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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Context Activities

Paradise of Bachelors: The Social World of Men in Nineteenth-Century America

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Life on the Plains

[1092] William J. Carpenter, Life on the Plains (1915), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99804].
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Although both "bachelor" and "spinster" refer to unmarried individuals, the titles were far from equivalent in nineteenth-century American culture. While "old maids" were often perceived as socially undesirable, bachelors found social acceptance and even encouragement for their unmarried state. All-male social clubs flourished, with fraternities, professional clubs, service clubs, and "mystical orders" such as the Masons enjoying enormous growth in membership over the course of the nineteenth century. Often involving elaborate initiation ceremonies intended to create intimate bonds between members, these organizations took over some of the traditional functions of the family and provided sanctioned social outlets for men to interact with other men without the presence of women.

The work of westward expansion also created social formations in which men frequently lived without women and came to depend on other men for domestic comforts, economic assistance, and companionship. While Native American groups in the western United States continued to live in communities with roughly equal numbers of men and women, African American, Chinese, Latino, European, and Anglo-American immigrants for the most part lived and worked in communities with radically skewed sex ratios. The 1850 census in California, for example, revealed that more than 90 percent of the state's population was male. Certain professions, such as cattle herding and mining, attracted a high proportion of unmarried or unattached men because the labor was strenuous, time-consuming, and often necessitated living in primitive and makeshift camps--a lifestyle that was perceived as inappropriate or even dangerous for women. Nat Love's account of his life as a cowboy stresses the masculine values and codes of loyalty that bound cowboys together as a "brotherhood of men." Sharing physical hardships, economic concerns, and domestic chores, the cowboys in Love's narrative develop an intense camaraderie out of their interdependence.

Miners in the Gold Rush camps of California, too, found themselves surrounded by other single men hoping to "strike it rich." As historian Susan Lee Johnson observes, the scarcity of women led to "drastically altered divisions of labor in which men took on tasks that womenfolk would have performed back home." The most common type of household in the mining camps was a tent or cabin inhabited by two to five men who constituted an interdependent economic unit. They usually worked together at mining their claim, performed domestic chores for one another, and put their earnings in a common fund which was divided evenly among members of the household. Men who had never before cooked learned to prepare stew, bread, beans, and pies; and men who had never before done laundry learned to wash and mend clothes. Some men, disillusioned with the often futile search for gold, set up businesses performing chores normally associated with women, making a living by cooking food and doing laundry for the miners. These experiences with domesticity could exacerbate racial tensions--more than one miner commented negatively on the strange food and outlandish domestic practices of the different ethnic groups that he encountered in the camps--but the household intimacy inherent in camp life could also transcend racial difference. White men amicably shared tents, food, and economic responsibilities with Chinese, African American, and Latino miners. Critics have often been puzzled by the fact that Nat Love, who was African American, rarely mentions issues of race in his account of his life on the open range. But it seems clear that, in Love's experience at least, race was often secondary or irrelevant in the face of the economic and social interdependence that united the cowboys.

Without the presence of women, the always unstable line dividing the homosocial from the homosexual--that is, dividing non-sexual male bonding activities from sexual contact between men--became even more blurred. As traditional notions of "normal" gender roles were challenged and unsettled, men could display both subtly and openly the erotic connections they felt for other men. When the miners at Angel Camp in southern California held dances, half of the men danced the part of women, wearing patches over the crotches of their pants to signal their "feminine" role. Men routinely shared beds in mining communities and on the range, and cowboys and miners settled into partnerships that other men recognized (and sometimes referred to) as "bachelor marriages."

It is difficult to find unambiguous references to homosexual relationships in nineteenth-century American writings, partly because there was no vocabulary to express such relationships at the time (the term "homosexual" did not exist until the late nineteenth century). Walt Whitman, who had several intimate relationships with men, struggled with this absence of language in his poetic efforts to describe and record his passionate same-sex relationships. In his Calamus poems and the "Twenty-eight Bathers" section of Song of Myself, for example, Whitman produced moving, evocative portraits of male homosexual love. But he often felt compelled to "shade and hide [his] thoughts," as he put it, because he was unable to speak as explicitly as he might have liked. Interestingly, Whitman's descriptions of heterosexual encounters caused more public outrage than his "Calamus" poems did, perhaps because his homoerotic imagery was new and innovative, and thus unfamiliar to much of his audience. Still, the implications of Whitman's poetry certainly reached some of his readers. Eve Sedgwick has noted that Whitman's writings, Whitman's image, and Whitman's name came to function as a kind of code for men to communicate their homosexual identity and their homoerotic attractions to one another: "Photographs of Whitman, gifts of Whitman's books, specimens of his handwriting, news of Whitman, admiring references to 'Whitman' which seem to have functioned as badges of homosexual recognition, were the currency of a new community that saw itself as created in Whitman's image." While certainly not all bachelors had homosexual experiences, the creation and legitimization of new social spheres made up of single men defined and enabled a variety of masculine identities and same-sex relationships.

  1. Comprehension: How did all-male social clubs and communities both replicate and challenge more traditional family structures?

  2. Comprehension: What kinds of domestic tasks did men perform on the range and in the mining camps? How did they usually divide up the labor?

  3. Comprehension: Examine the photographs and illustrations of mining camps featured in the archive. What different ethnic groups do you see represented? How did these groups interact within mining communities?

  4. Context: Walt Whitman had photographs taken of himself with several of his young male companions. Some of his friends were scandalized or upset by the pictures, calling them everything from "silly-idiotic" to "sickly." Other friends and acquaintances of Whitman admired the photos and requested copies. Whitman never distributed these pictures widely, instead keeping them to himself or sharing them only with a limited circle of friends. But in Section VII of Live Oak, with Moss, Whitman wrote that he hoped some future reader would "Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover, The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest...." What does Whitman mean in this poetic request to have his portrait hung? By what kind of portrait do you think he would like to be remembered? Why do you think he might have felt compelled to have his picture taken with his male companions? What do Whitman's friends' reactions to the photographs tell you about the social lives of nineteenth-century men?

  5. Context: In her story "Cacoethes Scribendi" Catharine Maria Sedgwick (who herself remained unmarried all her life) describes a community populated almost solely by single women and widows. Does she have the same celebratory view of same-sex communities that writers like Whitman or Nat Love seemed to have? What kind of camaraderie binds the women together in her story? What divides them?

  6. Context: Examine Louise Clappe's descriptions of life in the mining town of Rich Bar in her "Shirley Letters." How does Clappe's position as a woman in a mostly male community shape her letters? What is her sense of the male-male relationships that bind together the community? How does she describe the roles of other women in the town?

  7. Context: Look at Thomas Eakins's painting Swimming Hole (1884), featured in the archive. Is this a homoerotic picture? How do you think nineteenth-century viewers would have responded to it?

  8. Exploration: In his poetic celebrations of homoerotic love Whitman sometimes felt compelled to "shade and hide" his meanings. Can you think of other American writers who sometimes seem to hint at homosexual relationships but do not describe them explicitly? Hemingway, Dickinson, or Melville (especially in the "Counterpane" chapter of Moby Dick) might be appropriate figures to think about in this regard. What kinds of imagery and language do these writers rely on to convey their meanings?

  9. Exploration: How did social reactions to unmarried men differ from social reactions to unmarried women in the nineteenth century? Did single women enjoy the same kinds of opportunities that single men did? How do you think cultural ideas about unmarried individuals (both men and women) have changed over time in America?

  10. Exploration: How does Melville play on the construction of "the bachelor" in his short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids"? How do the opportunities available to bachelors compare to those open to single women in the story?

  11. Exploration: Eve Sedgwick has argued that portraits and records of Whitman acted as a kind of code for men to convey homoerotic feelings to one another. Why do you think they chose Whitman to represent their identity? Can you think of any groups that use images or personalities in a similar way today? What kinds of material objects circulate as "code" today?

[1092] William J. Carpenter, Life on the Plains (1915),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99804].
Navajo and cowboy playing cards. These cards show the type of interethnic male-male bonding that we see in James Fenimore Cooper's novels. This type of interaction largely died out when white males started to bring their families to settle in the West.

[2027] Anonymous, Theodore Roosevelt, full-length portrait, standing alongside horse, facing left; wearing cowboy outfit (1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-91139].
With his infamous motto "Walk softly and carry a big stick," President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as a trustbuster, one who worked to strengthen U.S. foreign policy, and one who was committed to the conservation of frontier land.

[2061] Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Durand's painting depicts Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, left, and poet William Cullen Bryant in the Kaaterskill Clove. Both Cole and Bryant used the interaction between humans and nature as the primary theme for their work.

[3717] Charles D. Kirkland, Cow Boy (c. 1880),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
As the nation's focus shifted to the West, the cowboy replaced the frontiersman of the eastern woodlands as the popular icon of American independence and self-sufficiency.

[3889] Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole (1884),
courtesy of Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
The homosocial nature of nineteenth-century male relations is reflected in this painting, which shows a group of students swimming while their headmaster (Eakins) swims nearby.

[6242] Phillips and Taylor, Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly (1873),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-77082].
Eve Sedgwick has noted that even before the term "homosexual" was invented, Walt Whitman's writings, image, and name functioned as a code for men to communicate their homosexual identity to one another.

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