Men and Romantic Love: Pinpointing a 20th-Century Change

By Stearns, Peter N.; Knapp, Mark | Journal of Social History, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Men and Romantic Love: Pinpointing a 20th-Century Change


Stearns, Peter N., Knapp, Mark, Journal of Social History


Esquire magazine was established in 1933, the first durable magazine ever aimed explicitly at middle-class men as men, rather than professionals, Christians or another ancillary focus. The magazine's founder and long-time editor, Arnold Gingrich, combined the innovative and masculine claims directly, in explaining Esquire's purpose: It is our belief, in offering Esquire to the American male, that we are only getting around at last to a job that should have been done a long time ago--that of giving the masculine reader a break. The general magazines, in the mad scramble to increase the woman readership that seems to be highly prized by national advertisers, have bent over backwards in catering to the special interests and tastes of the feminine audience.(1) Esquire's efforts to court its male audience--many of whom had previously purchased far more eclectic fare, including the Ladies's Home Journal(2)--had several facets. One key claim, articulated simultaneously with the magazine's inception, involved an effort to help men redefine 19th-century standards of romantic love. The magazine paid a great deal of attention to love motifs during its initial years of publication. Twenty-seven short stories involved love topics during 1934, for example, with such titles as "Forgive Me, Irene," "On the Rebound," "All My Love," and "Have a Rosebud." The pace slackened a bit in 1935, with 18 stories, but this rate was sustained through the remainder of the decade.(3) Intensity of interest was not, however, the main point. The revisionist tone was the striking feature. Editorial policy, attacking Victorian love standards for men, stated that "this is a man's magazine, it isn't edited for the junior miss. It isn't dedicated to the dissemination of sweetness and light." Esquire trumpeted the idea of a "New Love," explicitly different from the etherealized and spiritual ideals urged on Victorian men. In defining the New Love and emphasizing the unsuitability of love old-style, Esquire made its initial mark in suggesting the advent of new male standards.(4) This article explores the context and significance for Esquire's claim, as part of a definable shift in middle-class male culture. For the magazine was correct: it was innovating, though in an atmosphere in which for at least a decade Victorian romantic standards had been eroding. The emergence and popularity of Esquire, given its own early emphasis on the redefinition of love, open questions about the timing and causes of larger changes in men's emotional relationships with women. Recent work on 19th-century love ideals makes it clear that this aspect of emotional culture, particularly on the men's side, has greatly changed; love soars less than it once did.(5) There is, further, a larger sense that men's values shifted considerably after 1900, not only in love, but also in friendship and standards of work and leisure.(6) But the nature and timing of the shift, and the reasons for it, have not been analyzed. A study of Esquire and its context by no means provides the whole picture of the transformation in the ideals urged on men, but because its challenge to tradition was so explicit, and also directly tied to other commentary on gender relations, it provides a suggestive beginning to an unresolved conundrum in gender history. To explore the cultural shift Esquire embodied, we must begin of course by discussing Victorian standards, as they have been studied by other scholars but also as they emerge in prescriptive materials designed for the middle class--for the same social group whose later-day counterpart began to read Esquire. We can then turn to the new environment that emerged by the 1920s, elements of which are already familiar: the changes in sexual behavior and expectations among college students, for instance, which Paula Fass has traced, or the growing requirements of sexiness and allure for small-town women that the Lynds captured in their 1937 reassessment of Middletown.(7) We build, obviously, on cultural materials that supplement established scholarship, and we describe an evolution whose most recent results, in a decline of male commitment to love, have often been noted. …

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