Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s

Article excerpt

Gilbert, James. Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 279 pp. $39.

Like Tom Pendergast's Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950, this book, by a University of Maryland history professor, tells us a great deal about die history of masculinity based on how it was constructed mosdy in a period's mass media. But while Pendergast only wrote about magazines, James Gilbert uses a series of case studies about major books, various magazine articles and one magazine {Playboy), the Rev. Billy Graham (seen on television and covered by news media), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (a play and a movie), "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (entertainment television), and others to illustrate masculinity issues in the 1950s and Gilbert's arguments about them.

The book's stated purpose is to disprove a claimed widespread or deep-seated masculinity "panic" or "crisis" in the 1950s. A secondary purpose, which is most obvious in its second chapter and conclusion (called "Getting Used to Women"), is diat U.S. male anxiety is perpetual, not only predating the 1 950s but continuing until today and being manifested by Robert BIy and die mythopoetic men's movement, die Promise Keepers, the Million Man March, and so on. Other historians, meanwhile, have written extensively about the emasculating effects of the Industrial Revolution generally.

That men in the 1950s weren't literally in a panic or crisis - those words suggest such things as fingernail chewing, chainsmoking, and the inability to concentrate with a lot of evening booze to try to prevent insomnnia - is relatively easy for Gilbert to demonstrate. But the book is necessary because the 1950s male panic thesis has been often argued and is too widely accepted even though it's obvious that historians heavily influenced by Freud use "panic" obliviously and not like the rest of us.

The Introduction sets up the "panic" problem, followed by chapters on the history of supposed American masculinity crises; David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd; various other books and articles; Alfred Kinsey and his male sexuality study; the Rev. Billy Graham; television's Nelsons; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gilbert's ninth chapter, 'The Gender of High Culture," partially connects the dots between anti-intellectualism (but omits historian Richard Hofstadter), high culture, intellectuals, and masculinity and suggests why top sociologists, among others, wrote so many books about men supposedly panicking in die 1 950s. …