Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

"Driving Wyoming into My Blood and Marrow and Fixing It There": The Male Body at the Imperial Frontier in the Fiction of Owen Wister

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

"Driving Wyoming into My Blood and Marrow and Fixing It There": The Male Body at the Imperial Frontier in the Fiction of Owen Wister

Article excerpt

This article examines how concerns about American interventions in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 are figured through the White male body in Owen Wister's novels. Lin McLean and The Virginian are contextualized within a contemporary discourse employed by Theodore Roosevelt that connected a corporeal construction of masculinity with strong nationhood. However, Wister's fiction demonstrates problems in defining the White male body at the frontier and suggests that the desire for conquest stems from fears of bodily weakness, rather than the virile male form. The evasion of violence against the male body throughout both novels suggests that Wister was troubled by the effects of imperial activity on the male body politic and the bodies of individual men.

Keywords: American literature; Wister, Owen; nineteenth-century masculinity; Western fiction; imperialism

"As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation," Theodore Roosevelt told the Hamilton Club, Chicago, in April 1899 (1902b, p. 4). In this address, "The Strenuous Life," Roosevelt figured American imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines as an expression of personal and national virility. Roosevelt imagined colonizing as a weightlifting competition between nations, in which America must prove its might, or else "some stronger, manlier power would have to step in and do the work, and we would have shown ourselves weaklings" (p. 9). Roosevelt's rhetoric utilises the inherent connection between imperialism and masculinity theorized by R.W. Connell: "Empire was a gendered enterprise ... initially an outcome of the segregated men's occupations of soldiering and sea-trading" (1995, p. 187). Gail Bederman argues that Roosevelt's gendered construction of imperialism as "a prophylactic means of avoiding effeminacy and racial decadence," successfully masked the fact that imperialism was "a new departure in American foreign policy" by connecting it to a martial form of White manhood that was particularly popular in late nineteenth-century America (1995, p. 187).

For supporters of Roosevelt's policies, the Spanish- American War of 1898 provided a new frontier on which White men, too young to have taken part in the Civil War and the winning of the western frontier, could establish their masculinity. This colonial expansion would allow American men to take up the "white man's burden" that moulded their European counterparts (see Rotundo, 1993, pp. 233-235, and Greenberg, 2005, p. 280). Victory would also further White supremacy by proving the explicitly racial construction of both civilization and manhood that had emerged alongside wider acceptance of Darwinism (Bederman, 1995, p. 25). This led to the pervasive construction of the American body politic as that of a White man- Roosevelt goes so far as to claim that "we gird up our loins as a nation" - connecting the two entities in the American psyche and establishing the male corporeal form as a figure for national concerns (1902c, p. 296).

It was in the midst of this popular association of manhood and empire that Owen Wister published his western fiction. For Wister, writing is a method of establishing a White male hegemony by connecting the White male body with the American landscape. In 1930, he writes that, on his first trip to Wyoming, he "kept a full, faithful, realistic diary. ... I had no purpose in doing so, or any suspicion that it was driving Wyoming into my blood and marrow and fixing it there" (Roosevelt, p. 289). Wister appears surprised at the ability of his writing to appropriate the frontier space, yet this literary appropriation of land is central to Wister's novels Lin McLean (1898) and The Virginian (1902). Through narratives in which tough landscapes are tamed by White men whose virility initially seems unquestionable, Wister's fiction re-enacts the winning of a frontier that was, by the turn of the twentieth century, already closed. Such writing is a form of conquest devoid of actual violence, and therefore can be productively read against contemporary imperial activity, and the ideologies of martial manhood and nationhood by which it was fuelled. …

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