Heroes, Hedonists, Hell-raisers, and Heretics: Reading American Masculinity in Crisis, 1940-1995


May 2023


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This dissertation examines literary representations of masculinity by male authors during four distinct historical periods of crisis. Chapter 1 introduces a brief history of masculinity and men’s studies and traces how the change in understandings about gender and gender roles have played a part in transforming perceptions of how masculinity is portrayed individually and as a broader concept. Chapter 2 investigates the crisis of conformity versus individuality during the early Cold War years with close readings of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. The protagonists in these texts convey two unique representations of masculinity, each of which is complicated by problems that manifest because of conformity to expectations in the midst of quests for individuality. Chapter 3 explores the systemic annihilation of black masculinity prior to and during the Civil Rights movement through a close reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son. The novel exposes the realities of life for black men where legitimate entry into the public sphere is denied through conscious or subconscious efforts to relegate issues surrounding race and racism to second-tier, apolitical concerns. Chapter 4 investigates the quest for recognition and visibility of gay men from the pre-Stonewall period through the AIDS crisis. Close readings of John Rechy’s City of Night, Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, and various works by members of the Violet Quill highlight varying iterations of gay masculinities during a period of monumental change and crisis and question perceptions of those masculinities both within and from outside the gay community. Chapter 5 analyzes attempts to redefine and reclaim “godly” masculinity among evangelicals in the waning years of the twentieth century. Close readings of the first two novels from the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins reveal the authors’ attempt to portray evangelical masculinity in a way that straddles both essential and expressive understandings of biblical manhood; these novels address the anxieties about the perceived leftward shift in American culture and politics, particularly where gender and gender roles are concerned. This project moves beyond the scope of previous scholarship by examining how masculinities meet and respond to crises in historically significant periods through their representations in contemporary literature.



Literature, American