Review of Stefan Horlacher (Ed.), Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present

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Review of Stefan Horlacher (ed.), Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 278 pp.

This volume constitutes a compilation in the series entitled Global Masculinities published by Palgrave Macmillan and edited by Michael Kimmel and Judith Kegan Gardiner. The series is devoted to exploring most recent and innovative scholarship from a number of perspectives and methodological approaches. Like many others in the series, this volume--focusing on the construction of masculinities from the Middle Ages to the present day--lays emphasis on textual analyses, humanities-based studies of representation, alongside aspects of cultural studies, concerned with historical and comparative dimensions.

Part 1 embraces theoretical frameworks commencing with the introductory chapter by Horlacher, which addresses broad the question as to whether late twentieth-early twenty-first century masculinity(ies) really is in "crisis." Horlacher notes that part of the difficulty in answering the question results from problems related to the field of masculine studies which, despite major advances, remains under-theorized. In the second chapter, Harry Brod ponders the construction of masculinities by engaging with historiography: that is how discourses have shifted from "men's studies" to "masculine studies" and more recently to "critical" analysis of masculinities. Brod interprets this development as an ongoing process of engenderment entailing a dialectical interaction between hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities as well as structure and agency. In chapter 3, Kevin Floyd enquires as to what kinds of knowledge are necessary for scrutinizing representations of masculinity in fictional narratives of transgender or inter-sex experience. He suggests that transgender and intersex studies poses challenging questions for masculine studies in the kinds of categories and concepts used, concluding that the discipline needs to ask whether it is on the side of normalizing or de-subjugated knowledge.

Part 2 focuses on literature from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century commencing with Andrew James Johnston's consideration of portrayals of masculinity in the English romance Gamelyn. It investigates political dimensions of the male body's portrayal through two Robin Hood ballads in the homosocial aspects of a semi-nude wrestling match and how they ultimately fail to engender a utopian space of a supposedly classless masculinity. In chapter 5, Gabriele Rippl examines images of masculinity in autobiographies of early modern English gentlewomen and aristocrats. Rippl treads a different path than previous research of this period in scrutinizing autobiographical texts revealing gender as a relational construct and gender roles as interrelated and independent and thus a mirror reflection that remained relatively stable over this period. In chapter 6, Michael Kimmel investigates the "crisis" of masculinity in seventeenth century England that was perceived as a threat to the entire cultural order through long-term structural shifts related to the economic, political and social order, impacting personal life through the institutions of marriage and the family. While such changes provided an opportunity for women to make new claims against aspects of patriarchy, they also offered males occasions to forge fresh definitions of masculinity.

In chapters 7 and 8 two literary classics are discussed. Firstly, Isabel Karremann traces how Augustan manliness drew on discourses of civic humanism and ideal masculine attributes of reason, virtue and autonomy in the early eighteenth century as witnesses in Swift's classic text Gulliver's Travels, which she views as an exploration of the dominant category of the male as not only a satire of human nature, but on the Augustan male writer's conceit that they are somehow exempt from nature. …