial minorities, many historians contend, left white men anxious and adrift. As a result, the argument goes, many jettisoned Victorian norms and embraced a more aggressive, primitive variant of masculinity. Jordan argues that this narrative is not completely accurate. "The emphasis on masculinity as a burdensome, unsatisfying self-performance in recurrent crisis sometimes clouds white middle-class and elite men's successful and enduring use of gender ideology to control the means of power and wealth," he writes (11). The BSA adapted, rather than rejected Victorian manhood, Jordan maintains, forging a new masculine ideal appropriate for a modern industrial society that reflected confidence, rather than anxiety, regarding white men's place in America.
Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America opens by charting the rise of the BSA in the years following its founding in 1910. The organization would experience explosive growth during the two decades that followed, with 4 million boys and nearly a million men participating between 1910 and 1930. The BSA's success can be attributed in part, Jordan contends, to its increased centralization and standardization. Under the leadership of James West, the BSA beat out or absorbed competing Scouting groups and promoted itself as bridging the divides of class and culture that plagued the early-twentieth-century United States.
The lessons the BSA taught its young members, Jordan argues, were ideally suited to the realities of modern corporate-industrial life. Unlike competing Scouting organizations, which emphasized primitive Indian lore and encouraged boys' independence and individualism, the...