America's citadels of testosterone

Manhood at Harvard
November 28, 1997

In 1904, 21 American men were killed playing college football. Nineteen more died the following year. Public criticism was so strong that President Theodore Roosevelt called university representatives to the White House to reform the game. The results were characteristic of the Roosevelt administration - a bit of tinkering with the system and the expulsion of much hot air. In 1909, 30 college youths died on football fields.

Roosevelt was not really inclined to reform college athletics. He argued in essays and speeches that violent sports trained boys for leadership. Roosevelt saw the world divided into men of action - athletes, warriors, and statesmen pursuing "the strenuous life" - and those unmanly men whom he described as "mollycoddles", "pussyfoots", "weaklings", "cowards", even "traitors". A tireless writer, Roosevelt was nonetheless suspicious of scholars and intellectuals. Builders and doers were his heroes, not those "over-refined" men who were "too sensitive to take part in the rough hurly-burly of the actual work of the world".

Roosevelt is just one of the cast of characters in Kim Townsend's Manhood at Harvard. We also meet, for example, Henry Cabot Lodge, who went on to become a United States senator. Lodge helped Roosevelt fashion a jingoist foreign policy, believing, like Roosevelt, that the injuries boys incurred in college sports were "part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world-conquerors". Similarly, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, much of whose life after Harvard was spent in the Supreme Court, described a gentleman as one willing to die on playing-field or battle-field in blind obedience to others' commands.

Townsend, then, is on to something. An aggressive masculine tone dominated much of American culture 100 years ago. And certainly this was most striking at American universities, particularly in those citadels of testosterone, Ivy League schools. Harvard, Townsend tells us, was not unique, but given the quality of its faculty and the elite background of its students, it was the single institution with the strongest claim to being the American university.

Manhood at Harvard does a fine job of conveying the cultural life of the university. Townsend details how students and faculty, alumni and administrators were moulded by the institution, and particularly how concerns over the nature of manliness united men of very different temperaments and ideas. The philosopher William James is Townsend's single most important character, for James wrestled his own manly demons openly and honestly. James's struggles with his health as a young man, his battles with depression, his paralysing shyness around women, all made issues of masculinity terribly important to him. Yet with characteristic honesty, James refused to be beguiled by the cult of machismo; while he searched for acceptable manly ideals, his humane and complex mind never fully accommodated the Roosevelts of the world.

Anyone interested in Harvard at the turn of the century will find this book fascinating. However, there are problems. I suppose we should all be grateful that English professors no longer write only about the true and the beautiful, about Shakespeare and Milton. But now that thousands of fugitives from the Modern Language Association have been turned loose on a whole new range of exciting topics, it is striking that they still tend to think like - well, like English professors. Townsend spends much of his time here interpreting texts, and he does it well. But there are limits to this method.

To take but one example, a very substantial body of historical work on sports at the turn of the century explains how American college athletics developed, and how English Muscular Christianity in the public schools provided models. This scholarship reveals just how central sports were to turn-of-the-century conceptions of masculinity. Yet Townsend seems completely unaware of this scholarly literature. He chooses to focus instead on a few interesting yet isolated examples from Harvard.

The focus on a few great men at Harvard belies a larger problem. Townsend wants the history of ideas to do the work of social history. The discussions of James and his colleagues - Charles William Eliot, George Santayana, Dudley A. Sargent, Henry Adams, John Jay Chapman, and others - are very enlightening. But frankly, the students were much more interesting than the faculty, and in terms of the history of masculinity, more important. Men like Roosevelt, Lodge, and Holmes were of a generation that reconfigured American universities. Students like these -members of a white, rich, powerful, and very self-conscious social elite - built the extra-curriculum, including athletic programmes. College was where children of the old elite - the Brahmins, as they were known - mingled with those of industrial wealth, and forged an American ruling class.

To be fair, Townsend tells us that masculinity at Harvard was about class. Yet by focusing so much attention on the "great minds" his theme of class power grows fuzzy. Moreover, Townsend's argument could use a little widening out into areas of American culture beyond Harvard Yard. After all, the association of machismo with anti-labour, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-radical politics is an American story, not a Cambridge one. Still, because it never really was an isolated ivory tower, Harvard is a fine place to explore the crisis of American manhood, and Kim Townsend tells that story well.

Elliott J. Gorn is in the department of history, Miami University, Ohio, United States.

Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others

Author - Kim Townsend
ISBN - 0 393 03939 0
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £22.00
Pages - 322

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