Manly Arts: Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema

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In this innovative analysis of the interconnections between nation and aesthetics in the United States during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, David A. Gerstner reveals the crucial role of early cinema in consolidating a masculine ideal under American capitalism. Gerstner describes how cinema came to be considered the art form of the New World and how its experimental qualities infused other artistic traditions (many associated with Europe—painting, literature, and even photography) with new life: brash, virile, American life. He argues that early filmmakers were as concerned with establishing cinema’s standing in relation to other art forms as they were with storytelling. Focusing on the formal dimensions of early-twentieth-century films, he describes how filmmakers drew on European and American theater, literature, and painting to forge a national aesthetic that equated democracy with masculinity.

Gerstner provides in-depth readings of several early American films, illuminating their connections to a wide range of artistic traditions and cultural developments, including dance, poetry, cubism, realism, romanticism, and urbanization. He shows how J. Stuart Blackton and Theodore Roosevelt developed The Battle Cry of Peace (1915) to disclose cinema’s nationalist possibilities during the era of the new twentieth-century urban frontier; how Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler positioned a national avant-garde through the fusion of “American Cubism” and industrialization in their film, Manhatta (1921); and how Oscar Micheaux drew on slave narratives and other African American artistic traditions as he grappled with the ideological terms of African American and white American manhood in his movie Within Our Gates (1920). Turning to Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943), Gerstner points to the emergence of an aesthetic of cultural excess that brought together white and African American cultural producers—many of them queer—and troubled the equation of national arts with masculinity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Manly Arts is a fascinating, meticulously researched exploration of how ideas of masculinity and aesthetics from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s produced a particularly corporealized and male ‘American’ modern art and ‘artist.’ David A. Gerstner brings movements in theater, art, literature, photography, and dance to bear on a variety of cinematic works. His canvas is broad, illuminating, and exciting in its theoretical premises and unexpected historical juxtapositions. A provocative—and major—contribution to multidisciplinary studies in the humanities and arts.”—Vivian Sobchack, author of Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture

“Through a consideration of such seemingly disparate figures as Edwin Forrest, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Micheaux, Paul Strand, and Vincente Minnelli, David A. Gerstner subtly and cogently outlines the complex ways that literature, theater, cinema, and other arts created a fragile definition of nation: one predicated on white, working-class, masculine norms but also inflected by African American masculinities and queer subjectivities. Original and innovative, Manly Arts is sure to be a significant and lasting contribution to the fields of gender studies, film studies, and American arts and aesthetics.”—Paula J. Massood, author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337638
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Gerstner is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

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Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema
By David A. Gerstner

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3775-1

Chapter One

Nineteenth-Century Formulations of Masculinity and Realism: The Body of Edwin Forrest

On the evening of May 10, 1849, American art came into its own through an act of masculine bravado and violence. Outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, 31 bystanders were left dead and 150 persons were wounded in a clash between an estimated 10,000 to 24,000 civilians and around 200 members of the military and the police force. At center stage of this momentous affair were the bodies of two men, two actors-William Macready of England and Edwin Forrest of the United States. As the story is usually told, the Astor Place Riot was the cumulative effect of the trans-Atlantic rivalry between these two Shakespearean artists. For several years the actors had taunted one another, and a virtual publicity mill was generated from the insults and pejorative remarks that flew not only between the two actors but also between the international presses. What began because of a public "hiss" over what Forrest described as Macready's "fancy dance" in his performance of Hamlet in 1846 turned into a contest over the terms for masculine and American democratic art.

Things came to a head when in differentvenues Macready and Forrest simultaneously (and competitively) performed Macbeth in New York on the evening of May 9, 1849. On the following night, the night of the riot (with Macready in the role of Macbeth and Forrest in his favored role of Gladiator), the stage performances of these actors quite literally collided with and spilled over into the arena of the spectators. With these performances the "friendly rivalry" between the two internationally recognized actors escalated into a night of violence in the streets, which was followed by weeks of tension among various political and creative spheres regarding the national interest of the arts. The effect that these two male bodies had on this historical affair, along with the role that their nationally and masculinely defined bodies played in the discourses preceding and subsequently following the riot, cannot be underestimated. These two distinct artistic bodies ushered in the terms for a national sensibility of the American arts. In the end, the situation surrounding Forrest and Macready sharpened the contours and parameters of what would have a resounding impact on the shape of American creative practices and aesthetics.

A tense atmosphere developed throughout Macready's and Forrest's New York theatrical run-especially regarding Macready's performances and his public remarks about Forrest and Americans in general. On the stage, Macready encountered the taunts and jeers (as well as the eggs and vegetables) of America's burgeoning working and immigrant classes. According to most accounts, the groups that caused the most noise at Macready's performance on the night of the riot, as well as in the street prior to it, were led by protonationalist "nativists" who organized under such propagandistic banners as "America for Americans" and the "American Committee." Moreover, these nationalist-led movements were largely composed of groups of recently landed Irish immigrants. Indeed, the Irish American national fervor of the period is key to envisaging much of the anti-British energy leveled against Macready the evening of the riot. Following decades of heinous imperialist rule and domination in their homeland, the Irish placed great stock in the ideological promises of America's economic and political future. The privileged status accorded to the British actor Macready by wealthy and in some cases loyalist Americans did not sit well with the immigrants, who easily recalled memories of the Great Famines and the infamous Penal Colony restrictions of the nineteenth century. This was emphasized all the more by Macready's body and acting style, which were perceived by the Irish as the antithesis to the corporeal form presented by Forrest, whose brash and virile performances were read as thoroughly American. For the young rebellious Irish Americans, Forrest channeled the necessary creative and manly attributes that they identified as American.

The bodies of Macready and Forrest thus became the stage where both ire and nationalist sentiment were rehearsed by those who touted "America for Americans." Forrest represented "democratic" masculinity as the richest and the most ideally "real" form of American representation. And since Macready's body encapsulated a British spectacle -both on stage and on the street-it did not appeal to the Irish and other disenfranchised descendents of the British Empire who sought to carve a national identity outside of Old World sensibilities. For these new Americans, an arrogant display of Britishness was the last thing they wanted to see as they earnestly established themselves in the New World.

Masculine Bodies, Equality, and National Art

Hayden White writes that in times of "sociocultural stress," and particularly in the contested arena of democracy, a "technique of ostensive self-definition by negation" is not unheard of. "If we do not know what we think 'civilization' is," he writes, "we can always find an example of what it is not ... It appears as a kind of reflex action in conflicts between nations, classes, and political parties" In this case, manufacturing a virile America-separate from England-and faith in the dream of a manly and democratic civilization finds an apt point of negation in the body of Macready. For the young "America for Americans," Macready's dilettantish arrogance registered unmanliness and thus, in effect, un-Americanness.

In 1849, at the point of "sociocultural stress," nationhood, class, and masculinity were negotiated through a simple strategy that negated the body of Macready. The British actor certainly did not help matters for himself by wittingly or unwittingly fanning negative flames. His inflated comments about his own self-worth and the intellectual capacity of the American spectator were, to draw out the metaphor, fuel for the quickly burning cultural fire. "Through the years," Lawrence Levine tells us, "Macready's critique of Forrest continued to be coupled to his distaste for Forrest's audience, whom he termed 'vulgar,' 'coarse,' 'underbred,' 'ruffianly,' 'disagreeable,' 'ignorant.'" Macready's effusive commentary, however, was not necessarily received as an affront to the American immigrant's sense of self. In fact, the Americans to whom Macready directed his views were rather proud of their "vulgarity" and "disagreeability" since it measured many of the essential qualities associated with their working-class roots, immigrant status, and rejection of aristocratic British culture. But Macready's attitude must be viewed as something more than a distinction between upper-class and lower-class sensibilities. Indeed, it was his presentation of self, a body that flagrantly distanced itself from the "underbred" corporeality and soul of the American, that provided a symbol and marker for cultural inscription with which Americans could identify as not American. To be precise, the search for an American image of national identity through Macready's body-that is, the artistic European or British man-represented how not to be an American man.

What did Macready present to the American public that triggered such antagonistic patriotic and masculine vitriol? At the outset, Macready labeled himself and his performances as "earnest, majestic, and impassioned." Needless to say, self-aggrandizement of this sort was substantial fodder for anti-British sentiment since Macready's self-image took shape around the visual presence of the "majestic and impassioned" that was immediately associated with British imperialism and its effeminized cultural affect.

As Macready saw it (in his negative dismissal of American culture), Forrest merely yielded to his philistine audiences' lack of knowledge about the theatrical discipline. He performed with "great physical power ... [but with] no imagination, no original thought, no poetry." In fact, Macready raised the national and aesthetic ante when he stated, "I did not think it the performance of an artist. [Forrest] had all the qualifications, all the material out of which to build up a great artist, an actor for all the world. He is now only an actor for the less intelligent of the Americans." Thus stripped of the accolades and consecration of imperial art, Forrest's artistry and physical presence-applauded by the very vocal and "less intelligent" Americans that Macready belittled-became the visual anchor for the emergence of the ideal, male American artist.

It is easy to see how Macready's heritage, performance style, and relationship to the arts were perceived by Forrest's proponents as extensions of the British actor's masculinity or lack thereof. Around Macready's and Forrest's bodies grew a discourse that threaded a cultural logic where national identity, class, gender, and aesthetics came together and made sense during a particular cultural moment-and thus contingently satisfied the anxieties of American men whose own sense of national manhood was at best uncertain.

Macready's negated body (and Forrest's prescriptive one) both put forth and complicated a key concern: What does (and what should) the body of the American male artist look like? If the traditional idea of the artist in the nineteenth century was a European creation, was it ever desirable to have such a creature grace American shores? Can there be such a figure as an American artist as it was understood in the Continental sense? How might Americans define the American arts through the body of the American artist? Or as the question was more resolutely put, and as Ursula Frohne uncovers in her reading of the nineteenth-century American literary and arts' magazine The Crayon: "Has the Artist a right to exist?" Indeed, the figure of the artist was meant to exist and, more important, it would play a decisive role in the development and representation of America as nation. There were, however, some cultural forces with which to be reckoned before such a representation could be placed on the cultural dais. At the moment of the Astor Place Riot, the importance of the arts as a conduit of national identity through the body of the artist became highly apparent. For the American male artist (and certainly for the spectator as well), the artist and the work of art were no longer inseparable. But if such an artist figure were to grace the American stage, a set of guidelines were necessary for his participation in American cultural identity. In fact, the perceived, theorized, and practiced relationship between art and artists spoke directly to the quality of one's manhood.

If by the end of the nineteenth century American male artists found themselves negotiating the angst of homosexuality as an artistic "stereotype" and art itself as a "feminine" activity, the artists and cultural pundits of 1849 were more eager to define the masculine characteristics of American arts and artists in terms of a masculine national sensibility. Certainly, the risks and anxieties about the effeminizing effect of an excessive marketplace were identified in the period just prior to the Astor Place Riot. Hence, homophobia and misogyny were part and parcel of the nationalist sentiment. But the concerns of the artist as effeminized and/or homosexual would be more clearly articulated (or at least categorized) a few years later. In 1849 the concept of the homosexual and his cultural attributes were not yet in place for such distinctions. Specifically, Macready's body, performance, and overconfident public relations bespoke national and class difference rather than gender "perversion." But the uneasy intersections of nation, class, and gender were set in motion over the Macready and Forrest debacle.

Immediately following the events of the Astor Place Riot, the window through which national identity, gender, class, and aesthetics converged was made clear by an anonymous author (identified as "An American Citizen") who published a treatise on America's position in the arts and its necessarily strident relationship to democratic principles. What is noteworthy about this passage is the concept of democratic equality as it is collapsed through nation, class, and gender (particularly in the domain of the arts). "In concluding this work," writes the American Citizen,

the painful reflection is forced upon us, that the causes which led to the deplorable results of the magisterial, inefficiency and wickedness, lie deeper than those presented on the surface of the controversy between Mr. Forrest and Mr. Macready; they are to be found in our social system; in the presumption and arrogance of a class; in the servile and disgusting imitation by the wealthy few of the habits and customs of European, and particularly British, aristocrats. This, of course, will be denied by the persons for whom those remarks are intended; but turn which way we will, on every hand are the evidences of a gradual approach to those odious distinctions which the rich have always been prone to establish between themselves and the poor. The tradesman looks down upon the mechanic; the merchant assumes the superiority over both; the lawyer claims more honor and distinction than his less fortunate, but equally honest fellow citizen; the clergyman, in his own estimation, stands infinitely above them all; and so these lines are drawn until insuperable social barriers have been erected between the rich and the poor. Even the house of God-in which the word of Eternal Truth should sound in the ears of the poor and distressed-has been converted into a temple adorned by the worshippers of Mammon, and its doors are closed to all but the proud and the wealthy of the land. Those stately structures that rise up annually in our midst, and are called ornaments to the city, are but monuments erected to the vanity of men, and in too many instances owe their existence to the avarice and rapacity of their builders. The laborer and producer who looks upon the palace of the non-producer, and the gorgeous churches of the aristocracy, knows that from his toil has been wrung the wealth thus expended: he knows, too, that the proud dwellers in marble mansions are not superior to himself; that he is, at least, in the eye of the law, their equal, and if he resists their encroachments upon the few rights left him, he only asserts his manhood, and maintains the principle of equality upon which the whole fabric of this government is based.

The theatre, even, is not exempt from aristocratic rule.

The "American Citizen" tells us, in the same breath, that "manhood" and the assertion of the "principle of equality" are one and the same. The confluent variables of masculinity and equality are at the heart of the artistic matter. As this citizen sees it, manhood is the sine qua non of the "principle of equality upon which the whole fabric of this government is based." Moreover, the anxiety of the citizen rests with the perceived external threat to the principled simultaneity of American manhood and equality, and thus democracy (the "whole fabric"). Most disturbing for him is the "odious distinction" of class perpetuated by the rich (particularly by the American rich who, in this reading, remain ostensibly British), who by their class devalue the true cultural "producer" of the American economy (the laborer). What the Astor Place Riot ushered into public consciousness was a central cultural belief that the aristocratic hierarchy of culture (read here British culture as performed on the body of Macready) was a sham. Furthermore, the Americans, "prone" to such "disgusting imitation" of European habits, were leading the young nation's social system of democracy and equality into ruin.

The "painful acts" of violence on the evening of May 10, 1849, were a minor revolution of sorts in that they tore away the privilege of "aristocratic rule," particularly in the realm of the arts, and here most specifically in the realm of the theater, which had not been "exempt from aristocratic rule." The riot, as it is described here, was unequivocally an American resistance to the "encroachments" of the lie of Old World social class and hierarchy. To allow this lie to continue-as Macready purportedly engendered in his very Britishness and disdain for Forrest-was to reject the "assertion" and right of American manhood. To refuse American masculine assertion is to reject social equality; Edwin Forrest's masculinity and performance proffered, in the first place, a break from the deeply embedded aristocratic falsehoods that underlie the social system espoused by England. (Continues...)

Excerpted from MANLY ARTS by David A. Gerstner Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Nineteenth-century formulations of masculinity and realism : the body of Edwin Forrest 1
2 The battle cry of peace and the spectacle of realism 51
3 African American realism : Oscar Micheaux, autobiography, and the ambiguity of black male desire 83
4 Manhatta : a national self-portrait 119
5 The queer frontier : Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the sky 165
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