Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950

Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950

Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950

Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950


In the late nineteenth century, general-interest magazines began to reach an unprecedented number of readers and conveyed to those readers diverse messages about the meaning of masculinity in America. Over the next fifty years, these messages narrated a shift from Victorian masculinity, which valued character, integrity, hard work, and duty, to modern masculinity, which valued personality, self-realization, and image. In Creating the Modern Man, Tom Pendergast studies the multifaceted ways that masculinity is represented in magazines published during this transitional period.

Pendergast focuses on the rise of mass consumer culture, demonstrating that consumerism was a key factor in reshaping American notions of masculinity as presented in popular magazines. Whereas much scholarship has decried the effects of consumerism, Pendergast treats consumer culture as an energizing force in the American magazine market. He suggests that such magazines offered men new and meaningful visions of masculine identity and argues that men actively participated in restructuring the masculine ideal. Engaging a wide range of magazines from American Magazine to Esquire to True, Pendergast demonstrates how these publications presented masculinity in ways that reflected the magazines' relationship to advertisers, contributors, and readers.

This fascinating study includes such African American magazines as the Colored American, Crisis, Opportunity, and Ebony. Pendergast reasons that the rise of modern masculinity opened the way for African American men to identify with normative masculine values. As white men reinvented the idea of the "self-made man" for a new era, black men struggled to negotiate a meaningful place for black masculinity in a culture intent on denying them access.

The first complete investigation of the representation of men in American magazines, Creating the Modern Man makes an important contribution to our understanding of these publications, both as elements of mass culture and as interesting institutions in their own right. Pendergast takes readers inside the complex world of magazine publishing, demonstrating how magazines slowly yet surely help create the cultural images that shape societal gender roles.


During the time that I have worked on this project, a number of new forums for the discussion of masculine values have appeared on the pop culture scene: NBC introduced (and then killed) a television sitcom called Men Behaving Badly that follows the pratfalls of two guys in their late twenties who burp, drink cheap beer, and eat cold cereal out of boxes; magazines like Men's Journal, Maxim, Details, and many others promoted the rediscovery of men's recreation, leisure pursuits, and hobbies; and a variety of mediums commented on the reemergence of the male arts of cigar smoking and martini drinking. In 1996 and 1997, a group of Christian men organized themselves into the Promise Keepers, and they promoted a masculinity based on the patriarchal family. And just a few years earlier, Robert Bly had attracted a great deal of attention with his urgings that men reclaim long-lost elements of their identity through introspection and group interaction. Men who may have been seeking ways to make sense of their identities had a number of options to choose from, and I have hardly exhausted the list of possibilities.

The sheer variety of avenues for expressing male identity in American culture these days is astonishing. But it was not so long ago that the socially acceptable ways men could express their masculinity were rather more limited. For the better part of the nineteenth century, men had been channeled into embracing a sense of self that was closely tied to the ownership of property or other means of assuring economic success, and, secondarily, to a specified role in the family. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, men were encouraged to work hard, to practice self-control, to dedicate themselves to a career or trade (the remnants of the Puritan notion of a calling), and to strive to develop their character. Such a path to manhood was widely accepted by members of the white middle class and was deemed the only viable means to attain manly status in this white man's republic. This culture of manhood was very much a product of a social and economic system that coupled proprietary capitalism with Victorian culture. But the coming of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth . . .

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