PRINT April 1994

His Infinite Variety

Several years ago, when I began my study of Victorian masculinities, I went to a state-of-the-art academic bookstore in Harvard Square to buy Barbara Ehrenreich’s Hearts of Men, an account of the relocation of manliness from suburban split-level to Playboy pad in ’50s America. Unsure of where such a book would he shelved, I asked the clerk, whose computer told us that it was to be found in Women’s Studies. When I suggested that it might be less than appropriate to set a book about men in a section devoted to women, I was told, “That’s the way we do it.”

That might have been the way they did it only a few years ago, but when I went back this past summer to buy David Leverenz’s Manhood and the American Renaissance, a superb study of the conflicted self-fashionings of masculinity in 19th-century America, I found that between Women’s Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies the store had added three shelves of Men’s Issues, a section containing not only Leverenz’s study but Robert Bly’s Iron John, and also Hearts of Men.

The bookstore’s behavior illustrates, in brief, the history, the current condition, and the problematics of what might be termed the study of masculinities. The development of the new shelves for works about men out of the Women’s Studies section suggests their theoretical source in feminist scholarship, and particularly in the awareness of gender as a multiform, historically specific social construction. Feminism has been extremely successful in exploding essentialist and monolithic thinking about women; though an essentialist and unitary model may still structure thinking about men, and about men’s art, in the culture at large, work like Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, and Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man has opened similarly new ways of theorizing masculinities.

I stress the use of the plural, “masculinities,” to emphasize the multiple possibilities of constructing the masculine, and the range of such constructions both through history and within any specific historical moment. The new thinking reconfigures masculinity as a historical construction rather than an essentialist given. Seeing masculinity not as monolithic but as varied, an interplay within each male of the cultural possibilities of manhood at that moment, it is attentive to the specific configuration of masculinity within each male, and assumes male identity not as a stable achievement but as a problematic in which the governing terms are contradiction, conflict, and anxiety. The homoerotic, furthermore, is viewed as inseparable from other problematics of masculinity (though not necessarily as its primary determinant), at the same time that the construction of homosexualities becomes inseparable from normative constructions of manliness. The new thinking attends to the complex ways in which these unstable and conflicted forms of manhood both subvert and maintain patriarchal power, and examines the ways in which they are inscribed in literature, visual art, and other media.

Looking at the 19th century, my field of specialty, we can see the male artist negotiating the opposition between an artistic career and hegemonic bourgeois manliness, and doing so by shaping himself within a range of formations that would include the artist as artisan, as gentleman, as prophet/sage, as bohemian. As a site of both conflict and power, this kind of negotiation has a complexity that remains to be fully explored. The feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, for example, writing about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the English exemplar of the Victorian artist as bohemian, in her book Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art, effectively deconstructs the masculinist equation of male creativity with male sexual potency by debunking the critical tradition that sees Rossetti’s artistic power as signified by his love of female beauty. Pollock certainly illuminates how Rossetti’s paintings of women end up reinforcing male domination, but her analysis, rooted in a monolithic idea of patriarchal power, neglects his other side as a male artist—the destructive effects of his self-distancing from the bourgeois construction of manliness, the price he paid for excluding himself from the conventional male sphere. In his later years Rossetti, increasingly defined as “unmanly” by his contemporaries, developed a set of psychic and psychosomatic symptoms that his age marked as “feminine,” and that we might call “male hysteria.”

The case of Rossetti indicates the necessity of recognizing within each male artist and writer a complex acceptance and transgression of dominant norms of masculinity, and of reading this fusion within a specific historical context rather than projecting present-day constructions of the masculine onto the past. Until recently, historical accounts of masculinities have tended to privilege the transgressive, often employing ahistorical models. Study of the construction of a gay discourse in the later 19th century, for example, has foregrounded its discontinuity rather than being attentive to its varied appropriations of normative masculinity. But new work on Victorian writers such as Ruskin, Pater, Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wilde has seen these men as holding different degrees of identification with a minoritized homoerotic community, and as employing a double discourse addressed to a double audience—that is, to both the general public and a subculture. A similar vision is now being applied to such artists of the later 19th and early 20th centuries as John Singer Sargent, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley.

A productive element of this approach has been the cracking of the restricted homosexual code through which writers and artists addressed the closet. Yet that code cannot be seen as the single “authentic” element of the work: we must keep in mind the complexity of masculinity, with its mix of the normative and the transgressive, in life and in art.

Herbert Sussman is a professor of English at Northeastern University, Boston. A fuller exploration of the ideas discussed here will appear in his next book, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art, to be published early next year by Cambridge University Press.