"The Most Blatant of All Our American Myths": Masculinity, Male Bonding, and the Wilderness in Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap

By Town, Caren J. | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

"The Most Blatant of All Our American Myths": Masculinity, Male Bonding, and the Wilderness in Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap


Town, Caren J., The Journal of Men's Studies


On a harrowing canoe trip in the Canadian backcountry, Ralph Prescott, the neurasthenic lawyer and hero of Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap (1926), realizes that he has made a serious mistake. Drawn to this misguided adventure by the "most blatant of all our American myths: roughing it in the wilds!" (p. 56), Ralph has convinced himself that through it he will be transformed into a calm and confident "real" man. Instead, he finds the woods filled with vicious mosquitoes, boorish companions, mocking native guides, and, most distressingly, flirtatious women bored with their manly husbands, none of which offers either peace or (lasting) opportunities to demonstrate his virility.

Ralph's struggle is consistent with the ambivalent relationship many of Lewis's male characters have with the wilderness: from George Babbitt's retreat to the Maine woods to Martin Arrowsmith's discovery of freedom in a rustic cabin, Lewis's men are drawn to (and often disappointed by) their experiences in the outdoors. Lewis's attachment to the wilderness can be connected to his Thoreauvian faith (often expressed in his letters and essays) (1) in the restorative potential of nature, but it also represents his modern awareness of both the seductive power and inevitable failure of this nostalgic pastoral impulse. The wilderness still exists in Lewis's novels, usually in remote corners of Maine or completely outside of the United States, but it can no longer provide (except for Martin Arrowsmith, perhaps) either solace or permanent restoration. Mantrap, which immediately follows Arrowsmith (1925) in Lewis's period of greatest productivity, provides one of the more interesting explorations of the contradictions inherent in this "most blatant of our American myths." Lewis's novel highlights the tensions engendered by nostalgia for wilderness renewal and manly love combined with a modern ethos of individual material success. In Mantrap, it is possible to see the ways in which both the wilderness and male friendship disappoint the modern man. Although it is probably the most unappreciated of Lewis's novels of the period, Mantrap offers the clearest demonstration of the contradictions inherent in turn-of-the-century notions of manhood, nature, and friendship. In fact, because it is less carefully constructed than Main Street or Babbitt, the novel better highlights its main character's conflicting ideologies than Lewis's more explicitly satirical or moralistic works.

Lewis's hesitant faith in the possibility of individual transformation in a wilderness setting is clearly related to cultural tensions surrounding the idea of masculinity at the time. According to historians of early 20th-century masculinity, these anxieties were linked to "economically based changes in middle-class culture [...] eroding the sense of manliness which remained so essential to nineteenth century men's identity" (Bederman, 1995, p. 13). Middle-class men of Lewis's time spent their days in offices or factories, not on farms or trekking through the woods to establish new homesteads, and consequently they began to wonder if they were really "men." As Lee Clark Mitchell (1996) says about The Virginian (1902), "Americans were caught at the turn of the century between traditional gender ideals and new imperatives, leaving them far from self-assured about their sexual identities" (p. 97). Men, inside and outside of novels, wondered if it was possible to be a man at all in this new world.

One way men (and their fictional counterparts) tried to recapture their manhood was through organized activities outdoors:

   Riding the range, breathing the fresh country air, and exerting the
   body and resting the mind were curative for men, and in the last two
   decades of the century large numbers of weak and puny eastern city
   men [...] all went west to find a cure for their insufficient
   manhood. That each returned a dedicated convert, trumpeting the
   curative value of the strenuous life, is part of the story of how we
   were won over to the west. … 

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